There is something particularly poignant about those who lose their lives in the final throes of a conflict– deaths that come when the soldiers themselves are aware the end is in sight. In many cases, the timing of such deaths must have made it even more difficult for those at home to accept. 150 years ago today, at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, Virginia, yet more names were added to the butcher’s bill of the Civil War. Among them were Irishmen James McFadden and Thomas Brennan. The circumstances which led these two men to their fate could not have been more different; one had chosen to be there, the other had not been given a choice. Each of their stories had elements which must have accentuated the grief felt by those they left behind.
James McFadden was from the Fanad peninsula in Co. Donegal. On 3rd December 1850 he had married Anna Duffy in the picturesque rural setting of Massmount Chapel. Sometime later the couple emigrated to the United States, where they made their home among large numbers of other Donegal Irish in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. If the couple did have any children, none survived into adulthood. When war came in 1861 James was an early volunteer. He mustered into Company G of the 23rd Pennsylvania Infantry, a 3-month-unit, on 21st April. When the opportunity came to re-enlist in the regiment for three years service he did so, becoming a private in Company F on 2nd August. The 23rd Pennsylvania were one of the colourfully uniformed zouave units, and over the course of the next three years James marched with them onto battlefields like Seven Pines, Chantilly, Second Fredericksburg, Salem Church, Gettysburg and eventually the Overland Campaign. The Donegal man was wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, but was soon able to return to active duty. The 23rd Pennsylvania mustered out on 8th September 1864 having completed its service, but James didn’t go home with them. He had re-enlisted as a veteran, and along with the other men who had done so, was transferred to see out the remainder of his term in the ranks of the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry, becoming a Corporal in Company E. (1)
In April 1865, as the Federals pursued Robert E. Lee’s Confederates following the fall of Richmond, the 82nd Pennsylvania was part of Horation G. Wright’s Sixth Corps. On 6th April they found themselves forming part of a Union line of battle at the Hillsman Farm sector of the Sailor’s Creek battlefield. Facing Rebels of Ewell’s Corps across Little Sailor’s Creek, they struggled through a ‘deep difficult swamp’ and ‘almost impenetrable undergrowth and forest’ to the attack, in the process taking a severe flanking fire from the Confederate lines. Changing front, the 82nd were able to engage the enemy and play their role in what would ultimately be a major Union victory. However, they sustained heavy losses– 19 men had been killed and a further 80 wounded. James McFadden was among them. He had survived almost four years of continual service only to fall just as the war was coming to an end. His loss would have been hard on Anna back in Philadelphia. When she wrote to the pension bureau with a query in 1888, Mary noted that her husband had ‘went all through the war, and was killed at the surrender of Richmond.’ That he had survived so much, only to be taken right at the end was clearly tough to take. (2)
The circumstances by which Thomas Brennan found himself at Sailor’s Creek on 6th April were very different to his fellow countryman. Unlike James McFadden, we don’t know where in Ireland Thomas was from. He had married fellow Irish emigrant Mary Grant at the St. Vincent de Paul Church in Minersville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania on 13th May 1855. They went on to have a number of children, John (born c. 1856), Thomas (born c. 1858), Margaret (born c. 1860) and Patrick (born c. 1863). As has been examined in a recent post, Schuylkill County was home to a large community of Irish coal miners who were not afraid to challenge– sometimes violently– the authority of both their employers and the government during the war. Schuylkill had seen some of the most determined resistance to the draft witnessed anywhere in the north. Like the majority of Irish in the area, Thomas was a miner. The 1860 Census found the then 30-year-old and his 29-year-old wife living in the strongly Irish Cass Township in Schuylkill with their children. There is every chance that Thomas was just as opposed to the draft as many of his Irish miner colleagues; indeed he may even have participated in some of the widespread resistance to it. (3)
The authorities had such difficulty in drawing up a list of the men eligible for the draft in Schuylkill County that eventually officials were sent in backed by troops to seize the payroll of mine operators and get the miner’s details. Whether Thomas Brennan had given his information willingly or had them taken forcibly is unknown. Either way, his name was pulled in the draft at Pottsville and he was enlisted into Company A of the 99th Pennsylvania Infantry on 19th July 1864. On the 6th April 1865 the 99th Pennsylvania, part of Humphreys’ Second Corps, found themselves facing elements of Gordon’s Confederate Corps at the Lockett Farm sector of the Sailor’s Creek battlefield. Throughout the day they had conducted a series of charges against Confederate skirmish lines. Their brigade captured over 1300 enemy troops during their advance, also taking artillery and battleflags. It proved to be the last day on which the 99th Pennsylvania Infantry would lose men to combat during the American Civil War– and one of them was the coal miner Thomas Brennan. Mary Brennan lived in Schuylkill County for the rest of her life, dying there on 18th April 1903. Her husband had died in the final days of a conflict that he may well have felt little investment in. Did Mary harbour any resentment as a result? (4)
The circumstances which led James McFadden and Thomas Brennan to Sailor’s Creek were very different. One had been a volunteer from the war’s early days, fighting for the Union for the full four years of the conflict. The other had been drafted from an area renowned for it’s anti-draft sentiment, and was ordered to the front to help prosecute the war in it’s final months. The family’s of both would have had cause to feel aggrieved at their loss so close to the end of the dying. They would certainly not have been alone.
*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) James McFadden Widow’s Pension File, Survivors Association 1904: 22, 224; (2) Official Records: 949, James McFadden Widow’s Pension File; (3) Thomas Brennan Widow’s Pension File, 1860 Federal Census; (4) Kenny 1998: 91, Official Records: 783-4, Michael Brennan Widow’s Pension File;
References & Further Reading
Thomas Brennan Widow’s Pension File WC64214.
James McFadden Widow’s Pension File WC71212.
1860 US Federal Census.
Kenny, Kevin 1998. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 46, Part 1. Report of Col. Isaac C. Bassett, Eighty-Second Pennsylvania Infantry.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 46, Part 1. Report of Col. Russell B. Shepherd, First Maine Heavy Artillery, commanding First Brigade.
Survivors Association Twenty Third Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. 1904. History of the Twenty Third Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Birney’s Zouaves.