At 1319 North 16th Street, Philadelphia on the 3rd of July 1863, Irish mother Jane Hand would have been going about her daily routine. Her two daughters were likely proving a handful; with her eldest Lucy Ann just 5 and her youngest Mary Jane 3, they were exactly the right age to get stuck under her feet. This wouldn’t have been made easier by the fact that the 27-year-old was heavily pregnant– her third child was expected to arrive in a matter of weeks. Regardless of any tribulations at home, that afternoon Jane’s thoughts were probably on events elsewhere in Pennsylvania. The day before, Philadelphia newspapers had carried scanty details of a major battle off to the west. On the morning of the 3rd, she awoke to headlines telling of ‘A Desperate Battle at Gettysburg’ and ‘Second Day’s Fight! Victory Reported!’ Such accounts must have made Jane anxious for her husband, James, then a Sergeant in the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry. That very same afternoon, the titanic struggle at Gettysburg was raging on for a third day. At its vortex, 137 miles from Jane’s front door, James Hand was fighting for his life in the face of the most famous charge of the American Civil War. When it was finally over, James’s friend, Charles McAnally– a future Medal of Honor recipient– penned an emotional letter to the soon to be mother-of-three. (1)
James Hand was a native of Co. Louth, where he was born around 1834. He and Jane Phelan married in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Malachy, Philadelphia on 17th August 1856. The 1860 Federal Census found the couple living with their two young daughters in the 1st Division of the 20th Ward, where James worked as a painter. When war came he mustered in as a Sergeant on 31st October 1861, becoming a member of the 69th Pennsylvania’s Company D. He soon became fast friends with another member of the company, 1st Sergeant Charles McAnally from Co. Derry. By the time of Gettysburg, Charles had risen to the rank of 1st Lieutenant. On the 3rd July 1863, the Irish Pennsylvanians found themselves behind a small stone wall near Gettysburg, facing the full force of the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault. Two days later, Charles described to Jane what happened next:
Camp of 69th Regt P.V.
Near Gettysburg Pa
July 5th 1863
Mrs Jane Hand,
It is a painfull task for me to communicate the sad fate of your husband (my own comrade). He was killed on the 3rd inst he received a ball through the breast & one through the heart & never spoke after. I was in command of the skirmishers about one mile to the front & every inch of the ground was well contested untill I reached our Regt. The Rebels made the attack in 3 lines of Battle, as soon as I reached our line I met James he ran & met me with a canteen of watter. I was near palayed [played] he said I was foolish [I] dident let them come at once that the ‘ol 69th was waiting for them. I threw off my coat & in 2 minuets we were at it hand to hand. They charged on us twice & we repulsed them they then tryed the Regt on our right & drove them, which caused us to swing back our right, then we charged them on their left flank & in the charge James fell may the Lord have mercy on his soul. He never flinched from his post & was loved by all who knew him. He is intered along side of Sergt James McCabe, Sergt Jeremiah Gallagher of our Co & 5 others of our Co that you are not acquainted with. Our Co lost in killed wounded & missing twenty as follows: Killed 8, Wounded 10 & Missing 2. Although we fought the Rebels 10 to one on the 2nd & killed or captured a whol Corps our Co had only one man wounded that day. The loss in the battle of the 3rd was heavy but all did not discourage the boys, we were determined that as long as a man lived he would stand to be killed too rather than have it said that we left on the battle field in Pennsylvania the laurels that we so dearly won in strange states. The loss in the Regt killed, wounded & missing was one hundred & fifty eight & our Colnell & Lieut Colnell & 2 Capts Duffy & Thompson killed & Lieut Kelly & 6 officers wounded. We killed 6 Rebel Generals & nearly all the line officers & killed or captured every man that attacked us & [on] both days fighting. There never a battle fought with more determination, in the first days fight the Rebels had our battery on the first charge & we retook it again. Mrs Hand please excuse this letter as I am confused & I hope you will take your trouble with patience, you know that God is mercifull & good to his own. No one living this day was more attached than Jas & my self, when I was engaged in front he wanted to get out to my assistance. I lost a loyal comrade in him. No more at present from your Sorrowing friend,
Lieut Co “D” 69th
P.S. this letter will answer for Sergt McCabe he was shot through the head he died in 2 minutes after. McCabe had 35 cents of money & $20 he lent to Lieut Fay or our Co.
C. Mc. A.
We got no mail since the 19th ult the Rebs retreated last night. (2)
On 23rd July 1863, twenty days after his death at the Battle of Gettysburg, Sergeant James Hand’s third child was born. It was a boy– the couple’s first son. Jane chose the name James Charles for the infant. The choice of James was presumably for his father; one wonders if the middle name Charles was selected to honour the friend who had so kindly broken the news of James’s loss. Unfortunately, the newborn whose name may well have been a testament to a friendship forged by war would not long outlive his father. Philadelphia records show that James Charles Hand was buried in Old Cathedral Catholic Cemetery on 12th February 1864, at the age of just 7 months. Jane and her daughters would have to forge out their lives without both father and son. (3)
Charles McAnally survived 1863 to take part in the savage battles of the Overland Campaign. At Spotsylvania on 12th May 1864 he captured a Confederate flag in hand-to-hand combat, an act for which he would receive the Medal of Honor in 1897. Ending the war as a Captain in the 69th Pennsylvania, Charles died in 1905. (4)
(1) James Hand Widow’s Pension File, North American 3rd July 1863, Philadelphia Inquirer 3rd July 1863; (2) Ernsberger 2006:66, James Hand Widow’s Pension File, 1860 US Federal Census, Bate 1869: 719; (3) James hand Widow’s Pension File, Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; (4) Congressional Medal of Honor Society;
*Punctuation and grammatical 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
James Hand Widow’s Pension File WC12280.
1860 US Federal Census.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Collection Name: Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; Reel: 835. Original scan of record accessed via www.ancestry.com.
Philadelphia North American 3rd July 1863. A Desperate Battle at Gettysburg.
Philadelphia Inquirer 3rd July 1863. Second Day’s Fight! Victory Reported!
Bate, Samuel P. 1869. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-5, Volume 2.
Ernsberger, Don 2006. At the Wall: The 69th Pennsylvania “Irish Volunteers” at Gettysburg.