Much attention is rightly given to those boy soldiers who lied about their age to participate in conflicts such as the American Civil War. However, they were not the only individuals who provided false information to take up arms between 1861 and 1865. For some, it was the fact that they exceeded the age limit of 45 years that provided a stumbling block. One such man was County Clare native Barney McAvoy- he took the decision to pass himself off as a youthful 44 when he enlisted in the 154th New York. In reality Barney was nowhere near 44 years old, in fact he wasn’t even born in the 19th century. The Irishman who marched off in the ranks to war in 1862 was no less than 66 years of age. (1)*
Barney McAvoy was born around 1796 in Co. Clare. He would have been a toddler when the 1798 Rebellion erupted in Ireland, and a man of 19 when Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon Bonaparte on the field of Waterloo. He was the son of Michael McAvoy and Elizabeth Poland, both of whom were dead by 1810. Barney married Elizabeth O’Hare in Ireland in 1823, and would go on to have four children with her. (2)
Barney spent some time in Scotland and England, where he served six months in the Marine Service, before emigrating to the United States in 1832. He worked as a pipe-maker and a butcher before settling into life as a farmer in Cattaraugus County, New York. By the time of the 1860 census Barney (in which he lists his age as 60) was a widower and his eldest child, John, who was born around the mid-1820s, was no longer living at home. His three other children had been born in New York, and were Francis, a 25 year old school-teacher, 23 year old Eliza and 18 year old Joseph. (3)
On 4th August 1862 Barney went to his local recruitment station in Olean and enlisted, becoming a member of Company G of the 154th New York. His comrades would claim in later years that the Irishman dyed his hair in order to pass as younger man, and insure his enlistment proceeded without a hitch! He was 5 feet 3 1/2 inches in height, with grey hair, blue eyes and a ruddy complexion. Despite his advanced years Private McAvoy successfully navigated the carnage of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1863, all the more notable given the extremely heavy fighting which the 154th endured on both occasions. It was to be illness that eventually proved his undoing. On 27th September 1863 Barney was sent to the Third Division US General Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, suffering from rheumatism. He recovered sufficiently to rejoin his regiment in Tennessee, but was unable to continue on campaign. He was discharged for disability on 7th February 1864 at Lookout Valley. (4)
Very little is known about Barney McAvoy aside from the information in his file at the National Archives, which also produced the only known portrait of the Irishman. His motivation for enlistment at the age of 66 remain a mystery, and his fate in later years unknown. He must surely have been an exceptional character to have thrown in his lot for the Union when men twenty years his junior were exempt. In today’s world Barney would be classed a ‘senior citizen’, someone expected to be enjoying the fruits of a quiet retirement. Somehow you feel looking into the face of this determined and proud Clare native that this is neither a term nor an outlook that would have sat well with Barney McAvoy.
*I am greatly indebted to friend Mark Dunkelman, historian of the 154th New York and author of four books (with two more to follow) on the regiment for kindly providing all the information for this post, including copies of his ‘Senior Soldiers’ paper, Barney’s portrait and information from his National Archives file. Mark has dedicated decades to the study of this regiment, work that has led to the production of some of the most insightful and moving studies of American Civil War soldiers in print. I strongly recommend a visit to his Hardtack Regiment page to find out more about the 154th and Mark’s books.
(1) See Dunkelman 1992:158-162 for a discussion of Senior Soldiers in the 154th New York; Barney McAvoy Album National Archives; (2) Barney McAvoy Album National Archives; (3) 1860 census, Barney McAvoy Album National Archives; (4) Barney McAvoy Album National Archives, Dunkelman 2004: 26, Dunkelman 1992: 162;
References & Further Reading
Dunkelman, Mark 1992. ‘Senior Soldiers’ in Gero, Anthony F. (ed.) Military Collector & Historian Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Winter 1992.
Dunkelman, Mark 2004. Brothers One and All: Esprit de Corps in a Civil War Regiment
Barney McAvoy Album National Archives
1860 US Census