Mud Marches, Radical Abolitionists & River Assaults: Letters from the Last Campaign of An Irish-American Soldier

The widows and dependent pension files occasionally include groups of letters written by individual soldiers over a period of months or years. These can sometimes provide significant insight into the motivations, fluctuating morale and political allegiances of these Irish-American men. One such example are the writings of William McIntyre, a young Irish-American from Philadelphia. Through 1862 and 1863 he told his parents of his experiences on the march, what he thought of his Generals, and gave his opinions on both the political situation in the North and the question of emancipation. His final letter home related his participation in the opening phases of one of the great campaigns of the war– a campaign that would ultimately cost him his life. (1)

A Zouave of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry as drawn by Xanthus Smith in 1861 (Xanthus Smith)

A Zouave of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry as drawn by Xanthus Smith in 1861 (Xanthus Smith)

Irish emigrants Hugh and Elizabeth McIntyre made their home in Philadelphia, north of Market Street in the city’s 9th Ward. By the 1860s both had been in the United States for many years, and each of their five children had been born in the Keystone State. Hugh worked as a tailor, a job that gave his children opportunities not open to all. Principal among them was a chance to gain a degree of education. The couple’s eldest son William, born around 1841, was sufficiently competent to take a job as a proof-reader at the age of just 13. By the time of his 19th birthday William was earning a decent wage, taking home $14 a week as an apprentice printer. With the coming of war, the young Irish-American enlisted, mustering in as a Corporal in Company H of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry (Gosline’s Zouaves) on 24th September. (2)

Wiliam’s earliest surviving letters come from the time of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, where his regiment saw it’s first actions. By the start of 1863 the now 21-year-old could count himself a veteran, having witnessed some of the toughest battles of the war. January saw him in low spirits. Defeat at Fredericksburg the previous December had been followed by the debacle known as the ‘Mud March’, a fruitless attempt by Federal commander General Ambrose Burnside to renew the offensive against the Confederates, which came undone amidst horrendous weather conditions. William described his regiment’s part in this memorable episode of the Army of the Potomac’s history:

‘On Tuesday the 20th [January 1863] we started and at night the rain came down in torrents. The next morning we were on the march before daylight and were soaked through to the skin which made us feel anything but in the best of spirits. We marched three miles and as it was impossible to move, the artillery were stuck fast in the mud. We laid for two days in the mud like a parcel of hogs and on the fifth day Burnside made up his mind to turn our Brigade into jack-asses or some other kind of an animal for we were marched two miles stacked arms and started to pull the “Ponto[o]n Boats” out of the mud. It was amusing to hear the boys as they pulled on the ropes for it made us feel like having hold of an engine going to a fire. We had a race with the New York Regts but every one of us pulled and beat them. You ought to have seen us after we were done. We were covered from head to foot with yellow mud and many were the “jokes cracked” with each other about their personal appearance. If any one had told me a man could stand the hardships he has to stand now I would not have believed him. But the old saying is “Live and Learn.” (3)

The Mud March as described by William McIntyre, drawn by Alfred Waud in 1863 (Library of Congress)

The Mud March as described by William McIntyre, drawn by Alfred Waud in 1863 (Library of Congress)

Irish and Irish-American letters in the pension files usually make no reference to politics, but where they do a clear preference for the Democratic Party is usually to the fore. There are two particular periods during the war which appear to witness an increase in political references in the letters– the autumn of 1864, where a hope that George McClellan will defeat Abraham Lincoln in the Presidential election is often expressed, and in the first months of 1863, following the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation. On 30th January 1863 William set down his own position on the latter matter to his parents:

‘I see by the papers that there has been an exciting time in the United States Senate. What can be expected of the people when our representatives set such an example. If one is to judge by appearances of the different State Legislatures the present administration sits on a very shaky basis. I think the Radicals of the Northeast want this Gov’t broken up and they think by so doing they will get the Middle States with them, but they are mistaken. Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey will never take up with such a set of hypocrites and defamer’s of a country’s rights as the Abolition [Republican] Party are. I have had time and means to look into the question at issue [slavery and the emancipation proclamation] and in a clear and candid view I have come to the above conclusion. If a State has laws they ought to be respected and there is no Institution in any State that ought to be interfered with unless it is the wish of the majority of the inhabitants of that State but I have let myself too loose now, but if I was home I could tell you better what I think and feel since I came out here.’ (4)

On the face of things, William’s views would not appear out of place had he been serving with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, but his was a perspective shared by many others in Union blue. Although it may seem he had sympathy for the South, his enlistment was almost certainly at least partly motivated by a strong desire to destroy the rebellion. Like so many other Irish-Americans in Northern service, his primary ideological motivator for service would have been the preservation of the Union– not the emancipation of the slaves. William’s general despondency with the state of affairs in early 1863 was at least tempered by the fact that the Army of the Potomac would not be led by Ambrose Burnside any longer. Following the ‘Mud March’, William wrote: ‘I believe it is the last move he [Burnside] will make of the Army of the Potomac and I am glad of it.’ But he was not happy about the General selected to suceed:

‘I suppose you have heard of Gen. Hooker taking charge of the Army of the Potomac. He is not the “right man.” It ought to be either Gen’s Franklin and Sumner as I think they are better engineers than Hooker. The latter is more like Stonewall Jackson. Lay out the plans for him and he can carry them out if fighting is what is needed. But Franklin and Sumner have been removed and it is left for Gen. Hooker to annihilate the little Army of the Potomac. “So Mote it Be.” [a Freemasonry term] But I think the Almighty will interfere if more importance is not attached to his creatures by our Govt leaders.’

William clearly did not hold out much hope for an upturn in the fortunes of the Union. Unfortunately for him on a personal level, his prediction of annihilation would prove prophetic. (5)

President Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation as imagined by David Gilmour Blythe in 1863 (Library of Congress)

President Lincoln writing the Emancipation Proclamation as imagined by David Gilmour Blythe in 1863 (Library of Congress)

Within a few weeks Joe Hooker commenced what would become known as the Chancellorsville Campaign. William’s 95th Pennsylvania played a key role in one of the opening manouevres, helping to seize a bridgehead over the Rappahannock at Franklin’s Crossing, below Fredericksburg. This was part of a move on the army’s left flank, aimed at threatening the Confederate right. At first light on 29th April assault parties from the 95th and other regiments crossed the river through a thick fog, charging up a steep bluff and dispersing the Rebel defenders with little difficulty. As Joseph Hooker personally led the main strike force across the river into the Wilderness a few miles upstream, William McIntyre took the opportunity to write to his parents on 1st May. His letter is a rare instance of a pension file letter penned by a soldier while in the midst of the campaign that would ultimately cost him his life:

May 1/63

Dear Father & Mother–

I write to inform you that I am safe and sound since I have come across on the Fredericksburg side of the river. We took up the line of march on Tuesday after noon and at 4 o’clock on Wednesday morning our Brigade was put in Pontoon boats and rowed across the river. It was a complete surprise to the “Rebs.” They did not see us until we had got to the shore when they gave us a volley but it did not hurt very many. I did not expect to get across so easy. We soon sent some leaden pills at them that made them “skedaddle”. They keep up a very strong front. We have not had any firing since Wednesday but our boys have had it on the right and left. We had a note read to us that our troops had turned their left flank. I don’t know whether to believe it or not as we have been bamboozled so much by orders from Headquarters that we don’t give them much credit.

Our Division still occupies the front. I don’t know how long we will stay here, but I think we will get relieved by another Division tomorrow. There was nobody hurt in our Company. The weather has been pretty rough since we started out but to day it is warm as any summer day.

Billy Boyds Regt was not engaged so he is all safe. Jack Eberle is well and sends his best respects to you all. Give my love to Kate, Eliza, Nalty and Tommy and all inquiring friends. I sent the Adam’s Express Co’s receipt the day we moved. No more at present. Write soon. I remain,

Your affectionate son,

Wm McIntyre

Enclosed you will find $5 as I have no use for it and if I want any before I get paid again I will send for it.

Your son,

Wm McI. (6)

The following day, on 2nd May, Stonewall Jackson launched his famed flank attack against Hooker’s troops at Chancellorsville. Fighting continued to rage on 3rd May, and William and his comrades were once again called upon. The force of which they formed a part, under General John Sedgwick, was ordered to advance on Chancellorsville to assist Hooker. Moving to the attack, Sedgwick took the famed Marye’s Heights outside Fredericksburg before advancing his men westwards towards his commanding General. That afternoon they encountered significant Confederate resistance, ultimately culminating in a major confrontation on a ridge around Salem Church on the Plank Road. The action becoming general around 5.30 pm as the Yankees advanced on the ememy along both sides of the thoroughfare. William and the 95th Pennsylvania were among those who surged forward on the north (or right) side of the road. William’s divisional commander, Brigadier-General William Brooks, later described the action:

‘Immediately upon entering the dense growth of shrubs and trees which concealed the enemy, our troops were met by a heavy an incessant fire of musketry; yet our lines advanced until they had reached the crest of the hill in the outer skirts of the wood, when, meeting with and being attacked by fresh and superior numbers of the enemy, our forces were finally compelled to withdraw…in this brief but sanguinary conflict this division lost nearly 1,500 officers and men.’ (7)

William McIntyre died during this attack, shot through the head. His father Hugh succumbed to a long battle with heart disease a year later, causing William’s mother Elizabeth to apply for a dependent mother’s pension. In so doing she submitted a number of her son’s letters as evidence of her partial dependence on him, thus preserving them for future generations. (8)

Veterans at Salem Church in 1900 (National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

Veterans at Salem Church in 1900 (National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

* 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) William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) 1860 Federal Census, William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File, Bates 1870: 371; (3) William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (4) William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (5) William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (6) Sears 1996: 154, William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (7) Official Records: 568; (8) William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s Pension File;

References & Further Reading

William McIntyre Dependent Mother’s pension File WC45770.

1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 9, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1159; Page: 298; Image: 302; Family History Library Film: 805159.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 25, Part 1. Report of Brig. Gen. William T. H. Brooks, commanding First Division.

Bates, Samuel P. 1870. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5. Volume 3.

Sears, Stephen W. 1996. Chancellorsville.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Civil War Trust Battle of Chancellorsville Page

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Categories: Battle of Chancellorsville, Battle of Salem Church, Pennsylvania

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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5 Comments on “Mud Marches, Radical Abolitionists & River Assaults: Letters from the Last Campaign of An Irish-American Soldier”

  1. John Murphy
    October 25, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

    Good story.

  2. October 26, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    Nice one Damian! Too often the personal politics of the ordinary soldier tends to get forgotten in the debate over the personal animosities of the senior generals and politicians. It’s nice to get the view of the man in the ranks for a change!

  3. October 29, 2015 at 10:09 am #

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

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