On 16th September 1862, 33-year-old Ann Dunnigan appeared before an Albany judge to begin the process of claiming a widow’s pension. Her husband Patrick had been mortally wounded in the Irish Brigade’s first major engagement- the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia- on 1st June 1862. As part of her evidence, Ann handed over a detailed letter she had received regarding her husband’s demise. It had been written by his former Captain, Waterford native Patrick Clooney. The very next day, at Antietam, Maryland, Patrick Clooney met his own death, performing deeds that have since passed into legend. Across more than 150 years Clooney’s words of comfort for Ann, and his description of that first battle at Fair Oaks, have lain in the widow’s pension file of Corporal Patrick Dunnigan. As far as I am aware, this is the first time they have appeared in print. (1)
Captain Patrick Clooney was one of a group of Irish officers in the Union army who had also served in Italy during the Papal Wars. But it remains Clooney’s actions on 17th September 1862 at Antietam for which he is best remembered. One eyewitness described his final moments that day, as the Irish Brigade advanced into the withering fire being thrown at them by Confederates in the Sunken Road- ever afterwards known as ‘Bloody Lane’:
‘…the enemy’s fire still tells upon our ranks- many a brave fellow goes down unnamed to his doom. Captain Clooney receives a bullet through the knee: the pain is torturing, terrible. The proud phrenzy of the fight is upon him. Friends and comrades entreat him to go to the rear and have his wound dressed. He does not hear or heed them. He seizes the colors and hobbles along on one leg, waving the green flag that he loves so well far in front of the line. Almost more than most men he revels in the grandeur of a battle; the whirring of the bullets is music to his ears. In the position described, exulting in the triumph of the day, two musket balls strike him; one enters his brain, the other his heart, and he falls dead.’ (2)
Following Clooney’s death, eulogies of his life expounded how of all the ‘gallant dead and living, none more strongly exemplified the dash and desperate valor of the true Celtic soldier than did Clooney.’ His actions at Fair Oaks were also recalled: ‘He is remembered at Fair Oaks, when the regiment held a splendid position in the railway cut, as mounting the embankment, bearing the green flag of the regiment in his hands, and waving it defiantly in the face and fire of the enemy, who were drawn up in the belt of timber on the other side of a small garden.’ This is the very action that Clooney describes in his own words in the letter below. Today the Waterford man is commemorated by a memorial erected by friends and admirers in his native Ballybricken, Waterford and through contemporary artworks such as Bradley Schmehl’s ‘Captain Clooney’s Charge.’ (3)
Ann Dunnigan (née Donnelly), who submitted the letter to support her pension claim on the day prior to Clooney’s death, had married Patrick Dunnigan on 15th August 1855 in St. John’s Church, Albany. Their first child, Samuel, was born on 9th December 1856. Patrick enlisted in the 88th New York on 15th October 1861 at the age of 34. By the time of Fair Oaks he had been promoted to Corporal. The couple’s second child, Annie, arrived on 14th March 1862, less than three months before her father’s death- it is virtually certain he never saw her. By 1870 Ann was working as a tailoress, supporting Samuel and a then 75-year-old man, James Donnelly, who was probably her father. By then her young daughter Annie had followed her father to the grave- she died as an infant, sometime before 1866. Ann Dunnigan would receive the pension that Patrick Clooney’s letter helped her to secure for almost four decades, until her own death in 1900. (4)
Head Quarters 88th Regt. “Irish Brigade”
On the Battlefield June 2nd 1862.
With feelings of the deepest commiseration I addres this note to you to communicate what I know will be a deep blow to your heart and a source of affliction to you for ever- namely the death of your husband Patrick Dunnigan which was occasioned by wounds received in bloody action of yesterday (June 1st Sunday) words of mine fail to express to you the deep sorrow which has seized hold of all who were acquainted with. I mourn him as a brave and gallant soldier who following me as I bore the Green flag of the Regt triumphant in my hands at the head of the Collumn fell nobely fighting by my side. May your sorrows be a little eased and the dark now pierceing your soul be withdrawn by the recollection of his honesty- his calmness- his nobility of soul- and finaly his last noble efforts beside the flags of his native and adopted fatherland. His comrades mourn the fellowship of one who in life never amongst us had known a foe.
I may as well be minute as I can be in describeing how he came by his death- several lines of battle had been formed in front of us and were of themselves sufficient to drive back the enemy. The entire of the Division (Richardsons) being on the ground. The day before (Saturday May 31st) the rebels had advanced in great force and drove back Gen Caseys Division. Reinforcements were immediately ordered up and hence it was that our Brigade with General Meagher at its head was ordered to the front. On the night of Saturday we reached the battlefield and bivouacked thereon that night- the fields around us were strewn here and there with killed and wounded soldiers some of them friends others enemies. At erly dawn on the morning of yesterday (Sunday June 1st) we were aroused from our chill slumbers and in a few moments afterwards our skirmishers were thrown forward through the woods in front and flank where some brisk fireing took place. We were in collumn by Division in rear of our line of battle and were protecting the artillery upon its right. Soon heavy fireing was heard and dense clouds of smoke rose from the woods upon our left. We deployed into line and fronted the enemy. Brisk fireing and skirmishing continuing all the time- the 69th Regt Irish Brigade was formed in line upon our right and the whole line of battle swept into the woods to meet the enemy- the advance was interrupted owing to the nature of the ground and the 88th Regt flanked by the left through the denslly wooded grove- upon nearing the plain outside the wood I was ordered to carry the Colors to the front of the Collumn and head its advance- raising the green flag and the Stars and Stripes over us we passed forward and marched by fileing to the right out upon the clear fields when the enemy opened a heavy fire upon us and nearly caused the head of the Collumn to waver- when dashing forward into the plaine we were enabled to form line. It was while following the Colors of the Regt in the thickest of the fire and flood of lead that your gallant husband fell fighting by my side- a rifle bullet haveing pierced his right leg passing through
his right leg and through.
He was conveyed to our hospital where I went to visit him and had the doctors treat him as well as possible. He appeared to me to be extreamly exhausted as he no doubt was and he spoke very little to anyone save to myself to whom he chatted freely- the continuance of the fight compelled me to take command of my company and towards morning (June 2nd) he ceased to live. In his pocket which had been opened by my lieutenant (O’Brien) were the following effects which he has handed to me- viz a ten (10) Dollar bill- a pen knife ink bottle a piece of a latter you had written him and from which I learned your address- some heads of pipes- a pencil case tobacco. The 10 Dollars I herewith enclose to you at the same time assuring you of the deep sympathy I feel for you in this your bereavement.
Accept Madame the assurance
with which I remain yours most respectfully
Patrick Felan Clooney
Capt Co E 88th Regt N.Y.V. Irish Brigade
(In the field 7 miles from Richmond)[you will excuse this penship as I had to write with my heart? pen- P.F.C.] [you may do anything you like with this letter if it may please your friends P.F.C.] (5)
*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) Patrick Dunnigan Widow’s Pension File; (2) New York Irish American 18th October 1862; (3) Ibid.; (4) Patrick Dunnigan Widow’s Pension File, New York Adjutant General, 1870 Census; (5) Patrick Dunnigan Widow’s Pension File:
Patrick Dunnigan Widow’s Pension File WC954.
New York Irish-American Weekly 18th October 1862. Antietam- The Dead of the Brigade.
New York Adjutant-General 1893. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York, Volume 31.
1870 U.S. Federal Census.