Last Letters Home: Revealing the Pension File Correspondence of Union Irish Soldiers & Their Families

Over recent years I have been compiling a database of those widows’ and dependents pension files which contain primary correspondence from Irish and Irish-American soldiers and their families. As regular readers are aware, these letters feature frequently on the site, but I have only been in a position to share a handful of the 100s I have come across. Having recently been invited to deliver a lecture to the American Civil War Round Table UK in London, I decided to take that opportunity to use multiple letter extracts to explore a number of themes. In order to do this I drew on my database to discuss topics such as literacy, economy, communication, religion, motivation, politics, race, combat, last words and communicating bereavement. Given the time available in the lecture, only a very high-level examination of the material was possible, but nonetheless it does demonstrate a number of potential future avenues of study and discussion. I thought readers of the blog might enjoy reading an extended extract from the lecture (with accompanying slides), which includes all the examples I used in the talk. I should warn readers that I have not censored the soldier’s original words– one extract in particular contains racist language and sentiment that some readers may find offensive.

1Though few people on the island of Ireland realise it today, the American Civil War was one of the costliest struggles Irish people have ever been involved in. More than 1.6 million people of Irish birth lived in America in 1861. In the region of 200,000 Irish-born men fought in the Civil War– tens of thousands of them died. These figures do not include first and second generation Irish-Americans, many of whom strongly identified themselves as part of Irish communities.

Beyond those more famed ethnic Irish regiments, or the few men who committed their thoughts to paper after the conflict, it is often difficult for us to gain a picture of what the Irish and Irish-American experience of the Civil War was like. In order to try and build up a profile of that experience, over recent years I have been examining what is perhaps the greatest treasure trove of social documentation produced as a result of the American Civil War–pension files. It is within these files that the greatest repository of information relating to the Irish-American experience of the Civil War is contained.2Pension files relating to American Civil War service come in a number of forms. Confederate veterans and their dependents did not become eligible for Federal pensions until 1958, although many former Confederate states did provide pensions for veterans directly. By far the greatest number of pension files are those that relate to Union service.

The main focus of today’s talk relates to a specific form of evidence often included in the widow’s and dependents files– letters from soldiers to their families at home, written during the war. These were provided to the Pension Bureau by widows, parents or other dependents. To date I have identified hundreds of such letters which relate to Irish and Irish-American soldiers. The vast majority have not been fully read or transcribed since they were deposited in the files in the 19th century. They can range from a single letter included in a file to demonstrate a soldier had sent money home, to sets of dozens of letters from a soldier to his wife, included to demonstrate their relationship. Once these letters were submitted as evidence for a pension application, the applicant never saw them again, and they remain in their respective files to this day. They allow us to explore a range of themes relating to Irish service, such as relations with those on the home front, motivations, political belief and combat experience. I am going to briefly examine each theme, using the men’s own words. It is worth remembering before we begin that in every instance, these letters exist only because the soldier or sailor who composed them or who is their subject died as a result of the American Civil War.

6Literacy

It is worth noting that in many cases the soldiers who caused these letters to be composed were either illiterate or semi-illiterate. The same was often true of those at home to whom they were writing. In many cases, letters were dictated to soldiers in the company who could write, as we can see here in two examples relating to Miles Flynn of the 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, who would later die at Andersonville. Miles seems to have used different writers at different times. The files are filled with references to neighbours and friends performing the same task for wives and parents at home, with letters from the front often being read aloud to their intended recipients. Some soldiers went so far as to learn how to write at the front. Martin Tiernan of the 61st New York Infantry even wrote to his mother asking her what she thought of his writing, and his letters show his efforts to practice writing the letter ‘B’, the company to which he belonged.7

Economics

A major theme of many of the letters is money. Soldiers frequently sought to make sure that their families at home had enough, and that they had received the pay they had forwarded, usually via Adams Express. They also related what they spent the remainder on. In May 1862 John Gavin of the 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, whose father had died during the Famine years in Ireland, told his mother precisely where his earnings had gone:

I have bought a writing portfolio I gave one dollar for it, and I bought a camp knife and fork and spoon for one dollar, and a pair of suspenders for 25 cts and a package of paper for 25 cts and a dollar and a half I got some pies and tobacco. I have got four dollars yet, I want to get my long boots half soled and heeled. I had a notion to by a red shirt, but you would be mad if I did so I will get a likeness taken and send it to you this week.

Gavin would later die at Spotsylvania Court House. 8Private Patrick Kinnane, the son of Irish parents, was serving in the 155th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, when he wrote to his sister in April 1863 to explain his expenditure:

I paid the sutler $5 for tobacco and other things which I got since I came here. I do not mean beer, for they are not allowed to keep any. $2 to the boys which I owed in New Port News. $2.50 for the pictures $10 I have to pay for the fiddle. $1 for sending the money home. $1 ½ I am keeping for tobacco. This is the truth.

The importance of tobacco is a recurring theme in the men’s letters. To return to James Gavin of the 2nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, he wrote from his picket post in Virginia in 1863 of how he:

never want[s] to suffer for tobacco like I have done I would sooner be without eating.

It was no different for Irish soldiers in the Western Theater. Private Barney Carr from Co. Derry wrote home to his mother from the ranks of the 79th Illinois Infantry while based in Chattanooga in November 1863:

Mother I want you to send me by mail one round of fine cut chewing tobacco just as soon as you can send it to me, for that is the only way I can keep from spending my money, and if you don’t send me plenty of tobacco, why then you will have to send me my money to buy it for I can’t do without the article in no shape nor form…as for tobacco you can buy me a number one quality there and not cost near so much as it would here, I have to pay $1.00 for one plug of tobacco and it won’t weigh half a pound and it is musty after I get it so that I can’t chew it.

Often soldiers sending money home would ask their parents to get something special for family members. Michael Farry of the 29th Pennsylvania Infantry, later killed in action at Lookout Mountain, asked his mother to:

buy the children a frock and Willie a hat for the summer and send me his picture and Lizzie together, I would like to see them. Buy my old Granny something for I know she prays for me day and night.

9The taking and sending of pictures is a common theme of many letters. Some soldier’s requests also illustrate their young age– as is the case with Thomas Diver of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, who wrote home on 2 February 1862:

I would like you to send a couple of grey flannel overshirts and if you can afford a pair of strong legged boots, not expensive ones, also two bottle of the Balm of a Thousand Flowers for to take off the pimples on my face. It is only 15 cents a bottle at Petersons Book Store. Dear Mother I wish you would get your daugerrotype taken for me, the one I got is broke in my knapsack and I have only got the glass that it was taken on without the case, a 25 cent one will do.

Communication

Another recurring theme evident in the letters is a feeling that those at home were not writing often enough. Typical are the sentiments of Garret Barry, a trooper in the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry, who wrote home from Louisiana on 29 March 1863:

Dear father I have not heard from you for some time, I feel bad about it I have wrote you three since I had any, I think you must have forgotten me.

Garret Barry was killed in action near Mansfield, Louisiana in April 1864. Corporal John Doherty of the 63rd New York, Irish Brigade, was equally unimpressed with his mother when he wrote to her from Harrison’s Landing in July 1862:

Dear Mother, I got your long looked for but welcome letter it being a month since I got a letter from you, I thought you had forgotten me. I hope you will not be as long without writing any more.

John would die at Antietam that September.

10Neither were siblings immune from admonishment. Tommy Welch, who, unlike Buster Kilrain of ‘Gettysburg’ fame, was a real-life Irishman in the 20th Maine during the war, wrote to his brother after Fredericksburg:

Dear Brother I received your letter dated Oct 20 a few days ago and am glad to hear from you, but think you are a little unjust in not writing to me before, I have received but one letter from you.

11In a similar vein Coal Heaver Patrick Finan, serving off the South Carolina coast aboard USS Wabash as part of the Union blockading fleet, wrote home to his father in Sligo town to tell him what he thought of his friends who had come to America:

Dear Father I have not heard one word from Pat Keen since he came out here or from Bartly Burns or the wife, but I expected Pat Keen would write and let me know how he was getting on, but out of sight out of mind with them all, for they knew very well where to write to me, but I hope I will live to return them the compliment they have shown me since I left New York, but a stranger will think more of you here than your one friend.

12Insights & Religion

Occasionally the letters reveal new or fresh perspectives about officers or well known figures. A case in point is one letter, written by the brother-in-law of Lieutenant John Conway of the 69th New York Infantry, Irish Brigade in October 1862. Lieutenant Conway had died attacking the Bloody Lane at Antietam, and had been characterized by the New York Irish American Weekly newspaper as:

Courteous, affable, loving and truly brave- he was as much beloved in social life by all who knew him, as in camp by his fellow-officers, who esteemed him as a “noble fellow,” and mourn him to-day as an irreparable loss. Aged but thirty-six years, his young life is another sacrifice of Ireland for America, in the annals of which, as a staunch and trusty soldier, the name of John Conway should be cherished.

This was not a view shared by Lieutenant Conway’s brother-in-law. Writing to his now widowed sister, he cast the officer in a very different light:

We were very sorry to hear of John’s death I don’t blame you to feel bad, but still he was so cruel to you, but I suppose nature compels you to feel so. Dear Sister I don’t think he ever used you like a husband when you lived up on the lake on the farm, you know when you had to go out and milk all the cows and he would be away playing cards, and since yous went east by all accounts he was but worse, and after he went away Mother wrote to me and told me that he never left you a dollar after selling all his things. When he was up here he had plenty of money spending around the taverns and was out at Auburn at two Irish dances, but I will forgive him and I hope God will for all his bad actions. Dear Sister there had been many a good husband left their wives and children which falls on the field of battle and their family’s must feel reconciled now.

13Similarly one of John Doherty’s letters from the 63rd New York, Irish Brigade, adds an interesting perspective to the much discussed drinking levels of Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher. Writing from Harrison’s Landing on 19 July 1862, he was discussing the regimental chaplain:

Father Dillon was put under arrest, he was released in 2 days after. He said he did not know why he was arrested, I think it was a drunken freak of General Meagher.

This suggests that General Meagher may not have been a stranger to ‘drunken freaks.’ John Doherty was clearly a devout Catholic, and religious belief is another major component of Irishmen’s correspondence. In the same letter Doherty relates that:

Father Dillon is a very good man, he is highly esteemed not only by the Brigade but by all the Irish Regts in this Army. Every place we go he has some kind of a church made of green boughs with the cross on top of it, many of them is scattered all over Virginia yet in the places we passed through.

Like many Irish soldiers, Dwyer wore a religious scapular, which he is referring to here:

Those small articles that you mention in one of your letters I have them yet and wear them all the time, indeed they gave me a feeling of safety in the time of danger when the shells was bursting over us and the bullets flying thick around I felt perfectly safe.

Another soldier of the Irish Brigade’s 63rd New York who wore them was William Dwyer from Tipperary. He wrote home asking them to:

send me a scapular and fix it so as it don’t be any weight in the letter. You will get them to buy in any Catholic Book Store and you can get it blessed by the priest. The one I got from Father Dillon it is all wore and I lost the part that goes down my back, he gave every one of us one when he was leaving us, if you can get one from the sisters get it.

Although he survived the Irish Brigade’s major engagements, it was chronic diarrhoea which ultimately cost William Dwyer his life in the summer of 1864.

Motivations

The skewing of the pension file letters towards those that reference money gives the impression that economic need was the main driver for many Irishmen to join up, but that was not always the case. The 20th Maine’s Tommy Welch had the following to say:

I am not without trouble and trials, but still I bear them willingly and more because the flag has given protection to our persecuted country men.

Patrick Kelly of Ballinasloe in Co. Galway and the 28th Massachusetts Infantry was full of patriotism in January 1862:

I tell you what, it is a fine thing to be a Faugh for they are bound to clear the way. Jeff Davis clear the way as the crazy sargent sung the other night. The fire that blazed from Emmets Patriotic eye shall lead us to our victory. So said the bard when Cass left for the seat off war.

Kelly’s regiment joined the Irish Brigade later that year, and while opposite Fredericksburg he wrote:

We joined the Irish Brigade about one week ago, the Brigade gets as much beef as the whole corps. Faugh a Ballagh is the war cry and no turn back. Of course we will cross the river first but no matter, trust to Ireland’s bold Brigade to clear the road.

Patrick survived Fredericksburg and the major battles of 1863 only to be shot and killed on picket duty at Kelly’s Ford on 3 December 1863. Motivation though could also be sapped out of men. Back to William Dwyer of the Irish Brigade, writing home in January 1863 after the crushing defeat at Fredericksburg:

Dear Mother we thought surely that our brigade was going home to New York that time, but we were kept back and would not be let go in account of we being Irish. In the three old Regts we have only 250 for duty when we ought to have 3000 men for duty so we thought when we were so small that we would be sent home to fill up, but who ever lives after the next battle can go home because it is little will be left of us.

His sentiments demonstrate that the feeling Irish troops were being sacrificed as cannon fodder was not a view held only by those at home. Some Irishmen took matters into their own hands and tried to desert. Indeed a number of the letters demonstrate that the pressure to desert often came from home. Limerick’s Daniel Dillon was a trooper operating in the Trans-Mississippi with the 10th Illinois Cavalry. Replying to a request from his mother to come home, he said that:

I am not going home until the war is over, I have deserted once and that ought to be enough and not to do it again, so you must not expect me home until I get to home decent or dead.

It would be dead, as Daniel was killed in action at the Battle of Bayou Meto in Arkansas on 27 August 1863.

James Welsh of the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry was another who was clearly being put under pressure from home. Writing from the Rappahannock in 1863 he had this to say:

You said you would like me to get a furlough but it is impossible for me to get a furlough, and as for deserting it is hard to do where we are now and besides it is running a great risk of being brought back and punished by the military law.

James did not go home– in fact he re-enlisted. He would be killed in action at Cold Harbor the following summer.15

John McKeown of the 71st Pennsylvania Infantry was another who longed for home. Induced to enlist as a substitute when he was drunk, he wrote to his wife on 3 May 1864:

I do think very long for to get home for I have enough of this place, the most of the men would like to get home, they are sorry for re enlisted again they wish they were home. If they were they say they would not be lying in a hard bed. A good many of the men has deserted, some of them has been catched and has got there hair shaved as white as snow and drumed around the camps…

Some late war recruits had a more optimistic outlook. Private Thomas Bowler wrote home to his wife in Youghal, Co. Cork as he prepared for his first campaign. He wrote from the camp of the 69th New York Infantry on 17 April 1864:

I like soldiering very well, I do not know the moment we will go to the field of battle. There will be great fighting this summer but of course I have as good a chance to escape as any other man. I am enlisted for three years or during the war. If it was over in the morning I would be discharged, but there is only a very poor chance of that, but God is good and merciful.

Thomas would see less than two days combat. He was reported missing in the Wilderness on 7 May 1864.

Politics & Race

It is well known that the overwhelming number of Irish Catholics in the United States were strong supporters of the Democratic Party, generally disliked the Republican Party, and were not, in the main, supporters of abolition. The preservation of the Union was the main driving force behind their service. These Democratic, and occasionally anti-black sentiments, come across in some of the writings. Charles Traynor, a 69th New York veteran who would die in the war’s final days at Skinner’s Farm in March 1865, wrote home in November 1864 to say that he had:

no particular news only about the election which will be a hard contest. I hope Little Mac will be the man.

The 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry’s James Welsh nailed his colours to the mast when chastising his sister in a letter to his mother in January 1863. He raged:

I hope she will not be so foolish as to marry a Abe Lincoln abolitionist, for I think it is the ruin of the country.

16William McIntyre of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry was clearly an ardent democrat and no fan of abolition. In January 1863 he shared his political views with his parents:

I think the radicals of the northeast want this government 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 defamers of a country’s rights as the Abolition Party are. I have had time and means to look into the question at issue 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.

Limerick’s Daniel Dillon in the 10th Illinois Cavalry would have agreed with him. In February 1863 he was railing against both a lack of pay and the prospect that emancipated African-Americans would fight alongside them:

…the cry is among the troops down here that if they don’t pay us more regular than that they are, they will lay their arms down and let the damned abolitionists and niggers fight themselves and see what they can do, there is great dissatisfaction among the troops here for the half of them won’t fight to free negroes nor fight with them. If ever they put a negro in the field with our army every black son of a bitch of them will get killed as soon as they come here, so they stand a poor choice if ever they get among the Illinois boys of their lives.

Given the views that some of these men held, the fact that they stayed the course, some of them even re-enlisting as veterans, is fascinating in and of itself.

Combat

Of course the American Civil War was decided on the battlefield, and the letters have many descriptions of the fighting and the toll it took on these men. Some of the letters even include their own graphics. In describing his role in the May 1863 Second Battle of Fredericksburg, Michael McCormick of the 65th New York Infantry went so far as to draw a map. Writing home later that month he commented that:

We are ready for another fight but not under Genl Hooker- I am not stretching when I tell you that the Rebels fear the 6th Corps, they tell us so across the river. John asks what I was doing when I was left guard, I will draw a map to show him as the newspapers do. Now I don’t think the Herald could beat that map.17

Many of the men remembered their first encounters with bodies on the battlefield. Patrick Carney of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry wrote home after the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines:

Dear mother we were in that battle of Saturday and Sunday last, we were in the reserve and we were not in action we are under arms every minute in the day and night. I never saw in my life time the sight I saw. Our Company was sent out yesterday afternoon to bury the dead and we were out 2 hours and we buried 46 Rebels. We are encamped on the battle ground.

Thomas Monaghan of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry was another Irishmen who encountered a major battlefield for the first time at Fair Oaks. He wrote:

mother we are at last before Richmond on the ground that the battle was fought on, it is awful to see so many graves.

Patrick Carney would see many more bodies before he was mortally wounded at Gettysburg the following summer. Thomas Monaghan lasted a year longer, succumbing to a wound received at Spotsylvania in 1864.

18Occasionally the files reveal accounts from famed soldiers that have lain undiscovered in 150 years. One example is Captain Patrick Clooney’s description of the action at Fair Oaks. Clooney, a former Papal Brigade officer, was one of the best-known officers of the Irish Brigade and was later killed at Antietam. He wrote the account in a letter to the widow of Patrick Dunnigan of the 88th New York Infantry, who was killed in that engagement:

On the night of Saturday we reached the battlefield and bivouacked thereon that night- the fields around us were strewn here and there with killed and wounded soldiers, some of them friends others enemies. At early dawn on the morning of yesterday (Sunday June 1st) we were aroused from our chill slumbers and in a few moments afterwards our skirmishers were thrown forward through the woods in front and flank where some brisk firing took place. We were in column by Division in rear of our line of battle and were protecting the artillery upon its right. Soon heavy firing was heard and dense clouds of smoke rose from the woods upon our left. We deployed into line and fronted the enemy. Brisk firing and skirmishing continuing all the time- the 69th Regt Irish Brigade was formed in line upon our right and the whole line of battle swept into the woods to meet the enemy- the advance was interrupted owing to the nature of the ground and the 88th Regt flanked by the left through the densely wooded grove- upon nearing the plain outside the wood I was ordered to carry the Colors to the front of the Column and head its advance- raising the green flag and the Stars and Stripes over us we passed forward and marched by filing to the right out upon the clear fields when the enemy opened a heavy fire upon us and nearly caused the head of the Column to waver- when dashing forward into the plain we were enabled to form line. It was while following the Colors of the Regt in the thickest of the fire and flood of lead that your gallant husband fell fighting by my side- a rifle bullet having pierced his right leg passing through and through.

 19Tommy Welch of the 20th Maine was more succinct when describing his regiment’s attack on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, a scene depicted in the film Gods and Generals:

We crossed the Rapherhanock the 13 December in the afternoon and marched double quick into the city and then we went upon the field, and it was a bloody field. I was struck with a shell. We marched half a mile in front of the Rebels rifle fire. The shell struck me before we got on the field, the Captain told me to go back and said I was badly hurt, but I put my trust in God and went forward.

20Another example is the letter written by Lieutenant Charles McAnally of the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry to the widow of his friend, Louth native James Hand. McAnally was one of the skirmishers who faced the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble assault at Gettysburg, and would later receive the Medal of Honor for actions in 1864. He wrote to Hand’s widow of their experiences facing the Rebel assault at Gettysburg:

I was in command of the skirmishers about one mile to the front & every inch of the ground was well contested until I reached our Regt. The Rebels made the attack in 3 lines of Battle, as soon as I reached our line I met James, he ran & met me with a canteen of water. I was near played. He said I was foolish I didn’t let them come at once that the ‘ol 69th was waiting for them. I threw off my coat & in 2 minutes we were at it hand to hand. They charged on us twice & we repulsed them, they then tryed the Regt on our right & drove them, which caused us to swing back our right, then we charged them on their left flank & in the charge James fell. May the Lord have mercy on his soul. He never flinched from his post & was loved by all who knew him.

Charles McAnally’s Gettysburg letter also gives an indication of something else that we occasionally come across in the correspondence, namely signs of combat stress. Written from the field where they had so recently repulsed the Confederates at Gettysburg’s stone wall, McAnally confided that:

There was never a battle fought with more determination, in the first days fight the Rebels had our battery on the first charge & we retook it again. Mrs Hand please excuse this letter as I am confused & I hope you will take your trouble with patience, you know that God is merciful & good to his own.

Another soldier who showed signs of combat fatigue was Barney Carr of the 79th Illinois. His letter-writing was actually interrupted mid-flow near Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia on 20 June 1864:

Dear Mother I have had to stop writing, we are a lying on the line of battle and there are 12 pieces of cannons in front of us and they are a shelling the Rebs, and that draws the Rebels fire and it is a horrible place to be in. Cannonballs are a flying thick around us and the shells are a screaming in the air and through the woods, cutting the timber and earth in all directions, but thank God Mother I am still safe and unhurt, but how long I may still remain so I can’t tell anything about that yet. God only knows how long it may last, I am sure I can’t tell anything about it now, that by the grace of God I still live yet and am well and hearty in the bargain…these are hard times nothing but fighting every day and killing of men I am a getting tired of it but then I want to see them keep those Rebels a moving to Atlanta and I guess that it is the only way of putting down this Rebellion, and the sooner it is down the better it is for them that lives to see it. But Mother pray for me that I may live to see it over and live to see you all, so Mother I want to see you before I die and I want to see all of the Carr family.

Barney never saw his family again. Seven days after writing this letter he was killed in the Union assault against the Kennesaw Mountain line.

Last Words & Last News

Irishman Hubert McNamara of the 155th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, was one of many soldiers who tried to pen a few lines to loved ones on the evening of 2 June 1864, as they knew they would likely be assaulting the Rebel line at Cold Harbor the following morning. He wrote:

Dear wife and children I take the favourable opportunity to write. I can’t tell what moment I would get killed or wounded but I trust in God for his mercies to me. There is awful fighting going on here, we are fighting night and fighting day. My Dear wife and children there is nothing more I can let you know now I have no time. It is very hard to get paper or ink or anything else here. John Dempsey is well and also Michael Lawler is, I wish that you would tell his wife. There is nothing more my dear wife and children and then I think, so goodbye for a while.21

It was goodbye for good, as Hubert was killed in the next morning’s assault. Michael Lawler was also killed, and John Dempsey wounded. The letter was cut from Hubert’s body five days later and sent to his wife.

Hubert McNamara knew there was a chance he would die at Cold Harbor, but some letters were penned or dictated by men who knew their end was near. William Brophy was born in England to Irish parents, and served in the 29th Pennsylvania Infantry during the war. On 23 February 1864 he wrote to his wife from Bridgeport, Alabama, having fallen ill:

With a sad heart that I write you this morning as it may be the last you ever will hear from me, as I fear that I am not long for this world. But it greaves me much that I am not at home where I could see all your loving faces once more before I leave this troublesome world, but as it is gods will to take me away from you I hope that I may be better off in the better land. I hope that god may spare me a little longer but I thought that I would write so as to have them ready at any moment if any thing should happen.

William died two days later. Another example is that of Felix Mooney of the 61st New York Infantry. Wounded at Malvern Hill he was captured and exchanged, but had not recovered from illness. On 8 September 1862 he wrote:

Dear Wife,

I now have a few lines written to you to let you know that I have got those things you sent me, it was 6 days getting to me and all was spoiled except the brandy. The chickens, milk, tobacco, all was scented with the chickens so I had to throw them away, it was too bad but it can’t be helped. Now I am still pretty low with the diarrhoea, I wish they would send me to New York Hospital so that you could come and see me before I die. I guess they will send me before long, I am very weak indeed dear Wife but I still have hopes of getting well so to join my family once more I want to see you all very bad once more. Give my love to Ann and Patrick. Write after to me. I thank you kindly for sending those things to me, although they were spoiled it was not your fault. I don’t think of much to write to day so I will close for to day. Write after,

Yours Truly, I Remain Until Death, Your Loving Husband, Felix Mooney. 

Three days later Felix’s wife Mary received another letter from Newport News:

Mrs. Mooney

By request of your husband I write these lines to you, he requested that if you ever want to see him alive to come immediately to this place, he is very low indeed. He says there is over 4 months pay due him so that you can have that to pay all expenses hereafter. I don’t think he can live long at the longest but I will try and do the best I can to keep him alive until you shall see him if it is possible, but you will have to come soon as you get this, don’t fail to come if possible. No more at present, From M. O. Sutton the Nurse of Felix. Go to Baltimore and procure a pass from Gen. Wool.

Mary got to Newport News within five days, only to learn Felix had died the day before her arrival.

Corporal Patrick Scanlan of the 63rd New York Infantry, Irish Brigade, was severely wounded at Fredericksburg, necessitating the amputation of his leg. Infection set in and he began to fade away. On 14 January 1863 at Lincoln Hospital in Washington D.C. a nurse sat down to write to his wife of his passing:

He felt sensible, I think, that his end was approaching, for he requested me to make a note of his feelings at that time- this was yesterday forenoon, I think. He did not talk a great deal as it hurt him to do so much. “After I am dead, write to my wife and tell her that I died a natural death in bed, having received the full benefits of my church.” “Say that I felt resigned to the will of God and that I am sorry I could not see her and the children once more. That I would have felt better in such a case before I died. It is the will of God that it should not be so, and I must be content to do without.” This was about the substance of what he said. I read it to him and he said it was all that would be necessary to write.

23Once a soldier had died, all that was left was to inform the family. The pension files highlight a number of particularly poignant examples of this. Anna Heron had heard her son Jeremiah had been wounded at the North Anna, with the 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, in May 1864. On 27 June, having heard no more, she wrote looking for him:

My dear Son, I rite you these few lines hoping to find you in good health as this leaves me in trouble about you. Dear son I rote to you twice and I received no answer yet, and if you are alive I hope you will rite to me. Dear son ain’t you got any one to rite for you. Dear son I expected you in New York, the rest of your regiment came to New York that was wounded. For god sake dear son write to me,

No more at present from your affectionate mother.

The letter was returned to her with the following written on the back:

Washington Hall Branch

2 Div Gen Hospital

Alexandria Va June 29th 64

John E Herron died at this Hospital June 8 1864 with gunshot wound in left knee and was buried in this City in good order.

Another Irishwoman seeking news of her son in 1864 was Bridget Burns. Illiterate, her neighbour visited her on 22 June that year, and Bridget dictated the following letter for her son Henry Burns of the 59th New York Infantry:

I sit down to answer your kind and welcome letter which I received on the 11th and I am sorry to hear that your cough is so bad, but I hope it is better before this and I hope that this will find you in good health as this leaves me and all friends in at present thanks be to God for his mercy to us. Dear Henry I wish to let you know that I sent you that candy in a small box and a small bottle of hot drops for your bowels, I hope you have it before this for I made no delay in sending it. I sent it the day I got yours and they charged me one dollar and 10 cents for postage but no matter what costs it is. When you write again I hope that you will let me know if it does you any good and if it does I will send you plenty more.

My Dear son I am sorry to hear that you have such bad times as you have I wish I was near enough to you to give you your hot rum and oysters, but I hope with the help of God that this war will be soon over and that will be spared to me to see you once more, and then I would die contented.

25As fate had it, the very same day Bridget dictated this letter Henry was going into action at Petersburg. On 15 July she received her letter back, with the following note inscribed on it from the 59th New York’s Lieutenant-Colonel:

Henry Burns of Co D was mortally wounded on June 22, 1864 and died of his wound at Campbell U.S.A. Hosptl Washgtn D.C. on July 6, 1864.

26John McKenna of the 70th New York Infantry, Excelsior Brigade, had been killed in action at Gettysburg. His wife had written him a letter which he never had an opportunity to read. Instead she received the following response:

July 10th 1863

Mrs. Mc Kenna this letter just reached here and it pains me to write you these few lines, but brace yourself for the worst, your Husband was killed on the battle field of Gettysburg on the second day of July, he died a brave man and was nobly fighting for his country and its rights. You must bear up with his loss as well as you can, for there is many left in the same way. May God guard and protect you and your little ones through this world of battles. As I am in command of this company I had to open seven letters so as to see where to direct this letter to you, you have my best wishes.

Your likeness was buried with him, your husband had nothing with him of any value no money or any such thing and soon as we get into camp I will see that his effects are made out and the papers sent on to you. Your husband was buried on the battle field.

A final example is that of Lieutenant Robert Boyle of Co. Armagh. Wounded at Cold Harbor with the 164th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, he was taken prisoner. He asked his friend and fellow prisoner Captain David J. Beattie to write to his wife:

Your husband was wounded and taken prisoner with me at Cold Harbor on the morning of the 3rd of June 1864. We were afterwards taken to Libby Prison Hospital in Richmond Va. where he died on the 1st of July 1864. I seen him every day until he died. When the doctor told me that there was no hope of his recovery I asked him how he intended to dispose of his property. He told me that he had a house and lot in Lockport and that it was yours, also what money was due to him. He gave me his watch and told me to give it to you and to tell you that Capt. Burke owed him $5.00, Lieut. Lynch $5.00, and Lieut. Callanan $10.00. All of them belongs to the 164. Regt. N.Y.S.V. He told me how much he owed the sutler of the Regt. I told him not to mind that as the sutler would collect his bill from the War Department.

He said several times God help her (meaning you), I am sorry I have not more to leave her.

The letters I have shared with you today are just a tiny proportion of what is a vast first-person resource available in the pension files. Indeed it is likely the largest repository of first-person American Civil War letters anywhere in existence. They are an invaluable and under-utilised resource, offering insights into the experiences of a wide-range of different troops. Examining them allows us to break away from focusing solely on ethnic Irish regiments when seeking to explore the Irish experience, as the files cover Irish and Irish-American soldiers and sailors from large numbers of disparate units. Perhaps most poignantly, they offer an insight into the individual experiences of soldiers and their families. Reading each letter, we do so in the knowledge that the man who wrote it did not live to see the end of the American Civil War. Surely there is no more emotive way of interacting with our 19th century past.

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Categories: Research

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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17 Comments on “Last Letters Home: Revealing the Pension File Correspondence of Union Irish Soldiers & Their Families”

  1. October 30, 2015 at 11:15 pm #

    This is one of my favorite posts in your blog…. and that is saying a lot.

  2. Mark Thompson
    October 31, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

    Great post. Reminded me of Drew Faust’s book.

  3. October 31, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    Very interesting Damian, appreciate the post!

  4. Betty Callis
    November 2, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    Thank you for posting these…They are very interesting, heart breaking, and informative. They put me right in the place of these brave men and their mothers. Could you ever pst some from the confederate side, also? I enjoy ECW so very much!

  5. November 3, 2015 at 2:58 am #

    Thanks for the copy Iiked the themes you recognized in these letters. I thought your selections captured the emotions of the soldiers and heightened the depth of their courage and their strong connections to (and need for) their families.

  6. November 6, 2015 at 6:36 am #

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

  7. November 6, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    Don’t forget the Irish in the Union Regular Army during the Civil War.

  8. November 6, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    This is a remarkable collection of letters – a brilliant way to illuminate the Irish in the Civil War.

  9. Kelly
    November 14, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    Really brings the war into perspective as a real thing, not abstract and distant from the study point of view. I am sure you know what I mean

    • December 10, 2015 at 8:25 am #

      Hi Kelly,

      Absolutely- it gives you a look at the experience of the war as perceived by a single individual and their family, which I think is very powerful. Thanks for reading!

    • January 26, 2016 at 4:40 pm #

      This is brilliant info Phillip, I really appreciate you sharing it with us!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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