Many of the Canadians who fought in the American Civil War were of Irish ancestry, often members of families who had first made their homes in British North America before slowly moving down to the United States. In the early 1850s the Cunningham family made the move from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia to Gloucester, Massachusetts. By the outbreak of the American Civil the family had members born in Ireland, Nova Scotia and the United States. At least one of the Cunningham boys– John–  went off to war. Among his letters home was a short but powerful description of combat, when he and his comrades found themselves facing Confederate forces along an exposed riverbank in North Carolina during 1862. (1)

"Ships in Fog, Gloucester, Massachusetts". Painted by Fitz Henry Lane in 1860, the same year John began his fishing career in Gloucester. Currently part of the Princeton University Art Museum (Fitz Henry Lane)

“Ships in Fog, Gloucester, Massachusetts”. Painted by Fitz Henry Lane in 1860, the same year John Cunningham began his fishing career in Gloucester. Currently part of the Princeton University Art Museum (Fitz Henry Lane)

The Cunninghams were a family who were attached to the sea. The patriarch, James Cunningham, had been born in Ireland, and worked as a trader in Gloucester in 1860, when he was 51-years-old. His wife Catherine, then 39, had been born in Nova Scotia. The probability that James’s trading in fish is strengthened by the occupation of his sons. The eldest three, Richard (21), Daniel (20) and the future soldier John (16 in 1860) were all fishermen, as was John Jenkins (25), who also made his home with the Cunninghams. Aside from the three boys, all born in Nova Scotia, the Canadian element of the family also included Catherine (14) and James (12), along with Massachusetts born Mary M (9), William N (6), Ann (4) and Sarah E (1). The Cunninghams had at least some modest wealth, as the family were able to employ and accommodate a servant, 18-year-old Isabella Chisholm. The children received an education, as John would later demonstrate by writing letters home from the war. (2)

Aide from the census, 1860 would also represent John’s first year at sea. The 16-year-old became part of Gloucester’s long fishing tradition when he set off from David Low’s wharf to join the crew of the Electric Flash, an 82-ton schooner owned by Horatio Babson Junior. He remained a fisherman until the second summer of the war, when he exaggerated his age to enlist in the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry on 28th July 1862. Though recorded as 19, he was unlikely to have been more than 18-years-old. He mustered in as a private in Company I, and was deployed with his regiment to Union occupied New Bern, North Carolina. John spent his first Christmas at the front there in 1862, and wrote home to his mother on Christmas Day from Camp Pendleton, lamenting his poor fare:

…we get sutch poor grub that we buy some butter now and again to eat with our hard bread wee get hard bread everey morning and a little coffee to say [it] is Cristmas and wee are going to have some salt horse and three potatoes I wish wee were at home to eat din[n]er with you Mee and Jo are working on fatigue to day it is a dull Christmas with us but we are in good health and spirites that is better than all thanks bea to god (3)

His previous life as a fisherman had given him a love of seafood, something which was in short supply for the soldiers of the 23rd Massachusetts. He hoped his younger brother might be able to provide him with some from home:

I wish Jimey would send out a mackrel for a rarity when you get this rite and let mee know how everey thing is around home I shall rite as often as I can Jo sends his love to you all (4)

John had at least two photographs taken during his time in the army. While based at Port Royal, South Carolina in 1863, he described both to his mother:

I had my likeness taken yesterday with a great friend of mine hea wanted mea to have them taken together so hea could send one to his folks we had to taken one to send to his folks and one to send to you I had one single one every one that see us said that wee [are] like twins…I paied fore dolars for those likneses they charge verey dear for everey thing out hear but there wee have to take things at aney price or else go with out… (5)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of John’s letters is his description of the fighting he was engaged in during what was known as the Goldsboro Expedition of 1862. This raid by Union Major-General John Gray Foster departed New Bern in December, with the intention of cutting the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad at Goldsboro. As the Yankees advanced into the interior of North Carolina they were forced to fight a series of engagements, which John referred to in his Christmas Day 1862 letter to his mother. By far the most costly of these for the 23rd Massachusetts was the 16th December fight at White Hall on the River Neuse. During the action the regiment was drawn up in an exposed position along the south side of the river, facing Rebel troops who occupied a superior position on the opposite bank. Major Chambers, who commanded the regiment, described the action:

…my regiment was immediately formed in line and shortly ordered forward. I marched it through a small piece of swamp under a heavy fire and came to the edge of the Neuse River, my left resting near where the bridge had been destroyed [by Confederate troops]. The enemy were on the opposite bank, secreted behind trees and stumps , and opposite my left they had a log fort. I immediately commenced firing, which we continued until we had expended about 40 rounds of ammunition, when we were ordered out to give place to a battery which had been posted in the open space in our rear. (6)

Major-General John Gray Foster (Library of Congress)

Major-General John Gray Foster, who led the Goldsboro Expedition in 1862 (Library of Congress)

At least some of the Union rounds appear to have fallen short, landing amongst troops of the 23rd. Eventually the engagement drew to a close, and the Union force marched on towards Goldsboro. John’s regiment would lose 16 men killed and mortally wounded, with a further 46 injured. The Irish-Nova Scotian gave an account of the action, which captures something of the desperate affair it seems to have been:

wee had a chance to fite the rebels this time in ernest we had a hard month and 3 hard fites wee had a good share of them in the battle at Kingston wee had 3 men wounded but wee paied for that for that at wite hall our regment lost 67 kiled and woun[d]ed our little Companey lost 3 kiled and five wounded fletcher and griffin and peitfield I had a small peice nocked out of my ear and a shell struck Jo and tore the seat of his pants all out and fell down buy my foot and throed the dirt all over my pants and jacket and never hurt either one of us Mr Storey of Company C was cut all to peices with a shel [a Union shell] our regment fought like heroes every man stood to his work well the recruits of our Companey was the first that run out in front of the rebs and commenced fireing as if they were shooting ducks. (7)

John Cunningham appears to have proved a good soldier. He re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer, rejoining his regiment for the 1864 campaign. On 16th May 1864 he was reported missing in action, later changed to killed, at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia.

* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Emmerton 1886: 274; (2) 1860 Census; John Cunningham Dependent Mother’s File; (3) John Cunningham Dependent Mother’s File; McGillivray 2008, 14; (4) John Cunningham Dependent Mother’s File; (5) Ibid. (6) Ibid., OR: 79; (7) Emmerton 1886: 127-9; 


1860 United States Federal Census, Gloucester, Essex, Massachusetts.

Civil War Widow’s Certificate of Catherine Cunningham, Mother of John Cunningham, Company I, 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, WC119378.

Emmerton, James A. 1886. A Record of the Twenty-third Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

McGillivray, Don 2008. Captain Alex MacLean: Jack London’s Sea Wolf.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 18. Report of Maj. John G. Chambers, Twenty-third Massachusetts Infantry, of operations December 11-16.