On 6th September 1864, Private Kieran Fitzpatrick of the 11th Connecticut Infantry lost his battle for life at the 18th Corps Hospital in Point of Rocks, Virginia. His wife Elizabeth sought a widow’s pension based on his service; a lack of documentation meant it would be 1869 before she received it. Then, 35-years after her husband’s death, a decision Kieran had made upon his enlistment in 1862 threatened his elderly widow’s liberty. The major investigation into Elizabeth that descended upon her in 1898-99 revolved around the family surname– which was not and had never been Fitzpatrick, but Phelan. The records of the Special Examiners into the case have left us with not only wartime correspondence from both husband and wife, but a detailed account of Elizabeth’s life, given in her own words. (1)

As has been discussed in previous posts, the widows and dependents pension files offer us unique insights into the Irish immigrant experience in the United States. Occasionally, these files throw up an additional boon for the modern-day researcher, in the form of special investigations. These took place whenever the Pension Bureau suspected there was something amiss with a claim, or if it was in dispute. Reasons for the appointment of a Special Examiner could range from suspicion of fraud, to explorations of past bigamy, to assessments of the level of support being provided to minors. Though largely unwelcome to those subject to the investigation, the detailed interviews which were recorded by these Examiners often add fascinating and insightful information to our picture of 19th century life. In 1898, Elizabeth Phelan was subject to just such an investigation. It was the those events which led to the deposition of much of the material in her file, including a letter she wrote to her husband in 1862, a response from the soldier, and still more unusually, a photograph of her husband. In order to reveal the chronology of their story, I have transcribed not only the Civil War correspondence, but also large tracts of the interviews and conclusions of the Special Examiners in the 1890s. What emerges is a detailed account of the Phelan family story, which spans almost half a century.

The 1860 Federal Census found Kieran Phelan (enumerated as Karin Falan) living in Naugatuck, New Haven, Connecticut. He was recorded as a 23-year-old Irish-born Wool Carder, living with his 21-year-old wife Elizabeth and their 1-year-old daughter Mary. Elizabeth’s sisters Katherine Murphy (23) and Mary Murphy (16), both rubber coatmakers, also lived with the family. All three of the Murphy girls had been born into an Irish family in New York. At the time the census was taken– 12th July 1860– Elizabeth was pregnant. A second daughter, Margaret Ann, was born on 1st December, and a son, William, would later follow. In late 1862 Kieran took the decision to enlist in the army. He was enrolled on 19th September that year into Company E of the 11th Connecticut Infantry. Upon his enlistment, Kieran elected to go by the name Fitzpatrick rather than his actual name of Phelan, a decision that would have fateful consequences for his wife in the decades ahead. We take up their story with a letter from Elizabeth to Kieran in April 1864. (2)

Ansonia April 4th 1864

Dear husband

it is three long weeks since I received a letter from you what is the reason that you dont write the same as always Kerin I though[t] you would send me some money before now the men all got paid down thear for all the women around hear got thear money from thear husbands how do you suppose that I can get along or do you care for three little children and a woman left to the waves of the world if i could get any one to mind the children i would go to work but I cant get no one to mind them for me

Willy is being sick two weeks with the lung fever and doctor has but poor hopes of him i aint got as much wood as will do me a nother week staying up nights it went verry quick and what ill do i dont know if you dont send me some money verry soon

I cant write much now Willy is so sick I cant stay but write as soon as possible

from your wife

write quick (3)

Letter written by Elizabeth to her husband from Ansonia in 1864 (NARA/Fold3)

“do you care for three little children and a woman..” Letter written by Elizabeth to her husband from Ansonia in 1864 (NARA/Fold3)

It is very rare for pension files to contain correspondence written to a soldier by his wife. It illustrates the type of pressure soldiers were under to provide for those at home, something often made difficult by the erratic nature of soldier’s pay. Unfortunately, it would seem that Willy did not survive his illness, as no further mention is made of him throughout the file. The next letter in file was written by Kieran to his wife from Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island) in New York Harbor. He had just been at home on leave, and was returning to his regiment for what would prove to be the final time.

Bedloes Island N.Y.H.

July 31st 1864

Dear Wife

It is with pleasure I now sit down to write a few lines hoping to find you in as good health as these find me I arrived here last night after a teadous ride in the boat. This is the island we came to to go off to our regiment I dont know how soon I shall go any way perhaps I may go this week and perhaps not so soon. any way dont write untill I write again. give my love to all enquiring friends and accept a share for yourself. I remain your own dear husband

Kerian Fitchpatrick (4)

Kieran was illiterate, and relied on comrades to write his letters for him. That this was the case is highlighted by his next letter, which is in a markedly different hand to the Bedloe’s Island example. His file is another example of how illiteracy generally did not prove an impediment to conducting written correspondence with those at home.


Camp of the 11th Regt Conn Vols

Near Petersburg Va Aug 17th

Dear Wife

As I have an opportunity of writing you a few lines hopeing they may find you & the family all well as the date of this leaves me in at present thank God I recd your welcome letter on the 12th inst but could not answer it for we had to break up camp that very same day we are still in the trenches in front of Petersburg a mans life is not safe 5 minutes shot & shell going over our head all the time my regt has not recd one cent of pay since I left them we expect it next month if ever I will enclose a bounty check in this letter let me know how the feeling is about the war we expect to be attacked most any time loss [?] especially Our regt numbers 200 men & we had one thousand leaveing Mr Bryan [?] sent me a letter while I was in New Haven I never recd it our rations have been very short lately sometimes hungry this is the first days rest since the 12th of July I wish you would send me one or two stamps in your letter we cannot get one here

Direct your letter the same as before

Co E 11th Regt Conn Vol

18th AC 2d Division 2d Brigade

Near Petersburg Va via Fortress Monroe

No more at present from your affectionate Husband

Kerin FitsPatrick

Company E 11th Regt Conn Vols (5)

Letter Comparison (NARA/Fold3)

Comparison of the 31st July and 17th August letters from Kieran, illustrating the change in hand. The widow’s and dependent pension files offer some of the best opportunities for demonstrating such changes, which indicate the illiteracy of a soldier. It is notable that an inability to read and write did not stop Irishmen from engaging in written correspondence with those at home. (NARA/Fold3)

Kieran waited to send this letter in the hope of receiving the bounty money to send home, but it was not forthcoming. Four days later, on the same paper, he added the following:

Camp of the 11th Regt Conn Vols

Near Petersburg Va Aug 21st

Dear Wife

I haveing been waiting for 4 days to get a bounty check this letter was detained but as I find that I cannot get it I shall have to send it without I think it will be here by the next letter if it is you will certainly get it

No more at present feom your loveing Husband

Kerin Fitzpatrick

Co. E 11th Regt Conn Vols

2d Div 2 Brig 18 A.C.

Near Petersburg Va

Good Bye (6)

The next correspondence was written following Kieran’s death, which occurred at the 18th Army Corps Hospital in Point of Rocks, Virginia. Written in the same hand as the previous letter, it identifies Michael Flaherty as one of the literate men in the regiment who helped his comrades to keep in touch with those at home. Elizabeth had by this point already been informed of Kieran’s death, which had occurred on 6th September. Flaherty writes to her in response to a number of queries she had regarding the circumstances of his end, and also with respect to his possessions.

Camp of the 11th Regt Conn Vols.

Near Petersburg Va Sept 25/64

Mrs Fitz Patrick

Your favour of the 15 inst was duley recd. on the 20th inst makeing inquiries about the death of your husband & he did not say anything in particular about his familey for he was so far gone that he was not able to hold much conversation about any thing. I did not trye[?] him for I knew that he was not able he was a very sick man when he came to the Hospital & was growing worse untill his death I wrote the last letter for him & sent you a bounty check. he was not hardley able to speak to me at that time but I had hopes of his recovery.

I know nothing about his clothing only that what clothing he took to the Hospital was taken possession of by the Hospital attendants or authorities. I made enquiries about his clothing & I was informed that they were to be sent home. Soldiers clothing are not very valuable all that he had was taken to the Hospital & I know nothing about them farther. As soon as he breathed his last he was taken away clothes & c.[?]

About the Priest– he did not nave one for I can assure you that they are not very plenty in the army I dont know that there is one in the 18th A.C. & as for being prepared for death I can not say I hope that he was & as I said before he was too far gone to trye[?] anything

I know very well where his grave is for I was there when he was buried this grave has a head board marked his name, Regt & Co his body lays in the graveyard of the 18th Corps Hospital at the Point of Rocks on the Appotamax River near Petersburg Va.

On regard to his pay you can get it not have it cut[?] for a cent I would go to the Town Clerk Capt Brown told me last night that you have been written to about the matter if that is the case you will get more information than I can give you at present. I am in hopes of reaching home on the last of Oct & if there is anymore that I shall learn about the matter I will inform you

I deplore your loss you ave my sympathys & I am very thankfull for your blessing for a soldier especially needs them

Anything that I can do for you I would be very glad to be the means of doing you any good & giveing you any information that lays in my way

I must conclude by hopeing to meet you at some early day & answer any question that you may have to speak about the death of your husband

No more at present from your sincere true friend

Michael Flaherty E 11th Regt Conn Vols 2d Brigade 2d Div 18th AC Bermuda 100 (7)

Sanitary Commission (NARA/Fold3)

The letter written by Michael Flaherty to Elizabeth near Petersburg. It is on U.S. Christian Commission paper. Flaherty was clearly also the man who wrote some of Kieran’s earlier letters, as they are in the same hand. (NARA/Fold3)

Michael Flaherty would survive his service to be discharged on 27th October 1864, though it would appear he never did visit the young widow. Following the death of her husband, Elizabeth set about trying to secure a widow’s pension. This proved extremely difficult, largely because she possessed no record of their marriage. She gave a deposition in 1866 (when she stated she was 29-years-old) revealing the facts of her marriage to Kieran in Naugatuck in 1856. She also secured corroborating affidavits from Mary Jane Shortell and Annie Murphy. Interestingly, though Elizabeth clearly possessed letters from her husband which proved her relationship with him, she chose not to submit them with her application at this time, indicating the importance they held for her. Crucially, Elizabeth gave all her 1860s statements using the alias her husband had adopted on his enlistment, signing herself (she was literate) as Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, rather than using her real name of Elizabeth Phelan. The statements of Mary Jane Shortell and Annie Murphy also referred to her as Fitzpatrick. That she did so was apparently on the advice of her attorney, who felt there would be a delay in her payment if she chose to clarify her husband’s use of an alias. Eventually, her pension was approved, and for the next 35 years Elizabeth would claim her monthly payments under the name “Elizabeth Fitzpatrick.” All that changed in 1898. (8)

1898 was the year that the Pension Bureau discovered the woman who was claiming a widow’s pension under the name Elizabeth Fitzpatrick was actually known by everyone as Elizabeth Phelan (or Phalen as it was often spelt). Suspecting fraud, Special Examiner G.F. Woodberry was dispatched to establish the facts of the case. He interviewed the woman– now aged 61– on two occasions on 21st and 22nd September 1898. By this date Elizabeth was living at 17 Rose Street in New Haven. Her testimony, given in her one words, adds rich detail to the story of her life.

I was married to Kerin Phelan in 1856 in Naugatuck, Conn. by Father James Lynch, who has been dead for some time…My husband left home in Augst 1862 and said he was going to Harlem, N.Y. to see his brother Thomas Phelan; he did go down to see his brother and then came back here to New Haven at the time he enlisted. I was living in Ansonia Conn. Yes, he came out to Ansonia to see me before he went away; he told me he was going into the army and that he was going to enlist under the name of Kerin Fitzpatrick which he did. I did not want him to do so but he did enlist under his mother’s maiden name of Fitzpatrick.

[Question from G.F. Woodberry] Why did he enlist under the name Fiztpatrick?

Well I can not tell. I do not know. He told me he was drunk when he enlisted. I dont know what his idea was. I think it was just a foolish time[?].

[Question from G.F. Woodberry] Had he gotten into trouble of any kind?

No, not at all. He would drink some but he would get over it in a day or so. I am pensioned under the name Elizabeth Fitzpatrick because that is the name under which my husband served in the army. Sylvester Barbour, now of Hartford, Conn., got my pension for me. I told him about my right name being Elizabeth Phelan when I went to him to make application for pension. After my husband had served two or three years in the army he died of diarrhoea. I took the name of Elizabeth Fitzpatrick in order to get the pension. I am known by all my friends as Elizabeth Phelan. I have never explained to the Bureau of Pensions that my name was Elizabeth Phelan.

The interview continued:

I applied for pension and gave my name as Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, because that was the name under which my husband served in the army. I signed my application as Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, as well as all the other papers & sent to Washington to get the pension.

My maiden name was Elizabeth Murphy: I was born in New York City, my father’s name was Thomas Murphy and my mother’s name was Margaret Quinn & I was never married but once and that was to Kerin Phelan. I married Kerin Phelan in Naugatuck, Conn. in 1856. We lived there until my husband enlisted: I then went to Ansonia Ct. and lived with my father and mother for quite a while and then took rooms in different places and lived there until about 1886 or 1887. I then came to New Haven Ct. and have lived here ever since. I have lived here with my two daughters. Both my father and mother are dead. [Elizabeth followed this by giving the names of people who had known her and her husband, though many were deceased or no longer in the area] [Question from G.F. Woodberry] Who knows that your husband enlisted in the army under the name of Kerin Fitzpatrick?

I do not know of anybody who can testify to that fact. Kerin Phelan was never married before he married me. I have no brothers or sisters living. Mr. Phalen did have one brother, Thomas Phalen, who worked in a rubber factory in Harlem N.Y. I have not heard of this brother for a long time and don’t know whether or not he is in Harlem at the present time. My husband’s parents have been dead many years, they died in Ireland. I have always been known as Mrs. Elizabeth Phalen; but I have always signed my pension vouchers as Elizabeth Fitzpatrick. (9)

At least one of Elizabeth’s daughters, Maggie, was also in attendance at the interview as she signed her name beside that of her mother. Elizabeth’s fate now rested on whether Woodberry believed her story. Unfortunately, he didn’t. On 22nd September 1898 he wrote the following report based on his investigation:

This woman is known as Mrs. Elizabeth Phalen; she says that is her true name. She says her husbands true name was “Kerin” Phalen but that he enlisted in the army as Kerin Fitzpatrick; she gives us no plausible reason for him doing so…Apparently this discrepancy in names has never been known nor explained to the Pension Bureau. This woman has lived in New Haven about 10 years and so far as I could learn she has been known by her neighbors as Mrs. Phalen…I was not favorably impressed by this woman and was not satisfied that she is the person she represents herself to be…Her pension was granted in 1869: she is now broken in health and bent with age…I recommend examination of the law division. (10)

The Chief of the Law Division sought to take appropriate action. On 17th October 1898 he wrote:

The Special Examiner reports that the pensioner is known as Elizabeth Phalan, and that he is not satisfied that she is the widow of the soldier on account of whose service she is drawing a pension…It is requested that the papers be forwarded to an Examiner stationed at New Haven, Conn., in order than an investigation may be had to determine whether the pensioner is the legal widow of the soldier who served as Kearn Fitzpatrick in Co. E, 11 Conn Vol. Inf. If the investigation develops the fact that the pensioner has been in receipt of pension which she was not entitled to, sufficient evidence should be collected upon which to base a recommendation for prosecution. (11)

Kieran Phelan (NARA/Fold3)

“I had you a likeness of soldier taken about time of our marriage. I have this large one in uniform on the wall you may notice that in uniform he wears a moustache otherwise I think the photos are alike.” “she has a large likeness of soldier hung in her room, she handed me a small daguerreotype taken about the time of their marriage, the likeness in uniform has a moustaches, but I could see the resemblance in the two likenesses. The small daguerreotype of Kieran Phelan, which remains in the NARA pension file associated with his widow. (NARA/Fold3)

The potential now arose that Elizabeth could be prosecuted and ultimately imprisoned on the basis of her use of the name Fitzpatrick. Yet another Special Examiner, New Haven based C.H. Jonas Junior, now entered the frame. He started by seeking evidence of the marriage of Kieran and Elizabeth, but ran into the same difficulties that Elizabeth had herself faced when she had tried to do the same in the 1860s. Jonas found that the parish records of Naugatuck only went back as far as 1866, and also drew a blank having searched the town record for the years 1855, 1856 and 1857. The priest who had allegedly married the couple– Reverend Lynch– had been in charge of the Birmingham parish in Derby, so a search was also conducted there, but similarly failed to produce results. Jonas next moved on to the records held in Waterbury, but a letter he sent in December 1898 requesting they be checked had still received no response by July 1899. On the basis of the record evidence alone, Elizabeth’s prospects seemed bleak. (12)

Special Examiners often appear to have been influenced by the opinion they formed of the pensioner they were interviewing. As we saw with G.F. Woodberry, he was unimpressed with the story Elizabeth told, and so sought further investigation. C.H. Jonas Junior sat down to interview the woman again on 30th December. A lot was riding on how Elizabeth came across. This interview and the conclusions Jonas drew from it are the most intriguing documents in the file. They shed light on a number of aspects of Civil War widowhood that are rarely revealed to us, notably the fact that Elizabeth had kept all the letters from her husband (and had not submitted any when she might have done in the 1860s) and that she displayed a photograph of him in uniform in a central position in her home. The very act of her handing over both the letters (transcribed above) and the image of her husband which remain in her file to this day are described. Jonas in his report also puts forward his reasoning in selecting the letters he did for inclusion. The interview and Jonas’s conclusions also speak to diaspora identity. Elizabeth had been born in New York, and had lived either there or in Connecticut all her life. Yet Jonas refers to her as an “old Irishwoman.” Though she was born into an Irish family, this suggests that Elizabeth may have strongly identified herself as Irish, highlighting again the importance of including these American-born Irish in our analyses of the Irish in the 19th Century United States. (13)

I am sixty one years old no occupation. P.O. address #17 Rose St., New Haven, Conn….I have not remarried since his death nor lived with any mans as his wife. We were never separated or divorced. We had four children, two of whom are still living. I only knew soldier a little over a year prior to our marriage he was born in Ireland. We lived in Naugatuck after our marriage until soldier enlisted, then I went to my parents in Ansonia (both dead long ago) and remained in Ansonia until 1887 when I came here. I have lived here ever since. Soldier enlisted under name of Kearn Fitzpatrick, Fitzpatrick being his mother’s name. He gave me no reason for this he was off with a crowd in New Haven drinking and they all enlisted. He told me most of them enlisted under false names. I know of no other reason for his changing his name…I have never been able to get any record of my marriage there was no church in Naugatuck we were married in a Hall by a Priest named Lynch from Birmingham (Derby). I had no marriage cert nor bible record. I knew no comrades of soldier’s never saw any of them. Soldier was home several times on furlough, he was last home about seven weeks before he died. I here show you several letters written during service by some of soldier’s comrades for him he couldn’t read nor write himself. These letters are all addressed my dear wife and signed either Kearn, Kerin or Kerin Fitzpatrick as they were written by comrades he let them think his name was Fitzpatrick. The envelopes are gone, I forget whether letters were addressed to Mrs. Phalen or Fitzpatrick. I hand you my husbands naturalization paper in which his name is given as Phalen…I hand you a likeness of soldier taken about time of our marriage. I have this large one in uniform on the wall you may notice that in uniform he wears a moustache otherwise I think the photos are alike. (14)

Jonas waited to see if he could get a response from Waterbury regarding the marriage before he filed his report. In July 1899, with no response forthcoming, he decided to proceed with filing his report. The condescending tone of his correspondence is not unusual in such cases– from Elizabeth’s perspective, the important aspect was that he believed her:

…I found the pensioner to be an old Irishwoman of fairly good repute, quite ignorant, can read and write, which covers her accomplishments. She is entirely too ignorant to have ever though of defrauding the Govt. I fully believe her story in every particular, and I haven’t the slightest doubt, that she told her true name to both Attys. Barbour and Plunkett [Elizabeth’s pension attorney after she moved to New Haven], and that they advised her to keep quiet, as several such cases have come under my observation, the Attys. are looking to get their fees quick, don’t wish for complications. I have been unable to find any record town or church, of pensioner’s marriage to soldier. Naugatuck had no Catholic Church in those days, I have tried to find the records without success. Pensioner was always known here and in Ansonia, where she lived before coming here, as Mrs. Phalen, by her friends and neighbors. She could not remember any particular parties who executed her vouchers for her in Ansonia, I went to several, but they could not recall her– I found some people who remembered a Mrs. Phalen in Ansonia, but knew nothing about her, did not know her name was Fitzpatrick. I searched marriage records at Ansonia without finding anything. Pensioner has lots of letters from soldier written during service, she states that he couldn’t read or write, but got comrades to write for him. She didn’t keep the envelopes, I took one letter from soldier, signed Kerin Fitzpatrick, one from pensioner to him, and one from a comrade named Flaherty, informing her as to soldier’s death– She told me that she never saw said Flaherty, judging from his letter, and that from soldier, Flaherty acted no doubt as soldier’s amanuensis [the man who wrote his letters], which would account for soldier’s not signing his right name. Among soldier’s papers, I also found naturalization paper made out under the name of Phalen, which I think prove’s pensioners story– she has a large likeness of soldier hung in her room, she handed me a small daguerreotype taken about the time of their marriage, the likeness in uniform has a moustache, but I could see the resemblance in the two likenesses. The batch of letters in pensioner’s possession proves her to be the widow of the Kearn Fitzpatrick who rendered the service– and the naturalization paper proves that his name was Phalen– Pensioner states that the soldier had a brother named Thos. Phalen, in New York City (Harlem). She thinks he is still living, dosen’t know what trade he follows– It might be well to see him if still living– As the case stands I believe pension should stand, but that title should be changed to Elizabeth Phalen, widow of Kearn Phalen alias Fitzpatrick. (15)

The conclusions of Special Examiner Jonas proved decisive. The Bureau of Pensions instructed that there be a “reissue of certificate to correct names of pensioner and soldier…further action by this division does not appear to be necessary.” Elizabeth Phelan had her pension restored, and she would go on to receive it until her death on 6th October 1906. The trials and hardships she endured in the late 1890s demonstrate the potential long-lasting impact of decisions taken by soldier’s during their service. More significantly, Elizabeth’s misfortune has enabled us to hear her story in her own words and in tremendous detail, shining a light on Civil War widowhood, remembrance and identity in late 19th century America.

Kieran Phelan Naturalization (NARA/Fold3)

“I hand you my husbands naturalization paper in which his name is given as Phalen.” Kieran Phelan’s Naturalization paper, the document which ultimately convinced the Special Examiner as to the truth of Elizabeth’s claims, and saved her from potential prosecution. (NARA/Fold3)

* 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) Elizabeth Phalen Pension File; (2) 1860 Federal Census, Elizabeth Phalen Pension File; (3) Elizabeth Phalen Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid., (8) Record of Service of Connecticut Men: 450, Elizabeth Phalen Pension File; (9) Elizabeth Phalen Pension File; (10) Ibid.; (11) Ibid.; (12) Ibid.; (13) Ibid.; (14) Ibid.; (15) Ibid.; 

References & Further Reading

Pension File of Elizabeth Phalen, widow of Kearn Phlaen, Company E, 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Widow’s Certificate 71372.

1860 Federal Census, Naugatuck, New Haven, Connecticut.

Connecticut General Assembly 1889. Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the Army and Navy of the United States during the War of the Rebellion.