‘In Account Of We Being Irish’: A New Irish Brigade Letter After Fredericksburg

As some readers will be aware I am currently working on a long-term project identifying and transcribing the letters of Irish and Irish-American soldiers contained within the Civil War Widows & Dependents Pension Files. This work has already identified large numbers of previously unpublished letters of Irish soldiers, which I intend to prepare for ultimate publication. One of the most interesting I have come across so far are those written by a soldier of the Irish Brigade after Fredericksburg. Given that today is the 152nd anniversary of that engagement, I thought I would share it here for the first time. It was written by Tipperary native William Dwyer of the 63rd New York, more than a month after the battle. He had written other letters (now lost) to his mother that December, but it is clear from his January 1863 correspondence that the action was still having a deep emotional impact on him. William was also clearly angry that the Brigade were not being sent home to refit, something which he attributed to anti-Irish prejudice. Although he survived Fredericksburg, William ultimately succumbed to disease at City Point, Virginia on 12th July 1864.

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, the target of the Irish Brigade Assault (Library of Congress)

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg, the target of the Irish Brigade Assault (Library of Congress)

Camp near Falmouth Va

January 23d 1863

Dear Mother,

I take the opportunity of writing these few lines to you hoping to find you and my sisters in good health as this leaves me in at present thank God for it. Dear Mother I am sending you forty dollars $40 now we got paid on yesterday and all we got was four months pay $52 dollars and I am sending you 40 and we expect to get pa[i]d the other two next month. The[y] owed us seven months and gave us only four. I owed the sutler three dollars for tobbacco and I gave the priest one dollar so Dear Mother I will send you twenty more when we get paid again. We have log houses built for the winter for our selves but we dont know how long we will be left in them we expect to leaves them every day. Dear Mother tell Julia Greene that I have not see Mike since the Battle of Fredericksburgh only once and let me know if he is moved away because his Regt expected to got to Washington he was camped 8 miles from me when I seen him last. Dear Mother I wrote an answer to you on the 31st of December last and I got no answer from you yet and I had no way of writing sooner untill I got paid and you might write to me any how even since if you did not get or not. Dear Mother it is very cold out here and on Christmas day it snowed terrible and I was on picket on the banks of the Rappahannock River all day and night with only half a dozen hard crackers and a piece of raw pork for the Day and night.

Dear Mother we are expecting an other fight in Fredericksburgh some of these days but I dont want to see any more for to see all the men that fell there on the 13th of decr last it was heart rending sight to see them falling all around me.

Tell Mrs Smith that Johnny Mc Gowan is well and in go[o]d health and Tommy Trainors mother also he is well and in good health. Dear Mother we thought surely that our brigade was going home to New York that time but we were kept back and would not be let go in account of we being Irish. In the three old Regts we have only 250 for duty when we ought to have 3000 men for duty so we thought when we were so small that we would be sent home to fill up but who ever lives after the next battle can go home because it is little will be left of us.

No more at present,

From you aff son

William Dwyer

63d Regt N.Y. Vol

Co H Irish Brigade

Washington D.C.

Or elsewhere

 Answer this as soon as you can I never got the box that you said uncle Charley sent me if he sent whiskey in it it was all broke box and all kept.

Give my best respect to uncle Charley uncle James aunt Mary and children the two Mrs Kells  Mary McAlamey Mrs Delany Mrs Gallaher and their families

James Lodge and family

Also to Pat Fogarty

Jer Fitzpatrick

The Camp of the 110th Pennsylvania, Falmouth, Winter 1862. William Dwyer wrote home from a similar camp in Falmouth (Library of Congress)

The Camp of the 110th Pennsylvania, Falmouth, Winter 1862. William Dwyer wrote home from a similar camp in Falmouth (Library of Congress)

The fact that William felt the brigade was being kept at the front because they were Irish is an interesting one. It feeds into a belief, current after the carnage of 1862, that the Irish were being used as cannon fodder by prejudiced ‘Know Nothing’ officers. There is no evidence to substantiate this claim, but it is interesting to consider just how widespread this view may have been among Irish Brigade soldiers in early 1863. The extreme mental trauma they had experienced by participating in the 13th December charge must have exacerbated many of their reactions to later news that they would not be going home. William wrote a second letter three days after the first, in which he outlines how his mother, thinking the brigade had returned to New York, had ‘run down to the Battery’ (the Battery was on Manhattan) to meet him. It also demonstrated that he was a man of faith, which must have done something to sustain him during his experiences:

Camp Near Falmouth Va

January 26th 1863

My Dear Mother,

I received your welcomed letter this day which gave my great pleasure to hear that you and my sisters are in good health as this leaves me in at present thank god for it. Dear Mother tell Mrs Fay that Tom her husband was here with me and Johnny Mc Gown for about half an hour and he was telling that their pontoon bridges was stuck in the mud and they were two days trying to get them out he is in good health and he was telling me that Mike Greene was well and in good health.  Tell Maggie that General McClellan has left us and General Burnside has taken his place and tell her that the[y] will put us in to fight if there was only ten of us left in the Brigade all we have now is 250 men out of 3000 in the three old Regts. Dear Mother I did laugh when I heard that you run down to the Battery to look for me we were so sure that we would be going home that time we thought it was all right. We are hear Falmouth Virginia we have plenty of clothes and we have built log houses for ourselves so we expect to winter here for awhile but dont know ho[w] long after that. If I had any way of getting or ink I would write to you although I did[n’t] get any answer to the other tell Mrs Smith that Johnny McGown sent 30 dollars last week by Adams Express.

Dear Mother Father Dillon left us last augst at Harrisons Landing and he is with Corcorans Legion and I am glad that my mother is getting the Relief yet and I dont get any of the papers you sent me send me an other one and if I dont get that one I will tell you to stop sending any more. I dont want anything as yet the next letter you send send me a scapular and fix it so as it dont be any weight in the letter you will get them to buy in any Catholic Book Store and you can get it blessed by the priest. The one I got from Father Dillon it is all wore and I lost the part that goes down my back he gave every one of us one when he was leaving us if you can get one from the sisters get it. Dear Mother you can keep the five dollars I am glad that you dont want for any thing I sent you forty dollars last week by adams express and as soon as you get it let me know. Is Julia living in the country yet. No more at present,

Your aff son

William Dwyer

63d Regt N.Y. Vol.

Co H Irish Brigade

Washington D.C.

or else where

 Give my best Respects to

Maggie Kells                                                  Pat Fogarty

Mary Hays                                                      Jerry Fitzpatrick

Lizzy Curran                                                  James Curran

                                                                        Margt Curran

                                                                        Mary Curran

Also to Mick Curran two Mrs Kells

Mary McAlanney

and their families

*The letters above have no punctuation in their original form. Punctuation has been added in this post for ease of modern reading- if you would like to see the original transcription please contact me. 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

William Dwyer Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC103233

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Categories: 63rd New York, Battle of Fredericksburg, Irish Brigade, New York, Tipperary

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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8 Comments on “‘In Account Of We Being Irish’: A New Irish Brigade Letter After Fredericksburg”

  1. laurie.a
    December 14, 2014 at 3:44 am #

    “But we had with us, to keep and to care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men- men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order- do we call it? – fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command we heard or His forgiveness we must forever implore?”
    ― Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

    My great-great grandfather was a captain who served under Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee; my own enduring hero from early childhood on has been Abraham Lincoln; and I find myself continually returning to the battleground–picking up fragments, listening for voices. Thank you for sharing your research. Please continue.

  2. John Murphy
    December 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    Damian,
    These letters offer fascinating insight into the soldier’s mood and thinking at the time.
    Keep up the good work as it will make an excellent publication in time.
    I’ve often wanted to buy an old diary but what you are providing will be better than any single book.
    Your Cork friend from Tennessee. John

  3. December 15, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    Letters home always give us the face and heart of the soldier. Thank you.

    • December 17, 2014 at 11:57 am #

      Thanks Ann- there is nothing quite like them for gaining personal insight into people’s experiences.

  4. December 17, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    Once again your ability to delve into these records amaze me. Your discernment of information is excellent. Thank you for posting these.

    • January 8, 2015 at 11:24 am #

      Thanks Joe I really appreciate you saying that- some of the content of these letters is truly amazing, and there is just so many of them!

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