‘As Good A Chance to Escape As Any Other’: A Cork Soldier’s Aid to His Family in Ireland, 1864

Occasionally, I am asked why any Irish impacted by the American Civil War should be remembered in Ireland. After all, the argument goes, these people left our shores, and they weren’t fighting for ‘Ireland.’ In response, I usually point out that many were Famine-era emigrants, who often felt they had little choice but to leave. There are many other reasons for remembrance, but perhaps one of the most persuasive is that these emigrants tended not to forget those at home. Whether we realise it or not, the ancestors of many in Ireland today benefited greatly from something that Irish emigrants to America sent back- money. One such emigrant was a man named Thomas Bowler from Youghal, Co. Cork. His decision to enlist in the Irish Brigade was almost certainly borne from a desire to help his wife and child, more than 3,000 miles away across the Atlantic.

I have previously highlighted the substantial donations made by Union soldiers to Irish relief funds; as we discovered, many of those who gave to such causes were themselves killed within a matter of months. Money was also sent home from the front to family members, be they in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, or Ireland. Many of the dollars that traveled back to Ireland during the Civil War did so because of the efforts of the Irish Emigrant Society. Founded as a charitable organisation in 1841 to assist new arrivals from Ireland, it provided important advice to newcomers on where to go, what to do, and what to avoid. The Society also facilitated the sending of money orders and prepaid passenger tickets from New York to family back in Ireland. In 1850 members of the Society petitioned for a bank charter, and on 10th April that year the ‘Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank’ was born. Its founders envisioned it serving a dual role, in ‘furnishing the means of safe remittances to the distressed people of Ireland and of distributing in charities whatever of profits may arise therefrom’ and of ‘affording our people a safe deposit for their hard earnings.’ In 1850 alone, the modern equivalent of $4.6 million was sent back to Ireland via the Society. (1)

Irish emigrants sending money back to Ireland from the Emigrants Savings Bank in 1880 (Library of Congress)

Irish emigrants sending money back to Ireland from the Emigrants Savings Bank in 1880 (Library of Congress)

The Emigrant Savings Bank was still going strong in 1864. Many men of the Irish Brigade (and indeed other units) put aside money in the bank that Spring. Some were veterans, but many others were new recruits, brought into the Brigade to refill its depleted ranks. All of them knew that a major campaign was coming. One of them was Captain (soon to be Major) Thomas Touhy of the 63rd New York, who had money deposited on 8th March. He left instructions on who was to receive it in the event of his death- he would be mortally wounded at The Wilderness two months later. Thomas McAndrew, who had enlisted in the 69th New York in November 1863, had his money put away in the Bank on 16th April. Like Major Touhy he was wounded less than a month later at The Wilderness, but survived to see the end of the war. 21-year-old Thomas Blake was not as lucky. He made his deposit on the 9th April, the same day he mustered into the 88th New York. By the 12th June he was dead, succumbing to disease in Washington D.C. (2)

Another Irish Brigade soldier who was making plans with his money that April was Thomas Bowler. The 35-year-old was also a new soldier, having enlisted in Brooklyn on 26th February 1864. For some reason Thomas chose to join-up under an alias, using his mother’s maiden name of Murphy. It was under this name that he would be recorded in the 69th New York. Thomas was not among those supporting a family in America. Instead, his wife Ellen (née Hubbert) and 6-year-old daughter Abigail were living on the other side of the Atlantic, in Youghal, Co. Cork. It is probable that Thomas was paving the way for his family to join him; it was common for one family member to travel to America in advance of the others, raising the money so that the rest could follow. Thomas may well have hoped that the large financial incentives on offer for enlistment in the Spring of 1864 would hasten that process for his family. However, Thomas’s next problem was how to get the money home to Ireland. Unable to get to the Emigrants Saving Bank himself, he entrusted his money to the regimental chaplain, who saw that it got to the bank in New York. Thomas used Youghal broker Thomas Curtin as an intermediary to get the money to Ellen. Curtin can be found in an 1867 street directory, which lists him as a Ship-Broker on Grattan Street, Youghal. As April wore on and signs grew that the campaign was about to commence, Thomas became anxious to learn if the money he had sent had arrived in Ireland. On 17th April he wrote this letter back to Ellen in Youghal:

Camp Near Brandy Station

April 17th 1864

My Dear Ellen

I sent some time ago through through [sic.] the priest attending this regiment 80 dollars which will I trust bring you 10 pounds of your money I sent it to Thos. Curtin broker in Youghal I hope you will have no difficulty in getting it. I hope you will not neglect answering it as soon as you receive it as it is natural to suppose that any man who sends so large a sum feels uneasy until such time as he receives an answer to it. I like soldiering very well, I do not know the moment we will go to the field of battle their will [be] great fighting this summer but of course I have as good a chance to escape as any other man. I am enlisted for three years or during the war. If it was over in the morning I would be discharged, but their is only a very poor chance of that but God is good and merciful. When you are writing let me know how all the neighbours are. I have no more to say but remain your affecttionate Husband Thomas Bowler.

Let me know how the child is getting on and all other things also let me know how is my brothers and sisters.

Address your letter

Thomas Murphy Company A

69th Regt N.Y.V. 1st Division 2nd Army Corps Washington D C

also let me know how is James Coughlan (3)

Just over two weeks after this letter was written- on 4th May 1864- the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan river to commence the Overland Campaign. Thomas was right about the ‘great fighting’ that the summer would bring. The first major battle was at The Wilderness, where the Irish Brigade were among those units engaged on the 5th and 6th May. Their Corps Commander, Winfield Scott Hancock, would remark of the Brigade’s actions on the 5th that ‘although four-fifths of its numbers were recruits, it behaved with great steadiness and gallantry, losing largely in killed and wounded.’ (4)

Irish Emigrant Society notice sent to Ellen Bowler in Youghal regarding her husband's payment (National Archives/Fold3)

Irish Emigrant Society notice sent to Ellen Bowler in Youghal regarding her husband’s payment (National Archives/Fold3)

There would be little pause over the coming weeks of hard fighting to draw breadth. Back in Youghal, Ellen grew concerned when she heard no news from Thomas. The weeks turned into months, and eventually even the war itself ended. Still Ellen was unsure as to Thomas’s fate. Then, in 1866, a man called Michael Carroll traveled from New York to Youghal to visit his family. He met Ellen there, and told her that he had heard Thomas had been wounded in the war and died in hospital. A few months after that, a Mrs. Meaney in New York wrote to her sister in Youghal, one Mrs. Ahearne. In the letter Mrs. Meaney stated that ‘Mrs Bowler husband Tom Bowler was dead…he died in hospital of wounds received in action.’ In her application for a pension Ellen stated her husband’s death had occurred after the 17th April. She knew this because that was the date of Thomas’s last letter to her, the last word she ever had from him. Despite what friends said, there is no evidence to suggest that Thomas had died in hospital of wounds. He was reported missing in action on 7th May 1864, following the Battle of the Wilderness. Two weeks after his final letter to his wife, Thomas had entered the woods of Virginia for what was his first battle, and it would seem he never reemerged. (5)

Ellen’s pension was finally approved more than four years after her husband’s death, on 14th April 1868. In a postscript to their story, Thomas’s little girl Abigail would seek a continuation of the pension many years later. Now going by the name Alice, and using her married surname of Lynch, she wrote from Youghal to the Commissioner of Pensions on 29th August 1890. She stated how her father was ‘killed in one of the bloody battles of the war’ and how she was the ‘only child of the man who lost his life in the service of the United States leaving [her] an orphan unprovided for.’ She also cited her own ill-health and destitution as reasons she should receive payment, before signing off as ‘Alice Lynch, otherwise Bowler, otherwise Murphy.’ Her application seems to have been refused. The 1911 Census of Ireland records Alice as a 56-year-old charwoman living on Cork Lane, Youghal, with her two sons, Thomas (a fisherman) and Daniel (a farm labourer). Her family story poignantly highlights the efforts that many Irish soldiers went to in an effort to provide for their families. If Thomas Bowler had avoided death in The Wilderness of Northern Virginia, his little girl may well have been giving her name to a census enumerator in New York in 1910, rather than in Youghal in 1911. (6)

The bank was still going strong in the 20th century. This 1912 photo shows the bank of the same site (51 Chambers Street) from which Thomas Bowler's money had been sent in 1864 (Library of Congress)

The Emigrant Savings Bank was still going strong in the 20th century. This 1912 photo shows the bank of the same site (51 Chambers Street) from which Thomas Bowler’s money had been sent in 1864 (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) Casey 2006: 306-8; (2) Emigrants Saving Bank Transfer, Signature and Test Books, New York AG Rosters: 63rd, 69th, 88th New York; (3) Thomas Bowler Widow’s Pension File, Henry & Coughlan 1867: 340; (4) Thomas Bowler Widow’s Pension File, Official Records: 320; (5) Thomas Bowler Widow’s Pension File; (6) Thomas Bowler Widow’s Pension File, 1911 Census of Ireland;

References & Further Reading

Thomas Bowler Widow’s Pension File WC115828.

Census of Ireland 1911.

Emigrant Savings Bank Records, New York Public Library (accessed via ancestry.com).

Henry & Coughlan 1867. General Directory of Cork.

Marion R. Casey 2006. ‘Refractive History: Memory and the Founders of the Emigrant Savings Bank’, in J.J. Lee & Marion R. Casey (eds.) Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, 302-331.

New York Adjutant General 1901. Roster of the 63rd New York.

New York Adjutant General 1901. Roster of the 69th New York.

New York Adjutant General 1901. Roster of the 88th New York.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 36, Part 1. Reports of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, U.S. Army, commanding Second Army Corps, with statement of guns captured and lost from May 3 to November 1, and list of colors captured and lost from May 4 to November 1.

Civil War Trust Battle of the Wilderness Page

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

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Categories: 63rd New York, 69th New York, 88th New York, Battle of The Wilderness, Cork, Irish Brigade, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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10 Comments on “‘As Good A Chance to Escape As Any Other’: A Cork Soldier’s Aid to His Family in Ireland, 1864”

  1. March 27, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

    Emigrant was quite an important “people’s” bank in New York City before the banking consolidations. Remittances are an important part of modern immigrant life, but many Irish Americans forget that their ancestors did the same through this bank.

    • March 31, 2015 at 10:25 am #

      Hi Pat,

      Thanks for this. When did it cease to be an active bank? I was trying to find out a bit more about that aspect of it but didn’t come across anything reliable. I can imagine that is very true- it must be a constant cycle for the latest immigrant group in America. It is another example of how history can be used to demonstrate similarities in cases like this, as each new group goes through many of the same experiences and challenges, even where they are separated by more than a century of integration into the United States.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. John Murphy
    March 28, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    Great story with details.

  3. March 28, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

    This form of ‘remittance’ is often overlooked by Irish historians examining the funds sent back by emigrants. Great story though! I wonder how many people in Youghal are aware of it? Maybe we should launch a search for Tom Bowler!

    • March 31, 2015 at 10:28 am #

      Hi Tony,

      Ha! I think you are right! He is not the only Youghal veteran I have come across, another who has an incredible story fought during the war, served on the plains, and then came back to run a grocery shop in Youghal. We have been looking for his grave in the town. Also I haven’t given up hope on pinning down the graves of a few other East Cork veterans, something I must talk to you about sometime!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. March 30, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

    This is a great piece, Damian. So poignant at the personal level, but making an important national point.

    • March 31, 2015 at 10:30 am #

      Hi Finola,

      Thanks, I really appreciate that, and thanks for reading!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. April 3, 2015 at 8:37 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  6. April 22, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on West Cork History.

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