On 5th November 1862 ‘Arthur Shaw’, a 19-year-old Dubliner, stepped off the decks of the Great Western and into the hustle and bustle of New York City. From that day forward, his family never heard from him again. I have spent considerable time trying to piece together some elements of this boy’s story, aiming to uncover just who he was- and ultimately what became of him. (1)

Whatever happened to ‘Arthur’ in the months that followed his arrival in the United States, his family remained completely in the dark as to his movements. His parents were still at home in Ireland, and although he had family in America, it quickly became clear that he was not making his way to them. On 18th April 1863, some five months after he was last seen, his family placed an ad seeking information on him in the Boston Pilot. It transpired that ‘Arthur Shaw’ was not the boy’s real identity name at all- his actual name was Alexander Scarff:

INFORMATION WANTED OF ALEXANDER SCARFF who left his home on the 1st October last, in the steamer Great Western. Any person knowing of his whereabouts will confer great favor by communicating the information to his aunt, Mrs J D Clinton, Cincinnati P O, Ohio, or to his uncle Mr J P Clinton, Detroit P O, Michigan. (2)

The ad did not produce any results. A second effort published in the same paper on 2nd May that year included further detail, highlighting that Alexander was a native of Dublin, and his uncle’s full name was John P. Clinton. But the months turned to years and no word came. Fully seven years after these ads in the Pilot- on the 2nd April 1870- the New York Irish-American carried the following:

INFORMATION WANTED OF ALEXANDER SCARFF a native of Dublin who sailed from Liverpool in the ship Great Western, under the name of Arthur Shaw; arrived at Castle Garden on 5th November 1862; was then 19 years of age; has not since been heard of by his friends or parents; is supposed to have joined the U.S. Army. Any information of him will be thankfully received by his aunt, Mrs. J.D. Clinton, Bath-North, Greenbush, Rensselaer County, N. Y. (3)

Why had Alexander Scarff left his home in Dublin? Had his parents known of his intention to travel to the United States? Why did he travel under an assumed name- was he younger than the 19 years he proclaimed himself to be? Between his disappearance in 1862 and the 1870 ad his family had managed to piece together only scant additional information. It is impossible to comprehend the anguish that must have been felt by all concerned, no doubt greatly exacerbated by the lack of answers to their inquires.

Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office, Washington DC. She helped many families learn the fate of their loved ones following the Civil War, but unfortunately Alexander Scarff's parents were not among them. (Photo by E.L. Malvaney)

Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, Washington DC. She helped many families learn the fate of their loved ones following the Civil War, but unfortunately Alexander Scarff’s parents were not among them. (Photo by E.L. Malvaney)

On the 6th November 1862, one day after the Great Western had sailed into New York Harbor,  a 19-year-old Irish-born clerk enlisted in the Union Army. Standing six feet tall, with dark hair, dark eyes and a dark complexion, Private Arthur Shaw would eventually muster in as a member of Company B, 174th New York Infantry Regiment. That December the regiment sailed for Louisiana, where it participated in the successful siege of Port Hudson. In the middle of July 1863, the New Yorkers found themselves engaged in an action that would become known as the Battle of Kock’s Plantation. It was an action where the Union forces and the 174th New York were badly mauled. Among the fallen was Private Arthur Shaw, who was killed in action on 13th July 1863. (4)

The balance of probability strongly suggests that the young Irishman who died at the Battle of Kock’s Plantation, Louisiana was Alexander Scarff. The soldier used the same name, was from the same country, was stated as being the same age and perhaps most convincingly enlisted in New York only a single day after the Great Western had docked in 1862.Why had he gone to America? Had he argued with his family? Had he been tempted across the Atlantic by the prospect of a large bounty, or was it intended he join those relatives already in America? Had he always planned to enlist, or was he convinced to join up just after his arrival? We will never know, but his adoption of a false name implies that he did not want his family to be able to track his journey.

Whatever the circumstances, Alexander’s parents and relatives clearly made desperate efforts- across many years- to learn his fate. Perhaps they suspected the worst. Although there are many questions we can’t answer about Alexander Scarff, we do have the answer to the one question that was most important to his family, a question for which they most probably never had an explanation. Thanks to the modern research tools available to us, it becomes possible for us to suggest the answer to the mystery of Alexander Scarff’s disappearance, albeit over 150 years too late for his family.

*The story of Alexander Scarff is one I have touched on before in this post, but which I felt deserved a more concentrated focus.

(1) New York Passenger Lists 1820-1957; (2) Harris et al: 186; (3) Ibid., New York Irish American 2nd April 1870; (4) Civil War Muster Roll Extracts, New York Adjutant General Report;


New York State Archives, Cultural Education Center, Albany, New York; New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900; Archive Collection #:13775-83; Box #:662; Roll #:318

New York Passenger Lists 1820-1957. Year: 1862; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 224; Line 25; List Number: 1092.

New York Irish American 2nd April 1870.

Adjutant General’s Office. Annual report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the year 1905. 

Harris, Ruth-Ann M., Donald M. Jacobs, and B. Emer O’Keeffe, (eds.) Searching for Missing Friends: Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in “The Boston Pilot” 1831–1920. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989.

E.L. Malvaney Flickr Photo Stream