‘His Death is an Uncertainty:’ Two Irish Women Search for Missing Husbands after Second Bull Run

As I am currently on a few days leave I have been taking the opportunity to catch-up on some reading. A book I am particularly enjoying is John J. Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. I was struck by the savage intensity of much of the fighting on 29th August, 1862, when a series of un-coordinated Federal attacks against Jackson’s Confederates resulted in severe casualties. Hennessy vividly describes the see-saw fighting across the woods and unfinished railway cut on this part of the battlefield, as isolated Union assaults often met with initial success, only to be thrown violently back by determined Rebel defenders. The fighting, some of which was hand-to-hand, left large numbers of dead and wounded scattered about the field. I never read such descriptions without thinking about the impact such horrors had on individuals and their families. The confused, intensive nature of the battle on 29th August, coupled with the fact that the victorious Confederates held the field afterwards, meant that many Union men simply disappeared that day. With no corpse as proof of death, what did this mean for the families– were they dead? injured? captured? What did it mean for those in search of a pension? I decided to take a look at a couple of their stories in an effort to find out.

The fighting at Second Bull Run by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

The fighting at Second Bull Run by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

At around 3pm on 29th August, 1862, Brigadier-General Cuvier Grover led an attack towards the enemy on the Bull Run battlefield. Bursting from the woods in front of the Rebel position, his men successfully overran the railway cut, grappling for its possession in a “hand-to-hand melee with bayonets and clubbed muskets.” In so doing Grover’s brigade had driven a dangerous wedge into the Confederate line. They pressed forward, but crucially were left unsupported. The Rebels eventually counter-attacked, with blistering fire seeing “men dropped in scores, writhing and trying to crawl back, or lying immovable and stone-dead where they fell.” Despite incredible effort, after 30 minutes the press of Southern infantry finally forced Grover’s men back, exposing them to yet more galling fire. One recalled that as his regiment “recrossed the railroad bank, they were exposed to a murderous fire from each flank, to say nothing of the very bad language used by the rebels in calling upon them to stop.” One of the men who made the attack that day was Private James Moran of Company B, 11th Massachusetts Infantry. The 11th were Grover’s left-hand unit, and took 112 casualties on 29th August. Was 33-year-old Irishman James Moran one of them? (1)

Danvers currier James Moran had marched off to war a little over eight months before Second Bull Run. He had married Ellen Coughlin on 9th May 1853 at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Salem. They had three living children in August 1862; Michael (b. 22nd July 1859), Ellen (b. 14th January 1861) and James (b. 9th June 1862). James was less than 3 months old the day his father disappeared. The Irish woman knew only that her husband was gone. Her initial efforts to reveal what became of him uncovered little, as this response to one inquiry demonstrates:

Head Quarters 11th Regt. Mass Vols

Sept 13th 1862

Mrs. Moran,

I am unable to give you much information in regard to your husband James Moran. He went in to the fight, Friday Aug 29th and has not since been heard from. If I can get any information in regard to him I shall be glad to impart it to you.

Yours truly,

R.E. Jameson. (2)

Although the balance of probability suggested James Moran may be dead, without sufficient proof Ellen Moran could secure neither closure or a pension. Eventually her agent managed to contact James’s company commander Captain Walter Smith. His reply in March, 1863 seemed to confirm her worst fears:

Capt. W.N. Smith

Head Quarters Co B

11th Regt Mass Vols

March 1st 1863

Mr. A.A. Putnam

Dear Sir,

Your communication in regard to the death of Private James Moran of my company has been received & I hasten to answer it. The facts in the case are these. On the 29th of August last Private Moran with the rest of my command went into the charge on that day in which this Regt., Company, & Brigade suffered most severely. He never came out of the woods with us nor has he ever been heard of since. His death is an uncertainty and I would not wound the feelings of his family by stating such to be the fact though it is too probable. I very much fear he was reported on the list of dead for the muster and pay rolls of my company…it is more than probable then he with others were killed on that fatal day. He was a brave and willing soldier who always did his whole duty and if dead he died as a soldier & a patriot facing his country’s foes. He has been dropped from my rolls since the day of his death (supposed) ample time having been given him to report. 

Yours with compassion for his family,

Walter N. Smith

Capt. 11th Mass Vols

Com’dg Co B

P.S. Anything further I can do let me know and I will do it. 

W.N.S. (3)

Ellen appears to have never got any further details with respect to her husband’s final moments. He simply never re-emerged from the battlefield of Second Bull Run. Eventually the likelihood of his death was accepted, and on 24th May 1864 her widow’s pension was approved. (4)

A Soldier of the 11th Massachusetts (Library of Congress)

A Soldier of the 11th Massachusetts (Library of Congress)

At around 5pm on 29th August 1862– a couple of hours after James Moran’s ordeal– another of the isolated Federal attacks that typified the day was launched under the guidance of Major-General Phil Kearny. The 101st New York Infantry of Brigadier-General David Birney’s brigade were among the troops who supported this attack. Forming in line on the left of the 40th New York, the 101st tramped towards the Rebels, with one remembering that “the ground was literally covered with dead bodies, there being one every few feet and sometimes two or three together.” Driving the Rebel skirmishers back through the woods, the New Yorkers were joined by the 4th Maine as they closed in on the railroad cut. The blueclad infantry unleashed a curtain of fire at the enemy from thirty yards out, charged, and put the enemy to flight. Victory seemed within their grasp as they pressed forward, but as before a Confederate counter-attack eventually proved decisive. After 45 minutes of fighting they had to fall back, retracing their steps over ground so dearly won. By the end of the fighting, the 40th and 101st New York between them could muster only 250 men. Irishman Edward Sweeny, who had gone into the action as a private in Company A of the 101st, was not one of them. Though it was known he had been wounded, no-one seemed to have any idea what became of him. (5)

Catherine Dwyer had been no more than 17-years-old when she married labourer and fellow Irish emigrant Edward Sweeny. He was 15 years Catherine’s senior when the couple were wed in the Catholic Church of Owego, New York on 22nd August 1851. The 1860 Census recorded them living there with their children Michael (8), Edward (4), John (2), Sarah (3 months) and Dan (3 months). Sometime between the census and the Second Battle of Bull Run baby Dan appears to have died. As with Ellen Moran, following the battle Catherine was left with the arduous task of attempting to discover her husband’s fate before she could seek financial aid for her family. Appointing an agent to assist her, their first port of call was the surgeon responsible for the records of the 101st New York, who was contacted via the Sanitary Commission. But the 101st had lost so many men by 1863 that it had to be consolidated, and so the man who wrote back on 26th March was the surgeon of the 37th New York. This is what he had to say:

Edward Sweeny is reported by his comrades and on the regimental books as wounded at the Battle of Groveton near Manassas Plains on the 29th August 1862. Said to have been wounded in the head (the missile fracturing the skull), in the wrist and body (part unknown). My information states that the surgeon who attended him on the field had no hope of his recovery. Informant also states that he saw him at the same time and place (the general depot on the field– a large farm house right in rear of the scene of the engagement) and found him very low. Further information may be offered from Dr. D.B. Van Slyke Oswego N.Y. then surgeon of the 101st Regt since mustered out with the other officers, in consequence of the consolidation with the 37 N.Y. Inf.

I am almost satisfied that Sweeny died on the field, where he was buried subsequently “without note or comment.” Records were not kept at all, I strongly suspect, owing to the lack of system & the dire confusion prevailing at the time. 

As far as my own notes go, they are confined to those cases in the hospital at Centreville where I had charge of 3 or 4 wards containing about 80 sick and wounded– a list of whom I furnished at the time to Med. Inspector…also the names of those who died, as far as I could learn. Some were moribund, but in one or two instances I obtained the desired information from letters or pocket books found on their persons. 

William O’Meagher

Surgeon 37 NY Rifles (6)

Despite the near certainty that Edward was dead, Catherine needed more proof is she was to get a pension. Taking O’Meagher’s advice, they wrote to Surgeon Van Slyck, though with little result:

Syracuse Apr 21st 1863

Dr Sir,

Yours of the 14th is rec’d & in reply I can only say that Sweeny was reported in the regt as dead on the field. I did not see him after the battle & have heard nothing from him since. If by any possibility he was saved & reached a hospital you can learn of it by writing to the Office of the Sanitary Commission, Washington D.C. 

Yours Respectfully

D.B. Van Slyck (7)

Union soldiers find remains of their comrades on the Second Bull Run battlefield, 1863 by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

Union soldiers find remains of their comrades on the Second Bull Run battlefield, 1863 by Edwin Forbes (Library of Congress)

Of course they had already been in touch with the sanitary commission, so the search for further information continued. 1863 came and went without resolution. By 1864 they were in touch with J.W. Egan, of the 40th New York, with whom the 101st were by then consolidated. Again their queries produced few results:

H.Q. 3rd Brigade 1st Div., 3d Corps

Camp near Brandy Station, Va.,

March 5, 1864

Dear Sir,

Enclosed please find the best certificates procurable, after thorough examination [these state only that Edward had been wounded]. Mr. Sweeny, though mortally wounded, must have died in rebel hands- no man in the 40th saw him die. 

The 101st was not then consolidated with my command, & consequently I had no control over its records. It also passed through one consolidation (with the 37th N.Y.) previously, & after the Battle of Manassas.

You now require a surgeon’s certificate or that of someone who saw him die. But this is not necessary if his officers in the 101st have done their duty, and filed his “final statement” in the office of the Adjutant General.

Can you not ascertain who was his company commander in the 101st? He must live in your vicinity, & is the person to give you a certificate.

Truly yours,

J.W. Egan

Col. 40th N.Y.S.V.

Comdg Brigade (8)

Efforts now turned to tracking down Edward’s former Company commander, Captain William C. Allen, as had been suggested. But again, the sheer toll the Second Battle of Bull Run had taken on the 101st New York impeded their efforts, for Allen had himself suffered a wound on 29th August that brought an end to his military service. He wrote the following in May 1864:

63 Bleecker St

New York 28th May 1864

Owego N.Y.

Sir,

Yours of Apl 28th has just come to hand remaining in the P.O. until ad-returned. As regards Sweeny I am sorry to say I have no way of knowing anything more than that he was reported wounded & never been heard from since. I was wounded on the same day & never had command of my Company afterward, however I will try & find my former orderly & perhaps he may know something in regard to Sweeny’s fate.

Respy yours,

W.C. Allen. (9)

There is nothing more on file with respect to the search for information about Edward Sweeny’s fate. Unfortunately for Catherine, she also accidentally provided some incorrect information about one of her children’s birthdates which slowed pension approval still further. Seemingly accepting that Edward must have died and been buried on the field at Bull Run, she was eventually granted a pension in January 1865, nearly 2 and a half years after her husband’s death. The experiences of women like Catherine Sweeny and Ellen Moran demonstrate that who held the field at battle’s end often had wider ramifications than just military pride or tactical advantage. For those who had the misfortune to have “missing” husbands as a result of Federal reversals, it meant the battle would live on for many months or even years into the future, as they sought the answers needed to not only learn their loved ones fate, but also to secure their own financial security. (10)

Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office, Washington DC. She helped many families learn the fate of their loved ones following the Civil War, but unfortunately Alexander Scarff's parents were not among them. (Photo by E.L. Malvaney)

Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, Washington DC. She helped many families learn the fate of their loved ones following the Civil War. (Photo by E.L. Malvaney)

*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) Hennessy 1999: 251, 253-4, 256, 257, James Moran Widow’s Pension File; (2)  Massachusetts AG 1931: 751, James Moran Widow’s Pension File, 1860 Census; (3) James Moran Widow’s Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Hennessy 1999: 276, 277-8, 284 (6) Edward Sweeny Widow’s Pension File; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid.; 

References & Further Reading

1860 US Federal Census.

James Moran Widow’s Pension File WC23725.

Edward Sweeny Widow’s Pension File WC39109.

Hennessy, John J. 1999. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas.

Massachusetts Adjutant General, 1931. Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil WarVolume 1.

Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Civil War Trust Second Manassas Page.

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Categories: Battle of Second Bull Run, Massachusetts, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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11 Comments on “‘His Death is an Uncertainty:’ Two Irish Women Search for Missing Husbands after Second Bull Run”

  1. August 20, 2015 at 10:35 pm #

    Damian, thanks for shedding light on these tragic stories of the missing. So many Civil War-related fatalities went unaccounted for that scholars now think the oft-repeated “official” count of 620,000 deaths could be way off. The actual number might be in the range of 750-850,000, which represents at least 1 in 10 white men of military age in 1860: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/recounting-the-dead/

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:20 pm #

      Hi Brendan,

      Good to hear from you! Absolutely true. i often wonder how many are still on the field as well, many made into unmarked graves, but there must still be large numbers still out there.

  2. John Murphy
    August 21, 2015 at 12:04 am #

    As usual Damian well researched and insightful. These stories help to better understand what not only the soldiers went through but what their families endured while looking for answers.
    Enjoyed my recent visit to Cork and Cobh. Got to visit with the last Mulcahy and visit the graves of great grandparent. Jack

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      Hi Jack,

      Many thanks! I am glad you got to the graves as well. Hopefully it won’t be too long before you are back this way!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. August 21, 2015 at 9:02 am #

    Letters like these show among other things a touch or sense of humanity in a chaotic and devastated aftermath. One can imagine the surgeon not knowing but adding to the end that he was going to ask a former orderly if knew anything further The battle field surgeon would probably have been physically and emotionally exhausted constantly The velocity and calibre of bullets used created devastating bone injuries for which the safest treatment was amputation Brutal and disfiguring it was found to be the favoured procedure both for preventing infection and speed The numbers of soldiers with shattered limbs was overwhelming and doctors would often have known soldiers in his unit as being neighbours and patient s from before the war

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:17 pm #

      Hi Eileen,

      Many thanks for the comment. Many of these letters from surgeons and officers demonstrate their compassion as they are all to aware that the family at the other end was desperate for answers. Occasionally I do come across some which are less understanding, but they are in the minority.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. laurie.a
    August 22, 2015 at 8:44 pm #

    Reading what you share shakes me–perhaps like aftershock tremors long after the actual, devastating earthquake. I appreciate your reminders of the shattering reality of that war.

    • September 1, 2015 at 2:16 pm #

      Thanks Laurie and I appreciate you taking the time to read the posts.

  5. August 23, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

    Again, Damian, you supply real evidence of the horrors of the war for the families left wondering if their loved ones were alive, injured or dead. While a confirmation of any of these must have provided some closure, the search for the missing must have been harrowing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Vacant Chairs: The Effects of The Civil War & How Ladies Coped | Gazette665 - August 28, 2015

    […] been with the unit at the beginning of the fight, never left the field, and was never found. (Read His Death is an Uncertainty for more […]

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