As the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fair Oaks approaches, it is interesting to note the contribution of one Irish woman to the battle, which was remembered long after the war. New York newspapers in 1899 carried the obituary of a clearly remarkable woman, who deserves to be better known amongst those Irish who served in the Civil War.

Mary McCoy was originally from Co. Limerick, and was most probably born in the 1820s. At the outbreak of the Civil War she was living in New York, when her three brothers and 35-year-old husband James decided to enlist in April, 1861. They all joined the 71st New York Infantry, which became part of the State’s Excelsior Brigade. Mary clearly decided that she was not going to leave her four closest male relatives to their own devices, and accompanied the regiment to war. She was appointed an army nurse by Secretary Stanton, and by all accounts appears to have preformed her duties well.

A Field Hospital after the Battle of Savage Station, 1862 (Library of Congress)

A Field Hospital after the Battle of Savage Station, 1862 (Library of Congress)

Mary is noted as having particularly distinguished herself at the Battle of Fair Oaks, where her work among the wounded on the firing line earned her a compliment for bravery from none other than General McClellan. Shortly afterwards, when President Lincoln visited the army at Harrison’s Landing, he noticed Nurse McCoy and asked her if he could have a drink. The Limerick woman hesitated to serve him in one of the ordinary tin cups she had to hand, and went in search of a glass. The President called her back, saying ‘If a tin dipper is good enough for the soldiers, it is good enough for me.’

Mary returned to civilian life with her husband following the war. After his death in 1893 she once again decided to give her life over to the care of others, and she made her home in St. Mary’s Hospital, Brooklyn, assisting the sisters there in their work. It was here that she passed away on October 7th, 1899, survived by her niece. It is a mark of her impact during the war that 34 years later her death inspired notable obituaries in papers such as the New York Times.


New York Times 9th October 1899: ‘An Old Army Nurse Dead’

Irish World 14th October 1899: ‘Mrs. Mary McCoy, who died’

James McCoy Pension Index Card

New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901