Analysing 19th Century Emigration, A Case Study: Dissecting One Irishman’s Letter Home

As regular readers are aware, I have long been an advocate of the need to study the thousands of Irish-American letters contained within the Civil War Widows & Dependent Pension Files. This unique resource offers insights into 19th Century Irish emigration that do not exist anywhere else. Their value to Irish, as well as American, history reaches far beyond our understanding of the Irish experience of the conflict itself. They have much to tell us about multiple facets of Irish life, both in Ireland and America. In order to demonstrate this potential, I have broken down one Irish letter into its component parts, in an effort to highlight just how invaluable these primary sources can be for those interested in Irish emigrants. 

The envelope which contained Peter Finegan's letter to his parents, which is analysed below (Fold3.com/NARA)

The envelope which contained Peter Finegan’s letter to his parents, which is analysed below (Fold3.com/NARA)

On 13th December 1862, 21 year-old immigrant Private Peter Finegan of the 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, Irish Brigade, marched out of the town of Fredericksburg and towards Marye’s Heights. What happened to the regiment next is well documented. It was Peter’s first battle, and we are left to ponder what went through his mind as he advanced through the deadly blizzard of fire that engulfed him. It seems probable he made it past the long-range artillery fire that first gouged red trails of savagery through the Brigade’s ranks, but he was not so lucky when it came to the Rebel infantry. As the Northerners advanced, the Confederates behind the stone wall rose to pour a curtain of lead into their foe. Peter’s Captain remembered seeing the young Irishman being struck four times by bullets, inflicting wounds which ended his life. Just over 10 weeks before his death, Peter had written to his parents from his base in Fairfax Court House. In 1866, in an effort to secure a pension based on their son’s service, Peter’s mother and father included that letter in their application, where it has remained in their file ever since. (1)

Head quarters 116 Reg P. V.

Camp Bardwell, Sep 29th 1862

Dear Father & Mother

I Rec’d your kind and welcome letter about a week ago which gave me much pleasure to hear from you and I would have wrote before this only waiting for the Captain to come from the City of Philadelphia with the money so to day I send you’s $40 dollars by Adams Express Company as soon as you receive the money write to me without delay and let me know for I have the receipt for it and if you dont get it they will have it to pay when you get this letter go right away to Charles Hughes and you will get the money I’m sorry I could not send it sooner for I think by the times you were in need of it and you’s will never want while I can get any thing to help you’s along only dont be worrying yourselves about me I am all right thank God. (2)

This first element of Peter’s letter follows the general norms of what we expect from Irish letters of this period. By far the most common form sees the writer express a wish that those at home are in good health, before then stating that they themselves are well, e.g.: ‘I hope this letter finds you well as this leaves me at present thanks be to God.’ The letter immediately contains the detail which led to its inclusion in the pension application– a reference to $40 Peter was sending by Adams Express, thereby proving (as was required by the Pension Bureau) that he financially supported his parents. The Adams Express Company played a vital role for all troops at the front, and it is frequently referenced in their letters. Another common sentiment expressed in soldier’s letters is for family not to worry themselves about their welfare, and also of their determination to provide for their dependents. (3)

I was at the Holy Sacrifice of Mass this morning it was read in Camp and I think we will have mass every morning now from this out. He hears confessions every night so it gives us all a chance to go and he says he will be with us on the Battle Field so that is a great consolation to us… (4)

The letter continues with reference to Peter’s Catholic religion, which was clearly important to him and his family. Many Irish soldier’s correspondence carry references to the importance of their faith, with family often sending scapulars for the men to wear. Those Catholic Irish troops in designated Irish regiments, such as the 116th Pennsylvania, generally had significantly better access to Catholic chaplains than those that served in non-ethnic units. (5)

…so Father & Mother the only thing I as[k] of you both is not to worry about me I know I done wrong in leaving you both at the ending of your days but I hope you will forgive me and with the help of God I hope I will live to see yous in your little Home together once more and then I will take some of your advice but there is no use crying about spilt milk… (6)

Peter clearly felt guilty at leaving his parents alone in Pennsylvania. He felt this way due to a factor common among even large emigrant families– Peter was his mother and father’s main support in their old age. Particularly for those reliant on unskilled labouring, illness and infirmity posed the greatest threats to their ability to support themselves. Peter’s father, Peter Senior, had been a day-laborer, but in 1861 feebleness brought on by age (he was then in his late 60s) meant he couldn’t find work. This left Peter Senior and his wife Mary facing the very real prospect of destitution. With no property, and personal belongings valued only at $50, they needed another source of income. Today we would be surprised that this might have been the case, given that Peter Senior and Mary had six living adult children. Apart from Peter, the couple had two other sons and three daughters. Why did they not provide more assistance? The obligation fell on Peter not because his siblings were unprepared to help their parents, but because they were unable to afford it. All of them were married with families of their own; for many poorer emigrants, responsibilities to spouses and children often left nothing for ageing parents. In extreme cases older people could find themselves reliant on public charity, despite having a number of living children. Peter’s parents were spared this fate prior to 1862, as their unmarried son continued to live with them (seemingly along with their grandson), bringing in $6 a week between 1859 and 1862 by driving a wagon for a local business and using his earnings to buy food and fuel for them. (7)

…you’s can tell Miles wife that I want to know in the next letter if she lives in the same place yet for I will write to her and whoever writes letters for yous I dont want such talking about affairs as was in the other I know wright from wrong so its no use talking about it now Ive got enough to tend to although I can get anything I want from the men because I play the fiddle for them at night and we have plenty of fun Joe Benn’s son from Phila is out here in the same Regiment with me… (8)

Here Peter makes direct reference to another reality for the majority of 19th century Irish emigrants– the fact that many were illiterate. However, illiteracy did not prevent written communication. Hundreds of thousands of letters where both sender and recipient were illiterate travelled between Irish communities in the United States, and between Irish emigrants in America and those at home in Ireland. This was facilitated by the use of intermediaries who would both write letters that were dictated to them and read out letters that were received. These intermediaries were often other family members or neighbours, and in the case of soldiers literate men within the Company. One implication of this was that these 19th century letters represented a more communal experience than we associate with modern written correspondence. In the recent past (at least prior to the digital age) letter writing often carried it with it an implicit understanding of being a largely private communication between two individuals. But this only became possible when literacy reached levels which allowed the majority of people to correspond directly. For letters like that of Peter Finegan and the bulk of other 19th century Irish emigrants, we must instead imagine the letter as a more public experience, with the words being read out in front of a number of friends and family members. The degree of trust which had to be placed in the intermediary charged with writing/reading these letters was also important, particularly when they were non-family members dealing with potentially sensitive issues. In the above passage this was clearly a concern for Peter, as he asked his parents not to discuss personal affairs when he didn’t know who was writing their letters for them (it seems from the correspondence that Peter’s parents were also extremely concerned about his well-being having enlisted). (9)

A further element in this passage refers to the popularity Peter enjoyed within the ranks due to his ability to play the fiddle, highlighting the importance of music among members of the Irish community (and indeed American society in general). Interestingly Peter also implies that his ability to play the instrument conferred on him economic benefit from those around him: ‘I can get anything I want from the men,’ demonstrating that such a skill could provide valuable supplementary benefits for those able to master it. (10)

…when you’s write to me let me know how Terence is getting along and wife and family and all the other Finegan’s as their is so many of them I have not time to mention all as I have to go on Guard at 12 O’Clock tell O’Neills to send me Johny’s directions in this letter so I can write to him let me know how Joe Sanders is getting along if he wants ditching their is plenty of it down in old Virginia to be done we are stationed at Fair Fax Court House where their was a great many hard battles fought As for William Kerns family I suppose their alone poor folks Willie Kerns wrote a letter to Tom O’Brian and he did not think worth while to mention me in it so it is the same on this side let me know how James O’Neill and wife and also the old couple and Bridget Dunleavy and family Mrs Harley and Mrs McNamara [?] and Burns family and Miles not forgetting old uncle Barney Rose Ann Mary and all…(11)

Practically all the many hundreds of letters I have read from Irish emigrants in the 1850s and 1860s conclude with a similar roll-call of requests, seeking to discover how local friends and family were faring, and often requesting that best wishes be sent to an array of individuals. Despite appearances, this was more than simply perfunctory; many letters indicate that there was an obligation to ask after certain friends and relations. This can be seen in letters which express apologies for omitting individuals from the list, and also in examples such as this from Peter, where he has clearly taken offence at not having been mentioned in a letter written by Willie Kerns to Tom O’Brian. Clearly insulted, he says ‘so it is the same on this side’ as he explicitly does not want to know how Willie is getting on. In putting this in the letter, it is apparent that Peter intends for Willie Kerns to hear that he was angered at being omitted. Such a degree of chagrin at not being included in a letter’s acknowledgements is far from uncommon in Irish emigrant letters. (12)

The passage also sees Peter refer directly to other members of his family, of which there were ‘so many’ in the community where he lived. That community was Chester County, Pennsylvania, most specifically the town of West Chester, where there were indeed ‘many’ Finnegans. Aside from Peter and his parents, the 1860 Census records his relations Terence (39), a day-laborer with his wife Catharine and their six children (Real Estate: $0, Personal Estate: $50); Patrick (30), a day-laborer with his wife Bridget and their three children (Real Estate: $800, Personal Estate: $300); Michael (29), a day laborer with his wife Alice and their three children (Real Estate: $700, Personal Estate: $50); and James (28), a merchant with his wife Mary and daughter (Real Estate: $3700, Personal Estate: $3000). In addition Peter’s uncle Barney (35) lived in nearby West Bradford, where he made his living as a farmer with his wife Catherine and their three children (Real Estate: $3000, Personal Estate: $200). Another potential relative Peter (28) lived in Phoenixville with his wife Bridget and their two children (Real Estate: $0, Personal Estate: $50). It is unfortunately not possible to identify many of the female Finnegans with certainty in the 1860 Census due to the adoption of their husband’s surnames, but many undoubtedly also lived in the area. In every single instance cited above both parents had been born in Ireland, while all the children had been born in Pennsylvania. The Finnegans represent a classic case of chain migration, which saw members of one family (or local community) emigrate to the same area over time, usually following in the footsteps of relatives who had blazed the trail, in this instance to Chester County. As can be seen from the estates that some of the Finnegans possessed in 1860– namely James, the West Chester merchant and Barney, the West Bradford farmer– a number of them had already made a success of life in America. Escaping life as a day-laborer appeared to be the key to developing an increased quality of life, as the 1850 Census records both James and Barney prior to their success, working as laborers in West Chester. (13)

So it seems likely that Peter Finnerty and his family settled in West Chester because they already had family there. But what drove them to leave? The potential answer lies in the date of their arrival in the United States. The records suggest that they are the Finnerty family which arrived in Philadelphia aboard the packet ship Saranak from Liverpool on 18th May 1847. The family do not appear to have been the only Finnertys aboard. The manifest lists 45-year-old laborer Peter Finegan, his wife ‘Mrs. Finnegan’, 16-year-old Judith, 16-year-old Matthew, 12-year-old Rose, 8-year-old Mary, 6-year-old Peter (almost certainly the author of this letter, who died at Fredericksburg), 20-year-old Patrick, 18-year-old Mary, 15-year-old Peggy and 19-year-old Michael. It is probably no coincidence that they all arrived in America at the height of the Great Irish Famine, and it is also very likely they knew they were going to West Chester before they left Ireland. The 1850 Census records Peter living with his parents in the town at that date, and most of the other Finnegans were already in place at that date. (14)

Aside from the Finnegans mentioned in Peter’s letter, the other named individuals also serve to provide us with an insight into Irish life in America. The overwhelming majority of them were Irish-born, indicating that the Irish in West Chester formed a distinct close-knit community in this period. The Willie Kerns who Peter chastised in his letter was Pennsylvania-born, but his father William (a day-laborer) and mother Mary were of Irish birth; Tom O’Brian was a Pennsylvania-born clerk, but lived and worked with Peter’s merchant relation James Finnegan; all the James O’Neills recorded in West Chester in 1860 were Irish-born; the Dunleavys were Irish-born; Mrs. Harley was the wife of Peter’s one time employer, who were Irish-born emigrants with a carpet-weaving and bottling business. Ancestry.com lists 4,757 people as having been recorded on the 1860 Census in West Chester. Slightly over 10% of them, some 480 people, were recorded as being born in Ireland, far outnumbering any other emigrant group in the town. It is likely that the addition of the American-born children of Irish emigrants to this number would at least double this overall percentage, making the Irish community of West Chester a very significant minority. (15)

…no more at present but remains your son Peter Finegan

I am the same Pete as I always was and will be till I get shot at missed [?]–

Direct your letter to Fair Fax Court House Virginia Va Washington 116 Reg P.V. Col Dennis Heenan for Peter Finegan Co. K Capt J. O’Neill Commanding

Dont forget write as soon as you get this without delay (16)

The final section of Peter’s letter again hints at the concern his parents expressed at him joining the army. He felt it necessary to reassure them that he was the same person he had always been. Perhaps his parents were not strong supporters of the war, and there is at least a suggestion that they were worried the experience of conflict might change their son. They never did have the chance to find out, as after only three and a half months the four Rebel bullets that buried themselves in Peter’s body on Marye’s Heights ended his life. Today the letter that he left behind from the war that claimed his life, along with those of thousands of other doomed Irish-Americans, offer us a unique opportunity to examine the experiences of those who left Ireland in the greatest emigrant wave ever to depart these shores.

(1) Peter Finegan Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) Ibid.; (3) Ibid.; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid., 1860 Federal Census; (8) Peter Finegan Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid.; (11) Ibid.; (12) Ibid.; (13) Ibid., 1860 Federal Census, 1850 Federal Census; (14) Peter Finegan Dependent Mother’s Pension File, Philadelphia Passenger Lists, 1850 Federal Census; (15) Peter Finegan Dependent Mother’s Pension File, 1860 Federal Census; (16)Peter Finegan Dependent Mother’s Pension File;

* 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.

References & Further Reading

Peter Finegan Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC 138689.

1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. West Chester, Chester, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1094. (Original scans accessed via Ancestry.com).

1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.West Bradford, Chester, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1091. (Original scans accessed via Ancestry.com).

1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. Phoenixville, Chester, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1092. (Original scans accessed via Ancestry.com).

Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C.(Original scans accessed via Ancestry.com).

The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Records of the United States Customs Service, 1745-1997; Record Group Number: 36; Series: M425; Roll: 064. (Original scans accessed via Ancestry.com).

Civil War Trust Battle of Fredericksburg Page.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

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Categories: 116th Pennsylvania, Battle of Fredericksburg, Irish Brigade

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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17 Comments on “Analysing 19th Century Emigration, A Case Study: Dissecting One Irishman’s Letter Home”

  1. Ruairi McCourt
    December 20, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

    Fascinating!

  2. John Murphy
    December 20, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    Your activities in the pension archives is so worth while for the understanding of the Irish contribution that you might ( or convince a cohort author) to write a book on non- Irish soldiers in the Civil War.
    The personal insights you are writing about are so interesting I think Civil War enthusiasts would devour a book that broadens the description of all the people’s experiences.

  3. December 20, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

    Very interesting and sad too, great stories and history, well done Damian, great stuff

  4. Karen Barth
    December 20, 2015 at 7:26 pm #

    Damian, there’s a very interesting alternate version of the 1850 Census for Chester County, Pennsylvania. It’s at the county historical society. When I inquired some years ago, they did not know its provenance. It differs in some cases from the official census. For instance, my family, the Callahans, either did or did not have a five-year old son named Patrick. He’s not listed in the official census. I imagined he might have died in between the two listings, if he existed at all. Recently I tracked him down. He lived to adulthood in Philadelphia.

    • December 22, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

      Hi Karen,

      Many thanks for this, I would love to see what detail it has on the Finnegans. Do you know much about the history of the Irish community in West Chester? They seem to have been fairly prominent there in the pre-war years.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  5. fotophil@verizon.net
    December 20, 2015 at 11:17 pm #

    Thanks Damien.

    Your post reminded me of several trips I made to Gettysburg in 2008. Here in NYC we (the 88th Brigade) commemorate the Battle of Fredericksburg every December (on the Saturday closest to Dec 12th.)

    Here’s are daylight and night time photos of the 116th PA Vol Inf monument above the Wheatfield where the Irish Brigade made their stand at Gettysburg. I’m not sure how many photos and sites are on the internet but you can spend many hours and many days surveying the scene.

    The monuments are G’burg are placed where the units actually stood their ground. I think there are somewhere around 1200 monuments just a G’burg alone.

    Phil Gilson, Brooklyn NY Col (hon), 88th Bde, NY Guard

    • December 22, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

      Hi Phil,

      Many thanks for the comment! I have yet to get to Gettysburg, it is a trip I am greatly looking forward to. Hopefully next year!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  6. Eleanor Ryan
    December 22, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    Barney Finegan is my g-g-grandfather. I’ve read this blog before, but never expected to see my relatives! I’ve spent many hours with the Chester County Historical Society newspaper clipping file sorting out the Finegans in West Chester.

    • December 22, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

      Hi Eleanor,

      Many thanks for the comment! Great to hear from one of their descendants! Can you shed any further light on the family in West Chester and/or any detail on their origins in Ireland? Would love to hear more about them.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

      • Eleanor Ryan
        December 22, 2015 at 11:22 pm #

        Patrick, Barney and James Finegan were brothers (I believe Catherine, Terence’s wife was their sister) from Shrinty, County Monaghan. Michael and Peter Finegan were also from County Monaghan, but I don’t know the town. Patrick arrived on the Saranak and Barney on the Wyoming.. This is from a wonderful interview with Patrick in the Daily Local News in 1905. Barney, Patrick, James, Michael and Peter had long lives and lengthy obits. A brother, Sylvester, stayed in Ireland. Three of his children (Barney, Thomas and Ellen) immigrated.

      • January 19, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

        This is wonderful information Eleanor!

  7. December 24, 2015 at 8:46 am #

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

  8. January 18, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    What an excellent deconstructing of such a representative letter. Fascinating what an analysis like this can reveal. Thanks!

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