Witnesses to History: A Memento of a Missing Man

The Witnesses to History series aims to connect an object or document which still exists today with the story of the people behind the item. Following the first post, which featured the 170th New York Bounty List, I was contacted by reader Cathy Nicholls in England. Some 40 years ago in Brooklyn, Cathy had purchased a most beautiful bone object which referenced a soldier of the Irish Brigade, William Higgins. Cathy had never been able to find out much about William, and had often wondered what his fate had been. Intrigued, I sought to find out more about this man and his family, and by so doing uncover the story of the people behind the pendant- and what became of them.

The William Higgins Pendant. Obverse to left, Reverse to right (Arrangement by Sara Nylund after original photograph by Cathy Nicholls)

The William Higgins Pendant. Obverse to left, Reverse to right (Arrangement by Sara Nylund after original photograph by Cathy Nicholls)

The front or obverse of the bone pendant bears the symbol the United States and of Ireland, while the obverse gives us  the soldier’s details- Wm Higgins, Co. I, 69th Regt N.Y.V. Irish Brig. It is attached by a ring to a perforated 3 cent piece. I would be interested to hear from readers who may have come across any similar items; was it purely a decorative object to mark William’s membership of the Brigade, or was it intended for use as an Identity Disc? Was it made for him or did he produce it by his own hand? Whatever the circumstances, more than 150 years after it was created, it serves as a lasting physical reminder of this man’s life- perhaps the only one that still exists today.

What then of the owner? William Higgins was born in Ireland- it has as yet not been possible to establish where. On 20th June 1847 he married Irishwoman Hannah McAuliff in Hartford, Connecticut. The 1860 Census shows the couple had by then moved to New York, where they lived in District 1 of the 19th Ward. William is listed as a 35-year-old day laborer, with his wife Hannah (39) and three daughters- Eliza (11) and Margaret (9) – both born in Connecticut (Margaret on 10th May 1851 in Middletown)- and Hannah (2), who had been born on 27th November 1857 in New York. It is possible the couple had at least one other daughter, Mary, born around 1850, but if so she did not survive. (1)

William began his military career on 4th January 1862 when he mustered in as a Private in Company I of the 69th New York Infantry. Although he is recorded as having been 30 at the time, he was probably a few years older. William was transferred to Company A of the regiment on 12th June 1863, shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg. This provides an interesting timeline for the production of the bone pendant; it can only have been made in these 18 months when he was a member of Company I- perhaps ordered or fashioned in the early months of 1862, as the Irish Brigade completed its training and prepared to go into action for the first time that summer. (2)

William spent less than a year in Company A before being again transferred, this time to Company F, in early 1864. It was with that Company that he marched off to begin the Overland Campaign with the Army of the Potomac. The last mention of William Higgins was when he was reported missing in action on 5th May 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. What happened to him? (3)

In 1865 Hannah Higgins began the application process to receive a Widow’s Pension based on her husband’s service. Writing from her then home at 749 Second Avenue, New York, she had one major problem- William’s body had never been recovered. All she knew was that he had never been seen again after the Wilderness. Hannah turned to one of her husband’s former comrades, Denis Cleary, for help. Denis had also been a Private in the 69th New York at the battle. He remembered seeing William go down during the fight, struck by a bullet in the right groin. He recalled how he ‘saw said Higgins shot…he standing along side of him at the time and also saw Higgins after the action while the U.S. forces were retreating…Higgins was then lying on the ground in a helpless condition…a few moments after the woods were set on fire and the grass and brush in the vicinity was burned consuming the bodies of many of the wounded.’ (4)

The dense undergrowth and tinder dry conditions of The Wilderness had created one of the most gruesome events of the entire American Civil War. Many veterans of the battle would later recall the plight of wounded men, caught helpless in the face of an advancing tide of fire that would eventually engulf them. One of the soldiers doomed to such an unimaginably horrible fate was William Higgins.

Hannah Higgins would received a pension based on her husband’s service until her death in 1892. It seems likely that the bone pendant, perhaps left at home during a furlough sometime after William had changed Company, was passed on to one of William’s daughters. It would eventually find its way to an auction house where it caught Cathy Nicholls eye, leading her to purchase it. That decision would ultimately lead to the discovery of the Higgins family story. William’s pendant is one of the most attractive Civil War era objects I have come across- the horrific end experienced by the man who once owned it one of the most sobering. (5)

Battlefield Artist Alfred Waud's depiction of Union attempts to save the wounded caught in The Wilderness fires (Library of Congress)

Battlefield Artist Alfred Waud’s depiction of Union attempts to save the wounded caught in The Wilderness fires (Library of Congress)

*Very special thanks to Cathy Nicholls for bringing this object to my attention and for her permission to reproduce images of it here.

**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.

(1) Widow’s Pension File, 1850 Census, 1860 Census; (2) NYAG Report; (3) NYAG Report; (4) Widow’s Pension File; (5) Ibid.;

References & Further Reading

US Federal Census 1850

US Federal Census 1860

New York Adjutant General. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the Year 1893. 

William Higgins Widow’s Pension File WC96262

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Civil War Trust Battle of The Wilderness Page

 

 

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Categories: 69th New York, Irish Brigade

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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10 Comments on “Witnesses to History: A Memento of a Missing Man”

  1. September 19, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    Could this be an early form of a dog tag and may have been attached to a button on his shirt, or just carried in the pocket, for identification? But no, I have never seen any like it.

    • September 23, 2014 at 10:28 am #

      Hi,

      I was wondering the same- although I was doubtful about the durability of the paint on it while on campaign. I would love to know are there any similar items out there.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. Jackie
    September 21, 2014 at 1:40 am #

    Great piece, Damian! And wonderful image, Sara!

  3. John Murphy
    March 21, 2016 at 8:50 pm #

    Another touching story.

  4. Matthew Jude Barker
    March 22, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    Wow! What an amazing story and artifact! Keep up the great work! Slainte

  5. March 25, 2016 at 6:29 pm #

    What a fantastic looking artifact. I have seen similar carved bone pieces (rings & neckerchief slides with coloring in the recesses, but never from the Irish Brigade. I would imagine that this was a token sent home to a loved one. Nicely done once again, Damian….and you as well, Sara.

    • May 6, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

      It is a fantastic object isn’t Joe, and all the more powerful with the story behind it.

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