The Christmas period tended to be a tough one for working-class New Yorkers in the 1860s. The seasonality of many laboring jobs and an increased cost of living caused by heightened fuel consumption saw many families struggle. Between 1861 and 1865 many had the added burden of worrying about a loved-one at the front. This was no different for elderly Irish couple Francis and Jane Duffy, who made their home among the East 12th Street community in Manhattan. Unfortunately for them, Christmas 1864 was one that they would remember for all the wrong reasons. (1)
Pre-Famine Irish emigrants Francis and Jane Duffy had married at St. James’ Roman Catholic Church on 10th December 1843. Their first-born child James was born 10 months later, on 11th October 1844. He was baptised two days afterwards at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in the Lower East Side. We don’t know too much about the family’s life in the years that followed, other than the fact that they became a fixture of life on East 12th Street over the course of the following two decades. As the 1850s progressed, increased age combined with years of physical labor began to catch up with Francis. Rheumatism and worsening deafness meant that he had to reduce the hours he worked, a slack taken up by his son James. By the summer of 1864, Francis had ceased working entirely. James, now 20-years-old, was earning up to $10 per week and giving much of that to pay to provide food and clothing for his parents, as well as to pay their rent at 259 East 12th Street. (2)
Whatever his motivation- it would seem most likely that it was regular pay- James Duffy entered the New York Naval Rendezvous on 1st March 1864 and enlisted in the Union Navy. His lack of previous maritime experience meant that he was assigned the rank of Landsman. The new recruit, who had signed on for one year, was described as being 21-years-of-age and 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. The young Irish-American was assigned to U.S.S. Ticonderoga, a sloop-of-war that spent time that summer hunting the Confederate raider C.S.S. Florida before joining the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Wilmington, North Carolina towards years end. (3)
The Ticonderoga was there because the Federals had determined to close-off the South’s last major Atlantic port at Wilmington- but to do this they first had to neutralise the formidable Fort Fisher, which commanded the Cape Fear river. The task of taking Fort Fisher was to be a combined army and navy operation under the command of Major-General Benjamin Butler and Rear-Admiral David D. Porter respectively. When a plan to destroy part of the fort by detonating a ship packed with explosives beside it failed, Porter’s fleet began a large-scale bombardment of the Confederate positions. On Christmas Eve 1864, one of the vessels that began pouring thousands of shells into Fort Fisher was James Duffy’s U.S.S. Ticonderoga.
The Ticonderoga‘s Captain, Charles Steedman, gave the order to commence firing at Fort Fisher shortly after 2.30pm on 24th December. Landsman James Duffy was assisting with the operation of one of the ship’s 100 pounder Parrott Rifles. At around 3.15pm, some 45 minutes into the action, Acting Lieutenant Louis G. Vassallo was standing at the gun breach, in the act of sighting the weapon, when suddenly it erupted into fragments, sending huge shards red-hot metal flying about the ship. Vassallo somehow survived, albeit with severe facial injuries. Many of his comrades were not so lucky. It is probable that James Duffy never knew much about the explosion- the ship surgeon would later recall that the young man’s ‘head and arm was blown off’ by the violence of the blast. A total of 8 sailors were killed and 12 wounded when the barrel burst, many of them Irish. The occurrence was an all too common one during naval bombardment, and the fate of the men threatened to demoralise the other sailors. Captain Steedman recalled how it had a ‘depressing effect’ on the rest of the Ticonderoga’s compliment. As shocked crewmen looked on, sand was scattered about the deck to absorb the blood of James and the other victims. Then Coxswain William Shipman, who was commanding a nearby gun, shouted encouragement to the remaining gunners: ‘Go ahead, boys; this is only the fortunes of war!’ With that the others shook themselves from their shock and recommenced firing at Fort Fisher. Shipman would later receive a Medal of Honor for his inspirational actions. (4)
The efforts of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga and the others vessels had little impact on Fort Fisher that December, and a half-hearted and abortive effort by Butler to assault the position with his ground forces on Christmas Day ended in withdrawal before any serious combat had taken place. It would be the middle of January before a second engagement would finally secure the fort. In the intervening period, Captain Steedman sat down, on 31st December, to write the following to Francis Duffy:
Off Beaufort N.C.
December 31st 1864
My Dear Sir,
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son Francis Duffy who was killed on the 24th Instant by the accidental twisting of a gun during the attack upon Fort Fisher. In the midst of sorrow- comfort and strength cometh only from Above yet it is gratifying to know that he died while gallantly performing his duty in battle.
I am, Dear Sir,
Your Obed. Servt
Mr. Frances Duffey
259 E. 12th St
New York (5)
Jane Duffy immediately applied for a dependent mother’s pension based on her son’s fate. The couple appear to have consistently sought to remain on or near East 12th Street and the community they knew so well, though they were more than prepared to move around within that area. Not long after their son’s death the couple moved from No. 259 to No. 525 East 12th Street. Friends and neighbours came forward to give statements on their behalf, such as John Brennan of No. 530 East 12th Street, and Patrick McFadden of No. 549 East 12th Street, who both stated they had been neighbours of the Duffy’s for twenty years. Jane’s pension application was successful, and the couple, who’s only property was the few pieces of furniture they moved around with them, had some measure of security once again. (6)
Jane eventually passed away on 5th March 1877. Francis, who was now more or less completely deaf and in his late seventies, had to rush to secure the transfer of the pension to him as a dependent father. Within a week of his wife’s death he was making a new statement with regard to his son’s naval service and his own physical condition. His address was now No. 522 East 13th Street- although those who gave statements on his behalf included yet another East 12th Street resident, Thomas Jones of No. 407. (7)
Thankfully Francis was granted his pension from the date of his wife’s death. It is not clear how long he lived to enjoy it. Christmas Eve 1864 had seen the Irish couple lose their first-born child in awful circumstances, an event that plunged them into severe financial uncertainty. Their dependent parent’s pension file gives us an insight into just how vital a child’s support could be to parents, particularly if they were elderly and infirm. It also demonstrates how Irish and other communities based around areas such as East 12th Street could rally to support of their own. (7)
(1) Widow Certificate; (2) Ibid.; (3) Naval Weekly Returns, Widow Certificate; (4) ORN: 327-8, Fonvielle 2001: 137-8; (5) Widow Certificate; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.;
James T. Duffy Navy Widow Certificate #2247
Naval Enlistment Weekly Returns
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series 1, Volume 11. Report of Captain Steedman, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. Ticonderoga
Fonvielle, Chris Eugene 2001.The Wilmington Campaign: Last Departing Rays of Hope