In August 1861, Orderly Sergeant John Kennedy of the 10th Ohio Infantry wrote a letter home to his mother from western Virginia. Although now a soldier, the 22-year-old from Dunkerrin, Co. Offaly* had been in the army for barely three months. Just weeks before had been learning the tobacconist trade, which he plied in Cincinnati’s 13th Ward. Now, that August, John was keen to calm his mother’s fears- he was her sole family and support, and she was terrified as to what might become of them both in the months and years to come. (1)
John’s mother Catharine Talbot had married Robert Kennedy in Dunkerrin Catholic Church, Co. Offaly on 30th January 1837. John had been born around 1839, and spent his childhood year’s in Ireland. The catalyst for emigration had been the death of John’s father Robert, who passed away around 1850. Catharine decided that the best prospects for her and her son lay in the United States, where they ultimately settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. When they arrived, they entered a community that contained a number of people from Dunkerrin- years later another Cincinnati resident, Thomas Irwin, recalled how he had attended Robert Kennedy’s wake in the Co. Offaly village. (2)
John had initially joined the army for three-months, in May 1861, but like most of his comrades he converted his enlistment to a three-year term in the 10th Ohio on 3rd June. Catharine was not pleased. Ill health meant that John was her only means of support, and she depended on him for everything from her rent to groceries. No doubt she was also terrified of losing the only close family she had left. Catharine decided to take desperate measures, so before the regiment left its Cincinnati base- Camp Dennison, Ohio- for the front, Catharine persuaded a few influential citizens to help her get her son out of the army. They set off to see John’s Captain, Stephen McGroarty (from Mount Charles, Co. Donegal, later a Brevet-Brigadier-General). Catharine asked McGroarty to discharge her son, on the basis that he was her sole support. One can imagine the whole affair was somewhat embarrassing for John, who had only just been promoted to Sergeant for good behaviour. In front of his commander, John now had to face off against his mother. He told her that he was ‘anxious to go with the regiment’ and reassured Catharine that ‘he would send her his money, and that it would be all the same to her’ adding that ‘when he came back from the army, they would have a nice little farm.’ This was apparently a reference to 100 acres of land that the men had been promised for enlisting. Captain McGroarty also informed Catharine that there was now no turning back for John- he was enlisted, and was compelled to go with the regiment. (3)
This was the backdrop to John’s 11th August letter. By this date the regiment remains unpaid, but John reassures Catharine that the money is sure to come eventually. He is also keen to stress that he has not been in any real danger so far. The 10th Ohio had yet to be engaged in any major combat- in August 1861, such horrors still lay in the future.
Buckhannon Aug 11th 1861
i take the plesure of writing you these few lines hoping the may find you in as good health as this leaves me at present thank God. We have just got back from a long march through the Country sometimes marching all night. We are getting along very well now we may stop here for some time. there was six of our men shot coming through Bulltown on the 9th of aug we were there the day before the[y] arived there you see the Regiment is devided in three parts four Companys with Col Lytle four with Col Karff [Korff] and two with Major Burk [Burke] we are with Col Lytle. we may be at the Battle of Manassas Gap but i dont think we will however i know that we will have plenty of fighting for i supose it will take us some time to drive them out of Virginia. Perhaps i may get a furla [furlough] soon and go home for a week or two but i dont know how soon i may get it mother. i dont know what is the reason the [they] dont pay of [off] but one thing i do know that it is as shure as daylight and if you can get along for a short time it will be all wright. John Keller is going home tomorrow and i sen [send] this by him to you so he can let you know how i am. we have just as good a time here as if we were at home only the danger of being on gaurd at night as for me i dont have to go on any gaurd duty i have a very good time here of cource i have charge of a Company and sometimes i have a little trouble but it is not mutch. i wrote a great many letters since i arived here and never got but two answered. Patrick Hennessy and Hamilton Keown are well and sends their respects to all the folks at home the [they] wish their freinds would write to them a little more than the [they] do. i will let you know that my pay is raised five dolars more in the month. tell Mrs Ryan that i was asking for her and Mrs Kilfoil also Mrs Comings and all the folks. when John Keller is coming back i wish you would send that white pants with him i want it those hot days.
No more at present
from your son
Company E 10th Regt
Less than a month after John wrote this letter, on 10th September 1861, the 10th Ohio experienced battle for the first time. They ‘saw the elephant’ at Carnifex Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia).*** Against a fortified enemy, Captain Stephen McGroarty led his Company E forward to the attack. They were met with a withering fire- when it was finally over ten of the regiment lay dead, fifty wounded. Just how much John Kennedy ever knew of his first taste of action is unclear; McGroarty remembered seeing the young Offaly man fall, shot through the head. Back in Cincinnati, John’s mother’s worst fears became a reality. News of her son’s death reached her before any of the army money ever did. With her rent unpaid, and reliant on relief committees for support, all that was left to her was to seek her son’s bounty and back pay, and apply for a dependent mother’s pension. (5)
(1) Pension File, 1860 Census; (2) Pension File; (3) Official Roster, Pension File; (4) Pension File; (5) Ibid.;
*Co. Offaly was known as King’s County in the 19th century
**Punctuation has been added to this letter for ease of modern reading- only limited puntuation appears in the original. Of the soldiers John mentions in his letter, John Keller and Patrick Hennessy survived to muster out on 17th June 1864. Hamilton Keown was transferred to Company A later in 1861, and was killed in action at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky on 8th October 1862.
***You can read more about the 10th Ohio at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry 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.
References & Further Reading
1860 US Federal Census
John Kennedy Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC117744
Ohio General Assembly, 1886. Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861- 1866. Volume 2.
Reid, Whitelaw 1868. Ohio in the War: Her Statesmen, Her Generals, and Soldiers Volume 2.