The Sorry End of Catherine Mullens: Famine Emigrant, Mother of Veterans

The American Civil War touched the lives of many Famine-era Irish emigrants with tragedy. Although we frequently discuss the impact of the Famine in Ireland, rarely do we explore how hard the lives of those who escaped it via the emigrant ship could be. Life in the United States brought hope for many, but for many thousands of others the Civil War crushed any hopes they had for a better existence. The 1888 National Tribune tells the tale of one Irish woman for whom that seems true. Having left Ireland following the death of her husband, she would lose both her sons to the war, and die homeless and in ‘abject poverty’ at the age of 70.*


She Dies in Abject Poverty

Mrs. Catherine Mullens, 70 years old, and one of the original squatters in lower Jersey City, died in the street Nov. 21. She came from Ireland in 1852 with two grown sons, who were both killed in the first battle of Bull Run. Mrs. Mullens had no money, and was put out of the shanty in which she lived by the owner. She worked and got money enough to buy a few boards and built a hut in the swamp herself, with the assistance of Micky Free, the pedestrian, who had a house on wheels, and whenever the landowner drove him from one part of the dry land above the swamp he would move to another part. Mrs. Mullens lived in the house in the swamp all the time, though sometimes the water would be a foot deep on the floor of the hut. She earned her living by going out washing. She was buried by people for whom she worked. (1)

* I have been able to find much information on the family, perhaps due to the many variants in spelling of the name. Catherine does appear on the 1870 census. I have been unable to confirm if both her sons died at First Bull Run.

(1) The National Tribune


The National Tribune, Washington D.C., 29th November 1888. A Mother of Veterans.


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Categories: Women

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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2 Comments on “The Sorry End of Catherine Mullens: Famine Emigrant, Mother of Veterans”

  1. September 28, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    What a sad story. Seems there is more about Mickey Free in her obit then the poor widow herself. Mickey was a well known personality.

    Mickey Free aka Robert Harriet, from Ireland was a professional walker, along with his wife, met Lincoln, somewhat briefly in Jersey City and served in the 5th NJ. Mickey was wounded at Williamsburg Va in 1862, losing several fingers. Recovering in DC, he decided to walk home to Jersey City.

    Later he joined the 33rd NJ and helped save Medal of Honor receipient Lt John J Toffey from the field after he was wounded.

    His interesting bio can be found in New Jersey Goes to War, published by the New Jersey Sesquicentennial Committee.

    • October 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Hi Jim,

      Many thanks for this comment- what an incredible story! I am going to have to look into him more and see can I do a post on his life, it seems truly remarkable. I am continually astonished by the amount of information on these individuals that is out there, and of the lives many of them led. Thanks again for sharing this information with us.

      Kind Regards,


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