The Keegans of Bray: Reconstructing the Story of A Famine-Era Emigrant Family

Regular readers will be aware that I have become captivated by using Widow and Dependent Pension Files to reconstruct the stories of mid-19th century Irish emigrant families. Naturally, given the material available, these stories can never be more than partial, incomplete windows into aspects of their lives, and need to be treated as such. Nonetheless, I believe the files offer the best opportunity to follow many of these Famine-era emigrants in the years (and sometimes the decades) after their departure from their native land. When combined with other sources, rich detail regarding some of their life history can often be obtained. The story of the Keegan family outlined below is a case in point. Using a pension file as a starting point, I tracked them through passenger lists, census returns, muster rolls, official records and death certificates to reveal flashes of this ordinary Wicklow family’s story across two decades. Their records also revealed one of the most interesting letters I have encountered in the files– sent from within the confines of the notorious Andersonville Prison.

Bray, Co. Wicklow, hometown of the Keegans as it appears today (Photo: Denzillacey)

Bray, Co. Wicklow, hometown of the Keegans as it appears today (Photo: Denzillacey)

The Keegan story begins in Bray, Co. Wicklow, on Ireland’s east coast. It was there on 11th September 1848 that Joseph Keegan and Mary Burns became man and wife. The couple were in their early twenties at the time, and were embarking on married life in the midst of the Great Famine that was devastating large parts of the island. Joseph had trained as a mason, but despite having a trade he and his wife still found life tough. Their first child, Margaret, arrived on 3rd January 1850, and her birth presaged a new chapter in the young family’s lives. Joseph and Mary had likely taken the decision to leave Wicklow sometime in 1849, a year in which their hometown of Bray suffered 68 deaths as a result of Cholera. That they didn’t go until 1850 was likely down to Mary’s pregnancy. Once baby Margaret was old enough, the trio would have headed north to Dublin where they took ship for Liverpool, the great gateway port for many Irish emigrants to the United States. (1)

The Keegans left Liverpool aboard the SS William Penn, taking their place in steerage; all their possessions for the start of their new life were packed into two trunks. On 9th July 1850 they arrived in Philadelphia, the city which would ultimately become their home. They were part of a huge influx of immigrants there during the Famine years– by 1850 there were 72,000 people who had been born in Ireland living in the City of Brotherly Love. Before long Joseph and Mary’s family began to grow. Matthew Robert was born on 16th December 1851 and baptised in the Church of the Assumption. The family may have had a short-lived effort to make a future in Ohio, as their next child Frances Josephine appears to have been baptised in the Church of St. Thomas, Cincinnati on 9th March 1856. However, by the time of the 1860 Census they were back in Philadelphia’s Ninth Ward; the family were enumerated there on 25th June 1850, at which time Joseph was recorded as working as a laborer. (2)

Buildings on Market Street, Philadelphia in the 1850s, not far from where the Keegans lived (Library of Congress)

Buildings on Market Street, Philadelphia in the 1850s, not far from where the Keegans lived (Library of Congress)

During the 1860s the family had their home at 1515 Melloy Street, between 15th and 16th and Market and Chestnut. When the war broke out, Joseph elected not to enlist, likely hoping that more opportunities would come his way at home. However, something had changed by late 1863. Perhaps drawn by the large bounties then on offer for joining up, or due to the seasonality of his work (laborers often found it difficult to get work in the winter), the 37-year-old Wicklow man decided to become a soldier. At the time the Union League Association– a patriotic society formed in 1862 to support the Union– were recruiting their fourth regiment for the front. On 8th December 1863 Joseph presented himself at one of their recruiting stations and was signed on by Lieutenant Egbert for three-years service. In so doing he became eligible for a bounty of $300, $25 of which was paid up front. On 13th January 1864 Joseph mustered in as a private in the Fourth Union League Regiment’s Company A, otherwise known as the 183rd Pennsylvania Infantry. He experienced his first weeks of military life almost on his doorstep, as the regiment was initially based at Frankfield Depot on Broad Street, only a few minutes from the Keegan’s home. It is probable that Joseph had an opportunity to see his wife and family while the 183rd completed its organisation. Then, in March 1864, they marched out of Philadelphia, bound for the Army of the Potomac on the Rapidan River. (3)

Advertisement in the Illustrated New Age of 14th January 1864, carrying details of the bounty for men of the 183rd Pennsylvania (GenealogyBank)

Advertisement in the Illustrated New Age of 14th January 1864, carrying details of the bounty for men of the 183rd Pennsylvania (GenealogyBank)

On 4th May 1864 the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan to begin the Overland Campaign. The 183rd Pennsylvania had joined the famous 2nd Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock, forming part of Nelson Miles’s 1st Brigade of Francis Barlow’s 1st Division (the 2nd Brigade of this division was the Irish Brigade). Joseph Keegan’s career as a soldier on campaign lasted a little under five days– considerably longer than many other recent recruits to the  Army of the Potomac in 1864. At around 10pm on the evening of 3rd May he had broken camp with his comrades at Stevensburg, Virginia, marching towards the enemy. He crossed the Rapdian at Ely’s Ford on the 4th, arriving on the Fredericksburg Road that afternoon and encamping on the old Chancellorsville battlefield. One wonders what he made of the sights that surrounded him from the harsh fighting of a year before. The next day, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia barreled into Grant’s advancing men in The Wilderness, commencing the first major battle of the campaign. Although not seriously engaged, that was the day Joseph experienced being under fire for the first time, as his regiment continued their move through The Wilderness. The battle raged on the following day, with Joseph among those ordered to fortify the left of the Army of the Potomac’s line. He spent 7th May on picket duty, before resuming the advance the next day. Near Todd’s Tavern that afternoon rations were being issued when the Confederates attacked; Joseph’s regiment formed in a field beside the Irish Brigade to fight off the advance, losing four men killed in the process. This was his last full day at the front. The next day, the 183rd Pennsylvania marched on to the Po, crossing that river at about sundown. Although his regiment was not engaged, 9th May 1864 was the day Joseph was captured by the Rebels. Perhaps he was taken while on picket duty, or had become disoriented or lost on the march. Whatever the circumstances, his time at the front was over. (4)

Ely's Ford on the Rapidan as it appeared on 4th May 1864, the day Joseph Keegan from Bray crossed it. Drawn by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan as it appeared on 4th May 1864, the day Joseph Keegan from Bray crossed it. Drawn by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

Joseph Keegan was taken south as a prisoner of war. Eventually he and around 1400 other Union prisoners began a two week journey to Camp Sumter, Georgia, a site that became better known as Andersonville. Originally opened in February 1864, by June more than 26,000 prisoners had been placed in an enclosed stockade designed to accommodate just 10,000. Andersonsville was in existence for some fourteen months– during that time almost 13,000 of the 45,000 Union prisoners incarcerated there died. But Joseph Keegan wasn’t one of them. In an intriguing survival, his pension file contains a letter that the Bray man wrote home to his wife, from within the confines of the prison:

Camp Sumpter, Andersonville, Georgia

Dear Wife, I write you these few lines hoping you and children are well as I am at present thank God. Dear Wife I was taken prisoner on the 9th at Spotsylvania I was in 2 battles and 2 skirmishes and came out safe without a scratch thank God I am well in health and strength I have not being sick for one hour since I left Philadelphia thank God. I am comfortably situated and have quite enough to eat having nothing to do here but keep myself clean and there is opportunity enough to do so as there is a good stream running through the camp. There was fourteen hundred prisoners of us brought here the one time it took 2 weeks to get here, we are anxious to be exchanged. It is very warm down here. I send my love to you all write soon and tell me how you are getting along. Direct your letter to Joseph Keegan, Camp Sumpter, Andersonville, Georgea, prisoner of war. (5)

If you were standing at this spot in 1860s Philadelphia you would have been able to see the Keegan’s home a little way down on the right. Then this street was called Melloy Street– the Keegans lived at 1515 where it intersected with Benton Street. Now redeveloped, Benton Street is gone and Melloy Street renamed Ranstead Street. This is the view onto Ranstead from South 15th Street. This is also the street that the letter for Mary Keegan from her husband would have been carried in 1865. For those familiar with Philadelphia, this is almost opposite Philadelphia City Hall.

Although the letter is undated, it was likely written in late May or early June, given the time it would have taken Joseph to get to Andersonville. His letter is the first time I have come across correspondence sent directly from Andersonville during my time researching the pension files. How usual was it for such letters to be sent out, and why does Joseph’s correspondence appear to suggest that Andersonville wasn’t so bad? Was it that things had not deteriorated greatly by the time he arrived? I am extremely grateful to National Park Service Ranger Chris Barr, formerly of Andersonville National Historic Site and currently based at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, for providing invaluable expertise and advice in relation to letters from Andersonville. As Chris points out, by the time of Joseph’s arrival things were just starting to turn bad in Andersonville. Perhaps he had little idea of what was to come, and felt confident that his stay would be short. Maybe he wanted to put on a brave face for his family. But there is one other factor that likely played into the general tone that Joseph took in his letter– he knew the Confederates would read it before they decided whether to send it on or not. No doubt anxious to let his family know that he was still alive, did Joseph downplay the situation in order to get the letter past the Camp Guards? To get a sense of how the mail system worked in Andersonville, Chris pointed me in the direction of the following testimony, given by former Union POW Dorence Atwater:

A large box with lock and key was stationed near one of the gates, inside the stockade. Every few days the prisoners were told by the rebels that a mail was going to be sent north, and all those who wished to write to their friends must have their letters in the mail box by a stated time. Men traded their clothing and rations for bits of paper, envelopes, and postage stamps. The rebels claimed it was necessary to have two envelopes, the first containing the letter addressed to the party for whom it was designed, with a three-cent United States postage stamp. These letters were taken from the mail box to Wirz’s headquarters and examined. A few letters were forwarded to Richmond to give a color of appearance that the letters were duly sent, but most of them were destroyed, under the pretext that they contained information detrimental to the southern confederacy. Our three-cent postage stamps were worth a dollar apiece in rebel money, so that the rebels realized a dollar and ten cents for each letter written by our prisoners. (6)

The back of the envelope that contained Joseph Keegan's letter. On examining the scans Chris Barr noted that it reads 'Exm'd H.W.' denoting that it had been examined by the Confederates– as Chris noted, the H.W. likely represents none other than Camp Commandant Henry Wirz , suggesting he personally read and approved Joseph's letter. Wirz was later executed for his role at Andersonville (Fold3)

The back of the envelope that contained Joseph Keegan’s letter. On examining the scans for me, Chris Barr of the NPS noted that it reads ‘Exm’d H.W.’ denoting that it had been examined by the Confederatesat Andersonville. As Chris noted, the H.W. likely represents none other than Camp Commandant Henry Wirz, suggesting he personally read and approved Joseph’s letter. Wirz was later executed for his role at Andersonville (Fold3)

Clearly Joseph was fortunate to have his letter delivered, but it doesn’t appear to have arrived in Philadelphia until January 1865. Although Mary probably wasn’t aware of it then, Joseph was already dead. Another soldier of his company, George Neill, later told her what had happened. George had been taken prisoner at Spotsylvania on 11th May, and on being taken to the rear met other men from the 183rd, including Joseph. Afterwards they were ‘constantly together.’ George traveled to Andersonville with him, and was able to tell Mary that in September 1864 they were among a group moved to Florence, South Carolina, where a new prisoner stockade had just been constructed. Leaving Andersonville did not mean there were better times ahead. Another former Union POW who experienced both Andersonville and Florence, John McElroy, said of the latter place:

…the physical condition of the prisoners confined there had been greatly depressed by their long confinement [at Andersonville]…I think also that all who experienced confinement in the two places are united in pronouncing Florence to be, on the whole, much the worse place, and more fatal to life.

Very shortly after they arrived at Florence Joseph became sick, and was sent to the camp hospital in October. George, still in the main camp, tried to keep track of his progress. When two soldiers of the 2nd Delaware Infantry who had been in the hospital came back to camp about two weeks later, they told George that Joseph hadn’t made it. George himself survived to be exchanged, ultimately returning to the 183rd around July 1865, when he was promoted Corporal just days before mustering out. (7)

Mary Keegan began the process of applying for her pension in 1865. In so doing she provided further evidence of the close ties that Irish people maintained with those from their home localities after emigration, something which is a near constant feature of the files. The now 42-year-old widow called on Michael Boyland (Boland?) and Ann Kelly to give statements in Philadelphia. Both of them were able to say that they had known Mary ‘all her life’, since they had been children in Bray. Both had also been present at Joseph and Mary’s wedding in Bray in 1848, and they recorded how their close relationship had been maintained after they had all moved to the United States. Although Mary ultimately received her pension, the fate of the family in the years ahead remains unclear. The widow may be the Mary Keegan recorded as dying on Cuthbert Avenue in the Ninth Ward on 31st March 1880, but I have as yet failed to identify the bulk of the Keegans in the decades that followed. If any readers come across information on them in the post-war decades I would be eager to hear from them. Despite this dearth of later information, the Keegan story is a fine example of just how much detail can be breathed into the lives of ordinary Famine-era emigrants when using the widow’s pension files as a starting point. It also offers a rare opportunity to explore how soldiers tried to communicate with loved ones from the most notorious prison camp of the American Civil War. (8)

Andersonville as it appeared on 1st August 1864. Drawn from the memory of another Irish prisoner, Thomas O'Dea of the 16th Maine Infantry (Library of Congress)

Andersonville as it appeared on 1st August 1864. Drawn from the memory of another Irish prisoner, Thomas O’Dea of the 16th Maine Infantry (Library of Congress)

* I have added minor formatting to this letter 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.

* *I am extremely grateful to Ranger Chris Barr for his invaluable assistance with this post, without which much of the rich detail would have been absent.

(1) Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Hannigan 2009; (2) Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Gallman 2000: 32, Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File, 1860 United States Federal Census; (3) Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File, Pennsylvania Civil War Muster Rolls, Bates 1871: 128 (4) Bates 1871: 128, Official Records: 370, Official Records: 385; (5) Camp Sumter/ Andersonville Prison, History of the Andersonville Prison, Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File; (6) U.S. Government 1869: 1026; (7)McElroy 1879: 547, Bates 1871: 132; (8) Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File, Philadelphia Death Certificates Index; (8) Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File;

References & Further Reading

Joseph Keegan Widow’s Pension File WC94648.

Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The National Archives at Washington, D.C. Record Group Title: Records of the United States Customs Service, 1745-1997; Record Group Number: 36; Series: M425; Roll: 070.

Pennsylvania, Civil War Muster Rolls, 1860-1869. Civil War Muster Rolls and Related Records, 1861–1866. Records of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, Record Group 19, Series 19.11 (153 cartons). Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.Ancestry.com.

1860 United States Federal Census. Year: 1860; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 9, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1159; Page: 121; Image: 125; Family History Library Film: 805159

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 36, Part 1. Report of Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, U.S. Army, commanding First Brigade.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 36, Part 1. Report of Lieut. Col. George T. Egbert, One hundred and eighty-third Pennsylvania Infantry.

Andersonville National Historic Site. Camp Sumter/ Andersonville Prison.

Andersonville National Historic Site. History of the Andersonville Prison.

United States Government 1869. Report on the Treatment of Prisoners of War by the Rebel Authorities, during the War of the Rebellion.

Bates, Samuel P. 1871. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Volume 5.

Gallman, J. Matthew 2000. Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845-1855.

Hannigan, Ken 2009. ‘Wicklow and the Famine’ in Roundwood and District Historical and Folklore Journal 20.

McElroy, John 1879. Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Andersonville National Historic Site

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Categories: Battle of The Wilderness, Wicklow

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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8 Comments on “The Keegans of Bray: Reconstructing the Story of A Famine-Era Emigrant Family”

  1. November 7, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

    These pension files are really proving their worth with the survival of letters such as that sent by Joseph Keegan to Mary. But the post also shows how difficult it proved to get information about the prisoners in Camp Sumpter.

  2. John Murphy
    November 7, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    Another good story. Thanks.

  3. Kevin Frye Andersonville Historian
    November 8, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    Nice story…. Small note. SUMTER… no P

    • November 8, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

      Thanks Kevin I appreciate that! It is referred to as Sumter in the main text, but Joseph Keegan spelt it ‘Sumpter’ in his letter, so to maintain the integrity of his text I retained that spelling there.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. BampotsUtd.wordpress.com
    November 8, 2015 at 8:11 pm #

    Reblogged this on Bampots Utd.

  5. November 11, 2015 at 1:11 am #

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

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