There is sometimes a perception that large numbers of Union troops– particularly in the latter months of the war– had been drafted into the Federal military. This was not the case. Of the c. 776,829 men whose names were drawn during the four Civil War drafts, only about 46,347 men (a little under 6%) ever seem to have actually worn Union blue. Of those who did not, more than 315,000 of those whose names came up were exempted, while over 160,000 simply failed to report in the first place. Tens of thousands chose to pay to commute their service, while in excess of 73,000 men furnished a substitute to take their place. Many Irishmen elected to serve as substitutes in the war’s later years, and in the majority of cases they were supplied by often unscrupulous middlemen– substitute brokers.* One such substitute was John McKeown. Some details as to how John became a substitute survive, as does the letter he wrote home to his wife from the front, just hours before the commencement of the 1864 Overland Campaign. (1)
Irish couple John McKeown and Margaret Christy were married in Philadelphia on 28th December 1863. John, who worked as a sawyer, was 21-years-old on his wedding day, nine years the junior of his 30-year-old wife. Their life together would be a short one. In February of 1864, Margaret remembered that her husband was induced to go to Pottsville. She didn’t see him for the next three days, but when they were eventually reunited Margaret remembered that John was ‘…in the Barracks at the corner of 23rd and Wood St. Philadelphia. He there told me that he had gone to Pottsville Pa. in company with a man named Billy Parker, who had paid him a small sum of money and induced him to enlist, while he was intoxicated with liquor. He further told me that his name had been placed on the Company rolls as John Carroll, and that it has been so entered by advice of the said Billy Parker.’ John gave his wife no explanation as to why he enlisted under an alias, but another friend would later claim that it was because McKeown was acting as a substitute for a drafted man whose name was Carroll. (2)
John wrote to his wife from the camp of the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry on 3rd May 1864. The movement of the Army of the Potomac that would commence the bloody Overland Campaign would begin the following day. That this advance was imminent is apparent from John’s letter, which relates that the shantys in which the men had been living had been knocked down. The young Irishman was evidently not an eager soldier, and speaks of his longing to get home to his new bride. Interestingly he claims that many others feel the same, and that desertion was commonplace. John describes some of the relatively rudimentary training he received before the anticipated ‘very big battle‘ of the summer. Clearly too there had been some falling out between John and his family, particularly his father– perhaps over either his marriage or his enlistment as a substitute. However, what is most apparent is John’s very deep affection for his wife. (3)Phila May the 3d 1864
Dear wife I am going to send you these few lines to let you [k]no[w] I am in good health and I hope for to find you in the same. Dear Marget I have sent you a letter before this and I got a letter from you the next day which I was very glad to see. Marget we have nocked our shantys down and we dont [k]no[w] when we are to leave here. I do think very long for to get home for I have enough of this place the most of the men would like to get home the[y] are sorry for re enlisted again the[y] wish the[y] were home if the[y] wore the[y] say the[y] would not be lying in a hard bed. A good many of the men has deserted some of them has been catched and has got there hair shaved as white as snow and drumed around the camps and the benits [?] after there and then sent away.
The[y] say that we are going to have a very big battle this summer bigger than ever the[y] seen yet the[y] say it will put an end to the war. The[y] have tried us with our guns out in the field we were shooting at barrels we had 3 shots a piece I nocked the barrell down twice 3 hundred yards distance our Company is allowed the best in the Reegiment. I cannot tell exactly the time I will get home now unto after this battle but I hope you will get along to I do see you and I will do the best I can for you. Let me [k]no[w] if you got that letter from your folks yet we do not here any word about the letters stoping down here I hope it so the[y] dosent stop the mail for if the[y] would the men would all go away home as soon as the[y] would here it was stoped. Dear Marget do not fret yourself for I hope in God nothing will happen on me unto we meet together I [k]no[w] it is a very long time to wait to get seeing other but you will have to do the best you can. I do wiry [worry] myself very bad here for it is such a wile [wild] place not a house near you.
I do not care about there [their] box if my father had a sent one to me I believe I would a got it. Dear wife do not mind sending any box for a while yet I have been mustered in for another pay I do expect to get paid the middle of this month I have heard them say so. I will send you what I can for I have the best rite to send it to you are good to me since I left you and you shall get all my money. I have got the plug of tobacco in your last letter. I would like very much I was at home I would like to see Mis Nancy and Susan and Marget and I am glad that you and her is good friends. I send my best respects to her and Susan and Marget and if God spares me my health I will see them all and I am glad to here that Miss’s Nancy is well and all the girls I do not forget them. It is all lies that I sent money to my father if I did I would tell you about do not believe what you here. Let me [k]no[w] how little Johnn is doing I would like to see Johnn but poor felow I am far away from him. I send my love to you and him in the warmest manner.
So no more at present but remains your affectionate Husband John McKeown. Direct to 71 PA Co G 2d Corps 2d division Washington D.C. or elsewhere. (4)
Within a couple of days of this letter John was feeling the full brunt of battle, as Grant and Lee clashed for the first time in the Battle of the Wilderness. He would barely have time to catch his breadth before the next engagement, at Spotsylvania Court House. John’s ultimate fate is unclear; the regimental roster records his death in action at Spotsylvania on 11th May, while according to his wife he was wounded around the 15th and died in Fredericksburg as a result on the 19th. Regardless, it seems likely that this letter was John’s last to his wife. Margaret applied for a widow’s pension from her home at 623 South 15th Street in Philadelphia, but would struggle to prove her husband’s service due to his adoption of an alias; it would be some years before her efforts proved successful. (5)(1) Murdock 1971: 356, McKeown Pension File; (2) McKeown Pension File; (3) Ibid.; (4) Ibid.; (5) Bates 1869: 818, McKeown Pension File;
*Beyond those drafted, many (including large numbers of Irishmen) chose to avail of substantial bounties in different localities to volunteer, as districts attempted to furnish enough men to avoid the draft. Many journeyed to those areas paying the most bounty money in order to obtain a hoped for windfall. This was another area in which brokers were extremely prominent.
**Punctuation and paragraph formatting has been added to the original letter for ease of reading. 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.
References & Further Reading
John McKeown Widow’s Pension File WC105113.
Bates, Samuel P. 1869. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. Volume 2.
Murdock, Eugence C. 1971. One Million Men: The Civil War Draft in the North.
Civil War Trust Battle of Spotsylvania Court House Page