Few historic documents intrude on the intimate emotional experiences of past people quite like the letters that brought them news of a loved ones death. To read them is to at once imagine that first occasion when they were read. Though death may have occurred days, weeks or even months before, it was the act of reading these letters that turned wives into widows, that created bereaved parents and bereaved children. That in itself makes them incredibly powerful documents, even after the passage of 150 years. How did these families react as they read each word, or (for those who were illiterate) as each word was read to them? Many of the letters below were likely read again and again, as the bereaved sought comprehension. Others may have been quickly put away, as the bereaved sought to forget.

I am currently engaged in a long-term project looking at the letters of Irish and Irish-American soldiers who served in New York units during the American Civil War. One of the ancillary pieces of information that I am gathering along the way are those letters that informed families of their deaths. I now have many, and I intend to share them on the site in the months ahead. Below are nine very different examples, together with some background information on each Irish soldier and his family. Each was submitted to provide evidence in support of a pension claim. While reading these extraordinary documents, it is also worth remembering the heavy burden of responsibility often borne by the letter writer; a burden that some handled with more compassion and care than others.

A woman in mourning clothes holding an image of a soldier (Library of Congress)

A woman in mourning clothes holding an image of a soldier (Library of Congress)

Private Patrick O’Donnell, Company B, 2nd New York Cavalry

Irish-born couple Patrick O’Donnell and Catharine Cassarly married on 19th February 1852 in St. Vincent De Paul’s Church, Scranton, Pennsylvania. They had three children; Lawrence, born on 28th November 1852, Margaret born on the 6th September 1857 and Andrew, born on 1st January 1860. 29-year-old Patrick died in Sheridan Field Hospital in Winchester, Virginia on 22nd October 1864, from a wound to the right shoulder received in action on the 8th of that month. Catharine was 35-years-old when she applied for her widow’s pension.

Camp 2d NY Cav

Nov. 8th 1864

Mrs. O’Donell

I take the sad task of informing you of the Death of your husband one of my Co. and in so doing I will relate the manner of his death On the 8th of October while supporting our Rear Guard the Enemy Charged us and your husband with the rest of our Co Charged them in turn in that Charge your husband received a Bullet in his right Sholder but was taken off the field and put into a house till the nex day when he was taken to the Hospital. Since then we have received notice of his death and I but speak the feelings of his whole Company when I say they deeply feel the loss of so brave and Kind a Soldier ever redy to lend a helping hand to those who were in need prompt in all his dutyes he was esteemed by his officers and Each and Everyone tenders you their heartfull Sympathy in this your bereavement. Should you wish us to assist you in receiving his pay we will do all in our power for you with the Companye’s best wishes for you and yours. I will close by saying may he who [illegible] over all give you strength to bear the loss of one whom we had all learned to love

Sergt. E.F. Doolittle

Co. B 2d NY Cav

3d Div Cav Corps

Washington D.C.

Private Michael A. Fagan, Company C, 4th New York Cavalry

Bridget Campbell married James Fagan in December 1823 in Whitehall, Co. Westmeath. One of their children, Michael, was born around 1843. James himself passed away in April 1847. Their 20-year-old son Private Michael Fagan was killed in action on the 26th January 1863 at Grove Church, Virginia while on a scouting mission. His now 57-year-old mother Bridget, living in New York, applied for a pension based on his service.

Head Quarters 11th Army Corps

Stafford C.H.se Feby 1st 1863

Mrs Bridget Fagan


In communicating to you the death of your son Pte Michael Fagan of the 4th N.Y. Cavalry I willingly hear testimony to his general excellent conduct and soldierlike bearing which I am sure will in some measure alleviate the pain you must naturally suffer on the loss of a son. He died as a soldier should in the performance of his duty. Liked by all his comrades and esteemed by his officers as a fearless and brave soldier, ever ready at a moments notice, in most dangerous places he was ever found foremost, and in his loss the Country looses a brave soldier and the cause for which we all fight an able defender.

I am, Madam,

Your obedient Servant

Ferrier Nazer

Lt. Col. 4th N.Y. Cavalry

Private Patrick McGuire, Company A, 6th New York Cavalry

Bridget McGreedy married Patrick McGuire in ‘Killurcan’, Co. Roscommon in 1831. Their son, 21-year-old Private Patrick McGuire, died in Judiciary Square Hospital, Washington D.C. on 19th October 1863 from wounds he had received at the Battle of Bristoe Station, Virginia five days earlier. His 60-year-old mother Bridget was living in Newark, New Jersey when she applied for a pension. The first news she received of her son’s death was an unexpected reply to a letter the family had sent to Patrick.

Judiciary Sq. Hospital

Washington D.C. October 23/63


I have taken a liberty with your letter directed to Patrick McGuire this morning that is sometimes nesisary in order that I may give information to the friends of those who they are directed to having no other way of delivering any information of the whereabouts of the soldiers friends

I am sorry to inform you that the beloved Son & Brother is no more, he died of Gun Shot wound on the 19th instant he bore his sufferings with great patients but they proved more than he could bear up under and like many others of our comrads he had to yield- from a Soldier.

J. L. Allen

Ward Master

of Judiciary Sq.re Hospital

A second letter from the hospital chaplain sent a few days later provided further details of Patrick’s fate:

Marcus L Ward E  Judiciary Square Hospital

Newark N.J. 28 Oct 1863

Dear Sir

Patrick McGuire was in the hospital about a week he had every care and attention from Surgeon, Nurses & attendants by day and by night. I saw him every day and only a few hours before his death. There is a priest on duty at the hospital but I think he did not call during Patricks illness. He told me in answer to my question that he was a Catholic. He was wounded in the back of the neck and paralysed his limbs. His mind was calm and clear. He was without the least pain as the spine was struck I wrote a letter for him to his mother just before he died His speech was not affected.


John C. Smith, Chaplain

Marcus L Ward Esq

Private Barney McCabe, Company I, 10th New York Cavalry

Irish-born Barney McCabe and New York-born Rosalinda Satterlee were married on the 26th January 1859 in the Methodist Chapel at Broadalbin, New York. They had three children; William born on 20th October 1859, Charles Edwin born on 29th January 1861, and Emily Jane born on 14th May 1863. 43-year-old Barney died on 14th July 1863 at Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia due to what was recorded as ‘concussion’, having seemingly been set upon in an altercation. Rosalinda was living in Mayfield, New York when she applied for her pension.

[To Mrs Rosalinda McCabe, Mayfield, Fulton Co., NY]

Satterlee U.S. Army Genl Hospital

West Philadelphia July 27th 1863

Dear Madam

I now take my pen in hand to write a few liens to you and I hope that this will find you and your Family in good health but it is with a sad and heavey hart that I have to inform you that your husband has been ded two weeks it is just two weeks to day that he got a pass to go down town and send you sum money and he was brough back a little after eleven O clock at night in a ambulance verey badly hurt and he died next morning he was not sencebell after he was hurt I cannot say how he got hurt nor I do not know where the Docter has sent you aney word about it but I know this that they buried him without a inquest that is without noteyfieng the Coroner or aneything now the best thing for you to do is for some Friend to come on here and atend to the case for I am satisfide that there is sume thing wrong about it for I am shure that he was Murdered that is what I think from what I can find out for I made it my bisness to go and find out what I could about it now if you think that it is worth while to come or send anybody I shall be verey happey to give all the informtion I can or if you write I will do all I can for you I shall send what letters he left in my care I have a Degratoipe in my care but I will not send it untill I here from you so I must now conclude by remaining your true Friend

George H Yeoman

Private Thomas McManus, Company E, 11th New York Cavalry

Mary McManus married her husband Cornelius in Ireland in 1836. Their 19-year-old son Thomas McManus died on 2nd August 1864 at Orange Grove, Louisiana, of Chronic Diarrhea. Cornelius was unable to work himself due to disability, which made both parents reliant on their son for support. Mary was 68-years-old (Cornelius was 67) and living in Onondaga, New York when she applied for her pension. She enclosed the letter written to her husband about Thomas’s death in the pension application as it was ‘the only letter she now has relating to his death’.

Orange Grove

Agust 4th 1864

Dear Sir

I take my pen in hand to adress these few lines to you feeling it my duty as A companion to thomas Mc Manus to inform you of his death. I have not been acquainted with him before we met in this reigment but as we have always been togeather it seems to me as if he were my brother therefore finding your adress on the receipt which he got from the express Co for the last money he sent to you I now take the oppirtunity of writing these few lines. It has been very unhealthy here lately but thomas has always been fit for duty since he has been in the reigment infact the climate here appeared to agree with him better than it did farther north but he was taken rather of a sudden infact he was almost gone before we thought about his being very sick and as our head doctor was sick and the other was at new Orleans we could not do much for him he did not suffer mutch he is buried on this plantation he was buried better than would expected all the company that is in detachment turned out mounted and attended to the buirial according to military custom he was the first one that has died out of our company although they are dieing very fast out of the reigiment at preasent we were calculating to get up a supcription in the company to send his body home but the weather is so very warm and we are in rather an inconveniant place so that it was imposible to get the body to New Orleans soon enough to embalmed. In order to draw his back pay and bounty you want to direct as follows

Cpt Joseph C Hyat Co E Scotts 900 11 NY Cavelry Depart of the Gulph New Orleans L A

please ancer this so I may know that you received information also inform his friends if you know where they are. No more at preasant for a friend

Michael Sullivan

Co E Scotts 900 11 NY Cav department of the gulph

New Orleans L A

Private Michael McGee, Company L, 11th New York Cavalry.

Catharine Prior and Michael McGee married on 1st February 1847 in Oughteragh, Co. Leitrim. They had one child, Mary-Ann, who was born in December 1849. Michael was 34-years-old when he died of sunstroke on 21st June 1864 in hospital at Hermitage Plantation, Ascension Parish, Louisiana. Catharine was 37-years-old and living at 252 Mott Street in Lower Manhattan when she applied for her pension.

Hd. Qrs Scott’s 900

Hermitage Plantation La

July 1st 1864

Mrs Michl Mc Gee


I have to inform you by this note of your husbands Death he died on this plantation June 22d 1864 of excessive heat. On his clothes was found the sum of Ten Dollars which will be sent on as soon as his effects can be got together and everything made satisfactorily.

He has been decently buried on this plantation- as he was much liked by all the boys

I am

Yours Respectfully

M. Finitt

Capt. Comdg Co. “L”

Private William D. Harrigan, Company M, 24th New York Cavalry

21-year-old Private William Harrigan died on 12th July at Emory Hospital in Washington D.C. His right leg had been amputated following a gunshot wound he had received in action at Petersburg, Virginia on 16th June 1864. A pension application was made by his mother, Ellen, two years later. Her husband, who was epileptic, had died on 3rd June 1866. This prompted the 55-year-old Irishwoman to apply for the pension based on her son’s service, from her home in Oswego, New York. The communications they had received regarding William’s death are examples of the brevity of some of this type of correspondence.


BY TELEGRAPH               DATED Washington July 30 1864

TO: Carrie E Harrigan

William Harrigan died at this Hospital

N M Mantey

Surgeon in Charge

This brutally short telegram nonetheless offered some slight hope, as the name to whom the telegram was addressed was incorrect. Perhaps it had been meant for someone else? A second more detailed message was received weeks later in response to a query by the Harrigans, and explained the incorrect name used:

Emory Hospital

Wash D.C. Sept 5 1862

Q. Gable Esq.

A very heavy press of business has delayed this reply to yours of the 25th ulto.

W.D. Harrigan Co M 24th N.Y. Cav died at this Hospital.

The error in name doubtless occurred through the negligence of Telegraph Operator.

A letter addressed to Brig Genl L Thomas A.G. U.S.A. Wash D.C. will obtain for you all the information you may desire as to date & cause of death.


Yr Obt Servt

Trisby? Jhause?

Chief Clerk

Private John Connor, Company H, 7th New York Heavy Artillery

Irish-born couple John Connor and Bridget Bestan were married in St. Joseph’s Church, Troy on 20th July 1858. John’s first wife (Mary McMahon) had died and he already had a daughter, Margaret, who had been born on 19th July 1854. Another daughter Catharine was born on 21st October 1860. 37-year-old John died at the Methodist Church Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia around the 25th July 1864. His leg had been amputated following his wounding in front of Petersburg, Virginia on 16th June 1864. 40-year-old Bridget applied for her pension from her then home of Port Schuyler, West Troy, New York. It is clear that she had received all her information regarding her husband’s death from the two letters below, as when she applied for her pension she stated that her husband had died ‘some day between the 15th day of July…to the 25 day of August 1864.’


ALEXANDRIA, VA., July 13th 1864

Mrs Bridget Connors

Your Husband is in one of the Hospitals of this City, He says he has written you once Since he Came here but have not heard from you. His right leg is amputated & he is doing well; he has good care and will get on finely here; he wants you to write to him here

Direct to him in

“Methodist Church Hospital Alexandria Va.”

Most Respectfully

W.H. Coe

Delegate Christian Comm

The second letter, written on 25th August, informed Bridget of John’s fate:


ALEXANDRIA, VA., Aug 25 1864

Mrs Bridget Conners

West Troy N.Y.

This is a world of trial and disappointments But there is a world of help & enjoyment. God has called your husband to the other Shore. He died some time since and I am sorry to say that we are not permitted to learn the precise date of the death of soldiers. The cemitery in which the soldiers are buried is evrything that could be desired. A good coffin lined with [illegible] accompanied to the grave by a chaplain and religious [illegible] at the grave. A board is set up at the head, painted white, and lettered with black paint so that it is easy to recognise the grave of Each Soldier. A band of iron around the top of the head board. May God sustain you in this sore bereavement your husband died in a noble cause

Your Respectfully

O.L. Thompson?

Superintendant of Christian Commission at Alexandria Va.

Private Edward Mahoney, Company C, 16th New York Heavy Artillery

Edward Mahoney and his wife Catharine had been married in the parish of ‘Ballinakilligan’, Ireland in March 1840. Their son Maurice, born around 1844, was the only one of their children to survive to adulthood. 44-year-old Edward died of Chronic Diarrhea at the hospital in Fort Monroe, Virginia on 26th September 1864. That year Catharine applied for the pension from her home in Rome, Oneida County, New York. By the time she did so she had no living children remaining- the couple’s only surviving son, 19-year-old Maurice, had died of wounds received at the Battle of the Wilderness on 5th May 1864, while serving in the 146th New York Infantry. Receipt of the letter below meant that the Irishwoman had lost all her family to the American Civil War.


2d Divis. U.S. Gen. Hospital

Fort Monroe Va.

Sep 27th 1864

Mrs. Catharine Mahoney

Rome N.Y.

Dear Madam

I regret to have to inform you of the recent death in this hospital of your husband Edward Mahoney of Co. C 16th N.Y.H. Art.

He was brought here Sep 23d sick with Chronic Diarrhoea. He said he had been unwell for 8 months. Had been in 10th A.C. Hospital about 2 week. A letter was written to his priest for him Sep 24th. He often spoke of his friends but left no special message for them. It will gratify you to know that all possible attention was given him during his illness here.

He was buried in the Hampton Hospital burying ground with the usual military & religious ceremonies, and his grave is marked by a white head board with his name Co. Regt. and date of death plainly marked upon it.

He had some effects which you can obtain by applying by letter to Dr. Mc Clellan Surg. In Charge of this hospital. To obtain back pay, apply to the 2d Auditor U.S. Treasury Washington D.C.

I trust my dear Madam that this event so distressing to you and which have left such a void in your family circle will be borne with Christian resignation remembering that he dies nobly who dies in the path of duty and that the graves of a nation’s defenders are among her most priceless treasures.

Let me also hope that you may be guided to that unfailing source of consolation which through our blessed Savior is always attainable to those who are bereaved & afflicted.

I am Madam

Very Truly Yours

Chas. A. Raymond

Chaplain 2d Divis. U.S. Gen. Hsp.

Fort Monroe Va.

*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.


Patrick O’Donnell Widow’s Pension File WC81538

Patrick McGuire Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC15809

Barney McCabe Widow’s Pension File WC117939

Thomas McManus Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC101300

Michael McGee Widow’s Pension File WC76618

William D. Harrigan Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC117060

John Connor Widow’s Pension File WC41520

Edward Mahoney Widow’s Pension File WC43222