‘Goodbye For A While’: An Irish Soldier’s Last Letter Home, Found on his Dead Body at Cold Harbor

On the 8th June 1864 Captain Dexter Ludden and his men from the 8th New York Heavy Artillery were picking their way through corpses. They had been assigned the unpleasant task of burying some of the many, many dead who had fallen assaulting the Confederate works at Cold Harbor. By then the bodies they were interring– who were from their own brigade– had lain on the field for five days. As they went about their gruesome work, Ludden’s soldiers checked each of the bodies for anything that might identify them. Turning over one of the lifeless forms, they hunted through the dead man’s pockets. Finding two scraps of paper inside, the burial party alerted the officer to their discovery. Reading through them, Captain Ludden recognised the papers as a hastily penned letter, written by the dead man before the assault. Later, Ludden sat down to sketch a few brief words of his own to add to them, before sending what amounted to the dead soldier’s last words on their way to New York. (1)

Surviving Confederate earthworks at Cold Harbor (Damian Shiels)

Surviving Confederate earthworks at Cold Harbor (Damian Shiels)

This is what Dexter Ludden wrote on the back of one of the pieces of paper recovered from the body:

Battlefield 7 miles from Richmond Va

June 8 1864

Madam,

This was cut from the pocket of a man I had buried last eve– he was killed– June 3d 1864– & buried on the spot where he fell.

The place was marked by a cut on a tree where his head lies by Sergt Ewell of my company.

Yours Truly

S. Dexter Ludden

Capt 8 NY Arty

Miss Mary McNamara

Buffalo NY (2)

The body that Dexter Ludden and his men had buried was that of Irishman Hubert McNamara, a private in the 155th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion. Hubert had enlisted in Buffalo on 28th August 1862, when he was 34 years old. Before becoming a soldier, Hubert had supported his wife Mary and three children by working as a cartman. He was described as 5 feet 6 inches in height, with hazel eyes, brown hair and a light complexion. Hubert had married Mary Donovan on 2nd January 1859, but that had not been his first marriage. Hubert’s first wife Margaret (e McGrath) had passed away in Hudson, New York on 26th January 1855, leaving Hubert to support their three year old daughter Maria alone until his remarriage. By 1864, Mary had borne Hubert two more children at their home on Exchange Street; Thomas, who arrived on 30th November 1859 and Maria, born on 6th May 1852– his youngest daughter was only a month past her second birthday when her father met his death. (3)

By 2nd June 1864, the day Hubert wrote his last letter, Corcoran’s Irish Legion had been with the Army of the Potomac for less than a month. By the standards of many other brigades, the first 18 months of the Legion’s service had been relatively quiet. That had all changed in May 1864, when they joined up with the Army of the Potomac at Spotsylvania. In the days following, the Irishmen had to become accustomed to almost constant combat– and ever mounting casualties. It was in this context that Hubert penned the few words to his wife on 2nd June. He was aware when he wrote them that he was going to be involved in an assault on the Rebel works the following day. Given the strength of the enemy’s position, many of his unit would have been apprehensive about what lay ahead. The 155th was brought into battle at Cold Harbor by Captain Michael Doran. As he dressed his men’s lines for the advance, they were temporarily shielded from fire behind a slight ridge. When they moved forward beyond this cover they could see the main Confederate line some 150 yards away, but they would never reach it. A storm of fire erupted from the Rebel position. One member of the regiment recalled how the ‘balls commenced literally to mow us down,’ while another said of the attack that ‘it was murder, not war.’ The Irishmen never stood a chance; by the time they got to within fifty yards of the enemy position the charge was halted, and was soon forced back. The slaughter cost the 155th some 130 casualties, almost half their number. Unfortunately Hubert was one of those to fall, with the newly written letter to his family unsent in his pocket. (4)

The sheets of paper recovered from Hubert’s body were included by his widow in her pension application, in order to prove both Hubert’s death and her relationship with him. They are transcribed below for the first time and labeled as Sheet 1 Obverse?, Sheet 1 Reverse? and Sheet 2 Obverse. It is written in faded pencil which, together with their exposure on the battlefield with Hubert’s body, makes transcription difficult. They are reproduced below as Sheet 1 and Sheet 2, with the original transcription accompanied by an edited version for modern readers. (5)

Location where 8th New York Heavy Artillery attacked at Cold Harbor. The 155th New York assaulted the Confederate position advancing to the left of this regiment. Some of the 8th would later bury Hubert McNamara (Damian Shiels)

Location where 8th New York Heavy Artillery attacked at Cold Harbor. The 155th New York assaulted the Confederate position advancing to the left of this regiment. Some of the 8th would later bury Hubert McNamara (Damian Shiels)

Original

[Sheet 1 Obverse?]

…almigty god that we will soon get tru with them I all right soe far thank be tow the almighty god for his merci [illegible] possible [?] to I am [ad] dressing you with a few lines hope tow find you and the children in good helth as the departure thes few lines leves mee me in at present thank be to the almighty god for his to me we are fighting with rebble for last 10 days and we have drove them for as much 30 miles but there is grete many of our men kild and wonded but the purty well sourrounded in the [?]

[Sheet 1 Reverse?]

Jun the 2 1864

Camp of the armi of the portommack 7 miles from Richmond mi Dear wife and children I take the favorable opportunitie [?] [illegible] tell what moment I wold get kild or wonded but I trus in god for his mercis tow me there is afful fight ing going on her we ar fight ing knight and fight ing day my Dear wife an children there is no thing more that I can let you know now it I have now time

[Sheet 2 Obverse]

it is verry hard tow get paper or ink any thing els her John Dempsey is well and alsoe michael lawler is I wish that you wold tell his wife there is no thing more my Dear wife and children that I think soe good bie for afile

now more at present from youre afectionate husband Hubert Mc Namara 2 Corps 2 Divison 4 brigade Co I 155

armi of the portom mac

good bie write soon (6)

The last words written by Hubert McNamara, hours before his death at the Battle of Cold Harbor (National Archives/Fold3)

The last words written by Hubert McNamara, hours before his death at the Battle of Cold Harbor (National Archives/Fold3)

Edited

[Sheet 1 Obverse?]

…almighty God that we will soon get through with them. I [am] alright so far thanks be to the almighty God for his mercy [illegible] possible to, I am addressing you with a few lines. I hope to find you and the children in good health as the departure [of] these few lines leaves me in at present thanks be to the almighty God for his [mercy] to me. We are fighting with [the] Rebels for [the] last 10 days and we have drove them for as much [as] 30 miles, but there is [a] great many of our men killed and wounded but they [are] pretty well surrounded in the [?]

[Sheet 1 Reverse?]

June the 2nd 1864

Camp of the Army of the Potomac 7 miles from Richmond. Dear wife and children, I take the favourable opportunity [illegible] tell what moment I would get killed or wounded, but I trust in God for his mercy to me. There is awful fighting going on here, we are fighting night and fighting day. Dear wife and children there is nothing more that I can let you know now I have no time.

[Sheet 2 Obverse]

It is very hard to get paper or ink [or] anything else here. John Dempsey is well and also Michael Lawler is, I wish that you would tell his wife. There is nothing more my dear wife and children then I think, so goodbye for a while. No more at present from your affectionate husband Hubert McNamara, 2nd Corps, 2nd Division, 4th Brigade, Company I, 155th New York, Army of the Potomac. Goodbye write soon. (7)

The precise order in which Hubert’s letter was intended to be read is not clear from the separate pages. I have interpreted their order as presented above based on content. I believe that the first page (Sheet 1 Obverse?) was part of a letter Hubert may have been writing previous to his arrival at Cold Harbor. In it he refers to fighting the Rebels for the ‘last 10 days’ which would place it around the 28th May. I suspect he may have then found himself in front of the works at Cold Harbor and, realising that he was about to go into action, abandoned his previous letter to jot down a few words in the event of his death. If this is the case then it makes the letter all the more poignant. The section titled ‘Sheet 2 Obverse’ may have also been written at Cold Harbor, though that is not clear. Captain Ludden wrote his note to Hubert’s wife on the back of this page. Of those comrades mentioned in Hubert’s correspondence, Cold Harbor was also Michael Lawler’s last battle. He was mortally wounded, leaving behind a wife and four children. John Dempsey seems to have also been wounded at Cold Harbor, but ultimately recovered. Hubert’s wife Mary lived a long life after her husband’s death, remaining a widow for more than half a century. The elderly Irishwoman passed away at the Holy Family Home in Williamsville, New York on 2nd September 1916. (8)

Cold Harbor National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

Cold Harbor National Cemetery (Damian Shiels)

*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) McNamara Widow’s Pension File; (2) Ibid. (3) Ibid., 1860 U.S. Census, New York Adjutant General: 1323; (4) Rhea 2007: 335; (5) McNamara Widow’s Pension File; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.;

References & Further Reading

Hubert McNamara Widow’s Pension File WC76801.

Michael Lawler Widow’s Pension File WC46766.

1860 U.S. Federal Census.

New York Adjutant General Roster of the 155th New York Infantry.

Rhea 2007. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee May 26– June 3, 1864.

Richmond National Military Park.

Civil War Trust Battle of Cold Harbor Page.

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Categories: 155th New York, Battle of Cold Harbor, Corcoran's Irish Legion, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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20 Comments on “‘Goodbye For A While’: An Irish Soldier’s Last Letter Home, Found on his Dead Body at Cold Harbor”

  1. sthomas@trrcobbhouse.org
    August 1, 2015 at 8:20 pm #

    Damian,   Very cool letter. My gggrandfather Thomas was killed that same day at Cold Harbor – in a grey uniform.   Sam  

    Sam Thomas, Curator T.R.R. Cobb House 175 Hill Street Athens, GA 30601 706.369.3513 sthomas@trrcobbhouse.org http://www.trrcobbhouse.org

    An Historic House Museum of the Watson-Brown Foundation, Inc.

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Sam,

      Great to hear from you! I briefly managed to walk part of the area, I have never seen anything like the Confederate defences for preservation there. It was a dark day for many- I come across an awful lot of files relating to Cold Harbor.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. August 1, 2015 at 9:39 pm #

    Heart rending but, sadly, such was the US Civil War. It’s interesting that a contemporary described the attack by the 155th at Cold Harbor as ‘murder’. One wonders how many other men had the same opinion of the various battles that marked this bitter conflict. Presumably the descendents of Hubert McNamara and Michael Lawlor still live in the US. Intriguingly Hubert’s surname suggests County Clare connections.

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

      Certainly in 1864 when contact was so frequent men appear to have become more and more weary of the losses.

  3. August 3, 2015 at 10:27 am #

    So poignant – the letter and the finding of it.

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

      It certainly is Finola- and there are so many like it in these files.

  4. August 8, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    It’s amazing how personal items including records of communication from events many decades ago can. be so evocative with regard to tne historical context
    Recently found a great grandaunts name on the passenger list of a ship called the Erturia
    Her age was given which is exactly my daughter s present age but her destination was unclear(some handwritten correct ion that was added was confusing)Minnie wasn’t long working when she died in a house fire and no one in my family know s anything about her or whre she was buried Just seeing her name and. a few other personal details was very moving
    Military records are probably the best and
    most dependable in general and accounts of location of forme r soldiers are well maintained but iwas wondering were there many Irish who were unaccounted for at the end?

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

      Hi Eileen,

      Many thanks for the comment. Absolutely true. In terms of the Irish unaccounted for, that we don’t know. Undoubtedly there were large numbers from both sides who were unaccounted for when the guns fell silent- so many that Clara Barton set up her Missing and Disappeared office in Washington D.C. to help families try and find them, so unfortunately it was all too common.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. August 10, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    Superb. Thank you once again, Damian.

  6. Patricia Funkhouser
    August 25, 2015 at 1:44 am #

    These stories are something. My Family is from Ireland DRIPPS my father served in the second world war. He was in Japan he saw the dreadful things. there he Served with the 44Tank Batalion under General Patton.His Name was James Shaffer Dripps from Beaver County Pennsylvania. But our roots were in Ireland. I would love to hear more. My mother was a Boots one of my Great Uncles died in a prison camp his name was Edward Boots he belongs to the Fombell Historical Society. I think I would love to join a local Historical Society. Thanks for what you do they are not forgotten now.

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

      Hi Patricia,

      Many thanks for the comment- sounds a fascinating family history! That is a somewhat unusual name so you may have joy trying to trace them in Ireland, I wish you every success in the hunt!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  7. June 15, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    Great job as usual. I’ve just left the NPS but I was stationed at Cold Harbor many, many times. The 8th NYHA is of particular interest and notoriety there, and I’m giving a program there on Saturday focusing on just that.

    Aside from this neat story, another really moving letter was sent from Ludden’s company (L) that I came to read. The writer was 19-yr old Merari B. Stevens, who penned a letter to a friend back home in NY concerning the death of his father, Harvey Stevens, who died in his arms at Cold Harbor.

    I would be glad to send it to you if you care to read.

    • July 1, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      Hi Jason,

      Many thanks for the comment and thanks for sending that on, an incredible story! I was fortunate enough to walk a small portion of the battlefield (and have my first ever snake encounter!) when I was there back in 2014. Really would like to go again with a guide though to understand it better.

      Kidn Regards,

      Damian.

  8. Ruth Davis-Hastler
    August 21, 2016 at 2:31 am #

    Hubert McNamara was my four great grandfather.
    Ruth Davis-Hastler

    • August 24, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

      Hi Ruth,

      Thanks so much for getting in touch! Do you know much more about Hubert’s life? I would be very eager to learn where he was from in Ireland.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • Ruth Hastler
        August 26, 2016 at 3:53 pm #

        I’m afraid I don’t know where Hubert is from but I’ll let you know if I find out. The second Maria is actually Margaret as verified by a 1870 census. Her birth year is 1862. I really loved your article and know more about my family now. Thanks.

      • February 18, 2017 at 10:32 am #

        Thanks Ruth!

      • Ruth Hastler
        August 26, 2016 at 3:57 pm #

        P.s. If you are interested in pictures of Hubert or his wife Mary I would be happy to share.

      • February 18, 2017 at 10:32 am #

        Hi Ruth,

        Apologies for the delay in replying, I would love to see them! My email is irishamericancivilwar@gmail.com

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