Corporal John Doherty of the Irish Brigade wrote a series of letters home to his family from Virginia and Maryland in the summer of 1862. Transcribed here for the first time, the letters detail John’s pride in the Irish Brigade– ‘the envy of the rest of the army’– but likewise suggest that the realities of fighting had cured him of any romance concerning war– soldiering was ‘not what it is cracked up to be.’ Equally they describe his contact and experiences with well-known figures, be it the ‘drunken freaks’ of Thomas Francis Meagher, the call by George B. McClellan to give three cheers for the ‘old green flag’ or the opportunity the Irishmen had to ‘astonish’ President Abraham Lincoln. Described also are the hardships of the march, as the Brigade headed towards the disaster that was befalling their comrades at Second Bull Run, and the strength that religious faith could provide on the battlefield. Ultimately John’s are a sequence of letters that were cut short by what turned out to be the bloodiest day in United States history. (1)
John Doherty hailed from Ireland– it has not yet proved possible to establish where. His parents James and Ann had been married there on 25th May 1837, with John being born around the year 1839. At some juncture, probably around 1850, they emigrated to New York, eventually settling in Strattonport (later College Point) in Queens on Long Island. The 1860 Census records the family (in Flushing, Long Island) headed by 50-year-old Ann. John made his living in a local button factory, where he earned between $5 and $12 per week. With his father having passed away not long after the family came to America, John’s earnings were important to his wider family. It seems likely his then 19-year-old brother Patrick worked in the same trade, while his 17-year-old sister Mary is recorded as a ‘Factory girl.’ Their earnings helped to support not only their mother, but also their younger siblings Thomas (14) and James (10). Mary Donohue, a 27-year-old seamstress (possibly a relative of Ann) also lived with the family. All had been born in Ireland. On the 20th February 1862 John decided that his future lay away from the factory, and instead opted for the field of battle. On 3rd April 1862 he mustered in as a private in Company F of the 63rd New York Infantry, part of Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade. (2)
John was soon writing home. His mother Ann was illiterate, but as was common for many, Irish neighbours Thomas Smyth and Patrick Curtin called round to read John’s letters to her when they arrived. The first letter preserved in John’s file was written from Harrison’s Landing, Virginia in late July, McClellan having withdrawn his army to that position following defeat during the Seven Days’ Battles. By this time John appears to have been promoted to Corporal.
Harrisons Landing Va
I got your long looked for but welcome letter it being a month since I got a letter from you, I thought you had forgotten me. I hope you will not be as long without writing any more. I got paid 2 months pay yesterday we got paid to the 1st of May, I hear we will get 2 months more next week. I gave $25.00 to Father Dillon to send to you by Adams Express, my pay came to $29.90. I said in my letter to Pat that Father Dillon was put under arrest, he was released in 2 days after. He said he did not know why he was arrested, I think it was a drunken freak of Genel Meagher. Father Dillon is a very good man he is highly esteemed not only by the Brigade but by all the Irish Regts in this Army. Every place we go he has some kind of a church made of green boughs with the cross on top of it, many of them is scattered all over Virginia yet in the places we passed through. I got a letter from Uncle John a week ago he and family is well he has been long waiting for a letter from you but got none. I got a newspaper with your letter yesterday, you need not send me any more the[y] are too old when I get them, you might send me a weekly paper once in a while. If it would not be too much trouble I would like very much to get [a] box but I am afraid it would hardly come safe. If you would send one you might send 1 cotton pocket handkerchief, 1 towel, 4 sheets writing paper, 6 envelopes a bottle of ink needles and thread and a piece of chees[e] and a box of Ayers Pills. I have diarrhea this week past, I am able to do duty though I don’t feel very well. You need not go to much trouble about the box for it is only a chance whether it would come or not but if you send it send by Adams Express and mark it well– Co. F, 63 Regt., N.Y. Vols ., Haris[s]ons Landing, Va. We have all got knapsacks and every thing we want of clothing since we came here I want you to b[u]y a good dress out of the $25 Dollars and if there is enough left let Mary and Aunt Mary have a dress out of it, that is providing you don’t need it for some other more needful want. I was over with Pat Eagen the other day I saw Tom they are both well, Lieutenant James Smith has returned to his Company he is doing duty though he is a little leam [lame]. I saw Barney Doherty a week ago he is well he sent his best wishes to you all. I hope none of the boys will take it in to their head to list for soldiering is not what it is cracked up to be. I sent a letter to Pat and one to Joe Larkin giving some account of fighting we went through during the week that we changed our position from Fair Oaks to James River, this is a nice place and we don’t have much to do but the we[a]ther is very hot. President Linco[l]n visited us last week he was received with great enthusiasm although the army when passing through McClellan and several other Generals we gave three Cheers for him, Genl McClellan said boys give 3 more for the old green flag, which was given in a style that must have astonished old Abe. Write as soon as you get the money give my best respects to all my friends and my love to Mary and my Aunt and to my Brothers. I conclude with my love to dear Mother in the warmest manner,
Your affectionate son,
John Doherty. (3)
The Father Dillon referred to was James Dillon, the popular chaplain of the 63rd New York. It is not clear why Meagher had placed the priest under arrest, but John’s reference to a ‘drunken freak’ of General Meagher is interesting. Allegations of excessive drinking were often levelled at Meagher by his enemies, particularly with respect to his battlefield performance. The men of his Brigade never raised such combat-related concerns, and remained extremely loyal to their charismatic commander. However, references such as this (which suggests it may not have been an isolated ‘freak’) and comments on the General’s excessive drinking in private William McCarter’s memoirs do suggest that Meagher had a drink problem. The psychological strain Meagher would have been under from June 1862 onwards– when his Brigade was being exposed to heavy combat– may well have had an impact on his drinking habits. John also bore witness to Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the army at Harrison’s Landing on 8th July, when the President had arrived to meet with George B. McClellan, the army commander. McClellan was virtually idolised by the majority of the Irish Brigade. He was temporarily replaced as the Army of the Potomac’s commander by Lincoln following this visit. Pat and Tom Eagan both served in the 69th New York. Pat had enlisted aged 28 in 1861 and was discharged for disability in December 1862. Tom had been 31 when he enlisted in 1861; he was wounded at Antietam and discharged for disability in 1863. Lieutenant James Smith of the 69th had enlisted aged 27. He was wounded at Ream’s Station in 1864, and would eventually become Lieutenant-Colonel of the regiment in 1865. John’s next letter was written at the start of August, with the Brigade still at Harrison’s Landing. (4)
Harrisons Landing August 1st/62
I received your letter of the 28th ulto. this morning, I am very glad that you so far recovered from your late illness as to be able to go to Brooklyn. I am glad that my sister and brothers and Aunt is well and I am well to[o] thanks be to God for this goodness to us. I got paid today 2 months pay, I sent you $25.oo by Adams Express Company. I would not have sent it today only that I got your letter and that you got the other without trouble. I wish you had not put yourself to so much [trouble] in sending a box for it is only a chance if I get it and I don’t think we well stop very long here, as we are under marching orders to be ready at a moments notice. Pat and Tom Egan is well I saw them twice since Sunday. I hope my friends in Brooklyn will excuse me for not writing as it is hard to get pens and ink here. As it is such a short time since I wrote to Mary I have nothing new so I will conclude with my love to you and to my brothers and sister and Aunt in the warmest manner,
Your affectionate son,
John Doherty. (5)
The final letter in John’s file dates to 4th September and was written from Maryland. The Irish Brigade were among units being withdrawn from the Virginia Peninsula to respond to Confederate movements, which would eventually seen the Rebels score a victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run fought between 28th and 30th of August. The Second Corps and the Irish Brigade arrived too late to assist in the fighting, but did help to cover the retreat of John Pope’s defeated forces:
Tenally Town Md Sept 4th/62
I take this opportunity of writing to you to let you know that I enjoy good he[a]lth thanks be to God. I hope this will find you all enjoying good he[a]lth. I rec’d a letter from you before I left Harrisons Landing, I got one from Mary at Newport News and 6 newspapers and a letter two days ago at Centerville. I am glad that you are well, we have had a very hard time of it since we left Harrisons Landing on Saturday the 16th of August. The first day we marched 4 miles, the second we marched 20, the next 5, the next 10, the next 10, the next 21, the next 9. The we[a]ther was very hot and we were almost smothered with dust but the cheerful spirit of the Irish Brigade made the road seem short, the funny joke and merry laugh of the men at all times whether on the battlefield, on the march or in camp makes the Brigade the envy of the rest of the army– the[y] would go along in silence looking sad while the Irish men would be laughing and singing. I began to write a letter to you at Newport News but before I had written two lines the order was given to fall in and I sealed it up and sent it to you we took the boat to Aquia Creek, we went from there to Fredericksburgh, from there back to Aquia Creek, then to Alexandria from there to Camp California, from there back to Alexandria and on to the Chain Bridge above Washington. We were there about 2 hours when we were ordered to fall in again and marched to Centerville near Bull Run without resting, then back to Fairfax. There we were left to cover the retreat of the right wing of the army, the enemy began to shell us there but done us no harm and when all the army had passed we covered their retreat. We then marched back and crossed the Chain Bridge and are now half a day without haveing to march any. We are about 6 miles from Washington through all the marching and fitegues [fatigues] and hunger, for we were six days on two days rations. I have not missed a role call though sometimes there would not be one fourth of [the] company present after a long march. I was offered a s[e]argents place in Company G but I did not like officers and would not take it.
Those small articles that you mention in one of your letters I have them yet and wear them all the time indeed the[y] gave me a feeling of safety in the time of danger when the shells was bursting over us and the bullets flying thick around I felt perfectly safe.
You may do as you please with the money I sent you, send me 2 dollars in your next letter I can get anything I want here as cheap almost as at home, any New York bills is as good here as anything else. I saw Pat and Tom Eagan day before yesterday they are well I saw all the Turners on Monday they are well. Sister Mary’s letter of the 37th ult. gives more Strattonport news than all I got since I left. I shall write to her in a few days, I have not got the box you sent me nor don’t expect to.
Give my respect to all my friends and neighbours and my love to my Aunt and sister and brothers your loving son,
Direct Meaghers Irish Brigade Washington DC
McArdle has not been with us since we were at Fredericksburg. (6)
John’s descriptions of the marching and the straggling that resulted provide a good impression of the physical toll such manoeuvres took on the men, as well as the esprit-de-corps of the Irish Brigade. The ‘small articles’ that John’s mother mentioned are almost certainly scapulars, which were popular among Irish Catholic troops. The same day that John wrote this letter, advance elements of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved into Maryland. Within a couple of days the Army of the Potomac, and the Irish Brigade, moved to respond. It was a campaign that culminated less than two weeks after John’s letter on the Antietam battlefield– the bloodiest single day of American history. It was also the worst day of the war for the 63rd New York; they took a total of 202 casualties in front of the Sunken Road– nearly 37.5% of the Brigade’s total. You can see a visualisation of just how devastating Antietam was to the 63rd here. The McArdle who John writes of not having seen since Fredericksburg (presumably a result of straggling), 38-year-old Francis McArdle, was one of those casualties. He made it back to his unit in time to be mortally wounded at Antietam, dying at Frederick on 9th October 1862. Another victim of the costly assault was Corporal John Doherty. In the end his scapulars did not protect him; his promised letter to his sister Mary likely went unwritten, the two dollars his mother sent him unspent. Ann Doherty would outlive her son by more than three and a half decades, passing away on 13th November 1898. She is buried in Mount Saint Mary Cemetery in Flushing. (7)
*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.
(1) John Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) Ibid., 1860 Federal Census (the family are erroneously listed under ‘Dchartz’ on ancestry.com), New York Adjutant General 1902a: 42; (3) John Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (4) New York Adjutant General 1902b: 104, 105, 324; (5) John Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; Official Records: 192, New York Adjutant General 1902a: 112;
References & Further Reading
John Dougherty Dependent Mother Pension File WC 93207.
1860 U.S. Federal Census.
New York Adjutant General 1901a. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901 (Registers Sixty-Third New York Infantry).
New York Adjutant General 1901b. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901 (Registers Sixty-Ninth New York Infantry).
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 19, Part 1. Returns of Casualties in Union Forces.