Each pension file contains fragments of one Irish family’s story. They are rarely complete, but nonetheless they often offer us rare insight into aspects of the 19th century Irish emigrant experience. Few match the breadth of the story told in the Madigan pension file. That family’s words and letters take us from the Great Famine in Rattoo, Co. Kerry to New York and Ohio and ultimately to the first battlefield of the American Civil War. From there we journey from neighbourhoods as diverse as the Five Points and Tralee, where those unable to take the emigrant boat still counted on those who had made new lives across the Atlantic.

I frequently make reference to the fact that many of the Irish impacted by the American Civil War were Famine-era emigrants. Despite this, among the hundreds of Irish pension files I have examined, the Famine has only been directly referenced twice. Although we know that the Great Famine was the ultimate reason behind why many emigrated, that fact was an irrelevant detail when it came to the process of securing a government pension– and so it goes unmentioned. The file relating to Kerry native Thomas Madigan is typical in this respect; the word ‘Famine’ is nowhere among the 39 pages of documents contained within it. However, examination of this remarkable file suggests that the Madigans had not only suffered as a result of the Famine, but that members of their immediate family had not survived it.

The Madigan story begins in the north Co. Kerry parish of Rattoo on 21st November 1835. That was the day that James Madigan and Mary Costello were married by the Reverend F. Collins in front of witnesses Thomas Lovit and William Loughlin. We know that the couple had at least three children who survived to adulthood– Thomas (born c. 1840), James (born c. 1841) and Catherine (born c. 1845). Many years later, Mary revealed that her husband James had died in Kerry in March of 1847. That year became known in Ireland as ‘Black ’47’, the period that witnessed the peak of the Famine calamity. Mary never related how her husband died, but a family friend recounted that the illness that killed James was dropsy. It is this piece of information that suggests that James was a Famine victim. Of the nutritional deficiency diseases which caused large numbers of deaths during the Famine, starvation and marasmus were the most common, but they were followed by dropsy– an oedema or accumulation of fluid in the body, often caused by malnutrition. (1)

Rattoo Round Tower, a site the Madigans were undoubtedly familiar with in Kerry (Anne Burgess)

Rattoo Round Tower, Co Kerry, a site the Madigans were undoubtedly familiar with. (Anne Burgess)

Catherine Madigan later remembered that the family emigrated to America around the year 1850, when she was about 5 years-old. No doubt they were relieved to escape the difficult conditions life had brought them in Co. Kerry. Catherine’s widowed mother Mary married again in December of 1853, wedding a man called Maurice Kennedy. The family moved to Columbus Ohio, and another child, Maurice Jr., was born there on 16th November 1854. But all was not well in the Kennedy household. Having taken her family out of Famine-ravaged Ireland, Mary now had to deal with yet another trial– a violent husband. Maurice Kennedy was described as a ‘habitual drunkard and man of bad character’ who was frequently being arrested for disturbing the peace. Mary’s daughter Catherine felt forced to leave the household due to the ‘ill-treatment of her mother.’ Finally, after six years of marriage, enduring constant ‘ill-treatment and brutality’, Mary could take no more and decided to ‘seek the protection of her children.’ In 1859 her son Thomas, who had stayed in New York and was working as a tin-smith, sent the money his mother needed to flee Columbus and Maurice’s violence. Mary never heard from her second husband again. She would later hear rumours that he had died of yellow fever in New Orleans around 1860. (2)

Back in New York, Mary’s son Thomas set his mother up with a place to live and got her established with furniture and the other necessaries of life. No doubt due to the abusive nature of the relationship, Mary, encouraged by family and friends, stopped using the Kennedy name of her second husband, and reverted to being called Mary Madigan. One can only imagine the emotional scarring that her life experiences up to this juncture had caused. As 1861 approached, Mary was living with Thomas (and presumably Maurice Jr.) at 207 Mott St. in Manhattan. Despite having left Ireland as a boy, Thomas had clearly maintained an interest in Ireland; he was a member of the 69th New York State Militia, an overwhelmingly Irish militia organisation. In 1860 its commander Michael Corcoran achieved notoriety for refusing to parade the regiment on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales. Given the impact of the Famine on Thomas Madigan’s family, one imagines this was a decision he most likely agreed with. (3)

Officers of the 69th New York State Militia pose beside one of the guns in Fort Corcoran prior to the Battle of Bull Run (Library of Congress)

Officers of the 69th New York State Militia pose beside one of the guns in Fort Corcoran prior to the Battle of Bull Run. Thomas Madigan wrote home to his mother from here. (Library of Congress)

When war came in April 1861, the 69th New York State Militia answered the call for three months service, and headed to Washington D.C. Thomas enrolled for three months service on 20th April, and by the 21st of May he and the regiment were occupied in the construction Fort Seward (later officially named Fort Corcoran) on Arlington Heights. There, Thomas took the opportunity to write to his mother:

Fort Seward May 21 1861

Arlington Heights, Va

My dear mother

I take this opportunity of sending these few lines hoping that they may reach you in good health as I am at present. When [sic.] we took up our position on Arlington Heights and know [sic.] we are building a fort to be called Fort Seward it will be a large one and it will overlook the river Potomack and the City of Washington and if the enemy had it they could destroy Washington and Georgetown without losing a man. Dear Mother we are in the center of the enemy and in the enemys state. To day we were sworn [?] in and we expect to be home marching up Broadway about the 9 or 10 of August

But remains your affectionate son till death

Thomas Madigan

Company I 69 Regt

NYSM (4)

Precisely two months after the letter, on 21st July 1861, the 69th New York State Militia were engaged in the first major battle of the war at Bull Run, Virginia (read the 69th’s after action report and find out all about the battle on the Bull Runnings site here). The fight ended in defeat for the Union. As soldiers– and numerous civilian spectators– fled back towards Washington D.C., many Federal wounded were left on the field. Among them was Thomas Madigan, felled by a bullet to the leg in what was his first battle. Thomas’s limb was amputated, probably by northern surgeons who had volunteered to stay behind with their charges. Meanwhile, back in New York confusion reigned as reports filtered through of the reverse. Newspapers tried to report the losses to those at home, but the fate of many of those who had been captured remained unclear. On 12th August a number of Union surgeons were paroled, and they carried with them into Union lines lists of wounded men still in Confederate hands. The New York Irish-American printed the list in its 24th August issue; one of the names that appeared was Thomas Madigan. The list recorded that he was in Centreville, but by then he had been moved to St. Mark’s Hospital in Richmond. By the time his name was printed in the Irish-American he was already dead, having passed away on 21st August. The 69th New York had returned to New York on 27th July, nearly two weeks before Thomas’s predicted date. Unfortunately he never got an opportunity to go ‘marching up Broadway’ with his comrades. (5)

Thomas Madigan's name on a list of 69th New York prisoners at Centreville, published in the New York Irish-American (GenealogyBank)

Thomas Madigan’s name on a list of 69th New York prisoners at Centreville, published in the New York Irish-American (GenealogyBank)

Before Thomas had left for the front he had made sure that his mother was set up with regular relief payments, supplied by the City of New York. His death demonstrates just how much of a ‘second trauma’ the American Civil War could be for Famine emigrants. By 1861, Mary had endured the loss of her first husband to Famine, had escaped the clutches of an abusive second husband, and then experienced the death of the son who had facilitated that escape. One wonders as to her thoughts when her other son James decided to enlist in the 158th New York Infantry– part of ‘Spinola’s Brigade’. The 21-year-old became a private in Company K on 12th August 1862, and thankfully survived to muster out with his company at Richmond on 30th June 1865. (6)

The laws which entitled Mary to a dependent mother’s pension had not been in place when Thomas died, and Mary had initially thought that because he was one of the Militia ‘three month men’ (as opposed to a three-year volunteer) that she would not be entitled to any payments. She started her pension application process in August 1862, when she was recorded as being 50 years of age. She was then living at 16 Mulberry Street in the notorious Five Points slum district of Manhattan. It was an area teeming with fellow Irish immigrants, many of them from her native Kerry. (7)

Mulberry Bend, Five Points, New York in 1896. Mary Madigan lived close to here in 1863 (Jacob Riis)

Mulberry Bend, Five Points, New York in 1896. Mary Madigan lived close to here in 1863 (Jacob Riis)

Mary had made a crucial error in her application, one that would be a factor in delaying her pension approval for many years. She recorded her name as Mary Madigan rather than Mary Kennedy. Cruelly, the name of her second-husband, a name she had discarded, had come back to haunt her. The pension bureau sought clarifications as to why she had not used it, and wanted information as to the whereabouts and fate of Maurice Kennedy. In addition, they wanted proof of her marriage to James Madigan in Co. Kerry. In order to obtain that proof she wrote to one of her Costello siblings back in Ireland. The response she received illustrates how those who had succeeded in emigrating, no matter what their circumstances, were looked upon for aid by those still at home. Although it is not clear from the letter if the correspondent was Mary’s brother or sister, what is apparent is that the letter writer had helped to fund the journey of another family member, ‘Jimmy’, to the United States. Interestingly, it seems Jimmy had also then become a soldier in the Union Army. Despite having revealed news of Tom’s death, Mary’s sibling doesn’t hesitate to chide Mary for having made ‘faithful promises but slow performances’:

Tralee March 31st 1863

Dear Sister I received your letter of the 17th I was sorry to heare of the death of poor tom may the lord have mercy on his soul- Dear sister when I heard your letter was at the causeway [Causeway, Co. Kerry] I went for it but could not get the lines you required untill now [the proof of Mary’s marriage]. Dear Sister you should suceed in getting this money I hope you wont forget poor Thomas soul get masses said for him and pray him constant as he went so suddenly. Dear Sister I had to leave Mr Masons a long time ago in bad health which was a grate loss to me and to set down and spend what I earned during the time I was with them. Dear Sister I am sorry I ever sent you Jimmy or lost the few to him that I did [the few pounds] to be the manes [means] of sending him to the war, I would want what I lost to him verry badley now myself for I am getting into bad health every day I am laid up at present with a scurvey in my feet and I fear I will have to leave my p[l]ace in concequence of them. I have a very good place at present if I could keep it I am living with Mr George Hillard of Mc Cinall [?]. Dear Sister I thought I would have got some assistance from you and Jimmy before now ye have made as I thought faithfull primisses [promises] but slow performances.

Dear Sister I hope you wont forget sending me some money for I feare I will want it very soon in concequence of my health which will cause me to leave my place. If it was the will of God to leave me my health I could do without from any one and as it not I crave you assistance may the Holy will of God be done in all things, Amen.

Catherine Brien will be going to America and she will tell you all about me direct your letter George Hillard Esq. Madgestrar Tralee Dea place. (8)

By the time the war concluded Mary was living with her daughter Catherine. She would eventually have her pension application granted on 25th July 1868. With the award the Madigan story once again fades back into obscurity. However, their remarkable pension file provides us with insight into one family’s arduous journey from Famine ravaged Ireland to an America which, at least initially, did not prove to be the promised land. Uniquely, it also offers a glimpse back across the Atlantic, towards the obligations that many Irish emigrants had towards those that had been left behind.

The Return of the 69th New York, 1861 by Louis Lang. Thomas Madigan had been anticipating such a homecoming before Bull Run (New York Historical Society)

The Return of the 69th New York after the Battle of Bull Run, 1861, by Louis Lang. Thomas Madigan had been anticipating such a homecoming before Bull Run (New York Historical Society)

*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 Madigan Dependent Mother’s File, Kennedy et .al. 1999: 104; (2) Thomas Madigan Dependent Mother’s File; (3) Ibid.; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid., New York Irish American 24th August 1861; (6) Thomas Madigan Dependent Mother’s File, New York AG: 415; (7) Thomas Madigan Dependent Mother’s File, Anbinder 2002: 48, 98; (8) Thomas Madigan Dependent Mother’s File;


Thomas Madigan Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC116873.

New York Irish American Weekly 24th August 1861. Federal Prisoners at Richmond and Manassas.

New York Adjutant General Roster of the 159th New York Infantry.

Anbinder, Tyler 2002. Five Points.

Kennedy Liam, Ell Paul S., Crwaford E.M. & Clarkson L.A. 1999. Mapping the Great Irish Famine; A Survey of the Famine Decades.

Manassas National Battlefield Park

Civil War Trust Battle of Bull Run Page