This week I will be continuing my county-specific examinations of the Irish experience of the American Civil War, when I give a lecture in Galway City Museum on the impact of the conflict on the Tribesmen (and women!). I come across large numbers of Galway people in my research, and have little doubt that the American Civil War saw more Galwaymen in uniform than any other conflict in history. I decided to take a special look at one of these men and his family this week, particularly as they lived very close to where I will be speaking on Thursday. The letters this Galway soldier wrote home more than 150 years ago are transcribed below for the first time. The family story they reveal takes us from Galway to Liverpool, and via Canada and Illinois, before ultimately culminating in Vicksburg, Mississippi. It is a form of emigrant story now largely forgotten in Galway, but one that would have been familiar to many thousands of the county’s people in the 19th century.
Bridget Ridge and John Finnerty were married in the parish of St. Nicholas in Galway City on 14th January 1826. Their son, James, was baptised in the same place on 2nd July 1835. It is unclear how many siblings James had, but they included at least one sister. At some point over the years that followed the family decided their future lay away from the City of the Tribes. John Finnerty took them to England, where they would eventually set up home in Birkenhead. There they were surrounded by many other Irish emigrants, including at least some of Bridget’s Ridge family relations. James spent long enough in England to develop friendships, but in the 1850s the young Galwegian decided to strike out for North America. He may be the 19-year-old ‘James Feenerty’ recorded as arriving in New York from Liverpool aboard the De Witt Clinton on 19th November 1853. (1)
Whatever his date of arrival, by late 1858 James was in Grove Mills, Canada West (modern day Ontario). On 7th September that year he took the opportunity to write back to his parents and sister in Birkenhead, letting them know he was ok. Clearly not a regular writer, James admitted to his family that things were not going quite as he had hoped in his new home. He described how he had suffered from ‘the rumetism’ both that spring and the spring before, and that ‘times is very hard’, particularly due to the price of essentials. Still, if his health was spared he hoped to be able to go home for a visit, though he later wrote ‘I will send you my likeness in my next letter if I can, for I fear that I shall not see you.’ James’s family were obviously suffering from the sense of loss that remains familiar to many split by emigration, as he felt it necessary to tell those at home: ‘I am sorry to see that you are greaving for me…’ One wonders how many homes in Ireland and the United Kingdom had to make do with similar likenesses from America. (2)
It does not seem likely that James managed a visit home. Nearly four years after writing from Canada he was across the border in Chicago, Illinois. On 15th August 1862 he took the decision to enlist in the Union army, becoming a private in Company B of the 72nd Illinois Infantry, often called the ‘First Chicago Board of Trade Regiment.’ At the time James was recorded as a 26-years-old painter (he was 27), was some 5 feet 6 inches in height and had dark hair, grey eyes and a light complexion. It seems that James had been in the employ of English-born painter Francis Rigby in Chicago’s Second Ward (based on a review of the 1860 Census), but had decided he had better prospects in the army. The day before he joined-up he wrote this letter to his mother:
Chicago August 14th 1862
I hope you will excuse me for not writing before now as I have been moveing about for I have left Mr. Rigby thinking that I can better myself. I was very sorry to hear of my fathers death on the 18 of March last. How is Bridget getting along and likewise yourself, please write back as soon as you can and I will try and save you a little money.I dont know how things are going on with you in England but they are pretty hard here. I am glad to say I am in good health as stout as ever let me know [how] James Ridge and his mother and sisters are. I suppose you are living in the old place yet. Now dear mother be sure and answer this as soon as you can and send your directions so that my letter can find you. Give my love to Bridget and James Ridges family and receive the same yourself,
I remain your loving son,
James seems to have continued his habit of erratic correspondence, having not written home since hearing of the death of his father in Birkenhead a few months previously. This may at least be partially due to the fact that James appears to have been illiterate– the 1858 letter from Canada and the 1862 one from Chicago are in different hands. Despite saying that he was seeking to ‘better himself’ (a common theme in letters from men explaining their decision to enlist) it appears that he may not have told his mother that he intended to do this by becoming a soldier. (3)
By early September James was on the march to Kentucky. His regiment participated in a number of expeditions that October, before being ordered to Tennessee in November. James was at Holly Springs, Mississippi when he next wrote to England, this time to a Mrs. Bailey. In the letter James describes the fate of Cheshire native James Harrison, a 30-year-old who had also listed his pre-war profession as painter, and had enlisted on the same day as James. It seems probable the two had known each other (and perhaps worked together) prior to their service.
Holly Springs Nov the 30) 1862
This letter finds me in good health hopeing that yours is the same and im sorry to say that Harrison died on the 25 day of Oct he lay sick in the tent with Typhoid Fever 2 weeks till he got so sick that I could take care of him no longer and then he was sent to the hospital were he lay 3 days and I was with him when he died and stoped with him till we laid him out he was buryed next day. Me and Becker made up his accounts and sent the bill includeing the 50$ that he had in the Illinois Saving Bank that is all he had, it was all sent to Becker to be sent home to his father. While we were in Columbus our company was sent on an expedition down to Tennessee, your letter came when I was down there and I did not have time to answer it till now. We left Columbus a week ago Thursday for Lagrange, we left the latter place 3 days ago and we are now 8 or 10 miles south of Holly Spring Miss. Before we left Lagrange there were issued rations for 85000 men and that whole army is in motion, ready to meet the enemy and he is not far off, for they left Holly Springs the day before we got there. It would do you good to see the whole army in squad and companies before there camp fires at night for we have no tents with us, nothing but our blankets and the woods for shelter. It is a grand panorama to see and we enjoy ourselves first rate, a deal better than you would think we would I tell you. There is an awful sight of troops here in the west, the river is literally black with troops Roseincrans [Rosecrans] has a very large army so has Grant and we are with the latter in Quimby [Quinby’s] division. Our whole regiment is out on picket duty today and I think ther[e] is a battle going on about 10 miles from us judgeing from the cannonadeing that we hear and I do not know how soon we may [be] called into it also. I send my best respects to Eliza and the Duke and also to Dick and Dave also to Mr. Rigby and famly and also to sesesh Bill this is all I have to write at presant direct your letter to me,
Co B 72 Reg in Quimby Division by Cairo Ill
James Finerty. (4)
As things transpired, the 72nd Illinois were not engaged in battle that November and eventually returned to the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee. However, they were to be involved in Grant’s efforts to capture Vicksburg in the months that followed. It was as a part of that campaign that James’s regiment fought their first major engagement at Champion Hill, Mississippi on 16th May 1863. But there were bloodier times ahead. On 22nd May 1863 Ulysses S. Grant launched an assault all along the Rebel line at Vicksburg. The 72nd Illinois, as part of the Army of the Tennessee’s 2nd Brigade, 6th Division of the 17th Corps, were in the front ranks. On that fateful morning, the regiment’s Brigadier, General Thomas E.G. Ransom, moved his men forward at about 10am. Under the cover of sharpshooters, they had to scramble through ravines ‘filled with fallen timber and canebrakes’ as they struggled to make headway towards the Rebel entrenchments. Getting to within 60 yards of the works, Ransom massed the men for the final assault. But the Confederates were ready for them. The Yankee charge was met with a ‘continuous blaze of musketry’ poured into their ranks, while Rebel artillery, which enfiladed the line, ‘threw…shot and shell…with deadly effect.’ Although some of Ransom’s men managed to cling desperately to the Confederate works for a few minutes, they were unable to gain a foothold. Grant’s assault failed, and it proved costly to the Illinoisans. Ransom’s brigade lost 476 casualties, 100 of them from the 72nd. Among them was Galway’s James Finnerty. (5)
We don’t know how Bridget Finnerty discovered her son was dead. Perhaps she was sent a letter by one of James’s comrades or officers. Often such communications sought to soften the blow as to precisely how a loved one had died, attempting to downplay the horrors that modern war could inflict. Unfortunately, in Bridget’s case, we know that she discovered exactly how her son lost his life. Although she may have been comforted by the fact his end had come instantly, his fate must nevertheless have shaken her to the core. That she learned graphic detail of his fate is demonstrated in her pension file. Included within it is a newspaper clipping listing the casualties of the 72nd Illinois at Vicksburg. James’s name has been marked with ink where he is mentioned, twice. The second entry was included because of how he died– ‘literally blown in pieces by a shell.’ Though she would never see her son again, 50-year-old Bridget did receive a pension based on his service. From her home in 13 Elden Place, Birkenhead, she relied heavily on the U.S. Consul in Liverpool to help her secure it. The consul wrote to Washington to relate that Mrs. Finnerty was one of ‘many poor persons here who have lost sons or husbands in the war’, demonstrating just what a toll the American Civil War was having on British communities. He described Bridget as a ‘miserably poor widow’ who was among those who were too illiterate to write to the pension bureau herself, and too poor to get anyone to do it for them. Thankfully, and largely as a result of the Consul’s efforts, Bridget Finnerty’s dependent mother’s claim was approved. (6)
* I have added minor formatting to these letters for the benefit of readers, but none of the content has been altered in any way. 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) James Finnerty Dependent Mother’s File, New York Passenger Lists; (2) James Finnerty Dependent Mother’s File; (3) Illinois Muster Roll Database, James Finnerty Dependent Mother’s File; (4) Adjutant General 72nd Illinois History, Illinois Muster Roll Database, James Finnerty Dependent Mother’s File; (5) Official Records: 297-99; (6) James Finnerty Dependent Mother’s File;
References & Further Reading
James Finnerty Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC31621
New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Year: 1853; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 134; Line: 5; List Number: 1176
1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Year: 1860; Census Place: Chicago Ward 2, Cook, Illinois; Roll: M653_164; Page: 472; Image: 474; Family History Library Film: 803164
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 24, Part 2. Report of Brig. Gen. Thomas E.G. Ransom, U.S. Army, commanding Second Brigade, Sixth Division, including operations since April 26.