American Civil War soldiers would often have to go months without receiving their pay, a state of affairs they could do little about while away at the front. The 26th December 1895 issue of The National Tribune relates the story of one Irishman who took extraordinary steps to secure what he was owed. Finding himself in Washington following rehabilitation, and low on funds, his attempts to get his backpay fell on deaf ears. Deciding not to take no for answer, he marched straight out of the Army Paymaster’s office and set off for Pennsylvania Avenue. He had resolved to take his grievance to the one man he felt could resolve the situation; President Abraham Lincoln.
W.C. Reiff, Eddy, N.M., sends a story of an Irish soldier’s visit to Lincoln. He says: “Hugh McLaughlin, a genial and brave Irishman hailing from Boston, after having served a three months’ term in the 69th N.Y., and being also wounded in the First Bull Run battle, later on found his way into my company and regiment. Hugh was several times wounded while with us, which, as a matter of course, compelled his going North to hospitals.
“An acquired desire to spree at times caused Mac, or Hughey, as we called him, to leave the different hospitals and have what he considered a ‘good time’ of it before going to the front. One day, in 1864, Hugh brought up in Washington City and applied to a certain Army Paymaster whose office was, I understood, opposite the Treasury Department. He asked for his pay, but the Dispenser of Greenbacks said he could not accommodate him on account of his hospital record. Hughey volunteered the information that he would have his pay even if he had to see President Lincoln about it. He turned his back upon the Paymaster’s office and started for the White House. Right here I must add by the way of explanation that our Hughey was a polite and intelligent man when free from drink, and not at all forward. Just now he was not exactly himself.
“Upon reaching the main entrance of the White House, there was an attempt made by the white-gloved sentry at the door to prevent his entry. Hughey just pushed this guardian of the National Chief aside and stepped into the home of the President, and soon found himself in the presence of that good man and his wife.
“The President was seated at a table, writing. Hughey made his errand known at once with the eloquence of a Burke. The soldiers’ best and truest friend listened attentively, and so did his companion. They asked Hughey a good many questions about his long army service and his home. Then the President took up a pen and wrote a few lines to the Paymaster. He instructed Hugh to take the note to him and get his pay. When Hugh got the funds he sent them almost all to his wife and family in Boston.”
The story was related to the paper by a W.C. Reiff of Eddy, New Mexico. A review of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System identifies a 1st Sergeant William C. Reiff in Company H of the 91st Pennsylvania Infantry, a unit which served in the Army of the Potomac from 1862 through to the end of the war. Sure enough, also found on the rolls of the 91st Pennsylvania, and in the very same Company as Reiff, is Private Hugh McLaughlin, the man who went to the White House to ask President Lincoln for his pay.