Many Famine emigrants found themselves on the front lines of the American Civil War. Others watched as the children they had taken to America in search of a new life marched off to war. One couple who endured this was John and Mary Hannon, who saw their underage son, John Jr., ride to Virginia in the ranks of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Thankfully for them, at the conflict’s conclusion in 1865 he came home. But it was only a few months before he was on the move again, this time for a career out west in the regular cavalry. He quickly made a strong impression on some of his new comrades, but ultimately fate would intervene to cut his military career tragically short.
The balance of evidence suggests that John Hannon’s family emigrated during the Famine, when he was still a young child. His parents had been married on 27th April 1842 and John Jr. was born in Portumna, Co. Galway sometime around 1848. The family ultimately settled in Milford, Massachusetts, where John followed many other Irishmen into the leather trade, spending his early teenage years as a bootmaker. On 22nd June 1864 the young Irishman joined up, enlisting in Company H of the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry. Although he was recorded as 18-years-old, he was almost certainly just 16; when he re-enlisted in the army two years later, his age was apparently unchanged, but he had grown three inches! The black-haired, hazel-eyed boy rode off to some tough fighting in the Valley Campaign, seeing action at places like Third Winchester and Cedar Creek. He spent the last weeks of the war sick in hospital at City Point and Washington D.C., but survived his service to be mustered out on 22nd June 1865. Not long after his discharge, he was mourning the death of his mother, who passed away later that year. (1)
Despite the war being over, John was clearly keen on the military life, and decided to try his luck as a horse soldier once again. On 4th April 1866, the 18-year-old (this time he may actually have been 18) enlisted in Boston and became a private in Company E of the 6th United States Cavalry. It was the era of Reconstruction, so before long the Galwegian was on his way to join up with his new unit, stationed in Texas. Given what happened later, it seems probable that John knew some men in the regiment already. One of them was Bostonian Michael F. Ferguson, who had also served during the Civil War, as a Corporal in the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. Like John, Michael had also ended his war service in hospital, having been admitted in New Berne with sunstroke. Shortly after arriving at his unit’s base in Austin, John took an opportunity to write home to his father in Milford:
June 7th 1866
My Dear Father
Your letter of April 16th came duly to hand and content noticed. I was glad [to] learn that you are well and in good health as this little letter leaves me at present. Dear Father, my Company is going to New Orleans as Body Guard for General Sheridan it may be possible that we will remain there the remainder of our time. Father, New Orleans is a poor place for a soldier to save his money but a gay place to enjoy yourself but never the less I will send you home all the money I can possibly spare we have not been paid off yet, and due respects to all not forgetting yourself,
I remain your obedient son
John Hannon Jr. (2)
Unfortunately for John, having survived the hardships of the Civil War his second spell in the army came to a premature end. On 13th June he was guarding two African-American prisoners who were being taken from camp to the Colorado River to collect water. John was seated on the government wagon as it moved down Congress Avenue, near the Capitol, when the jarring of the vehicle caused his carbine to go off. Placed as it was between the young man’s legs, the bullet entered through his chin and exited the back of his head, killing him instantly. His comrade Michael Ferguson took it on himself to write a series of letters to the boy’s family. One was to John’s sister, Kate:
June 18th 1866
To Miss Kate Hannon,
The affection I have borne your brother John makes me give you the trouble of these few lines which I hope you will receive as kindly as I intend them. It is but a short time ago that your brother John wrote and posted a letter to his father in that letter he told him all the particulars as to where and [sic.] where he was stationed how he liked Austin where his father was to direct his next letter to. But he had no idea it was going to be his last letter to his father, brothers, sister, but alas it is, so your brother John is dead. I cannot fail to feel the loss you have sustained in the death of a good and indulgent brother. It pierces me to the heart; for I know how great your affliction will be for him and how feelingly you must bemoan his loss. I know you will cry for him but I hope you will not sit in gloomy silence. I do not like that; for I have some where read that tears ease the heart and open a passage for the anguish of the soul. That Heaven may give yous patience under this terrible calamity is the most fervent prayer of his disconsolate friends.
The circumstances of his death are these. On Wednesday he was in charge of two Colored prisoners who were hauling water in a government wagon when from some cause unknown his carbine was discharged, the ball striking him under the chin, severing the jugular vein and passing out through the back part of his head, causing immediate death. He never spoke or murmured after he was struck. He was buried on the following Friday at 2 O’Clock P.M. with military honors in the Soldiers Cemetary.
May his soul rest in peace is the wish of his brother soldiers by whom he was beloved and respected. Enclosed you will find a lock of his hair. I thought you would like to have it as a memorial of your devoted brother. Patrick Cummiskey would have written to you before this but he was ordered away about two hours before the funeral took place, but he was one of the party who sat up with him the night before. Miss Kate I addressed this letter to you on account of the last one being sent to your father. If there is any questions you would like to ask in regard to your brother I would be happy to answer. (3)
John’s father wrote back, asking about any monies owed his son, and about the possibility of getting the body home. Michael was quick to seek to dissuade him from this, and to give his opinions about Texas:
…I think it is a foolish idea to undertake to bring his body home as it would cost as much from here to there as the same bulk would from there to China there is no Rail Roads or Steam Boats out in this Godforsaken Country. The climate is exceedingly hot and the only mode of conveyance is teams drawn by oxen the nearest Rail Road Station is 100 miles from where we are to get his body some person would have to start from there here and the expenses would be in the neighborhood of $200 the same back. I dont think the corps[e] could be brought to Milford short of $900. He is buried in a good place where the sun shines bright and clear may his soule rest in peace is the earnest wish of your humble servant. (4)
Unlike his young friend, Michael Ferguson would go on to have a long career in the 6th U.S. Cavalry. He surely though never forget his comrade of just a few weeks in 1866. One of the notes he wrote to John Hannon’s family was a eulogy, ‘To the Memory of John Hannon Jr.’, demonstrating just what he thought of the young emigrant who had met his death in such a tragic accident:
To the Memory of John Hannon Jr
Late of Co E 6th U.S. Cav. died June 13/66
Those who knew him best loved him most. We were of that unfortunate number. Having been intimately associated with him in the purest friendship and social relations and particularly during the bitter and severe ordeal through which his sensitive and noble spirit passed in the service of his country. Infinite gentleness and enduring love were prominent traits of his social character. As a friend gifted in every grace of heart and mind to command devotion and excite admiration; we have never known his superior and those affections that centered in him on Earth sill cluster around him in his beautiful home in the mansion [of] glory. As a patriot he challenged the admiration of his fellow soldiers by periling all for his Country’s rights and glory. As a son and brother the most delicate and beautiful traits of character were revealed. Seldom do we see so kind and warm a soul so full of inborn riches. His heart was the home of virtue, truth, and love. There gathered around him a charm which knit to his heart the most devoted affections of father, brothers & sisters ,but his place in the family circle cannot be filled. hHis immortal hand sweeps the chords of the harp of Redemption.
Requiesant in Peace
Michael F. Ferguson
Co. E 6th U.S. Cavalry
Austin Texas (5)
* I have added minor formatting and spelling corrections to these letters for the benefit of readers, but none of the content has been altered in any way. If you would like to read a transcript of the letter as it appears in the original please email me. 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) John Hannon Father’s Pension File, Army Register of Enlistments, John Hannon 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry Service Record; (2) Army Register of Enlistments, John Hannon Father’s Pension File, Michael Ferguson 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Service Record; (3) John Hannon Father’s Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Army Register of Enlistments, Ibid.;
John Hannon Dependent Father’s Pension File WC126589.
John Hannon 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry Service Record.
Michael Ferguson 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Service Record.
Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1866.