As regular readers of the blog will know, I spend a lot of time looking through Civil War Widow’s & Dependent’s Pension Files. Many of these files contain original letters written home by soldiers during the war. Having spent a number of months compiling a database of Irish-American letters from men in New York regiments, I am now in the process of transcribing them with a view to future publication. Each of the men whose letters I transcribe have one thing in common- all died as a result of their service. I must admit, I find it extremely difficult to remain detached from the stories that leap from these letters. These men often poured their hopes, their dreams and their fears into them; reading each one in the certain knowledge that their life was extinguished during the conflict is an emotionally charged experience. It has certainly increased my determination to see that they and their families- Ireland’s forgotten emigrants- are finally remembered at home. This weekend I have transcribed three letters relating to Irish-American Private James Sharkey of the 21st New York Cavalry, all of which were written home to his mother in September 1863. Seldom has the character of a man emerged so powerfully from the page; hard-working, jovial, fun, determined, loving- and extremely young. I wanted to share some of his character with you, that he might be remembered.

Staten Island and the Narrows c. 1861 (Library of Congress)

Staten Island and the Narrows c. 1861. James Sharkey wrote home to Rochester from Staten Island. (Library of Congress)

James Sharkey’s parents Martin and Margaret (née Gibbon) were married in Ireland on 14th December 1837 by Father Peter O’Connor. In the early 1840s they emigrated to Canada, where they settled and where their first two children were born. In a move common for Irish emigrants, after a few years they moved on to the United States, where they decided to live in Rochester, New York. It was in Rochester that their third child James was born, the first of a further six additions to arrive.

James Sharkey was probably seventeen years-old when he enlisted in Rochester, New York on 11th August 1863. He was mustered as a private in Company C of the 21st New York Cavalry on 28th August 1863. That September he sent at least three letters home to let his mother know how he was faring in the army. When he joined up, James was still learning how to write and clearly intended to practice as much as possible while in the military. He proudly proclaimed to his mother that ‘I can spell prety good now and I studing to read every day’.

A number of themes are apparent across James’s letters. He quickly grew fond of the military life, and thought it was good for him. Writing from Camp Sprague, Staten Island on 4th September, a week after he mustered, James told his mother ‘we are having a goodtime here and we are enjoying ourselves fine we have plenty to eat and drink and nothing to do but to drill once a day and parade once a day and that does not amount to over one hours work a day my health is good and I am getting fat as a bear.’ The next couple of weeks didn’t change things, as on 18th September he was ‘engoing [sic.] myself we get plenty to eat I get as fat as a dog’. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. On the 20th he admitted that ‘we have not hat it very hard yet’ but that ‘once or twice we did not get anough to eat wich I did not like…’.

The strictures of the army were something James was having to get used to. When his mother wrote to tell him of a party that was soon to take place in Rochester, he wasn’t pleased, clearly unhappy at the prospect of missing out: ‘I did not like you have tolt me of that party I would like to be there myself once more but I canot do it as you know’. Perhaps one of the reasons he was sore at missing it was because of a certain young woman- Mary Ann Gilligan. Mary Ann was the daughter of Irish tailor John Gilligan and lived in Rochester’s Sixth Ward. Born in Ireland, she was 20-years-old in 1863 and seems to have been a friend of James’s 21-year-old sister Kate (who had been born in Canada). James had told his mother to be sure and ‘give my love to Mary Ann Giligan and Kate and tell them I want the matching they was going to give me.’ James had left two ‘phortographs‘ he had taken of himself in Rochester, and asked to have Kate write to her ‘with her phortograph I hope that I will get it and Mary Ann Gilligan phortograph I would like to have two.’ Perhaps most telling, on 18th September James asked his mother to ‘tell Mary Ann Gilligan my best respects and tell her that I am very sory that I could not dance the divel out of her [perhaps alluding to the party] tell her that I waiting every day for them phortographs.’

Despite the fact that he was missing many aspects of life at home, the camp at Staten Island held some charms, particularly given its proximity to New York City- a city the size of which James had never seen. On the 20th he wrote ‘this is a nice place I hat a pass to go to New York yesterday and I was lost in the city it is a very large city and I hat a lots of fun there.’ He was also making friends, particularly with one of the other Rochester boys, 20-year-old ‘Jony Lynn’ (probably John Ling on the regimental roster, recorded as deserting on 6th October 1863) who he described as ‘just like a brother to me’. But James knew he wouldn’t be at Camp Sprague forever. Rumours were rife as to the regiment’s ultimate destination, and Texas topped the list. It was not something that he was enthusiastic about: ‘we expect to go to Washington in a few days and then to Texas to fight with the Indians I do not like to go to Texas for it is a prety hard place to go two.’

James’s letters also reveal that money was often tight at the family home in 15 Mount Hope Avenue. His father Martin had been unable to support the family properly since 1857, when a fall from a building during construction work on the 4th November 1854 severely damaged his right hip. From then on, the responsibility for earning enough for the family to survive had fallen on the Sharkey’s eldest children. Prior to his enlistment James had already spent eight years working in the local nursery, run by Patrick Barry (suggesting he started employment there around the age of nine) and giving all his wages to his parents. When he joined up in 1863 he was following in the footsteps of his older brother John, who was already earning a regular wage in the army. The straitened circumstances of the war had meant his father had again had to seek out work, despite his lameness. On 18th September James wrote that he was ‘glad to hear that Father is going to work in the nursery’ (presumably the same nursery where James had been employed). He continued: ‘Dear Mother I think you must be prety hard up for mony but you must not be discuraged for you know if I was home I wuld give you some mony once in wile.’ He promised to send ’60 Dollars wich will come good for you this winter and then Jony will sent you some’ and encouraged her to ‘tell father to work for he knows he has not much help’. James hints at the fact that his father may have struggled with the impact of his disability. It seems his mother wrote to him lamenting that so many of her children were no longer at home, to which James responded: ‘Dear Mother you must have a kind of open Heart to have 4 of us left from home but you cant blame us for Father is so mean to us that we have to leave home. Dear Mother there is no use in crying spoiled milk for we will all be home again for this war will be over before long.’ He added, ‘Dear Mother you have tolt me to trust in god I will do it and I have a prayer book and I say my prayers every night.’

Unfortunately James’s war was over before long. The rumours of the regiment move to Texas had proved false- James and his comrades were instead bound for Washington D.C. and then Virginia. On 26th October 1863- less than two months after James Sharkey had mustered into the 21st New York Cavalry, and only a month after his last letter, his mother Margaret received the following:

Camp Stoneman DC Oct 26/63

Mrs Margaret Sharkey

It is my painful duty to inform you that your son James Sharkey of Co C 21 NY Vol Cavy died on Saturday Evening Oct 24th at the General Hospital of this Camp of Malignant Typhoid fever after an illness of about eight days.

I can assure you that in all the circumstances attending his illness he showed a remarkable patience and in all ways displayed a desire to give but little trouble to those around him. As a soldier, though so young, he was remarkable for his willing and cheerful attendance to duty, and I cannot but sympathise deeply with you in your loss of so good a son.

His death surprised us all. I had no idea that he was so near his end, and had charged the Surgeon on friday to notify me in case he should become dangerous- be promised to do so and seemed much surprised himself at the rapid progress made by the disease, when it was too late to arrest its progress.

The men of Company C have had the body embalmed and sent home for burial, thinking it may be a poor comfort to you his mother to have his body resting near your own- It is all the sympathy they can show you in your sorrow, but it is honest and earnest. 

James had not an enemy in the company and altho’ he has not been permitted to yield up his life on the field of honor yet the sacrifice is none the less glorious- His lifes strength has been yielded up in the cause of Humanity, Liberty and Godliness and his reward is reached. Let his memory be kept ever green as one of the patriot martyrs of the day.

His effects have been forwarded to you with his body. Some $75 of Bounty remains sue to him from the Government and pay from the 11th July at $13 per month the Govt therefore owes him $120.00 as follows:

Bounty $75.00

Pay $45.06

Total $120.06

Which you can get by applying thro the Sanitary Commission, without charge- let me advise you to apply thro the agent of that society instead of going to Lawyer agents.

His clothing & c are here they are not worth sending home. Should there be anything amongst his effects worth sending to you it will be forwarded by Express.

Hoping that you may be sustained and comforted in your day of affliction by “He that tempers the wind to the Shorn Lamb” and that you may finally meet those called before in a happier and better Land I remain

Truly Your Friend

John S Jennings

Capt Co C 21 Reg NY Cavy

Washington D.C.

*None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.


James Sharkey Widow’s Pension File

1860 US Federal Census

New York Adjutant General Roster of the 21st New York Cavalry