In the first of a couple of guest posts coming up on the blog, friend of the site Brendan Hamilton brings us the story behind a fascinating image of a young wounded Irishman. Brendan has spent a lot of time looking at images of wounded Irish soldiers and also researching the 25th New York Infantry. Today he tells us about Corporal William Kelleher, a young veteran of the 125th New York who had his image exposed just as the war was coming to a close. Brendan takes up the story:
The National Museum of Health and Medicine has an incredible gallery of Civil War related photographs posted on Flickr, some of which Damian has discussed on this site before (See Looking into the Face of a Dying Irish Soldier). Most of the images were taken as records of soldiers’ wounds, treatment, and progress, to be documented for educational purposes. But the significance of these images goes far beyond the field of medical history. These are the veterans of America’s bloodiest war, preserved for posterity displaying the injuries they sustained on the battlefield. Among these men are multiple Irish immigrants, as corroborating census and muster roll records reveal.
One photograph that I find really striking is this image of Corporal William Kellaher of Co C of the 125th New York Infantry. Kellaher sits before the camera, casually holding up his right forearm to reveal a gaping gunshot wound. He’s just a freckle-faced kid, and yet, one can tell just by looking in his eyes that this is no frightened child witnessing the horrors of war for the first time. The fact that Kellaher is a veteran at this point seems obvious. He hides the pain of his injury well; there may even be a sense of pride evidenced in the young corporal’s set jaw with its near smirk. This is his ‘red badge of courage.’ It is not even his first.
Kellaher (whose names also appears as ‘Keleher,’ ‘Kelleher,’ and ‘Kelcher’ in the records) enlisted in the 125th New York at Lansingburgh, NY on July 24, 1862. The muster roll abstract records his age as 18, his birthplace Ireland, and occupation brush maker. He was 5’8”, with blue eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion. The 1860 US Census shows him living in Lansinburgh in July 1860 (as ‘William Keeler’), living with and working as an apprentice brush maker to 25-year-old John Keeler, possibly an older brother. His age is 14, which would mean he was actually about 16 at the time of his enlistment, and may have lied about his age in order to be admitted. Despite his youth, Kellaher was appointed to the rank of corporal from the time of his date of muster, August 27, 1862. (1)
The 125th New York was primarily organized in Rensselaer County, NY. It left the state on August 31, 1862, under the command of Colonel George L. Willard, and proceeded to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Its first engagement came against Confederate troops of Major General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, who besieged the city in mid-September. On September 15, Colonel Dixon S. Miles, commanding the 12,000-man garrison, surrendered his entire force after finding it completely surrounded by Jackson, who had also posted Confederate artillery at strategic positions along the heights above the city. Fortunately, Kellaher and his comrades were quickly paroled, but had to spend a few months at Camp Douglas, Chicago, awaiting their official exchange. They were then ordered to Virginia and served in the defenses of Washington until June 24, 1863, when they joined the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac just in time for the Gettysburg campaign. (2)
At Gettysburg, the 125th finally got the chance to clear their name after the disaster of Harper’s Ferry, which, while it had not actually been their fault, nonetheless tainted their image in the eyes of other soldiers in the Army of Potomac. On the second day of the battle, they took part in a counterattack against General William Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, halting the Confederate advance that had routed much of the III Corps. The 125th lost over a hundred men, as well as Colonel Willard (then commanding the brigade), in less than half an hour of fighting. The next day, the survivors of the regiment found themselves behind the stone wall facing Pickett’s Charge. Again they played a critical role in marking the high tide of the Confederate hopes in the battle. When all was said and done, they’d lost 139 men out of about 500 engaged. William Kellaher appears to have survived unscathed. (3)
The 125th was again engaged at the battles of Auburn, Bristoe Station, and the Wilderness. Corporal Kellaher, a veteran by this point, received his first combat wound at Spotsylvania, in the savage fight for the Mule Shoe Salient. It is unclear exactly when he returned to duty, but his muster roll abstract shows he was present for duty as early as August 1864, during the Petersburg Campaign. His final wound, the one he is displaying in this photograph, occurred near the end of the war—either at Hatcher’s Run on March 31, 1865, or in his regiment’s last major engagement—the final assault upon the Confederate defenses of Petersburg and the Battle of Sutherland Station on April 2. The regiment’s commander in the latter attack, Captain John Quay—himself an Irish immigrant—was among Kellaher’s comrades killed in that battle. The confusion as to when Kellaher was wounded stems from conflicting records. The regimental roster and muster roll abstracts indicate April 2, while the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s record and the 125th’s regimental history state March 31. (4)
Corporal William Kellaher was admitted to Harewood Hospital in Washington, D.C. On April 5 and placed under the care of Dr. Reed B. Bontecou. The description accompanying his photograph records can be read below:
I have so far been unable to find where in Ireland Kellaher was born, or much detail of what became of him after the war. A pension record in his name indicates that he left behind a widow, Anna, who filed for his pension in 1908. He was mentioned in the 125th New York’s regimental history, which even included a portrait of him as an older man. The author, Chaplain Ezra D. Simons, recalled Kellaher as ‘one of our brave men twice wounded.’ (5)
(1) William Kellaher’s Muster Roll Abstract, 1860 US Federal Census; (2) A Regimental History: The One Hundred and Twenty-fifth New York State Volunteers (1888); (3) A Regimental History: The One Hundred and Twenty-fifth New York State Volunteers (1888); (4) 125th New York’s regimental roster, William Kellaher’s Muster Roll Abstract, National Museum of Health and Medicine, A Regimental History: The One Hundred and Twenty-fifth New York State Volunteers (1888); (5) A Regimental History: The One Hundred and Twenty-fifth New York State Volunteers (1888)
New York State Archives, Cultural Education Center, Albany, New York; New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900; Archive Collection #: 13775-83; Box #: 516; Roll #: 172
Year: 1860; Census Place: Lansingburgh, Rensselaer, New York; Roll: M653_849; Page: 909; Image: 368; Family History Library Film: 803849
Simons, Ezra D. A Regimental History: The One Hundred and Twenty-fifth New York State Volunteers. New York: Judson, 1888.