The Forgotten County: Exploring the American Civil War Service of Britain’s Irish Communities

The widow’s and dependent pension files reveal the stories of Irish families from counties up and down the island of Ireland. But the files also provide an insight into another, rarely considered element of Irish service in the American Civil War– the contribution of the Irish of Britain. Although we know that many Irish emigrants to the United States travelled via ports such as Liverpool, not all were just ‘passing through.’ Britain was a major emigrant destination in its own right, and many Irish chose to make their homes there. Some, be they Irish-born or British-born members of the Irish community, eventually decided to cross the Atlantic. The files are filled with evidence for the prolonged residency of Irish emigrants in England, Scotland and Wales. This post takes a brief look at some of the evidence I have uncovered for these British connections, indicating that the American Civil War impacted members of the Irish diaspora everywhere, no matter where they made their homes.

The most common indicator for the Irish of Britain in the files comes in the form of marriage certificates, indicating when a soldier or his parents had been married in England. Unsurprisingly, many such certificates are associated with cities like Liverpool. However, contrary to what we might think, stays in the port that was the gateway to America for many Irish was not always that brief. One example is the case of John Rannaghan and Catharine Delany, who were married at St. Werburgh’s in Birkenhead, Merseyside on 10 September 1849. They were still in Birkenhead two years later, when their first child Nicholas was born on 18th June 1851, but had moved to Brooklyn by the time their daughter arrived in late 1852. John would later go on to service in the 69th New York, Irish Brigade. Another member of the 69th with ties to Liverpool was John Alfred Silke McNamara, who married Mary Egan there on 14th July 1853. Their sons George and William were both born there, and baptised in St. Anthony’s, Scotland Road (on 11th May 1854 and 4th April 1856 respectively). Indeed Mary left family behind in England; when she required proof of the baptisms in 1866 it was her brother John who got them for her, spending 13 shillings to do so. On obtaining them from the church, he walked straight to the nearest post office in Liverpool to send them to her as quickly as possible: ‘I am writing this in the Post Office, Mile End, Scotland Road to save tonight’s post. We are well here at present and will be glad to hear from you. If these documents are not right I will get any others that you may wish for. I must close in haste.’ (1)

St. Werburgh's Church, Birkenhead (Sue Adair)

St. Werburgh’s Church, Birkenhead, where John Rannaghan and Catharine Delany married (Image: Sue Adair)

John Silke McNamara was not the only Civil War soldier who would have been familiar with Liverpool’s St. Anthonys. Another was Timothy Kearns, who married Maria Pelham there on 28th May 1854. Timothy would later enlist in the 71st New York Infantry. Other family stories illustrate that Liverpool was a long-term home for many who eventually went to America. John and Catharine Curran were married in Liverpool on 5th April 1841 and were still there 14 years later, when John died on 29th May 1855. This was apparently the catalyst for emigration, and Catharine was living in New York to watch her son John Jr. march off to war in the ranks of the 73rd New York Infantry. (2)

Of course, such links extend far beyond Liverpool. One example is Patrick Coffey, who was a member of that strongly nationalist 69th New York State Militia that marched off to the first battle of the war at Bull Run, Virginia in 1861. His parents Edward and Margaret Coffey and had married in Ireland in 1815, but Edward died in Manchester on 25th December 1852, indicating that the family had a presence there in the 1850s. Aside from Liverpool, London is the other most frequent English location encountered within the Irish pension files. One Irish family with strong ties to that city were the Foys. Dennis Foy served in the 99th New York Infantry, and was killed aboard the USS Congress when she was engaged by the ironclad CSS Virginia (Merrimack) on 8th March 1862. His mother Mary (née Keefe) had married Dennis’s father Patrick in the parish of All Saints, Poplar, Middlesex on 8th February 1830. In applying for a pension based on her son’s service, Mary had to write to London for her marriage certificate. It was her daughter Bridget, living in Whitechapel, who wrote back. Bridget, who was married to fellow London-Irish emigrant Garrett Jordan, wrote her mother a that letter demonstrates the reality of Irish emigrant life in the 19th century, with family scattered across the globe, not only in Ireland, Britain, and America, but also Australia:

Mrs. Bridget Jordan

No. 31 Princes Street, Mile End New Town

Near Whitechapel

London, England

August 28th 1862

My dear beloved Mother,

I received your kind and welcome letter dated August 11th 1862. I have not received the other letter you mention. I am very glad indeed so is my dear husband to hear that you are so well as you are, though dear mother we are very sorry indeed to hear you are afflicted with the rheumatism which is so very painful– but put your trust in Christ our Saviour– God will we hope relieve you of your dreadful pains, let us hop you will soon get to work again. My dear husband, myself, Thomas, John, Mary Ann, Edward, (James has got the measles) & William are all well in health except poor dear James, who thank God is getting a little better. Accept all our kind love [portion missing]. I enclose you your Certificate of Marriage which I got yesterday– I had to pay 2/6 for it. I hope dear mother it will prove an assistance in getting my poor dear departed brother Dennis’s money. I hope you will get it safe– my Uncle Simon send you his kind love, and hopes please God to see you once again in good health and spirits. My husband sends his love to his brother John and desires to tell him that his brother Thomas is out of work– there being little dying done, in fact he is completely worn out with the want of employ. I hope my dear brother’s Edward and John are well and will accept my kind love. Tell John that his mother is doing very comfortable in Australia, she keeps a laundry and takes in washing- If dear Mother you like to send for any [portion missing] you can [portion missing]. I am sorry to say I am in deep distress, having no work of my own. My dear Mary Ann sends you 3 kisses ☩☩☩ God Bless you– pray write and let me know how you get on– I remain your affectionate daughter & son

Thomas & Bridget Jordan. (3)

St. Anthony's Church, Scotland Road, Liverpool (John Bradley)

St. Anthony’s Church, Scotland Road, Liverpool, where many Irish veterans of the Civil War seem to have passed through (Image: John Bradley)

John McGillicuddy made his home in London for some years prior to his emigration to Brooklyn. His daughter Ann later recalled living there with John and her mother, who died around 1846 when she was four-years-old. Two years later, on 9th November 1848, Ann was in ‘the same room’ at ‘Luton near High Wycombe’ when John was remarried to Margaret O’Connor. During the war Ann’s father would enlist in the 173rd New York Infantry. Thomas Coyne and Mary Tierney were another couple who married in London, on 8th February 1848. They were still there nearly four years later when their daughter Mary Ann was born. Eventually they also emigrated to Brooklyn, where– like John McGillicuddy– Thomas would serve in the 173rd New York. (4)

Of course large numbers of Irish were also to be found in Scotland and Wales, and many of them also found themselves involved in the American Civil War. Brothers John and Thomas Ingoldsby were tailors from Co. Leitrim. Both were presumably working in Scotland when John married Margaret McGuire there in St. Andrew’s Church, Glasgow on 26th February 1838. More than twenty years later, along with their relative Patrick Ingoldsby (also a tailor), they enlisted in Company G of the 23rd Illinois Infantry, ‘Mulligan’s Irish Brigade.’ Cornelius McGonigle also married in Glasgow, wedding Rosanna Kerrigan in St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church on 23rd October 1854. Like the Ingoldsbys the McGonigles moved on to America, settling in Philadelphia. Also like the Ingoldsbys, Cornelius sought out an ‘Irish’ regiment for his service, becoming a private in the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry of the Irish Brigade. A Welsh example can be found in Matthew and Catharine Eagan, who were married in ‘Blyna’ (Blaina), South Wales, around 1852. Life was clearly tough for them, as Catharine would later recount that none of her children ever lived to be baptised. Matthew seems to have emigrated to New York shortly before the outbreak of war, being followed shortly afterwards by his wife. Matthew became an early enlistee in the cause for Union, joining the 72nd New York Infantry during the summer of 1861. (5)

These are just a handful of a large number of examples that demonstrate the links between the American Civil War and the Irish of Britain. Of course, as indicated by the story of Dennis Foy, this information is only available to us because each of the soldiers mentioned died in service. The fate of each is recorded beside their file reference in the References below. For many, the war brought great suffering. It certainly did so to Hannah O’Brien, who had married her husband Cornelius in St. George’s Fields, Southwark, London on 14th January 1840. Hannah’s husband died in 1855, but worse was to come for her in America with respect to her young son Cornelius Jr. On 19th February 1864 he wrote her a letter from Quincy, Illinois, to tell her he had enlisted in the 16th Illinois Infantry. Cornelius was ‘hoping that you will not take it [his enlistment] to heart on account of my going as there was nothing for me to do in Oquawka.’ Less than two months later she received a package from Georgia, returning to her a photograph of herself and letter she had sent her son. Accompanying it was a letter, informing her that the boy had died of typhus fever. (6) 

Photograph of the USS Wabash at Port Royal, South Carolina, taken from the deck of the monitor USS Weehawken in 1863. Patrick Finan would have been aboard the vessel when this image was exposed (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Photograph of the USS Wabash at Port Royal, South Carolina, taken from the deck of the monitor USS Weehawken in 1863. Patrick Finan (see below) would have been aboard the vessel when this image was exposed (U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Britain seemed a lot closer to home than America for some Irishmen, who found that their Civil War experiences accentuated their longing for Ireland. 24-year-old Coal Heaver Patrick Finan was serving aboard USS Wabash on the Union blockade off South Carolina in late 1862 when he wrote to his father back in Sligo town. He had previously worked in England, but military service off the Carolinas, and news of the death of his mother, had deeply affected him:

Dear Father if I remain twelve months more in the navy you may expect me home for a few months as soon as I get paid off, for I never can let home out of my mind I am always thinking of home, I don’t know the reason of it, for when I was in England I never used to think half so much of home as I do now, but I am not the same since my Mother died. I feel very lonely and down hearted. (7)

Patrick Finan never got an opportunity to return to either Ireland or England. It is likely that he is among many thousands of Irish, Irish-American and Irish-British servicemen during the American Civil War who had strong ties to England, Scotland and Wales. Their ‘double-emigration’, which occasionally took place inter-generationally, is yet another fascinating facet of the Irish experience of the American Civil War.

(1) John Ranaghen Widow’s Pension File,John Alfred Silke McNamara Widow’s Pension File; (2) Timothy Kearns Widow’s Pension File,John Curran Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (3) Patrick Coffey Widow’s Pension File, Dennis Foy Dependent Mother’s Pension File, 1841 England Census; (4) John McGillicuddy Widow’s Pension File, Thomas Coyne Widow’s Pension File, 1860 Census; (5) John Ingoldsby Widow’s Pension File, Illinois Muster Roll Database, Cornelius McGonigal Widow’s Pension File,Matthew Eagan Widow’s Pension File; (6) Cornelius O’Brien Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (7)Patrick Finan Dependent Father’s Naval Certificate;

*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

1860 US Federal Census

1841 England Census

Illinois Civil War Muster Roll Database

John Ranaghen Widow’s Pension File WC78945. John  died from wounds received at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on 18th May 1864.

John Alfred Silke McNamara Widow’s Pension File WC84696. John died in November 1864 from chronic diarrhea.

Timothy Kearns Widow’s Pension File WC81089. Timothy was killed in action on 2nd July 1863 at Gettysburg.

John Curran Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC43959. John died on 17th July 1863 of wounds received on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Patrick Coffey Widow’s Pension File WC19650. Patrick was wounded at First Bull Run on 21st July 1861 and died a prisoner of war on 17th August.

Dennis Foy Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC1981. Dennis was killed aboard the USS Congress when she was attacked by the Merrimack on 8th March 1862.

John McGillicuddy Widow’s Pension File WC138484. John, who served under the alias John McCarty, died of typhoid fever in Harper’s Ferry on 7th October 1864.

Thomas Coyne Widow’s Pension File WC58437. Thomas died as a POW in Camp Ford, near Tyler, Texas in August or September 1864.

John Ingoldsby Widow’s Pension File WC 74646. John was wounded at the Battle of Lexington in September 1861, as a result of which his arm was amputated. He died as a result on 20th February 1863.

Cornelius McGonigal Widow’s Pension File WC102739. Cornelius died of disease contracted during service on 27th March 1865, following his discharge.

Matthew Eagan Widow’s Pension File WC25637. Matthew was killed in action at the Battle of Williamsburg on 5th May 1862.

Cornelius O’Brien Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC84143. Cornelius died on 12th April 1864, near Rossville, Georgia of typhus.

Patrick Finan Dependent Father’s Naval Certificate 2867. Patrick died on 5 April 1864 as a result of injuries he received having been scalded by the boilers aboard the Wabash on 21 March 1864.

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Categories: General

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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9 Comments on “The Forgotten County: Exploring the American Civil War Service of Britain’s Irish Communities”

  1. September 4, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    The mention of Dennis Foy is of particular interest to me, being that was my grandmother’s surname. Her family came to America from the Netherlands in the early 1700s, but were originally from France, and were Huguenots escaping Catholic persecution. My guess is that Foy’s family had emigrated to Ireland for the same reason.

    • September 8, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

      Hi Allen,

      Many thanks for the comment. It would be interesting to find out if there was a connection. The name is of French origin I believe, and is recorded from the medieval period in Ireland, and at least some who have it are descended from French Huguenots.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. September 5, 2015 at 11:39 am #

    Fascinating. This is a totally different angle on the Irish in the American Civil War. We too often forget that people moved around a lot in the middle of the 19th century – moving from Ireland to Britain didn’t necessarily mean a better life, especially if one moved from a home in the Irish countryside to a mill town in Lancashire. Circumstances in England may have compelled people to move to the US. We forget that there was a lot of emigration from Britain in this period. People moved out into the colonies but also went to the US.

    • September 8, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

      Thanks Tony! Dead right there, I have been reading a bit more about this ‘step-emigration’ recently and it is a fascinating topic.

  3. September 10, 2015 at 5:51 pm #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  4. Political Tourist
    October 30, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    Strange to read this a few hours after walking passed St Andrew’s Cathedral and St Patrick’s church in Glasgow.
    Glasgow had a major role to play in the Civil War.
    It’s shipyards worked night and day building blockade runners for the Confederacy.

    • November 2, 2015 at 9:12 am #

      Hi Graham,

      It most certainly did- there is an excellent book by Eric Graham called Clyde Built about that very topic. I have come across a lot of Scots in my pension file research, including a number of sets of letters.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. March 20, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

    Somehow this slipped through my reading list until now. I adds fuel to some of my research… thank you. I have found several identified items that belonged to men with Irish surnames who were listed as being from England. That is one thing about your writings that I always enjoy… you inform but also raise questions for me to learn more.

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  1. In the Ghostly Footsteps of the Gettysburg Irish | Irish in the American Civil War - October 8, 2016

    […] United States following extended stays in other countries, such as England. Among them are men like Irishman Timothy Kearns, who married Maria Pelham at St. Anthony’s in Liverpool in 1854 and was killed in action with […]

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