The Widow’s Pension Files often offer us the opportunity to explore the wider Irish emigrant experience through the lense of a single family. Such is the case with Private Thomas Delaney of the 19th Pennsylvania Cavalry. His family’s story allows us to travel with them, as they journeyed from the coalfields of pre-Famine Laois to the coalfields of 1850s Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. It allows us to follow them through the ups and downs of their personal narrative, even as the township where they lived played centre stage to a wider national narrative of labour organisation, draft resistance and the rise of the Molly Maguires. Ultimately, it ends by taking us from the Pennsylvania Coal Region to a hospital bed in Illinois, as a father hears news from his son.
Thomas and Catharine Delaney were married by the Reverend Father Grace in Rathaspick, Co. Laois in 1824. Their part of Ireland was known for one particular trade- coal mining. In 1837 an account of Rathaspick’s coal mines and the conditions in which the miner’s worked was recorded:
Here [Rathaspick] are the extensive coal mines of Doonane, worked by a company; they are drained by a steam engine, and supply stone coal to all parts of the surrounding country, which is principally conveyed by carriers. There are about five other works in the same range: the shafts are first sunk through clay, then succeeds a hard green rock, and next slaty strata, in contact with which is the coal: it is worked on either side by regular gangs, each member having a specific duty: the number of each gang is about thirty, and when the pit is double worked there are sixty; each crew works ten hours, but they are particularly observant of every kind of holiday. (1)
Although not stated anywhere, we know from Thomas’s subsequent history that he almost certainly spent decades as a miner in Rathaspick. Through their years in Ireland he and Catharine went on to have twelve children, eight of whom (four boys and four girls) survived to adulthood. Then, in 1854, the couple decided to take their family to America. When they arrived, they didn’t settle among the Irish of urban New York or Philadelphia. Instead they made for rural Pennsylvania, bound for a specific county in the eastern part of the state. Their final destination was Schuylkill County, at the heart of Pennsylvania’s Coal Region. (2)
When the Delaneys arrived in Schuylkill County, they were joining large numbers of their fellow Irish who were working the anthracite coal mines scattered throughout the area. Indeed, a large proportion of the Irish miners in 1850s Schuylkill had emigrated from the coalfields around Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny- only five miles from Rathaspick. As a result, the Delaneys were surrounded by former neighbours and work colleagues who they knew from home. (3)
Almost immediately upon arrival Thomas Delaney went to work in the industry he had come to know so well. He became a miner extracting coal from the Black Heath vein, but within two years of the family’s arrival they already faced a major setback. An explosion in the mine blinded Thomas in one eye, leaving him with only partial sight in the other. Although he was still able to work, Thomas’s capacity to provide for his family would increasingly diminish over the following years. (4)
The 1860 Census finds the family in the largely Irish Cass Township, Schuylkill County; Thomas and his eldest boys are all recorded as miners. One of the younger boys, Thomas Jr. (recorded as 15 in 1860) was just setting out on his mining career. Sometime that year he started work in the nearby Forestville mine. He joined some 1,590 miners who called Cass Township home in 1860, in a location that has been described as ‘the most turbulent area in the anthracite region throughout the 1860s.’ It would become a notorious location during the Civil War. Part of the reason for this was the fact that the miners were not afraid to organise themselves in order to achieve what they viewed as their working entitlements. This was nothing new; it was likely a propensity for organising themselves that Samuel Lewis was alluding to when he noted in 1837 that the Rathaspick miners were ‘particularly observant of every kind of holiday.’ (5)
By 1862 the miners in Cass Township were fed up, and many went on strike in search of higher wages. The Militia were called in to restart the mine pumps, but were forced to withdraw when they were attacked by rioters. Eventually over 200 troops had to be summoned to quell the situation. Not long afterwards, the Militia Act of 17th July, 1862 authorised the implementation of state drafts to supply the Union with men. Again, Cass Township responded. Up to 1,000 miners marched to a nearby town, where they stopped a train load of draftees heading towards Harrisburg- troops were again needed to quieten the area. The miners were just as angry with their employers as they were with the draft. In December 1862, up to 200 armed men from Cass Township attacked the Phoenix Colliery, beating up a number of men connected with the mine’s operations. The following March, when enrolling officers arrived in Schuylkill to record the names of men in the area for the Enrollment Act draft, they were driven off. One of the officers recalled how ‘it was uncomfortably warm, as the Irish had congregated, and, as we found, were determined to resist, and did by giving us four shots from a revolver (luckily none hitting us).’ Disturbances continued in the region throughout much of the war, and although they were by no means restricted to the Irish community, the Irish were frequently singled out as those culpable. Often exaggerated and almost hysterical reports were being sent to Washington. In July 1863 Brigadier-General Whipple reported that ‘The miners of Cass Township, near Pottsville, have organized to resist the draft, the number of 2,500 or 3,000 armed men.’ He also claimed they were drilling every evening, had artillery, and were commanded by returned soldiers. Eventually, the Provost Marshal sent officials backed with troops to seize the payrolls of mine operators, so their employees name’s could be added to the draft. The events in the 1860s saw the continued rise in Schuylkill County of a secret organisation known as the Molly Maguires, who would dramatically leap to prominence in the 1870s (read more about the Molly Maguires here). (6)
The Delaneys from Rathaspick found themselves in the midst of these turbulent times. We don’t know what their views were, but it would seem likely that they shared many of the concerns of their fellow miners regarding their employers and the draft. Either way, they would have borne witness to life in one of the most agitated areas of the Union during the Civil War. But they also had problems of a more personal nature to consider during this time- chief among them was the death of Catharine Delaney, who passed away on 14th March 1862 in Minersville. Then, after four years in Forestville Coal Company, Thomas Jr. was enrolled in the Union army at Philadelphia on 15th October 1863. The young man became a Private in Company F of the newly formed 19th Pennsylvania Cavalry. That December he and his comrades were moved to Union City, Tennessee. In January 1864 Thomas Jr. was on picket duty in what were bitterly cold conditions. The weather took a severe toll on the men, freezing one of them to death. Both of Thomas’s feet were badly frozen and he was sent to hospital in Mound City, Illinois, his military career seemingly over. That February he wrote home:
U.S. General Hospital
Mound City Feb 9/64
I now think it near time that I would let you hear from me and how I am. I am here in the hospital with me feet pretty badly frozen, other ways my health is good and I trust in God these few lines will find you in the enjoyment of good health. Let me know how the times are and how you are getting along, let me know if the work is brisk or not and if it is steady. Let me know when you heard from Dennis how he is getting along. We had pretty bad times of it down here and there was a great [number] of the soldiers badly frozen one man of our regiment was froze to death. The Regt has now started on an expedition which is to do some thing great. let me know how is Catherine and Patrick and James Given them my best love and I want you to send me Katys likeness. I dont know what they will do with me here as yet they may discharge me or probably send me to the Invalid Corps. I have not received any pay yet but I expect it about the middle of next month and when I get it I will send it to you. I want you to write to me as soon as you receive this letter.
I will send you all my money except what I want for tobbacco. Give my love to brothers and sisters and all inquiring friends and accept of the same yourself ,No more at present but remains your,
PS let me know if John is home yet When you write direct your letter as follows
U.S. General Hospital
Mound City Illinois
Ward J Bed No 17
write soon (7)
The Sisters of the Holy Cross, based in Indiana, served as nurses in the Mound City hospital during the Civil War. Located in a series of warehouses, each warehouse was designated as a ward, with 20 or 30 men assigned to each. On 22nd March 1864, Sister Mary Anne of the Order sat down to write the following letter back to Pennsylvania:
U.S. Genl. Hospital
Mound City Illinois
March 22d 1864
Mr Thomas Delany
It is my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son Mr Thomas Delany of the 19th Pa. Cav. which sad event took place in this hospital at four o clock on yesterday afternoon.
It must be a great consolation to you to hear that he died a happy and a holy death. He received all the rites of the church and was fortified by the sacraments in his last moments. He used to speak of you in the most affectionate manner and says it was you that taught him how to say prayers and his catechism. I send you a lock of his hair in memory of him. May his dear soul rest in grace amen. If you write to Dr. H. Wardner the surgeon in charge of Mound City Hospital he will send you his money or any other effects he may have had.
yours very resp.
Sister Mary Anne
A sister of the Holy Cross (8)
64-year-old Thomas Delaney senior was living in Philadelphia in 1867 when he started the process of applying for a pension based on his deceased son’s service. He claimed that all his sons had served in the Union army (it is unclear if this was true or not) and were all now laborers and mechanics. All his children bar his youngest daughter (14-year-old Catharine) were now married. It seems he had left the mining life in Schuylkill County behind, but was living in extreme poverty. His family’s story in America was interwoven with some of the most turbulent years in 19th century Pennsylvanian history, but, more importantly for Thomas, these years were also a period of personal loss, of both his wife of four decades and a beloved son. (9)
* 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) Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File, Lewis Topographical Dictionary; (2) Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File; (3) Kenny 1998: 69; (4) Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File; (5) 1860 US Census, Kenny 1998: 86, Lewis Topographical Dictionary; (6) Kenny 1998: 87, 89, 91, 93, Murdock 1971: 44; (7) Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File; (8) Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File, Schmidt 2010: 45-7; (9) Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File;
1860 U.S. Federal Census.
Thomas Delaney Widow’s Pension File WC116097.
Kenny, Kevin 1998. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires.
Lewis, Samuel 1837. Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.
Murdock, Eugene C. 1971. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North.
Schmidt, James M. 2010. Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory.