In May 1861 Patrick O’Dea went to war. Leaving his home in Cattaraugus County, New York, the twenty-year old Co. Clare native left behind his widowed mother, Mary, who he was helping to support on her small holding near the town of Salamanca. Patrick enlisted for two years in the ‘Irish Rifles’, the 37th New York Infantry. The young man would survive the hard-fighting to come in 1862, and as 1863 dawned he looked forward to returning home when his term of enlistment expired in June of that year. (1)
Patrick’s story began in Co. Clare in 1840, when his mother Mary Higgins married Patrick O’Dea. The couple had at least two sons, of which Patrick was apparently the younger. When the children were still young the family emigrated to America, settling in New York state. It was while living in Cuba, Allegany County, that Mary became widowed for the first time- Patrick senior passed away in December 1850. By that stage another child had come along, and with three young dependents Mary could not afford to remain a widow for long. In April 1851 she married Michael Foran, and with renewed stability the family moved to Salamanca in Cattaraugus. (2)
July 1854 brought renewed heartache, as it was the month when Michael Foran died. Mary once again found herself a widow, now the mother of four living children. She was left with no assets, and so had to try to eke out a living as best she could, relying on her older children to help her along. She could count on some family support- her brother Martin Higgins also lived in the area, providing comforting links to her former life in Co. Clare. As the 1850s continued Mary’s older son married and moved away, and with a family of his own was unable to provide any financial assistance to Mary. It now fell to young Patrick to help his mother and two younger siblings financially. (3)
Together Mary and her son Patrick managed to bring in enough money to maintain a modest farm holding of seven acres. To supplement the agricultural income, Patrick became a work-hand at Hemlock Mills lumber works, passing the majority of his wages to his mother to help with the running of the household. At least financially, little altered when Patrick went to war. He continued to send the majority of his soldier’s wage home to his mother, posting over $100 to New York between his enlistment in 1861 and 1863. While in winter camp in Virginia in 1863, Patrick made sure not to forget his mother or his 13 year-old and ten-year old siblings. That January he wrote to them, enclosing $20, and telling his mother that he was keeping $6 for himself that he felt would ‘do him’ until he was discharged. (4)
On 1st March 1863 Thomas C. Twohey of the 37th New York sat down to write a letter to the New York Irish-American newspaper:
Camp 37th Irish Rifles, VA.,
March 1, 1863.
To the editors of the Irish-American.
I send you the annexed record of a disaster which I consider necessary, though painful, to communicate through your columns, in the hope of its reaching the interested in general, and especially the beloved mother of its subject. Patrick O’Dea, a native of Ireland, and a member of Co. I, 37th N.Y.C., was accidentally killed by the falling of a tree, while in the discharge of his daily duty at ten a.m., on Saturday, February 28. He was the only son of a widow woman who resides in Salamanca, Cattaraugus county, N.Y. He was attached to the pioneer corps on February 8, or thereabouts, and was remarkable for his courage and endurance as a soldier, as well as for his pleasantry and sociability as a companion. He was 21 years of age and joined the regiment when first organized. He was wounded in the arm before Richmond [Seven Pines] in which campaign he displayed all the qualities that a thorough soldier should possess. He was buried with due military honors at Sunday at one p.m.
Thomas C. Twohey, Co. Clerk.
In a few days Captain Wm. Bird will forward to the War Department the final statement of the pay and clothing account of the deceased. There are four months pay due to him up to his death, $52. The Brigade was on picket duty when the sad accident happened.
Patrick’s death was a huge emotional and financial blow to Mary. Either through the notification in the Irish-American or other means she soon learned of her son’s death, crushed by a falling tree at Camp Pitcher only three months before he was due to return home. Together she and Patrick had built a farm worth $250, but they had still not paid off all the money on their seven acres, and Mary lived in what was described by those who knew her as a ‘shanty.’ She now had to prove her connection to her boy in order to secure the pension that could mean the difference between destitution and survival for her and the two young children. As her first marriage had been in Co. Clare, she had no certification to provide as evidence. Instead she relied on witnesses to come forward and attest to her marriage to Patrick’s father, and the key role Patrick had played in supporting his mother. She eventually secured an $8 a month pension. It can have offered little consolation for the devastation that the war had heaped upon her family, just one more heartbreaking story among the thousands created by the American Civil War. (6)
(1) AG Report: 723, Widow’s Pension; (2) Widow’s Pension; (3) Widow’s Pension; (4) Widow’s Pension; (5) New York Irish American, AG Report: 723; (6) Widow’s Pension.
New York A.G. 1893. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1893.
New York Irish-American 21st March 1863. To the Editors of the Irish-American.
Patrick O’Dea Widow’s Pension File WC92882.