On 17th March 1863 David O’Keefe, a cabinet-maker from Co. Cork, celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Virginia. Some six months previously David had left his adopted home of Reading, Massachusetts, to join the Irish soldiers of the 9th Massachusetts Infantry at the front. He wasn’t a young man- by the time he enlisted he was 44-years-old. The Corkman had taken his wife and young family out of Ireland at the time of the Famine, and now, a decade later, was fighting for the Union. A few days after the festivities, David dictated a letter describing the St. Patrick’s Day events. It would prove to be the last time he celebrated the feast of the patron saint. His letters home are published here for the first time since they were written in 1863. (1)
David O’Keefe had married his wife Catharine in Co. Cork in 1842. The couple had two sons, both of whom were born in Ireland. The eldest, David Jr., was born around 1843, with Cornelius following in 1846. By 1853 they had joined tens of thousands of other Irish Famine emigrants in Massachusetts, but despite escaping the ravages of Ireland they still faced hardship. On 20th June 1853 they lost seven-year-old Cornelius to scarlet fever- the young boy was buried in Dorchester. By the 1860s the O’Keefes were living in Reading, where they were part of a community that included many of their old neighbours from Cork. Every day David walked 12 miles from his home to the Boston workshop where he was employed. Friends remembered how he ‘would do more work at his trade than most of the men who worked with him.’ Then, on 12th August 1862, David decided to put aside cabinet-making and don Union blue. (2)
The 1863 St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the Army of the Potomac were the most famous of the war. Although the Irish Brigade festivities are the best known, many Irish regiments, including the 9th Massachusetts, also arranged special events. The full range of what David and his comrades enjoyed that day have already been described in detail on the site. In seeking to recount the occasion to those at home, David relied on a fellow member of Company A, Edward Noonan. A printer by profession, Edward possessed a skill that David was without- he could write. On 26th March 1863, David sat down with Edward and dictated a letter to his friend Jane, who had known David for more than 30 years. They had been neighbours in Cork, just as she was now part of his community in Reading:
Falmouth, Va: March 26th /63
Dear Jane: I received your letter of the 19th inst last evening which brought the sad news of the death of poor Jeb[?]; I regret your loss and I think the little ones will more than ever feel the need and guide of a mother’s hand, and I know they have nothing to fear while you are left to them.
I am in good health thank god and hope the receipt of this will find you enjoying a like blessing, of course I have no idea what time I can go home, it may be in a few months, all is quiet here at present and the weather is very changeable, we fare better than might be expected, we have bake-ovens erected and have fresh bread every day
I am glad to hear of the upward tendency of business, and hope it will continue prosperous. We had quite a merry time here Patrick’s day, officers were chosen from the ranks to officiate during the day, and the officers became privates, a dress parade and sword presentation caused considerable merriment, a grese pole was erected but no one could climb it a furlough was on the top. Horse racing, and music from the band concluded the amusement of the day. Our Colonel delivered a very humorous and appropriate address in the morning. The whole affair was a pleasant one. Tell Kitty to be in good cheer, no more (but write soon) From your friend
David O Keefe.
P.S. Direct your letter to Company A. (3)
A few weeks after this letter the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville ultimately led to the second invasion of the north, as the opening moves of what would become the Gettysburg Campaign commenced. At the end of May the 9th Massachusetts were ordered to Ellis’ Ford on the Rappahannock River, where they dug defensive positions and faced Rebel pickets on the other side of the water. On the 5th June the regiment marched on to Kelly’s Ford, as the Union army sought to ascertain Robert E. Lee’s movements. Lieutenant John Doherty of David’s Company A would later remember the campaign ‘as a severe one from marching, severe duty, and exposure.’ David dictated a letter to his sister from the midst of the campaign, at Kelly’s Ford on 6th June. Clearly feeling the pace, he was worried that the hardships of the summer campaign would ‘breke us.’ He also expressed his relief that his son David was not at the front, so he could avoid the marching that he and the other ‘poor divils’ had to endure:
Camp 9th Mass near Kelleys Ford virginia
June 6th 1863
Dear Sister I take the opportunity of writing to you these few lines hoping to find you in good [health] as this leaves me at present thanks be to god for it
Dear Sister I left our old camp on the 26 of last month we arrived on eleses ford [Ellis’ Ford] in 2 days after we stopped there 8 days digging breastworks and doing picket duty we had 2 nights sleep out of 8 days we left eleses ford on 5 of the month and arrived at Kelleys ford on the same day
we were in camp about 5 minutes when we were ordered to be ready in 1 minutes notice to march but we cant tell where we are going as for tom he always promised to be a good boy
Send me word how Jane gets along and if she is getting anyway steady I am glad that Mr Flarity [Flaherty, also from Cork] and family is well as soon as I get 2 or 3 days rest I will write him a letter as for catherine you had better let her have her own way as she always hay [has] if I live to get home she will have to move around so she had better do it now for I was always a sad warrent to do any thing for her for I have got so lazy that I wont be able to do any thing if she was like a nothere woman she would go to readen [Reading] and see her friends for she is strong and healthy there aint a day but what she ought to take a walk up to jane Ballards [from Cork] and see the children i am glad that David is doing so well and dont dare to march the same as we Poor divils have to
I am glad that Edward is well but I suppose he is the same as I am on the march I am fraid that the summer campagne will breke us down we have commenced with 6 day rations on our back the lot of money I send you I will get you to pay them althoug[h] they dont want but every body ought to have their own
Give my love to catherine I send my love to you and your husband I hope you will be well get [until] when I get home
So no more at present
for your affectionate
David O Keeffe (4)
This was David O’Keefe’s last letter. A few weeks later David Jr., who was working as a guard at Portsmouth Grove Hospital in Rhode Island, encountered a group of wounded men of the 9th Massachusetts. He quickly approached them for for news regarding his father: ‘I inquired if they knew father and as good luck or bad as it proved in this case I found the man who wrote father letters [Edward Noonan] and he told me that he died in the hospital at Fairfax Seminary.’ In only a matter of days following his last letter, David O’Keefe’s concerns about the summer campaign breaking him down had come to fruition. He was taken from Kelly’s Ford to Fairfax Seminary, where he died on 23rd June 1863 of what was described as ‘old age and general debility.’ (5)
Cruelly, there was initially some hope among the family that David’s reported death may have been a case of mistaken identity, as the deceased soldier was initially named as ‘Daniel O’Keefe.’ David’s son wrote to the regiment for confirmation, requesting that if the officers had not informed his aunt that they ‘do not do so as it would have a bad effect on her.’ For his own part, David Jr. signed off by saying ‘I cannot write any more at present as this news has upset me.’ Unfortunately for the O’Keefes, David’s death was confirmed by the 9th Massachusetts. All that he had left behind was $31.21 along with his soldier’s kit. His wife Catharine would receive a pension in Boston based on his service until her own death on 6th August 1892. (6)
Today, on 17th March 2015, many members of the Irish Government are in the United States, taking advantage of Ireland’s links with her diaspora in America to promote this small nation, and to encourage Irish-Americans to travel to Ireland for events such as the 1916 Rising commemorations. Over the past four years, the Irish Government and Government Departments have repeatedly chosen not to take steps to remember any of the c. 200,000 Irishmen, and their families, who were impacted by the American Civil War. As we as a nation seek to exploit the foundations laid historically by men such as David O’Keefe, perhaps it is also time that we paid more than lip-service to the history of the Irish abroad.
*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) David O’Keefe Widow’s Pension File; (2) Ibid; (3) MacNamara 1899: 440, (4) MacNamara 1899: 307-8, David O’Keefe Widow’s Pension File; (5) David O’Keefe Widow’s Pension File; (6) Ibid.
David O’Keefe Widow’s Pension File WC32321
MacNamara, Daniel George (edited by Christian G. Samito) 2000. The History of the Ninth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Second Brigade, First Division, Fifth Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, June 1861- June 1864 (1st Edition 1899)