On 9th April 1865– 150 years ago today– Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Although the event stopped neither the war nor the killing, in the popular imagination it has nonetheless come to be considered as the act which brought the war to a conclusion. This was certainly true for many of the men present at Appomattox that day. However, it is worth remembering that the surrender was presaged by a battle. Although the casualties at Appomattox on 9th April were relatively slight, there were nevertheless some men who died on the field. One of them was Irishman John Dorcy of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, killed in action at the moment of victory.

Members of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade Charging in 1864 (Library of Congress)

Members of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade Charging in 1864 (Library of Congress)

There is not a huge amount of information available on John Dorcy. He was born in Ireland (possibly in Co. Tipperary) around the year 1833, but his family appear to have emigrated when he was still a young boy. The 1850 Census finds John, aged 17, living with his parents James (a laborer) and Eliza in St. Clair County, Michigan. He had three younger brothers– Patrick (born c. 1839), Jeremiah (born c. 1841) and Michael (born c. 1844). The locations where John’s brothers were born helps to trace the family’s emigration route; John was born in Ireland, Patrick and Jeremiah in Canada, and Michael in Michigan. Many Irish emigrants to North America availed of cheaper passage available to Canada, and it was not unusual for them to spend weeks, months or even years there before moving on to the United States. (1)

We next encounter John on 19th June 1856, when a Justice of the Peace married him to Irish-American Mary Ellen Carroll in Kenockee township, St. Clair County. It maybe that the couple’s families had known each other in Canada, as Mary Ellen had been born there. They went on to have four children- Maria (born 24th April 1857), John (born 3rd February 1859), James (born 30th July 1860) and William (born 30th April 1863). There was no physician available for the births of any of their children, so John’s mother Eliza and family friends Bridget McMahon and Mary Jaynes stepped in to assist with the children’s deliveries. (2)

John was not an early volunteer during the American Civil War. In 1863 he was listed for the draft in Kenockee, when he was recorded as being a 32 year-old married laborer from Ireland on 1st July 1863. On 6th February 1864 John was enrolled in Kenockee into Company B of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, mustering in three days later. Soon thereafter he headed east to join his new unit in Virginia. In so doing he became a member of one of the most famous cavalry brigades of the war– the Michigan Brigade, or Wolverines– forever associated with George Armstrong Custer. Throughout 1864 John would have seen much hard fighting during Sheridan’s Raid, at Trevilian Station and in the Valley Campaign. April of 1865 found the Wolverines participating in the final engagements against Robert E. Lee’s army, as the war drew to a close. (3)

On 9th April 1865 the Michiganders formed the First Brigade (Colonel Peter Stagg commanding) of Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin’s division. Early that day, the Confederates made one last effort to break away from the desperate stranglehold they found themselves in at Appomattox. They enjoyed some initial success, but as more and more Union forces joined the fray the Rebels fate would be sealed. Devin’s men were among those tasked with pressing the Confederate left flank near Appomattox. The troopers dismounted and advanced on foot, with the Wolverines being sent through some heavy woods towards the Rebel left. Encountering the enemy, the division was initially forced backwards, but after ‘a hard fight’, they drove the Confederates in and began to form barricades to hold their position. They would not be required to defend them. With the situation hopeless, Robert E. Lee would surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant later that same day. (4)

The 9th April 1865 would be remembered fondly across the North as the final fulfillment of four years of struggle in the East. The name Appomattox Court House became synonymous with the victory hard won. However, that name and the date must have held somewhat different connotations for the Dorcy family. With the end so close that it could almost be touched, Private John Dorcy of the 1st Michigan Cavalry had been killed in action. For 28-year-old Mary Dorcy, the 9th April 1865 at Appomattox Court House was the day when she became a widow, leaving her alone to raise four children– the youngest of whom was not yet 2-years-old. (5)

The MacLean House, Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The image was exposed by Irishman Timothy O'Sullivan (Library of Congress)

The MacLean House, Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. The image was exposed by Irishman Timothy O’Sullivan (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) 1850 U.S. Census. The family are recorded as ‘Dowsey.’ The spelling ‘Dorcy’ is preferred here as that is the spelling used by John’s wife to Mary to sign her name, but it is also variously spelt Darcey, Dorsay, Dorsey, Dorsy and Darcy. An ancestry family tree suggests the Dorcy’s originally hailed from Tipperary; (2) John Dorcy Widow’s Pension File; (3) U.S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, John Dorcy Widow’s Pension File; (4) Official Records: 1126; (5) U.S. Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, John Dorcy Widow’s Pension File;

References & Further Reading

John Dorcy Widow’s Pension File WC77594.

U.S. 1850 Federal Census.

Consolidated Lists of Civil War Draft Registrations, 1863-1865.

Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, compiled 1861–1865.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 46, Part 1. Report of Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Devin, U.S. Army, commanding First Division.

Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

Civil War Trust Appomattox Court House Page