Perhaps one of the best known of all Irishmen to serve during the American Civil War was Buster Kilrain of the 20th Maine Infantry. Buster plays a major role in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, and was portrayed by actor Kevin Conway in the film Gettysburg. Kilrain, a loyal soldier and confidant of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, died of wounds received during the 20th’s famed actions on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Of course Buster Kilrain is a fictional character– no one of that name ever served with the 20th Maine. However, real Irishmen were present in the regiment’s ranks. One of them was Tommy Welch, who like his fictional countryman was among the defenders of Little Round Top. Tommy shared other traits with Kilrain; both were among the older men in the regiment, and unfortunately both were destined not to survive the war. The pension file that was created as a result of Tommy Welch’s death reveals much about his pre-war life and circumstances. It includes a letter he wrote home– transcribed below– which not only explains one of his reasons for fighting, but also mentions the 20th Maine’s actions at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Tommy’s character is further revealed thanks to his popularity among the Maine men, which saw him remembered many years later by former comrades such as Theodore Gerrish when they sat down to record their memories of life during the American Civil War.
It is not clear when the Welch family emigrated to North America, but they may well have travelled via Canada in the late 1830s or early 1840s. The family group consisted of Robert and Mary Welch, their son Thomas (Tommy), along with a number of other brothers and at least one sister. On the eve of the war Tommy’s parents were ageing; Mary Welch had been born around 1797, while Robert Welch celebrated his 77th birthday in 1860, having been born in 1783. Of their children, it was Tommy who bore chief responsibility for providing for them, foregoing starting a family of his own in order to see to their care. A neigbour in Bangor would later recall that his sister once asked Tommy why he had never married– he replied that he couldn’t, as his father and mother depended on him for their support. Tommy provided this support by working in the woods lumbering during the winter, and at a boom on the Nashwaak river rafting logs during the summer. A boom was a barrier placed in the river to collect timber that had been floated downstream from logging sites. This strenuous (and dangerous) livelihood saw Tommy travel some distance from Bangor; indeed he spent much of his time across the border. The Nashwaak is a Canadian river located in New Brunswick, where the town of Fredericton was home to a number of the extended Welch family. The seasonal nature of Tommy’s work creates problems that were all to common for many Irish laborers- the unpredictability of seasonal wages. While he could hope to earn $25-$30 per month on the river during the summer months, this earning potential fell away to between $15 and $20 a month during the winter. This type of uncertainty and fluctuation in income was a factor that many Irishmen would have taken into consideration when choosing whether or not to don Union blue during the 1860s. (1)
Whatever his ultimate reasons, it can’t have been an easy decision for Tommy to enlist in the Union cause. He told friends that he was going into the army in order to better support his parents, but he was also motivated by a sense of patriotism towards the Union. There is evidence for both economic and patriotic motivations in his subsequent actions, given the views he expressed to his brother in 1863 (below) and the fact that he sent at least $155 in bounty money to his parents. Nonetheless, enlistment meant travelling much further away from his parents than New Brunswick, and this must have been hard for a man so devoted to their welfare. Tommy was probably around 37 or 38 years old when he enlisted at Houlton on 6th August 1862, in what would become Company H of the 20th Maine Infantry. Within a matter of weeks he and his comrades were marching off to war, and their first encounter with the enemy. (2)
The 20th Maine Infantry initially became part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac. They arrived in time for the Battle of Antietam on 17th September 1862, but were kept in reserve and were not engaged. However, the Pine Tree State men were involved in the pursuit of Lee’s army as it made it’s way back across the Potomac. The 20th Maine crossed after them, but soon found that given the number of Rebels they faced on the other bank retreat was necessary. It was an incident that occurred during this re-crossing that remained fresh in the mind of 20th Maine veteran Theodore Gerrish’s many years later:
One very amusing incident occurred in our retreat. In Company H was a man by the name of Tommy Welch, an Irishman about forty years of age, a brave, generous-hearted fellow. He was an old bachelor, and one of those funny, neat, particular men we occasionally meet. He always looked as if he had emerged from a bandbox; and the boys used to say that he would rather sacrifice the whole army of the Potomac, than to have a spot of rust upon his rifle, or dust upon his uniform. He was always making the most laughable blunders, and was usually behind all others in obeying any command. When our regiment went tumbling down over the side of the bluff, to reach the river, the men all got down before Tommy understood what they were doing. Then very slowly he descended, picking his path carefully among the trees and rocks, and did not reach the river until the rear of the regiment was nearly one-half of the way across. The officer who commanded our regiment on that day rode a magnificent horse, and as the regiment recrossed, he sat coolly upon his horse near the Virginia shore, amidst the shots of the enemy, speaking very pleasantly to the men as they passed him. He evidently determined to be the last man of the regiment to leave the post of danger. He saw Uncle Tommy, and although the danger was very great, he kindly waited for him to cross. When the latter reached the water, with great deliberation he sat down upon a rock, and removed his shoes and stockings, and slowly packed them away in his blanket. Then his pant legs must be rolled up, so that they would not come in contact with the water; and all the time the rebels were coming nearer, and the bullets were flying more thickly. At last he was ready for an advance movement, but just as he reached the water, the luckless pant legs slipped down over his knees, and he very quietly retraced his steps to the shore, to roll them up again. This was too much for even the courtesy of the commanding officer, who becoming impatient at the protracted delay, and not relishing the sound of the lead whistling over his head, cried out in a sharp voice: “Come, come, my man, hurry up, hurry up, or we will both be shot.” Tommy looked up with that bewildered, serio-comic gravity of expression for which the Emerald Isle is so noted, and answered in the broadest brogue: “The divil a bit, sur. It is no mark of a gintleman to be in a hurry” The officer waited no longer, but putting spurs to his horse, he dashed across the river while Tommy, carrying his rifle in one hand, and holding up his pant legs in the other, followed after, the bullets flying thickly around him. Poor Tommy Welch, brave, blundering and kind, was a favorite in his company, and his comrades all mourned when he was shot down in the wilderness. He was there taken prisoner, and carried to Andersonville prison, where he died of starvation. (3)
Although Gerrish’s description of the event demonstrates a stereotypical and somewhat racist characterisation of the Irish that was common at this time, it nonetheless demonstrates that there was genuine affection for ‘Uncle Tommy’ within the 20th Maine. The regiment’s first major direct experience of combat would follow a few weeks later at the Battle of Fredericksburg on 13th December 1862. The 20th Maine participated in one of the last attacks against Marye’s Heights, and were forced to stay on the field through the night in front of the Rebel position. More than a month after that battle, on 26th January 1863, Tommy wrote home to his brother Robert. Robert appears to have been in New Brunswick, which caused a delay in his letter to Tommy (to which this letter is responding) reaching the front.
Falmouth VA Jan 26 63
Dear Brother I recived your letter dated Oct 20 a few dayes ago and am glad to hear from you But think you are a little unjust in not writing to me before I have recieved but one letter from you the letter you wrote was delayed in Frederton [Fredericton, New Brunswick] about tow months If you write they [there] will be now [no] trouble but what I shall get them The postage must be paid before they can come
I was very sorry to learn of Brother B. Albert misfortune I hope he will be better in short time you must tell sister Mary to write to me as you can give her the directions I think she is a little ungratefull in not writing me before. I want you to let me now what [you] are doing this pleasant winter and the rest of my Brothers I think I can see the hills all congealed with snow while I am in the sweat suny South
But still I am not without trouble and trials but still I beare them willingly and more because the flag that [sic.] has given protection to [our] persecuted country men We are going to be paid of in a day or so and it will be quite a sum I will send it the same way I did before I am intitled to 55 dollars from the town of Houlton and in case it should be the will of God to call me from this world I oferise [authorise] you to collect it for me they are holden to pay it[illegibile] is time I should tell you of the Battle of Fredericksburg we cross[ed] the Raperhanock the 13 Dec in the afternoon and marched doble quick into the citty and then we went upon the field and it was a bloody field I was struck with a shell we marched half a mile in front of the Rebles a rifle fire the shell struck me before we got on the field the Capt told me to go back and said I was badly hurt but I puut my trust in God and went forward (4)
Tommy’s letter indicates how his thoughts were turning to home (although there is perhaps a hint of sarcasm with respect to the weather) and also to providing for his parents. Given the horrors he must have gone through at Fredericksburg, his account of the engagement is remarkable in its matter-of-fact nature. Although the 20th Maine were not engaged at Chancellorsville, their finest moment of the war was to come later that summer. We know that Tommy was present with Company H when the 20th Maine became immortal on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Unfortunately as indicated by Theodore Gerrish, Tommy’s luck, like that of so many others, would run out during the bloody Overland Campaign of 1864. Although Gerrish states that Tommy was wounded and captured at The Wilderness, Tommy became a prisoner on 8th May, which suggests he was likely taken at Laurel Hill on the Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield. He would ultimately end up in Andersonville POW Camp, where Tommy died of scurvy around the 16th August 1864. He is buried in grave 5942, which you can see here. As might be expected, his death had serious consequences for his parents back in Maine. Before long they were described as being in ‘indigent circumstances’ and had to take drastic steps to survive– in the words of one friend, ‘necessity compelled their separation.’ 67-year-old Mary went to live with her single daughter (also Mary) in Bangor, who supported them through her work as a seamstress, while 81-year-old Robert, who required more care, was compelled to move to relatives in New Brunswick. They appear never to have been reunited. The 1871 Census of Canada records Robert, now 88 years-old, in Fredericton Poor House; by which point he was being described as a widower. (5)
*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) Thomas Welch Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) Ibid.; (3) Gerrish 1882: 43-44; (4) Thomas Welch Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (5) Ibid., Desjardin 2009: 180, 1871 Census of Canada;
References & Further Reading
Thomas Welch Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC141783
1871 Census of Canada, City of Fredericton, Carlton Ward, District 179 York, New Brunswick, Roll: C-10381; Page: 73; Family No: 267
Desjardin, Thomas A. 2009. Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign
Gerrish, Theodore 1882. Army Life: A Private’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, Late a Member of the 20th Maine Vols.