On 18th October 1862 the New York Irish-American published an article on the ‘gallant fellows’ of the Irish Brigade who had recently given their lives at the carnage of Antietam. One of them was Tullamore native Lieutenant John Conway, who had fallen in the ranks of the 69th New York Infantry. The paper described Conway as a ‘noble’ man, whose memory should be cherished. Remembering the dead of the American Civil War in such heroic terms is something that we still do today. However, it is occasionally worth reminding ourselves that these were flesh and blood people, with their own flaws and foibles. Just as they were loved by some, they could be disliked by others. Less than two weeks before the Irish-American’s eulogy, John Conway’s brother-in-law, Charles Brady, had written to his sister regarding the soldier’s death. Unlike the newspaper, Charles did not seem particularly sorry to hear of John’s passing. (1)
John Conway had emigrated to the United States from Tullamore, Co. Offaly around the year 1840. On 7th January 1846 he had been married to Catherine Brady in Auburn, New York, by Father O’Flaherty. The couple, who had no children, appear to have tried their hand at farming before heading to Brooklyn. There they entered the employment of Henry C. Bowen, a successful New York merchant. Bowen was the Internal Revenue Collector for the Third District (Brooklyn), but was also a prominent abolitionist. He had founded The Independent in 1848, a congregational antislavery weekly that at one point was edited by Henry Ward Beecher. John worked as Henry Bowen’s gardener while Catherine served the family as a nurse. The Offaly man was around 36 years old when he became a Lieutenant in Company K of the 69th New York in 1861. At the time he was described as 5 feet 10 inches in height, with a dark complexion, dark eyes and black hair. 34-year-old Catherine was still in the Bowen’s employ when she learned that the Battle of Antietam had made her a widow. (2)
John Conway’s body was brought back from Maryland together with that of Patrick Clooney, one of the most famed officers in the Brigade’s history. Their remains were ‘conveyed in handsome metallic coffins’, and taken to the headquarters of the Brigade at 596 Broadway where they were laid in state. John Conway had clearly been a good soldier. The Irish-American reported that he had:
‘served with distinction and honor on every battle-field to the hour of his death; when, like many of his brave companions, he was struck down, on the 17th of September, at Antietam, leading his command to the charge. Courteous, affable, loving and truly brave- he was as much beloved in social life by all who knew him, as in camp by his fellow-officers, who esteemed him as a “noble fellow,” and mourn him to-day as an irreparable loss. Aged but thirty-six years, his young life is another sacrifice of Ireland for America, in the annals of which, as a staunch and trusty soldier, the name of John Conway should be cherished.’ (3)
Catherine Conway was living with the Bowens at 76 Willow Street in Brooklyn in 1862. She needed to prove her marriage to John in order to become eligible for a pension, so she asked her brother, Charles Brady, to travel to Auburn to see if he could get evidence of the marriage. Charles was a farmer living in Skaneateles, Onondaga County. When he wrote back, Charles took the opportunity to offer his own form of consolation to his sister. His letter makes it clear that John’s ‘bad actions’ had severely damaged Charles’s opinion of him. Charles did not even feel it was worth Catherine trying to get John’s body home, although as reported by the Irish-American this is something that would subsequently take place.Charles also made sure to tell his sister to avoid the ‘low Irish’ who might lead her astray, and encouraged her to stay living with the Bowens:
I received your letter the third. We were very sorry to hear of John deaths [sic.], I don’t blame you to feel bad but still he was so cruel to you, but I suppose nature comples [compels] you to feel so. Dear Sister I don’t think he ever used you like a husband when you lived up on the lake [presumably Lake Skaneateles] on the farm, you know when you had to go out and milk all the cows and he would be away playing cards, and since yous went east by all accounts he was but worse and after he went away Mother wrote to me and told me that he never left you a dollar after selling all his things. When he was up here he had plenty of money spending around the taverns and was out at Auburn at two Irish dances but I will forgive him and I hope God will for all his bad actions. Dear Sister there had been many a good husband left their wives and children which falls on the field of battle and their family’s must feel reconcilise [reconciled] now. Dear Sister you have know [sic.] trouble but yourself and as the Almighty gives you health you aught to be well satisfied and also you aught to feel happy to think you are living with such kind folks that takes so much interest in you. Dear Sister now I am going to give you advice to keep away from all the low Irish and not be led away by them, you may think they are for your good they will bring you to ruin. Dear Sister I hope you will remain with the family you are living with and be said by then the advice you get from them will be for your good. Dear Sister I went out to Auburn yesterday to see about your marriage lines the priest that is there now his name is Mr Creaton [?] he is the third priest since you were married. This priest can’t find the record that priest had that married you, that shows how correct they are about keeping the record. This priest says as long as yous lived man and wife for so many years and there is plenty of witnesses for that. Dear Sister if you will live with this family my wife or myself will go down to see you the latter part of the winter for I know you have got a good home with them. Dear Sister I think it is so foolish to think to get John [‘s] body home for they can’t tell one from the other after they are three days under the sand. Them that are advising you for that are doing you wrong you take advice from Mr Hodge and not from them, for he knows all about such business. If there is anything coming to you he will get it for you, if you get anything put in the bank for old age. Myself and family joins with me in sending their love to you. I have no more to say at present but remain your affectionate brother,
Skaneateles Oct the 5 1862. (4)
It transpired that the priest that had married John and Catherine, Father O’Flaherty, had returned to Ireland. However, statements from family members and Henry C. Bowen were enough to prove the marriage and secure Catherine’s pension. It would later be increased by special act. Catherine’s opinion of her husband goes unrecorded, but it likely sat somewhere between the glorified memorialisation exhibited by the Irish-American and the extremely low opinion of him held by her brother Charles. Catherine received a pension based on John’s service until her own death in 1905. She was buried with her fallen husband at St. Patrick’s Cemetery, in Aurora, New York. (5)
*The letter above had little punctuation in its original form. Punctuation has been added in this post for ease of modern reading- if you would like to see the original transcription please contact me. 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.
** I would like to acknowledge Lyndsey Clark, Sharon Greene-Douglas, Robin Heaney, Tadhg Williams, Robert A. Mosher, Craig Swain, Joe Maghe, David Gleeson, Harry Smeltzer, Iain Banks, Don Caughey and Joseph Bilby for assisting with the transcription of the Charles Brady letter.
(1) New York Irish American Weekly 18th October 1862; (2) John Conway Widow’s Pension File, McPherson 1975: 25; (3) New York Irish American Weekly 18th October 1862; (4) 1860 Census, John Conway Widow’s Pension File; (5) John Conway Widow’s Pension File;
References & Further Reading
John Conway Widow’s Pension File WC2415
1860 U.S. Federal Census
New York Irish American Weekly 18th October 1862. The Dead of the Brigade.
McPherson, James M. 1975. The Abolitionist Legacy. From Reconstruction to the NAACP.