On the evening of 6th April 1862, at Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee, the men of the 12th Illinois Infantry trudged back to their quarters after a hard day’s fighting. Having just endured the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, the soldiers gathered around their tents to discuss what they had just experienced. The danger, though, had not passed. The enemy remained close, and indeed the furious contest would resume the following morning. As Corporal Con Carroll and Sergeant Henry Wager chatted, a Rebel shell suddenly exploded opposite them. Killing one man, shrapnel from the projectile flew at the tent, mutilating Con’s foot. Despite the shock of the moment, Wager and other comrades soon rushed to Con’s side. Fearing the worst, the Irishman turned to Wager and asked him to take on two important tasks; the first was to write to his brother-in-law in Albany, informing him of what had happened– the second, and most important, was to make sure steps were taken to get his two young daughters to New York. It was understandable that the fate of his daughters loomed large in Con Carroll’s mind as life slipped away from him on the Shiloh battlefield. Only three months previously, news had come to him that his wife had died back in Chicago. In his final hours, Con knew that his death would make the girls orphans. (1)
Irish couple Cornelius Carroll and Ellen O’Donnell had been very young– probably in their late teens– when they were married by the Reverend Patrick McCloskey in St. John’s Church, Albany on 30th October 1849. Their first child Johanna was born on 4th September 1851, before the couple decided to strike out for new opportunities in Chicago. There a second daughter, Mary Ellen, followed on 10th September 1855. Although it is unclear as to the exact timing of the incident, at some point in the 1850s or 1860s tragedy struck when Johanna suffered injuries which left her a lifetime cripple. The 1860 Census found the family in Chicago’s Fifth Ward, and indications are that they suffered from financial hardship. Con worked as a laborer, but when war came he quickly took the opportunity to enlist. He first signed up for three-months on 24th April 1861 in Chicago, converting his term to three years at Cairo on 1st August, becoming a Corporal in Company K of the 12th Illinois. Con was described as 28-years-old and 5 feet 8 inches tall, with red-brown hair, blue eyes and a ruddy complexion. (2)
Con was a man with economic concerns in 1861 and 1862. The $100 bounty money for his enlistment must have been a major attraction for him, given his need to provide for his family. However, it seems likely that the notoriously sporadic nature of soldier’s pay during the war had a major impact on his wife and children left at home. News arrived early in 1862 of Ellen’s death in Chicago on 22nd January, apparently as a result of ‘destitution.’ This immediately plunged Johanna and Mary Ellen’s future into uncertainty, which undoubtedly played heavily on Con’s mind as he marched through the South in the ranks of the 12th Illinois. He never had an opportunity to resolve the situation; the Confederate shell fragment that struck him at around 7pm on 6th April 1862 ended his life some twenty hours later. With more fighting to be done the following day, it would be the 9th April before his friend Henry B. Wager could start honouring Con’s dying wish, by writing to his brother-in-law John Kennedy:
Pittsburg Landing Tennse.
April 9th 1862
John B. Kennedy Esq.
Albany, New York
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of our mutual friend Cornelius Carroll. On Easter Sunday morning about 7 O Clk the enemy attacked us. Our regiment participated in the hardest part of the fight during the day. At sundown we were ordered to our Quarters, and were dismissed, were talking over the incidents of the day when an unfortunate shell dropped opposite our tent, killing one man instantly, and mangling the right foot of our poor friend in a shocking manner. We immediately carried him to our Hospital tent where every attention our limited means would allow, were shown him (the tent being at the river attending to the wounded there). We were forced to vacate our camp until late in the evening, when every exertion in the power of man was made to procure the aid of a surgeon, but without success until the following Monday morning, but his system had received such a shock, that it could not sustain the operation of amputation. He died Monday about 3 pm. I had no idea his death was so near, or I should most certainly have been with him during his last moments. The Company received the news of his death with much feeling, for poor fellow he was a great favorite not only amongst his immediate associates in the Company but throughout the Regiment. Poor fellow let us hope that he has gone to a better place. The whole Company sincerely sympathize with yourself and family in this bereavement. Con appeared to think from the first that he would not recover and requested me, in case the worst would happen to inform you of the circumstances concerning his death. He also desired me to take the proper steps to have his children put in your charge which I shall do, so soon as I have finished this. I shall write to Bishop Duggan of Chicago informing him of poor Cons wishes in regard to them, and enclose your letter to him in reference to your willingness to receive them and would advise your writing to him immediately on the subject. I think Con wrote you last Saturday, enclosed please find a letter he commenced writing to your wife, but did not have time to finish. I have some letters of his which I will send to you the earliest opportunity.
I am Very Respectfully & c.
Henry B. Wager
Sergeant, Comp. K. 12th Regt. Ill. Vol.
Please drop me a line at your convenience. Direct to Paducah to follow the Regiment. HBW.
The Captain will have the necessary papers made out as soon as possible so that his children can receive his back pay and bounty. Yours Respectfully, Hy. B. Wager. (3)
Other members of the regiment also stepped in to help Con’s children. The Captain who had first enlisted him as a three-month soldier, James Hugunin, penned this letter to the Bishop of Chicago and Maynooth, Co. Kildare native the Reverend James Duggan:
April 10. 1862.
Revd James Duggan,
Bishop of Chicago
I would respectfully inform you that Cornelius Carroll, a Corporal in my Company, was killed in the battle at this place on Sunday April 6th. He was the same man whose wife was said to have died of destitution in Chicago last January. He left two children, who, after the death of his wife, were sent to some one of the Catholic charitable institutions.
Carroll was not killed instantly, he lived about 20 hours after he was hit, during his last hours he requested that his two children should be sent to his sister, a Mrs. Kennedy, living in Albany, N.Y. He left no effects. He has pay due him from Dec 31st 1861– out of which there is to be deducted a small sum for clothing drawn– also, his heirs are entitled to his bounty of $100. Perhaps his children will be entitled to a pension but, as to that, I am not fully informed.
The reason of my writing to you is that I do not know his friends or relatives at Chicago. Neither do I know the name of priest of “Father” whose parish he belonged in, but I believe it was Father Dunn. And I know no person who would be more able and willing to trace out these two lost children and help to carry out Carroll’s last wishes more readily than yourself.
And I would, respectfully, request that you take such action in the case as may, to you, seem best and most likely to carry out the dying request of as brave a soldier as ever fought or fell in defense of his country’s rights and his country’s honor.
I am, Sir, Your Obdt Servt,
James R. Hugunin
Capt Co. K 12th Regt Ills. Vols. (4)
It transpired that Con’s daughters had been moved to the Orphan Asylum run by the Sisters of Mercy. Informed of this, Con’s brother-in-law had to get to Chicago and bring them to their new home. The Albany-based grocer John Kennedy (married to Con’s sister, Mary) had two daughters of his own, Ellen, who was around 5-years-old and Mary who was 4. As news of the plight of the orphaned girls (Johanna was now 10 and Mary Ellen 6), the Governor of New York Edwin Morgan stepped in to help John in his mission. Governor Morgan contacted John V.L. Pruyn (himself a State Senator) who was a major shareholder in the New York Central Railroad, and asked if he could be of assistance. The result was the following letter:
THE NEW YORK CENTRAL RAIL ROAD COMPANY
Albany, June 2d 1862
To the Officers of the Rail Roads between Buffalo or Suspension Bridge & Chicago
At the instance of Governor Morgan who informs me he has inquired into the circumstances, I have given to the bearer, John B. Kennedy, a pass to Buffalo & return, to aid him in his effort to bring to this City, the two infant children of his brother in law Cornelius Carroll who was killed at the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing in April last. These children are now orphans, entirely destitute, and are to be cared for hereafter by their relatives here, who are in humble circumstances.
I therefore hope that Mr. Kennedy will be permitted to pass free to Chicago, & to return in like manner with the two children referred to.
John V.L. Pruyn (5)
John succeeded in bringing the girls home to his family in Albany. The 1870 Census records them all in Albany’s First Ward; John (50) and Mary (36) with their now three daughters Ellen (13), Mary (11) and Emma (6) and the two Carroll girls Johanna (19) and Mary Ellen (14). The situation had not much changed by 1880, though by now John appears to have passed away. Mary Ellen was working in confectionery, but there was currently no working life for Johanna. She was recorded on that census as ‘at home, broken back.’ Her permanent disability had a devastating impact on her life. Her physician recorded how it had permanently arrested her physical development– with curvature of the spine and hip disease she was referred to as a ‘hunchback.’ Her left leg was four inches shorter than her right, and she never grew beyond 4 feet 3 inches. Johanna required a crutch or staff to walk, and every once in a while her hip would become inflamed, fester and discharge pus, during these bouts she couldn’t move around at all. Efforts began to get her a pension based on her father’s service, as it was noted that Johanna ‘would have been provided for by her father if he had not lost his life.’ (6)
In the 1890s, a special act of Congress provided Johanna Carroll with a pension of $12 per month. By 1900, her Kennedy cousins had all gone on to have lives of their own, but the two sisters had stuck together. Johanna had refused to give in to her disability, and by this time was working as a music teacher. The orphaned girls would ultimately spend their entire lives in each others company. Johanna was still living with Mary Ellen when elder sister passed away in Albany on 9th June 1920. Mary Ellen wrote to the pension agency to inform them of her sister’s death: ‘I am 65 years of age and have to work every day for a living. My pay will be deducted for my time taken off to-day in attending to this matter [communicating with the pension agency]. Then while she [Johanna] was sick I lost about three weeks from my work while taking care of her.’ Despite her efforts, Mary Ellen did not get any compensation for her sister’s illness or funeral. She lived on for many more years on her own, appearing on the 1930 and 1940 census. She was still in full-time employment at the age of 72, working as a servant. Now the last of her family, Mary Ellen Carroll undoubtedly led a tough life. Having lost her parents at a young age, she then spent much of her life helping her older sister, particularly on those occasions when her disability became too much. One wonders how the Carroll family’s fortunes might have gone had the American Civil War not erupted in 1861; what is clear is that it had an impact on Johanna and Mary Ellen Carroll that followed them throughout the course of their lives, and well into the 20th century. (7)
*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) Cornelius Carroll Dependent Pension File; (2) Ibid.; Muster Roll Database; (3) Cornelius Carroll Dependent Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid. 1870 Census; (6) Cornelius Carroll Dependent Pension File, 1870 Census, 1880 Census; (7) Cornelius Carroll Dependent Pension File, 1890 Census, 1930 Census, 1940 Census;
References & Further Reading
US Federal Census 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1930, 1940.
Cornelius Carroll Dependent Children’s Pension File WC523.