Some Irish soldiers of the American Civil War were little more than boys. Despite their youth, they often fervently supported the cause for which they fought. Timothy Dougherty was one such emigrant soldier. His antebellum family story is one of hardship and hard work– typical of that of many Irish immigrants in America. During the war, he took the opportunity of his final letters home to display his fervent belief in the war effort, not only in words, but also in lyrics.
Not all Federal soldiers spent their service fighting Confederates. Timothy Dougherty was sent west, to Kansas and Missouri, where he spent more time encountering hostile Native Americans than Rebels. Nevertheless, Timothy was a believer in the cause of Union. Though his adoptive state of Wisconsin had witnessed significant wartime disturbances in opposition to the draft, Timothy clearly had little time for those who opposed the conflict, as his letters reveal. He had grown into a young man during the early war years, and had sought to enlist while still little more than a boy– he was only 16-years-old when his mother (then only 33 herself) had given her consent to his enlistment in 1864. (1)Timothy was the eldest child of Denis and Catharine Dougherty. The family had emigrated to the United States around 1854; Denis and Catharine arrived in America with three sons in tow– Timothy, John and Jeremiah (Jerry). They initially settled in New York, where a fourth child, Margaret, was born. It was not long before they followed the well-worn path of many Irish immigrants and headed west. The family set out for Wisconsin around 1857, where another son, Michael, arrived. But it wasn’t long before their future well being was put in jeopardy. Denis passed away from a fever in Cairo, Illinois in November 1858, leaving Catharine to fend for their young family on her own. The 1860 Census records the 29-year-old widow living in Milwaukee’s Third Ward with Timothy (12), John (10), Jerry (7), Margaret (5) and Michael (2). A 29-year-old Irish laborer named Patrick Murphy also appears to have been living with the family at this time. Though still only a child, Timothy had to help his mother earn a living. Catharine kept two jobs to maintain her family, working as both a servant and a washerwoman. Timothy helped her with this, cutting wood and fetching water for his mother, as well as going out to collect the clothes from her patrons and returning them when she was finished. The young boy also worked various odd jobs, but by all accounts seems to have excelled as a fisherman, operating along the Milwaukee River and the shores of Lake Michigan. He used his catch not only to help feed the family, but to turn a profit at the local market when the opportunity presented itself, often earning between $1 and $3 per day. However, the extra money lasted only as long as the fishing season, and all too quickly each year the family’s earnings would once again diminish. (2)
Motivated by both economics and patriotism, Timothy enlisted in the 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry in late February 1864. He soon received a bounty of $200 for joining up, which he passed to his mother. Despite his enlistment, Timothy’s muster in was delayed due to illness. He came down with measles and had to be hospitalized, a situation which also meant that when Catharine came to see him before his departure she couldn’t find him, and to return home disappointed. Timothy recovered to muster in at Madison in early March, and wrote home on the 27th of the month to let Catharine know he was ok. (3)Timothy was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas along with another young Irish recruit, Michael Cantwell. They both initially did service with Company C, but in the Autumn of 1864 they were assigned to a detachment under Captain Theodore Conkey. From there they were ordered to Fort Riley, where they formed part of the forces of Major-General James Gilpatrick Blunt, commander of the District of the Upper Arkansas. Their job was to protect settlers on the frontiers in Kansas and Southwestern Missouri from Native Americans and Confederate raiders alike, and to expel any Jayhawkers and Bushwhackers they came across. Michael Cantwell later recalled that they spent the majority of their time “engaged in fighting the Indians and protecting the settlements from their ravages.” Their isolated position meant that there was little news available on the wider war. On 17th August 1864 Timothy wrote home from Fort Scott:
Dear Mother what do the peppol of the North think about this war but I think it wont be over this Summer I think I will have a chanch to reinlist after my time is out what time I have been in the army dont seam long to me. Dear Mother I would like to have you send me the Daily Scentenel [The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel] about once a week if it dont cost to much to scend it to me fore we dont here any thing about the war only whats going on in Kansas. (4)
That summer a new outpost– Fort Zarah– had been established where the Santa Fe trail crossed Walnut Creek, due to the propensity of Native American attacks there. Timothy and Michael were part of a 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry detachment sent to the Fort that autumn under the command of Captain Conkey. Typical of the actions the men were engaged in were those of early December. On the 4th of the month an ammunition wagon with a driver and four-man escort was making for Fort Zarah when they were attacked by Native American warriors at Cow Creek, some 15 miles east of the post. The men were eating supper when arrows began to rain down on them, killing the driver and wounding one of the escorts. Timothy may well have been a member of one of the two parties that Captain Conkey later sent from Fort Zarah to recover what was left of the ammunition, much of which had by then been taken. Despite their position in hostile territory, ordinary life went on. Shortly after the Cow Creek incident Captain Conkey received a letter from an upset Catharine back in Milwaukee, who was worried that Timothy wasn’t writing home. His officer wrote back on 12th December:
Perhaps chastened by the rebuke from home, Timothy did write to his mother from Fort Zarah on 19th December. He described the post as a:
…Your son Timothy Dougherty is with me, doing duty at this Post– I have lectured him severely for not writing to his mother oftener. He says he has written frequently and thinks the letters must have miscarried– Timothy is well and a good boy, he makes a fine soldier– I shall try to persuade him to send his money all home to his mother when he is paid off. (5)
…Camp out on the plaines on a little stream call the Walnut creak…we live in little houses in the bank cover over with poles and durt and a fireplace in it. We are not truble anything but indian[s] we are not truble much… (6)
Despite the fact that he was spending most of his time in frontier operations against Native Americans, the young emigrant had no doubt why he was fighting. He had strong opinions about the anti-war Democrats (Copperheads) back in Wisconsin, and what he would do to any he met who might cause him trouble when he went home:
…we are now expecting to go home this Winter the Coperhead[s] might as well be in hell as to abuse the soldiers whin will they go home this Winter for I am going [to] cary a pair of revovers [revolvers] home with me this Winter…have you heard anything about going home this Winter but we are [illegible] to see home once more before we die… (7)
Perhaps the most intriguing element of Timothy’s letter home is the song lyrics he included for his mother, presumably because it was popular among the troops at Fort Zarah. With the brief introduction “hear is song”, the soldier went straight into relating the verses:
This is the first full song I have come across in my research into the pension file letters of Irish soldiers. It is a version of the wartime song Gay and Happy, which is generally credited to Anne Rush, “The Philadelphia Vocalist.” Various versions sprang up, both North and South; among the notable Southern efforts was the Camp Song of the Maryland Line. But by far the closest versions to Timothy’s I was able to locate are associated with troops from Wisconsin and Iowa. The 1864 publication Poetical Pen-Pictures of the War: Selected from Our Union Poets includes a variation of Gay and Happy that is broadly similar to that given by Timothy, and had been submitted by “W.M.J.” of Company C, 7th Wisconsin Infantry. It was ascribed to the Battle of West Point, Virginia on 7th May 1862. The Times of the Rebellion in the West: A Collection of Miscellanies published in 1867 also contains a close variant, and one that was popular among the 6th Iowa Infantry. The song resonated with some veterans for many decades after the conflict. A Union veteran in Florida quoted the third verse [“Never wed a homesick coward”] in a piece to The National Tribune in 1910, noting that it was “a verse ‘our girls we left behind us’ used to repeat when we were in the army, and they have made good.” The same verse was also quoted in the Chicago Daily Herald in 1924, again with reference to women singing it as soldiers marched off to war. (9) Passing on the song was the last correspondence Timothy Dougherty ever had with his mother. That January Captain Conkey and his men were ordered to make the long journey back to Lawrence, Kansas. The officer remembered the weather as cold, rainy and snowy. The cold and exposure caused a “violent fever” to take hold of the boy by the time of their arrival, and he was admitted to the Post Hospital at Lawrence on 11th February. Timothy was suffering from pneumonia, and it took his life on 13th February 1865. He was at most 17-years-old. (10)
So let the cannons boom as they will
We’ll be gay and happy still
Gay and happy gay and happy
We’ll be gay and happy still
Friends at home be gay and happy
Never blush to speak our name
Should our comrades fall in battle
They shall share A soldiers fame
Girls at home be gay and happy
Show that you have womans pride
Never wed A homesick coward
Wait and be a soldiers bride
gay and happy sweet they answer
None but fools get married now
valliant men have all enlisted
unto cowards we’ll not bow
We’re the girls thats gay and happy
Waiting for the end of strife
Sooner share a soldiers rations
Than to live a cowards wife
For the gay and soldiers
We’re contented as the dove
But the man who dare not soldier
Never can obtain our love
So let the conscripts woe[?] ar they
We’ll be free and happy still
Free and happy free and happy
We’ll be free and happy still (8)
A lack of proof of her marriage delayed Catharine’s pension for a number of years, but the payments were eventually approved in 1868. By then Catharine must surely have been in desperate need of them. Described as very poor and “living in a rented shanty”, her eldest surviving child John had left for Tennessee and had not been heard from since– Catharine suspected he may have been dead. Her other Irish-born son, Jerry, was unable to work as he was a “chronic invalid.” She would receive payments based on her boy’s service until her own death in July 1893 at Plover, Wisconsin. (11)
(1) Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) Ibid., 1860 Census. (3) Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (4) Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File, 1860 Census, Nye 1968:15; (5) Nye 1968:12, Michno 2003:160, Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (6) Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.; (9) Levy Sheet Music Collection, ZSR Library Hayward 1864: 264, Howe 1867: 208, The National Tribune 3rd February 1910, The Daily Herald 30th May 1924; (10) Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (11) Ibid.;
* 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.
Timothy Dougherty Dependent Mother’s Pension File WC115555.
1860 U.S. Federal Census.
The National Tribune 3rd February 1910. Glad of St. Cloud.
The Daily Herald 30th May 1924. Observer’s Notes.
Hayward, J Henry 1864. Poetical Pen-Pictures of the War: Selected from Our Union Poets.
Howe, Henry 1867. The Times of the Rebellion in the West: A Collection of Miscellanies.
Michno, Gregory F. 2003. Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850-1890.
Nye, Wilbur Sturtevant 1968. Plains Indian Raiders: The Final Phases of Warfare from The Arkansas to The Red River.