Widow’s Pension Files often contain extremely poignant information. As women sought to prove their connections to their deceased spouse, they sometimes had to submit what must have been extremely treasured possessions to the Pension Agency. For Sarah Jane Cochran of Limavady, Co. Londonderry, this meant handing over the last letter ever written to her by her husband Richey. This letter, penned only three days before his death, offers an insight into Richey’s experiences during what became known as the Seven Days Battles- the series of engagements that would ultimately kill him. Today the letter remains in Sarah Jane’s pension file in Washington D.C., and is here transcribed to be read for what is likely one of the first times in 130 years.
Sarah Jane Smith and Richard (Richey) Cochran were married in the 9th Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia on 25th June 1856. At the time Sarah was about 27, while Richard, a teamster, was 26. The couple initially made their home on Rhoads Street in the city. It was there that they celebrated the birth of their first child, Jane, on 16th April 1857. On the 22nd March of 1861 the couple’s second child, William Richard, arrived. By now the family had moved to 42 Virgin Alley in Pittsburgh- the boy would be only 5 months old when his father marched off to war. (1)
With the outbreak of the conflict Richey decided to enlist, joining up on the 6th August 1861. His company of mainly Pittsburgh men would become Company H of the 63rd Pennsylvania Infantry, under the command of Colonel Alexander Hays. Although it seems Sarah may have been illiterate (she signed all her correspondence with an ‘x’), Richey wrote regularly to her- perhaps the letters were read to her by a friend. When Richey and his comrades went to Virginia’s Peninsula in the summer of 1862 as part of the Union drive towards Richmond, he made sure to keep her regularly up to date with his experiences.
In Camp Near Richmond
June the 26th 1862
I take the opportunity of sending you these few lines to let you know that I am in good health and hope that this few lines may find you all enjoying the same. I forgot to date the last letter I left it to the last and then forgot it. We have had a fairly hard time of it since. We have been fairly busy we moved our camp the day before yesterday and yesterday morning we left camp about 6 o’clock and went out to the outside picket line and our regiment was detailed for skirmishing the woods in front and it was a very unpleasant job the brush was so thick some pleases [places] that we could not see a man 5 yards from us and some pleases [places] we could not go thrugh in line but we got thrugh the best way we could and drove in their pickets and their reserves to we came to their main lines and then we stopt to the rest came up and formed in line and drove in their whole line and took their rifil pitts [rifle pits] from them and a redout but our regiment was not engaged only with the pickets when we were in line of battle the [there] were no attack maid on our front the the [sic.] regiments on our right and left had it very hard we lost no men only when we were skirmishing our company had 5 wounded I am not certain how many the other companys lost yet the [there] were some killed and last night the line behind us fired on us through mistake and killed 2 and wounded 3 or 4 but none in our company. We were in line all night till 6 o clock this morning it was about 11 o clock that the mistake hapened the [there] were fairly sharp firing of musketry all night now and then but it has been fairly quiet all day in this part of the line but how long it may continue I canot say. The [There] are some heavy fireing on the right this evening. [See Note 1]
June the 27th we were called out last night before I got finishing but we got in again soon the [there] were great cheering last night along all our lines and heavy fireing on our right the reports was here that the [they] were driving them on the right and some of our bands played till 12 o clock but the real cause I canot say we [were] all called out this morning ready to march and the fireing is still going on on our right but you will hear the results in the papers before this reaches you. I have not time to write much more as our guns is stacked and we have to fall in at any time. I was at the hospital a few days ago to see crampton he is geting better. I seen the 2 Mc Lelarns [?] and the [they] are both geting better so I will have to finish this time till I get more time. Remember me to all the folks. [See Note 2]
So no more for now at present
but remains your
Richey Cochrans (2)
Almost exactly three days after Richey finished this letter to his wife, he found himself crouching behind an improvised breastwork of fence-rails with the rest of his regiment. Looking out across an open field towards woods some 300 yards away, he and his comrades awaited a Confederate attack they knew was coming. Before that though they had to endure an artillery barrage, and watch helplessly as the Rebels unleashed a furious assault on the Pennsylvania Reserves to their left. They gazed on as the Reserves were driven back, all the time knowing their turn to face the onslaught was coming. As the artillery fire intensified on their position, Richey watched as a group of terrified slaves fled from a slave cabin midway between the lines. Not long afterwards, the slaves were followed across the fields by a veritable tide of men in gray. General Kearney remembered that the enemy came on ‘in such masses as I had never witnessed’. Richey, his regiment and his division watched as the Federal batteries to their front met the Rebels with a hail of fire. The cannon poured shot into the advancing Southerners, mowing them down by the dozen. But no matter how many gaps they tore in the advancing lines, more Confederates constantly seemed on hand to fill them. With the Union artillery to their front seemingly doomed, the men of the 63rd Pennsylvania were ordered forward to their support. With a cry of “Up! up! boys! charge!” the men broke cover and entered the field with a yell, surging past their threatened guns and forcing the Confederates back. Fighting at one point broke out in relatively close quarters around the slave cabin, but eventually the horrific cost exacted on the attacking waves forced the Confederates to retire. The men of the 63rd pulled back to their guns, where they lay low in front of them, firing towards the enemy for the rest of the afternoon and repulsing the enemy a further three times. General Kearney noted of Richey and his comrades that ‘the Sixty-third has won for Pennsylvania the laurels of fame.’ The Battle of Nelson’s Farm, or Glendale, was over- the Union army continued its march towards Harrison’s Landing, and the Seven Days battles would continue. Company H recorded the loss of five men wounded and two killed in the engagement. One of those left dead on the field was Richey Cochran, killed by a gunshot wound. (3)
Tragically for Sarah Jane, her hardships did not end with the death of Richey. On the 31st March 1864 their son, William, also died, just a few days after his third birthday. He was buried in grave 3, lot 14 of Mount Union Cemetery in Pittsburgh. It seems to have been this second tragic event that inspired Sarah Jane to give up on the United States and return home to Limavady, Co. Londonderry. Although she had initially received a pension in 1863, by the early 1880s she was seeking the retrospective payment of support for her daughter Jane for the period of time when she had been under 16. In order to prove who she was to the U.S. authorities, both she and her daughter had to make a statement as to their identity. In addition Sarah Jane asked her first cousins- William McCloskey (a grocer) and Jane McCloskey of Drumagosker, near Limavady, to swear as to her bone fides. A friend who had lived nearby in Philadelphia and had also returned to Ireland- Mathilda Lindsay of Coleraine- also gave evidence on her behalf. (4)
Sarah Jane Cochran received a widow’s pension for her husband’s service until her death in March 1905- she had outlived her husband by almost 43 years. In 1880, when seeking her additional payments, Sarah Jane had to give up what was surely one of her most treasured possessions- the last letter she had received from her husband in 1862. (5)
Note 1: Richey is here describing the 63rd Pennsylvania’s actions of June 24th, 25th and 26th as what became known as the Seven Days’ Battles around Richmond were commencing. His regiment served in the 1st Brigade of the Third Division (Brigadier-General Philip Kearney’s), part of Major-General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps. The skirmishing Richey recounts on June 25th was the regiment’s part in the Union attack that became known as the Battle of Oak Grove, the first of the Seven Days battles, which started with Union forces taking the offensive. The heavy firing on the right that Richey heard on the evening of June 26th was likely fighting that was part of the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (or Mechanicsville) as the Confederates began to launch their counterstrokes to drive the Federals back, under their new commander, Robert E. Lee.
Note 2: The reason for the cheering Richey recorded on the night of June 26th was due to an announcement made by the 63rd’s adjutant regarding the fighting that day at Beaver Dam Creek. He had told the men: “General Porter attacked the enemy today at Beaver Dam, and has beaten them at every point. The rebels are in full retreat.” [p.114] Although the battle had been a tactical victory for the Union, the Rebels had no intention of retreating. Lee would keep hammering at the Federals with the ultimate intention of forcing the Yankees away from Richmond. The firing that Richie heard while writing the next day, June 27th, was the opening stages of the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, as the Confederates launched a huge assault on the Union right. He writes that ‘we have to fall in at any time’- as the situation worsened during the day his regiment did get orders to move- at about 6 o’clock that evening- but were halted before 10 o’clock as the fighting had died down; the day had ended in Confederate victory. Richey mentions going to see ‘Crampton’- this was Thomas Crampton, also of Company H. Thomas would be wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run on 29th August 1862 and was discharged on a Surgeon’s Certificate on 31st December 1862 (roster p.516). It has not been established who the ‘McLelarns’ were- they do not appear to have served in Richey’s company but presumably were friends from Pennsylvania.
Note 3: Although original spellings have been kept in the letter some punctuation has been added for ease of reading.
(1) Richard Cochran Widow’s Pension File, US Federal Census 1860; (2) Bates 1869: 516,Richard Cochran Widow’s Pension File; (3) Hays 1908: 123-9, 133-4; (4) Richard Cochran Widow’s Pension File; (5) Ibid.;
References & Further Reading
Richard Cochran Widow’s Pension File WC14220.
1883 List of Pensioners on the Roll.
US Federal Census 1860.
Bates, Samuel P. 1869. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5. Volume 2.
Hays, Gilbert Adams 1908. Under the Red Patch: Story of the The Sixty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861- 1864.