In late 1863, details of a sensational case began to emerge throughout the newspapers of the Union. It was a story that would be told and retold for decades to come, and was ever after remembered by all who had come into contact with the particulars. At its centre was an intellectually disabled ‘idiot’ boy from Co. Limerick, who had been stolen from a New York Almshouse and sold into the Federal Army. For months his frantic mother would haunt the Union forces like a spectre, searching relentlessly for her son. The case would eventually involve figures such as the Mayor of Troy, the Governor of New York, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Lafayette Baker of the Secret Service. The most notable individual to take a personal interest though was President Abraham Lincoln. The remarkable events seem almost the stuff of fiction, but they are undoubtedly some of the most compelling and heartrending of the Irish experience of the American Civil War.
Virtually all the contemporary documentation referring to Cornelius Garvin called him an ‘idiot.’ This was a term used in the 19th century to refer to someone with an intellectual disability. The precise nature of Cornelius (or Con’s) disorder is not known, but whatever it was, one of the way’s in which it appears to have impacted him was that he was easily led, and was quick to do what others told him. Con was born in Limerick in about the year 1845 to Matthew and Catharine Garvin. They had married in Grange, Co. Limerick around the year 1838 and following emigration through Liverpool in 1850 they had settled in Troy, New York. They didn’t stay long before heading west to Chicago, where they spent five years before returning to Troy around 1855. It was here that Matthew passed away, dying in 1860. (1)
Despite his disabilities it appears that Con, at least for some years, was able to contribute towards his own upkeep. His mother would later claim the he worked on the docks earning between $1 and $2 per day, and also had at one time been employed in Orr’s Paper Manufacturers. In 1861 Con was supposedly earning $1.25 per day piling lumber, and part of his earnings were used by Catharine every Saturday to buy provisions for the family at John Warr’s ‘Choice Wines, Teas and Family Store’ on 278 River Street in the city. Much of the information regarding Con’s working life was provided by Catharine or deponents making statements on her behalf many years later, when she was seeking to demonstrate that her son had contributed towards her upkeep. With that in mind it may be that she exaggerated the extent of Con’s contributions, as by 1863 she was unable to care for him and had to place him, presumably temporarily, in the Rensselaer County Almhouse (also sometimes referred to as the Rensselaer House of Industry). It was clearly not an easy decision for Catharine to make, and she took every opportunity to go and visit her son. Then, one day in September 1863, as Catharine arrived to see Con, she was greeted with shocking and extremely upsetting news- her boy had disappeared. (2)
The disappearance of the ‘idiot boy’ Con Garvin soon became a media sensation, as did Catharine’s desperate efforts to find him. Rensselaer County officials stepped in to help with the search. It quickly became apparent that the young man had fallen foul of unscrupulous substitute brokers, who had effectively ‘sold’ Con into the Federal army in order to receive the financial bounty then available. By November articles seeking his whereabouts were being placed in newspapers around the north. On the 19th of that month Washington D.C.’s National Republican, describing Con as about 18-years-old, with dark hair and eyes, reported that he had been ‘decoyed from the House of Industry’ in Troy and enlisted in the 52nd New York Volunteers. The information they had suggested that he had strayed away from the regiment on it’s way from New York to Washington and could not be found by either the officers or his mother, who had ‘twice traversed the route to find him.’ The National Republican felt that he was ‘doubtless in some institution for idiots or insane persons in Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia.’ They were wrong. (3)
Catharine Garvin became increasingly desperate as the months passed and there was still no word of Con. Then she received a report that he had been seen at Mitchell’s Station, Virginia in United States uniform, suggesting he was still in the army. It appears that her time was thereafter spent searching the faces of the Army of the Potomac for Con; a search broken only by brief returns to Troy or Washington D.C., where she stayed just long enough to earn sufficient money to continue her search or to appeal for the administration’s support. It was said that as she made her way around the troops, she ‘carried always in her apron a large number of letters, and other memoranda, from prominent officers and others, given to aid her…’ Apparently although she was illiterate, she was always able to place her hand on the correct document as she required it, and having finished her story would often leave for the next regiment saying: ‘My poor Con; I must go and find him!’. Meanwhile word of the outrage was spreading countrywide, and it began to be suggested that it had been those entrusted with Con’s care who had so betrayed him. In March 1864 the following Information Wanted advertisement was run:
INFORMATION WANTED of the whereabouts of Cornelius Garvin, a lunatic, and late an inmate of the County House at Troy, New York, from which he was taken in September last, and sold for a substitute by John Ar[i]s, the keeper of said place. He is five feet seven inches high, black eyes, black hair and dark complexion. Supposed to be a member of the 52d New York State Volunteers. Any information sent to Mrs. Garvin, at Troy, New York, will be thankfully received by his distressed mother.
Some other states in the Union were quick to capitalise on the story, which was particularly damaging to New York, as it suggested that underhand techniques were being employed in order to fill the state’s manpower quota for the army. On 16th March 1864 the Cleveland Morning Leader in Ohio ran the story under the headline ‘How New York Fills Her Quota’, stating that Con’s fate was an ‘illustration of the manner in which the State of New York is filling her quota. It ought to attract the attention of the War Department.’ By April 1864 the mayors of Troy and New York, no doubt influenced by both the pleas of Catharine Garvin and the terrible publicity surrounding the incident, joined the hunt for Con. They offered a $100 reward for any information on him. It was now clear that he had been ‘taken from the county house in Troy and sold in New York City for a substitute in the 52d New York Volunteers.’ (4)
Time was fast running out for Catharine to locate Con before the start of the Union offensive. The Overland Campaign finally commenced on 4th May, and Catharine found herself wandering through Federal hospitals in search of news. On 16th May, while searching Queens Street Hospital in Alexandria, Catharine encountered Corporal Townsell J. Chapman (recorded in the rosters as Townsend) of the 52nd New York. He had been wounded at Spotsylvania on 10th May, and gave the following statement:
Queens Street Hostal
Virginia May 16th 1864
I certify that I have seen Cornelius Garvin in the 52d N.Y.V. ten days ago in Company I. Capt George Digen gave him a different name so that his mother could not get him when she was at the Regt last Winter I being at the same Regt in Company H. Signed
Townsell J Chapman
Finally there appeared to be some solid information. Con was still in the 52nd New York, but was under an assumed name. Chapman was also suggesting that there was complicity on the part of Con’s Captain, who had intentionally concealed the young man when his mother came looking for him. Catharine must have hoped that her boy would be more fortunate than Corporal Chapman; the 24-year-old died of his wounds in Alexandria on 29th July. (5)
By now Catharine and her plight had attracted the attention of the most powerful man in America. Abraham Lincoln took a personal interest in the case. Five days after Chapman gave his statement, the President reportedly wrote the following note:
Washington, May 21, 1864
There is reason to believe that this Cornelius Garvin is an idiot, and that he is kept in the Fifty-second New-York Regiment, concealed and denied, to avoid an exposé of guilty parties. Will the Secretary of War please have the thing probed?
On the same day that Lincoln wrote this, yet another member of the 52nd New York reported seeing Con. The First Lieutenant of Company I, William Von Richenstein, stated that he had seen ‘the son of Catharine Garevan [sic.] at the camp of 52 Regt some fourteen days ago.’ This statement, coming from an officer, placed Con in the ranks at the start of the Overland Campaign. (6)
The result of Lincoln’s directive to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was the appointment to the case of Lafayette C. Baker, commander of the Union’s Intelligence Service. Baker first dispatched a Detective Officer to Troy to investigate the Almshouse and the circumstances of Con’s disappearance in order to establish some leads. But as May turned to June, Catharine was still wandering the Union camps. Following the Battle of Cold Harbor she managed to meet with the Surgeon of the 52nd New York. He told her what was undoubtedly the last thing she wanted to hear- Con had been killed in action at the Battle of Spotsylvania. However, how was she to know if this information was accurate? (7)
Catharine, no doubt rocked by what the Surgeon had told her, decided to return home. By then she had become a familiar sight to many soldiers at the front. One wrote home in 1864, describing a review of the Second Corps:
‘As Hancock’s corps was filing past Grant’s Headquarters- a magnificent sight, calculated to stir the blood- I espied near the Commanding General a sight not very common here,- the form of a woman. The face seemed familiar, and on looking closely I discovered that it was Mrs. Garvin, in search of her son.’ (8)
Back in New York the State Governor Horatio Seymour was now also taking an active part in the case. On 13th June he wrote to District Attorney Colby in Rensselaer County instructing him to ‘make a thorough investigation of the case of Cornelius Garvin, sold as a substitute into the Fifty-Second New York Volunteers; and, if possible, bring the guilty parties to justice.’ A few days later news that Con might have been killed reached home. The Troy Daily Times ran with a headline ‘Con Garvin Dead’ on 20th June. Catharine had reached Troy that morning carrying an ‘autograph letter from the President of the United States.’ The newspaper related how the efforts of Governor Seymour, British Consul Archibald and Mayor Thorn had all been invoked in the search, but in vain: ‘Mrs. Garvin, the devoted mother, will no longer search camp and regiment for her idiot boy. Con is dead…Poor Con will no longer excite the sollicitude of his mother; but she now announces her purpose of living for vengeance. So that although the hero of the strange story is dead, it is probable that his name will still be kept before the public by his untiring mother. True it is: O, woman, in our hours of ease. Uncertain, coy, and hard to please: When pain and anguish cloud the brow; A ministering angel, thou!’ (9)
Despite the prospect that Con was dead, investigations ploughed ahead. Colonel Ludlow of General Dix’s staff was in Troy in July 1864 investigating it, and consulted ‘with persons who have heretofore been cognisant of the case.’ By now the story had crossed the Atlantic, where it was being reported by newspapers like The Dublin Evening Mail. Whatever occurred over the summer months, there appears to have been a revival of some hope through the end of 1864 and into 1865 that Con might be alive. The extent to which Catharine shared these hopes is unclear. On 3rd June 1865 Lafayette Baker wrote to Mayor Thorn in Troy saying that he believed the boy was still alive and yet to be found. He determined to ‘spare neither time or means in prosecuting my investigations, with a view to bring to speedy justice all those engaged in this inhuman and diabolical outrage’. In July 1865 the New York Irish American was still running Information Wanted pieces, supposedly at the behest of Catharine, hoping to reveal new information on Con. On the 29th July they reported that the 52nd New York had now been mustered out of service, ‘the idiot not being present.’ They appealed to former members of the regiment for details on the Irish boy, who had apparently had the nickname of ‘Watches’ or ‘Watchless’ in the army. (10)
But a piece of evidence that had emerged in March 1865 seemed to finally confirm Con’s fate- and it was this version of events that Catharine eventually accepted as the truth. On 14th of that month in the U.S. General Hospital in Albany, New York, Private Frederick Rolf of Con’s company provided the following statement:
‘I, Frederick Rolf, private of Co. I, 52d Regiment, N.Y.V., do hereby certify that I was acquainted with Cornelius Garvin, a private of Co. I, 52d Regiment N.Y.V., and that I saw him engaged with the enemy in the fight of 18th day of May, 1864, at the battle of Spottsylvania, Va.; also that I saw him when he was struck with a ball which took effect in the head, that I saw him carried to the rear, and that I know the wound to have been mortal.’ (11)
By the end of 1865 there was no longer any doubt that Con Garvin had died in service. The roster entry for ‘Charles Becker’, the supposed alias under which he had been enlisted, states that he was captured in action at Spotsylvania on 18th May and subsequently died of disease at Andersonville on 1st August 1864. Both versions of Con’s fate are included in his mother’s pension file, but Catharine (and indeed the balance of evidence) suggests that the disabled Limerick man died on the field at Spotsylvania, even as his mother searched the camps and hospitals for him. (12)
The story of Cornelius Garvin would remain famed for many years. The New York Times recalled it fifty years later in an 1894 article, as did the Troy Record in 1965. It was still fresh in American Civil War veteran Thomas Livermore’s mind decades after the war. In his Days and Events 1860-1866 published in 1920, he remembered the ‘singular case’ which he investigated and ‘which became one of the traditions in the War Department.’ Livermore had been told to investigate the case by Winfield Scott Hancock when Catharine had first arrived at Second Corp Headquarters looking for Con. He remembered how Catharine had twice gone to Washington to obtain letters and endorsements before returning to the Corps to search for her son, and that by the end her papers ‘bore nearly seventy endorsements of officers, from the President down, all of whom forwarded her mission.’ Livermore’s account of Catharine’s search appears to be inaccurate and unkind- if anything adding further pathos to the story. He recalled it as follows:
‘I took the picture of her son which she had and went down to the regiment [the 52nd New York]. The commander said that he never had seen the boy, and that probably he had been drowned on the way out; that his mother had not been satisfied with his assurance that her son was not in the regiment in 1863, but had haunted his camp, and often paced up and down his line peering into the faces of the men until she became intolerable; and asked what could any one suppose he wanted an idiot in his regiment for. I made sufficient search to find that the boy was not there, and reported the fact, and also that the woman’s conduct indicated her mind was unsettled, and recommended that she be sent back to Washington, which was done. In 1865 I began telling this story in General Breck’s presence, when he said “Cornelius Garvin.” That was the boy’s name, and as I have said his story was well known in the War Department, as this shows.’ (13)
What actually happened to Con? The best account comes from Lafayette Baker in his book A History of the Secret Service published in 1867. In a section devoted to the incident, he expressed little doubt as to the true course of events. By the time of his writing, Baker was sure the boy had died in the army. His investigation had ascertained that following his taking from the Almshouse, Con had been enlisted, sent to Riker’s Island and then to the 52nd New York. He had been identified at Mitchell’s Station and again at Mine Run, but Captain Degner who commanded Con’s company, ‘attempted to intimidate, by threats of punishment, those privates of his company who were disposed to assist Mrs. Garvin and others engaged in the investigation.’ Baker’s investigator in Troy reached the conclusion that the Superintendent of the Rensselaer Almshouse had been complicit in Con’s abduction, though the evidence was not sufficient to prove it beyond doubt. Baker also felt Captain Degner was complicit, as when the 52nd New York returned home he had him arrested for questioning. Although the guilt of the two men seems likely, I have found no record of any charges being brought against either. (14)
As for Catharine, she spent many years living in Troy, returning occasionally to Limerick before seemingly settling back in Ireland permanently in 1890. She lived variously in Ballygrennan and Balline in the east of the county, with the post office address for her pension given as Bruff. She reportedly died in Co. Limerick in 1896. It seems unlikely she ever fully recovered from her harrowing wartime experiences. An interesting postscript to the tragic story appeared in the Troy Record of 1965, when it was reported that a D.J. Ryan of the Cork Examiner newspaper in Ireland had written to Mayor Ahern of Troy in the 1940s to say that he was a relative of Catharine Garvin. Ryan had many of her Civil War papers including a handwritten letter to her from Abraham Lincoln, which he was trying to sell. It is not known what became of this material. If any readers have any additional information as to the Cornelius Garvin case, or indeed information as to the whereabouts of these papers, I would be extremely eager to hear from you, either in the form of a comment below or to email@example.com via email. (15)
*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) Cornelius Garvin Pension File, The ‘Garvin’ spelling of the surname was also sometimes interchanged with ‘Gavin’. Although Catherine recorded her marriage as 1838 in Grange, a Church Marriage Record on RootsIreland.ie of 30th July 1843 for Knocklong & Glenbrohane, Co. Limerick recording the union of Matthew Garvin and Catherine Madden may also relate to the couple; (2) Cornelius Garvin Pension File; (3) Ibid., National Republican 19th November 1863; (4) Cornelius Garvin Pension File, Morning Leader 16th March 1864, Baker 1867: 448, Evening Union 18th April 1864; (5) Cornelius Garvin Pension File, NYAG: 284; (6) New York Times 29th April 1894, Cornelius Garvin Pension File; (7) Troy Daily Times 12th July 1865, Cornelius Garvin Pension File; (8) Troy Daily Times 20th June 1864; (9) Ohio Plain Dealer 30th June 1864, Troy Daily Times 20th June 1864; (10) Troy Daily Times 1st July 1864, The Dublin Evening Mail 16th July 1864, Troy Daily Times 12th July 1865, New York Irish American Weekly 29th July 1865; (11) Cornelius Garvin Pension File; (12) NYAG: 259, Cornelius Garvin Pension File; (13) Livermore 1920: 400-1; (14) Baker 1867: 447-451; (15) Cornelius Garvin Pension File, Troy Record 18th December 1965;
Cornelius Garvin (Gavin) Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC78263.
RootsIreland.ie Marriage Records.
New York Adjutant General. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of New York for the year 1900.
Washington DC National Republican 19th November 1863. A Boy Missing.
Cleveland Morning Leader 16th March 1864.
Washington DC Evening Union 18th April 1864.
Troy Daily Times 20th June 1864.
Ohio Plain Dealer 30th June 1864.
Troy Daily Times 1st July 1864.
Troy Daily Times 12th July 1865.
The Dublin Evening Mail 16th July 1864.
New York Irish American Weekly 29th July 1865.
New York Times 29th April 1894.
The Troy Record 18th December 1965.
Baker, Lafayette C. 1867. History of the United States Secret Service.
Livermore, Thomas L. 1920. Days and Events, 1860-1866.