‘For God Sake Dear Son Write To Me’: An Irish Mother’s Desperate Plea in the Summer of 1864

I have come across hundreds of letters written by Irish people during the American Civil War in the Widows and Dependents Pension Files. In reading each one, I always do so in the awareness that the story ultimately did not have a happy ending- in every case the soldier died as a result of his service. I recently came across one particularly poignant note, a mere five lines in length, written by an Irish mother to her son in the summer of 1864. The brief and emotional passage captures the anxiety, desperation and hope she was feeling when she created it. (1)

Soldiers of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Soldiers of the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion during the Civil War (Library of Congress)

The author of the note was Anna Heron, a woman on whom we have precious little information. We know she was married to Jeremiah Heron in Ireland around November 1839; her husband passed away in August 1854. Jeremiah’s death apparently left her reliant on the support of her son John, who paid her a significant portion of his wages each week. On 10th September 1862 the then 21-year-old enlisted in the 170th New York Infantry, one of the regiments in Corcorcan’s Irish Legion. John’s surname was variously spelt Heron, Herron, Herrin and even Ahern, and it was under ‘Ahern’ that he was recorded on the rosters of Company G of the 170th. On 24th May 1864, during the Overland Campaign, the 170th New York was sent across the North Anna River where they became locked in a desperate fight with Confederate infantry, particularly men of the 43rd North Carolina. At times the fighting was hand to hand- one Rebel later remembered that his unit ‘killed a great many Yankees, and our side lost some killed.’ John Heron was not killed in the action, but he was carried wounded from the field, having suffered a gunshot wound to the leg. Anna learned that John was wounded- either a comrade wrote to her with the news or she saw him mentioned in the newspaper casualty lists. But after this she heard nothing more. On 27th June, clearly desperate, she sent her son this pleading letter:

New York June 27 1864

My dear Son i rite you these few lines hoping to find you in good health as this leaves me in trouble about you_Dear son i rote to you twice and i recieved no answer yet and if you are alive i hope you will rite to me_dear son aint you got any one to rite for you_dear son i expected you in New York the rest of your regiment came to New York that was wounded_for god sake dear son write to me

no more at present from your affectionate mother

Mrs. A. Heron

direct your letter to 662 Water St New York (2)

Captured within Anna Heron’s five lines are the weeks of sickening anxiety she must have felt. Over a month had elapsed since John had been wounded at the North Anna. Did she fruitlessly search for her son among the wounded men of the regiment as they trickled back to New York? Her note contains the hope, however faint, that the reason John had not written was that there was no-one in his hospital who could write the letter for him. Any such hopes were dashed only a few days later, when the note was returned to her. On the other side of the paper a Hospital Clerk had written this all too brief message:

Washington Hall Branch

2 Div Gen Hospital

Alexandria Va June 29th 64

John E Herron died at this Hospital June 8 1864 with gunshot wound in left knee and was buried in this City in good order. (3)

An image exposed by Irish photographer Timothy O'Sullivan of Union troops entrenched on the northern side of the North Anna on 25th May 1864. The day before John Heron had been shot on the south side of the river (Library of Congress)

An image exposed by Irish photographer Timothy O’Sullivan of Union troops entrenched on the northern side of the North Anna on 25th May 1864. The day before John Heron had been shot on the south side of the river (Library of Congress)

*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) John Ahern Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) NYAG Roster: 301, Rhea 2005: 348, John Ahern Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (3) John Ahern Dependent Mother’s Pension File.

References & Further Reading

John Ahern Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC85933

New York Adjutant General, 1905. Roster of the 170th New York Infantry

Rhea, Gordon 2005. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee , May 13-25, 1864

Civil War Trust Battle of North Anna Page

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Categories: 170th New York, Battle of North Anna, Corcoran's Irish Legion, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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9 Comments on “‘For God Sake Dear Son Write To Me’: An Irish Mother’s Desperate Plea in the Summer of 1864”

  1. Tom
    March 10, 2015 at 4:14 am #

    Wow. Thanks! I will use this when I teach the Civil War from now on to my high school students. From a son of a Kerryman.

    • March 10, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi Tom,

      That is good to hear, I hope you find it of use!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. John Murphy
    March 10, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    Sad and insightful.
    Thank you for your work.
    Jack

    • March 10, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      Hi John,

      Many thanks, and thanks for reading.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Steve Reilly
    March 10, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    My G grand uncle, Bernard Reilly, was WIA in the same engagement. He was transported up to Washington D.C. with a head wound and died a few days later. The 170th was the far of the line, on the east side of Interstate 95, on what is now a tree farm. I’m told, nothing remains of the battle on the tree farm, by the county historical department. The Battlefield west of Interstate 95, is now a great county park, it took me, a good hour to walk the well preserved southern entrenchments. Bernard was buried under the name Riley in Arlington, along with a number of men from the 170th. Last fall, I placed some dirt & seeds from County Cavan on his grave, I will be down in May for the 150th of the Grand Review and will go over to see how they did. Bernard was a three month man, serving in the Bull Run 69th New York State Militia. After they were discharged, he joined the 170th, with Col. Corcorcan.

    • March 10, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

      Hi Steve,

      Many thanks for this- that was great gesture with the grave. I believe the 170th suffered very badly from enfilading fire at the engagement. Never got to any of the battlefield during my trip but would like to visit, particularly give the role of the Legion and indeed Thomas Smyth at it. Bernard was likely a strong Fenian then, who waited for Corcoran before re-enlisted, he must have been a big fan!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. March 12, 2015 at 7:10 pm #

    My GGGrandfather was in the 24th MI and fought around North Anna, he survived that fight but was wounded at Petersburg.

    • March 23, 2015 at 10:24 am #

      Hi Thomas,

      Many thanks for this- what was his name?

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘I Am Not Long For This World': An Irish-American Soldier Says Goodbye to His Family | Irish in the American Civil War - March 11, 2015

    […] last post on the site examined a mother’s desperate attempts to contact her wounded son. Equally poignant are those letters, occasionally included in the files, which impart a […]

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