On 8th March 1862, the Confederate Ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) steamed out of Norfolk, Virginia to attack the Federal fleet in Hampton Roads. The resulting two-day encounter remains one of the most famous naval engagements in history. One Yankee sailor would later recall how an awful silence descended over the men of the Union fleet, and ‘not a word was spoken’ as they watched the Virginia’s approach. This was hardly surprising given that they were preparing to meet the ironclad in largely wooden ships. One of their number was Sergeant James Leahy, from Co. Limerick. A member of the 99th New York Infantry, he had been co-opted along with a number of his comrades to serve as a Seaman aboard the USS Congress. A few months before, James had written home to his wife, discussing events at the front and telling her not to worry about him. James’s letter is fascinating as he wrote much of it phonetically, allowing us to ‘hear’ much of his strong Irish accent across the passage of more than 150 years. On the 9th March 1862, the day after James first saw the CSS Virginia, the USS Monitor would arrive at Hampton Roads, sparking the first battle between ironclad vessels in the history of the world. James was not there to see it. He had been killed in action the day before, a victim of the Rebel ironclad’s merciless demonstration of a new age in naval power. (1)
James was described as being 27 years old when he died in 1862. He was 5 feet 7 or 8 inches tall, with a light complexion, brown hair and eyes that his wife Joanna described as being ‘nearer blue’ than gray. He and Joanna Moylan had married on 31st August 1854 in Charlestown, Massachusetts and had two children, William (b. 1855) and Ellen (b. 1859). James had mustered in as a Corporal in Company I of the 99th New York on 6th August 1861, later being promoted Sergeant and transferred to Company D. The 99th were organised with the intention of putting them on gunboats to cruise the Atlantic coast, and were variously known as the ‘Union Coast Guard’, ‘Bartlett’s Naval Brigade’ and the ‘Lincoln Divers.’ In March 1862 Company D were assigned to the USS Congress, a move that would have fatal consequences for James Leahy. (2)
In applying for a widow’s pension, Joanna included a letter written to her by her husband from Hampton in October 1861. The letter itself is written on patriotic notepaper, headed with an image of Elmer Ellsworth, who had been shot and killed that May having torn down a Confederate flag which had been visible from Washington D.C. The letter appears to have been written by James himself rather than by an intermediary. What is fascinating about the document is his phonetic style. In other words James was writing the words the way he said them. In so doing, he has preserved elements of his clearly strong Irish accent for us. This permeates the document, even to the spelling of his own surname, which he writes as ‘Laehy’ (also how it appears in the roster). The spelling elsewhere, including in his pension file is ‘Leahey’ and today would be spelt ‘Leahy.’ However, to this day the surname is pronounced ‘Laehy’ in many rural areas. Other examples abound in his writing: ‘letter’ becomes ‘lether’, ‘severe’ is ‘sevear’, ‘getting’ is ‘gething’, ‘minute’ is ‘minit’, ‘better’ is ‘bether’, ‘here’ is ‘heir’, ‘reason’ is ‘resein’, ‘expedition’ is ‘expodision’, ‘worse’ is ‘warse’, ‘leave’ is ‘lave’, ‘tent’ is ‘tint’, ‘soldier’ is ‘solger’, and ‘deal’ is ‘dail.’ Many such pronunciations are still commonly heard in Co. Limerick today. James’s letter is produced below in its original form in full. It is followed by a second transcription in a more reader-friendly format. (3)
Hampton October the 25 ’61
It was with the greatist of plesure i reseived your lether this four noon bit i am sory that Nely is sick but i hope it wont be very sevear and i am well pleased that you are gething the relief for it will be sow much help tow you now i am satisfiead tow gow trow harship as long as you have a nuff tow get a long with now dear wife dont let every think troble you for we must have hopse in the battle feld as well as out of it as for being propeard we ar propard at any minit tow see our enemy the thouths of batle is nothing tow ous now it is like a second nature dear wife i want you tow keep up your corige and not let small trifles troble you and you will be bether of as for my self every thing goese on well with me heir i have now resein tow complain
Now dear wife i sopose you woud like tow now how things is gething on heir we have a large army heir at presant and we expect that a expodision will leave heir soon their is a great many man of warse leaving heir at presant our boyes is very ansous for a skermus & with the enemy we may be cald of in the in the [sic.] espidision but we dow not now as yet whether we shall gow or not but if you dont hapin tow get a lether from me every week dow not be [im] patent for we may lave heir at any thime and i may not have a chanse tow writh for a week or sow sow dow not be uneasey my health is very good and my eyes is as well as ever in fact i am stouter and stronger now than you ever see me my duty is not near sow hard on me now as it had being sow i have now reson tow complain we find the wether gething rather cold tow live in tints sow it is un comfortabell for us now and we dont now whin we will get in bether quarters a solger has tow stand a great dail of harship in war times but the esecitmint kipes him up now dear wife i will finish by sinding my love to you and the childen
Direct your lether as before
James Laehy (4)
‘The Cumberland and Merrimac’ sung by Ellen Stekert recounts the destruction of the Cumberland by the Rebel ironclad. James Leahy would have witnessed the events described in this song, only moments before the Confederate vessel turned on his own ship, ultimately killing him.
Hampton October the 25th ’61
It was with the greatest of pleasure I received your letter this forenoon but I am sorry that Nely is sick but I hope it won’t be very severe and I am well pleased that you are getting the relief for it will be so much help to you now I am satisfied to go through hardship as long as you have enough to get along with. Now dear Wife don’t let everything trouble you for we must have hopes in the battlefield as well as out of it for being prepared, we are prepared at any minute to see our enemy the thought of battle is nothing to us now it is like a second nature. Dear Wife I want you to keep your courage and not let small trifles trouble you and you will be better off, as for myself everything goes on well with me here I have no reason to complain.
Now Dear Wife I suppose you would like to know how things is getting on here, we have a large army here at present and we expect that a expedition will leave here soon there is a great many Man O’Wars leaving here at present our boys is very anxious for a skirmish with the enemy, we may be called of in the expedition but we do not know as yet whether we shall go or not but if you don’t happen to get a letter from me every week do not be impatient for we may leave here at any time and I may not have a chance to write for a week or so. So do not be uneasy by health is very good and ny eyes is as well as ever, in fact I am stouter and stronger now that you ever seen my. My duty is not hear so hard on me now as it had been, so I have no reason to complain. We find the weather getting rather cold to live in tents so it is uncomfortable for us now and we don’t know when we will get in better quarters. A soldier has to stand a great deal of hardship in war times but the excitement keeps him up. Now Dear Wife I will finish by sending my love to you and the children.
James Laehy (5)
At about 2pm on 8th March Sergeant James Leahy would have witnessed the CSS Virginia crash into the USS Cumberland with her ram, in so doing dooming the Union vessel. As the Rebel ironclad wrenched herself free from its first stricken victim, it turned its sights on James and the USS Congress. Realising she could not hope to face the Virginia, the Congress ran herself aground on a shoal to avoid being rammed. However, the Virginia simply maneuvered into position to bring her guns to bear on the Congress, and began to rake her with fire. By the time the Yankee ship struck their colors at 4pm, James Leahy was dead. The Virginia moved on to her next target. The following day the Union ironclad USS Monitor fought the CSS Virginia to a draw, and the famed Rebel vessel would be intentionally destroyed to prevent her capture the following May. (6)
James’s wife Joanna received her pension, but it was stopped in 1873 when she re-married in Charlestown. She had again chosen a fellow Irish emigrant as her spouse- stonecutter Patrick Cooney. When Patrick died in 1897, Joanna once again returned to the service of her first husband for her support, and her pension was reactivated. She continued to receive it until her own death in on 16th June 1916. She was laid to rest in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Brockton, Massachusetts, more than 54 years after her first husband had lost his life. Her efforts to secure a pension meant that more than 150 years later, something of James’s voice can still be heard across the generations. (7)
*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) James Leahey Widow’s Pension File, Civil War Trust, Alger 1899: 688; (2) James Leahey Widow’s Pension File, Roster: 1297; (3) James Leahey Widow’s Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Civil War Trust; (7) James Leahey Widow’s Pension File;
References & Further Reading
James Leahey Widow’s Pension File WC2537
Alger, Frank Stedman 1899. The ‘Congress’ and the ‘Merrimac’, The New England Magazine, Volume 25, Issue 6, February 1899