“I want to see you before I die”: Last Letters of Ulster Emigrants in American Civil War Pension Files

Two years ago I had the great pleasure of speaking at the Ulster-American Heritage Symposium in Athens, Georgia. The Symposium alternates between Ireland and North America every two years, and this year was back at its spiritual home, the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park outside Omagh, Co. Tyrone. I was pleased to get an opportunity to speak again at this years event, which took place between 22-25 June. The Symposium also gave me a long awaited opportunity to explore the Folk Park, which is well worth a visit, and includes gems like the house in which John Hughes, the first Catholic Archbishop of New York, grew up. I spoke specifically on letters I have identified in the widows and dependent pension files that relate to Ulster families, both Catholic and Protestant. For the benefit of those of you who may be interested in the presentation, I have reproduced it in full below, together with the powerpoint slides that accompanied it.

The house in which John Hughes, first Catholic Archbishop of New York, grew up. "Dagger John" was an important figure during the period of the Civil War.

The house in which John Hughes, first Catholic Archbishop of New York, grew up. “Dagger John” was an important figure during the period of the Civil War, and was instrumental in getting former Papal Officers like Myles Walter Keogh positions in the U.S. Army (Damian Shiels)

In an Irish context, the American Civil War is this island’s great forgotten conflict. At the outbreak of the fighting in 1861, 1.6 million people of Irish-birth resided in the United States. This is a figure that does not include the hundreds of thousands of Irish-Americans born into Irish communities in the United States, Canada and Britain, who often regarded themselves as much a part of the Irish community as those native to Ireland. By my estimates, some 200,000 Irish-born men served in Federal or Confederate uniform between 1861 and 1865. The vast majority- perhaps 180,000- did so wearing Union blue. Of them, tens of thousands were from Ulster.

As I noted at the 2014 Symposium in Athens, and in my subsequent paper for the Irish Hunger and Migration volume, our failure to appreciate the scale of Irish involvement in the conflict- and more significantly our comparative neglect of its study in Ireland, North and South- has caused us to overlook one of the major sources relating to 19th century Irish emigration. These are the widows and dependent pension files of men who died as a result of their Civil War service in the Union military. The National Archives in Washington D.C. houses some 1.28 million such files, tens of thousands of which relate to Irish emigrants- and thousands of them to people from Ulster. I will not revisit today the background or overall content these files, which is a topic covered in the Irish Hunger and Migration volume. Suffice is to say that these files are filled with vast amounts of social data relating to Irish emigrants, which together constitute perhaps the greatest body of social information on Irish people in the 19th century United States.

In order to be successful with their application, each prospective pensioner- be they a widow, a dependent parent, a dependent sibling, or a minor child- had to prove their relationship with, and often their financial dependence on, a deceased soldier. One way in which they did this was to include original letters written by the man in question, and it is on that particular source which we are concentrating today. Over recent years I have been systematically working my way through the c. 11% of the widows and dependents pension files that have been scanned, searching within each one to determine if they have an Irish connection, and if they contain such letters. To date, I have identified letters in the files of well in excess of 250 Irish and probable Irish-American soldiers, constituting in the region of 1,800 pages of letters. Most of these were written by soldiers and sailors during the war, though there are also some which were penned before the conflict, and a number which were written to soldiers by those on the Home Front. Unsurprisingly, these contain a wealth of insights into the Irish experience of both the American Civil War and America in general. For the remainder of the talk I want to explore some of what these letters have to say, with specific reference to the correspondence of Ulster emigrants.

At the outset, it is worth noting that the existence of letters does not necessarily indicate literacy- indeed many of the soldiers who caused them to be composed were either illiterate or semi-literate. It was not unusual for correspondents to dictate their letters to a literate friend or companion, who would then also read aloud any return correspondence to the recipient. In this respect letters often constituted a more public or communal experience than we might expect, one that was shared between groups of trusted individuals. We must imagine many of these letters arriving home from the front, being read aloud to multiple family members around the table.

What then of their content? Unsurprisingly given the context of their survival, many of the letters make specific reference to finances, and of the efforts of Ulster soldiers to support those at home during the war. This often proved difficult given the erratic nature of wartime pay, which often came many months late. Soldiers also made efforts to see that their family were able to avail of relief monies made available to the dependents of those in the military. What is apparent is the intense pressure that many men were under to provide for those at home while at the front. For example, let’s hear from Bernard Curry, a native of Co. Armagh in the 182nd New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, who wrote home from the trenches outside Petersburg in 1864 to let his mother know that:

the paymaster come to us last night and paid us off so I am sending you 40 dollars with this letter. I am sending it by express, the way we have to do [it] is to give the money to the priest and he will send it for us.

Bernard survived his war service, only to be murdered by a fugitive in Texas while serving in the regulars. Terrence McFarland, from Newry, Co. Down, was also a member of the 182nd New York, and had similar financial concerns. In December 1862 he heard his mother had lost the relief ticket which would have allowed her to get support:

Dear mother I am very sorry that you lost that relief ticket that I gave to you but I am going to see can I get another on this day…I will look after it and as soon as I get it I will send it to you.

Terrence was later killed in action outside Petersburg on 16 June 1864.

Winter in the 1860s always brought increased financial pressures, given the necessity of purchasing fuel for heating. On 1 February 1862 James McGaffigan, a native of Clonmany, Co. Donegal, wrote home to his wife from the camp of the 63rd New York, Irish Brigade, in Virginia:

I see by the newspapers that the winter is pretty cold and stormy all along the northern states, so I am glad that the relief I sent you arrived in such good season…I hope you will make yourself as comfortable as possible and at the same time be as economical as possible, for it may be a good length of time before I have it in my power to send you another money letter, for it is uncertain if we will be paid regularly or not.

James was killed in action at Antietam, America’s bloodiest day, a little over 7 months later.

William McCollister from Co. Antrim, a trooper in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, was among many to explicitly express his desire to take care of his family. Writing from Virginia in 1863 he remarked that:

one of the things that occupies my mind the most is the welfare of my good old mother that has taken care of me from my helpless moments up to the present time…it is my desire that I may comfort her in her old age and I had rather suffer all the privations incident to human nature than to hear of her suffering for the want of one of the necessaries of life.

William would ultimately die of complications relating to an early war wound.

Lieutenant Hugh McGraw of the 140th New York Infantry wrote to his mother from Virginia in May 1863 that he:

was rather grieved and disappointed…to find that your health was rather poor, but I hope ere this reaches you that you will have recovered your former strength, and that God in his infinite mercy will be around you and bring you safe through your sickness… Knowing that I am necessarily absent and that there is none of the other members of the family near enough to pay any attention to you but I trust you will be able to get along…till I can again seek shelter under the old roof. If God in his divine Providence has so willed it that I again return to my home.

Hugh was mortally wounded on Little Round Top in Gettysburg.

Despite the worries of those at home, many Ulster soldiers found that army life agreed with them. Thomas McCready of the 74th New York Infantry, a native of Stranorlar, Co. Donegal, told his mother in November 1861 that:

I like soldiering as good now as I did the first day because I have a chance of seeing the country now.

He added:

I feel as happy now as I ever was, we have a good tent and a good bed that [holds] seven of us, also a good log chimney and a good comfortable fire.

This outlook didn’t prevent his mother from literally becoming sick with worry. In another letter Thomas wrote:

I am sorry that you took sick on my account. I have not been in any battle since I left home. Keep up good courage and do not believe everything that you hear, for I never felt better in my life. 

His mother wanted him to come home for Christmas, but Thomas had to the news that:

I can’t be home at Christmas but I expect to be home shortly after it…there is nothing you [can] do for me to make me comfortable and the best you can do for me is to answer my letter and not to be grieving about me.

Thomas was killed in the 74th New York’s first major engagement of the war, at Williamsburg, Virginia, the following May.

For the most part the men were keen to reassure those at home they were safe and there was no need to worry. Many letters make reference to the likelihood that the war would hopefully soon end. John Monaghan, of Monaghan town and the 165th New York, wrote home from New Orleans, Louisiana telling his mother to:

not worry atall about me, I am in hope that the war will soon be at an end and that I may soon return home.

John was mortally wounded at Port Hudson, Louisiana in June 1863.

Expressions as to motivations or political viewpoints are relatively rare in the letters, but we do get occasional glimpses at how fervently many of these men supported the cause of Union. To turn once again to Antrim’s William McCollister, writing in 1862:

there has been a great many young fellows killed at this last battle that I was acquainted with, but we must not think hard of that. I am as liable to be killed as any one at present but I am just as willing for to die for my country as any white boy living.

While the majority of men stayed away from topics that might worry those at home, some letters indicate the impact that the sights, sounds and stresses of war had on these Ulstermen. Patrick Carney of Fintona, Co. Tyrone, was experiencing his first campaign on the Virginia Peninsula when he described the Fair Oaks battlefield to his mother:

I never saw in my lifetime the sight I saw. Our Company was sent out yesterday afternoon to berry the dead and we ware ought 2 hours and we berried 46 Rebles. We are encamp[ed] on the battle ground.

Patrick died facing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg a year later. Another man who died in that regiment at that battle was James Hand. His friend, Derry native Charles McAnally- a future Medal of Honor recipient- broke news of his death to his widow:

It is a painfull task for me to communicate the sad fate of your husband (my own comrade)…he received a ball through the breast & one through the heart & never spoke after. I was in command of the skirmishers about one mile to the front & every inch of the ground was well contested untill I reached our Regt. The Rebels made the attack in 3 lines of Battle, as soon as I reached our line I met James he ran & met me with a canteen of watter. I was near palayed[played]he said I was foolish[I]dident let them come at once that the ‘ol 69th was waiting for them. I threw off my coat & in 2 minuets we were at it hand to hand. They charged on us twice & we repulsed them they then tryed the Regt on our right & drove them, which caused us to swing back our right, then we charged them on their left flank & in the charge James fell, may the Lord have mercy on his soul. He never flinched from his post & was loved by all who knew him.

Sickness and disease killed more men than combat, and was a constant worry for both the troops and those at home. James McGinness, from Kill, Co. Cavan, was serving in the 90th New York Infantry when he wrote to his wife on 5 September 1862:

Thanks be to God my health is as good as it ever was and if you saw the hard life that we have to go through you would be astonished to think that men could live atall, but thanks be to God the whole Camp is in pretty good health, Still there are a good many encampments around here that have quite a number of deaths

Before long James’s encampment was also struck down- he died of yellow fever at Key West, Florida, less than a month after writing this letter, widowing his wife, who would also bury at least 7 of the couple’s 15 children.

Robert Boyle from Portadown, Co. Armagh, was serving in the 164th New York, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, when he was severely wounded at Cold Harbor in June 1864. Writing to his wife as a prisoner from Libby Prison in Richmond he told her:

My dear wife, I was captured on yesterday morning the 3rd near this place I am severely wounded through my right thigh. The surgeon has not yet examined my wound and I cant tell whether the leg will have to be amputated or not, I fear that it cant be done with safety…My dear wife I do not know what will be the result of this wound but hope for the best…With much love I remain your loving husband.

Robert died of his wounds while still a prisoner a little under a month later.

Such is the richness of some of the letters that we can combine them with other sources to build a much fuller picture of the lives of individual emigrant families, and I want to spend the remainder of the talk exploring two examples of this. The first is the story of James Kerr, from Co. Tyrone, a soldier in the 26th Pennsylvania Infantry.

We first encounter James at the First United Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, on 14 March 1857, where he married Jane Kennedy. James, who worked as a laborer, was 5 feet 7 ½ inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion. The couple made their home in Rodman Street, six doors below 13th street on the south side, south of Lombard. It was there that their first child, Agnes- known to all as Aggy- was born at 10pm on 8 April 1858. The difficulties inherent with childbirth so prevalent in the 19th century were visited on the family the following year. At 3am on the morning of 29 October 1859 their first son was stillborn, a result of his being born in the breech presentation. Thankfully, all went well with their third child, Samuel, who was born hale and healthy at 6.30pm on 3 January 1861.

James, who for reasons unknown decided to serve under the alias of “John Kerr”, first enlisted in the 26th Pennsylvania at the age of 22 on 5 May 1861. However, this first stint in the army appears to have been short-lived, as he was discharged due to “great deafness.” Further heartache became the Kerrs’ lot on 8 August 1862, when James’s wife Jane died. Apparently sparked by a need to obtain a regular income, James again sought to enlist that December, and was this time accepted back into his old regiment, apparently with no questions asked. It is in this context that we first encounter his letters, written to the Robb family, where his children were boarding. [SLIDE 14] On 31 January 1863 he wrote from Falmouth, Virginia:

Dear Friends,

Your kind letter of 27th came to hand this morning. I was glad to know you got the money, as I was much afraid from the delay you would not get it…as it regards those 29 dollars, if I live to put my time in it will be sure for me then along with my Bounty…Always remember me to the children also to your own family. All is quiet here at present we have snow a foot & half deep …Excuse the paper I have written this on it got dirty in my pocket.

The next letter was written on 28 March 1863. It would appear that his sister-in-law Margaret Kennedy and a Mrs Major were accusing James of not paying all the funeral expenses following his wife’s death, and their accusations were impeding the flow of relief money to his children. John wrote to the Robbs:

I am very sorry you have so much trouble about the relief money. If I was able to pay for my children’s board without it I should not ask it at all, but this I am not able to do. I think it very hard for my children to be kept from getting what is their right, through the stories of persons who may wish to do me injury… it grieves me to think that any of them should try to injure either your character or mine. I would wish from my heart that this matter could be arranged, I have enough to perplex my mind without it, the duties of a soldier battling for his Country’s rights who knows not the day he may have to march on the enemy and face the music of the rifle and cannon…it is my wish that you should draw the relief money until I return again if I have the good fortune to escape the rebels ball & steel… Always remember me to the children. I hope Aggy is a good girl and has not forgotten me, tell me if she speaks as little as [she] used to do next time you write.

Access to the relief money still dominated James’s thoughts when he next wrote to the Robbs, on 18 April:

I am somewhat surprised you did not answer my last letter- It makes me fear you have not been successful in getting the relief money. Enclosed is a receipt for twenty dollars which you can receive on account for the children’s board, the Chaplin Mr. Beck will hand it over to you. We are about moving on the enemy we are each to carry eight days rations. We have been under marching orders for three days, we expect hot work before us, plenty of marching and fighting both…I am in good health and hope this may find my dear little children together with yourself & family well…please write soon when this comes to hand and give me all the news you can…

The movement he was referring to were the beginnings of a major campaign. Just over two weeks after writing, James Kerr was killed by a bullet at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His orphaned children would receive a minor’s pension based on his service, and their futures passed into the guardianship of their aunt Margaret.

Slide15The next letter-based story relates to the Carr family. They were natives of Ballinascreen, Co. Derry, where Arthur Carr and his wife Nancy lived with their five children. In 1850 Arthur died, leaving the family destitute and with few options. Nancy would later recall that in 1851:

I and family were sent to America and our expenses paid by the local authorities in Ireland”

The family escaped penury in Ireland only to face paupery in New York. Not long after their arrival, Nancy was forced to place her children in institutional care due to an inability to afford their support. Improving circumstances eventually meant that she was able to reunite most of her family, but not all. An August 1860 “Information Wanted” advertisement placed in the Boston Pilot explained what happened:

INFORMATION WANTED OF BERNARD (or Barney) CARR, who left Ireland and landed in New York in 1851, with his mother and her children. Being unable to support them she was obliged to send three of the boys to Ward’s Island, from which place a person named Fenton Goss, from New Jersey, took one of the boys (Bernard, or Barney) to West Liberty, Logan county, Ohio. The unfortunate and disconsolate mother, who is now in certain circumstances, offers a reward of $20 to any person who can give her any information of her son Bernard Carr. Address Mrs. Ann Carr, Walton, Delaware county, N.Y.

Ann’s advertisement worked, but she did not reunite with Barney before the onset of war. By 1862, Barney, then 17-years-old, had made the decision to enlist. Almost certainly underage, he became a private in Company C of the 79th Illinois Infantry, and it is from here that we pick up his correspondence with his mother in New York. In an early letter, written in camp near Nashville, Tennessee, Barney asked his mother to:

pray for me continually I hope that you and me and the rest of the folks at home…see each other once more before I die. If it is the will of God that he may spare my life to get home to embrace my mother as we haven’t seen each other for about 9 years or more.

Life’s simple pleasures were important to Barney. This is demonstrated in a letter he wrote from Chattanooga, Tennessee on 14 November 1863:

…Mother I want you to send me by mail one round of fine cut chewing tobacco just as soon as you can send it to me, for that is the only way I can keep from spending my money and if you don’t send me plenty of tobacco, why then you will have to send me my money to buy it [he was sending home $30] for I can’t do without the article in no shape nor form…as for tobacco you can buy me a number one quality there and not cost near so much as it would here, I have to pay $1.00 for one plug of tobacco and it won’t weigh half a pound and it is musty after I get it so that I can’t chew it.

The following summer saw the onset of the combined Union offensives which sparked some of the most horrendous fighting of the war. Barney and the 79th Illinois were involved in Sherman’s push towards Atlanta, which saw the regiment engaged in heavy fighting through May and June. On 20 June Barney wrote the following letter, penned while under Confederate fire at Kennesaw, Georgia:

Dear Parent, once more I take the pleasure [of] writing to you a few lines to let you know that I am still alive yet. As I suppose you are well aware that Sherman’s army has been a fighting ever since last May and that I am still in his army. So as I have not wrote to you in a good while I thought you would be uneasy about me and thought that I would write you a few and let…[the letter stops at this point, and continues as below]

Dear Mother I have had to stop writing, we are a lying on the line [of] battle and there are 12 pieces of cannons in front of us and they are a shelling the Rebs and that draws the Rebels fire and it is a horrible place to be in. Cannonballs are a flying thick around us and the shells are a screaming in the air and through the woods, cutting the timber and earth in all directions, but thank [God] Mother I am still safe and unhurt, but how long I may still remain so I can’t tell anything about that yet. God only knows how long it may last, I am sure I can’t tell anything about it now, that by the grace [of] God I still live yet and am well and hearty in the bargain…I hope that when this few lines reaches you that [they] will find you all well and doing well.

Dear Mother these are hard times nothing but fighting every day and killing of men. I am a getting tired of it but then I want to see them keep those Rebels a moving to Atlanta and I guess that it is the only way of putting down this Rebellion and the sooner it is down the better it is for them that lives to see it. But Mother pray for me that I may live to see it over and live to see you all. So Mother I want to see you before I die and I want to see all of the Carr family.

Seven days after Barney Carr wrote this letter, on 27 June 1864, Sherman ordered his men to assault the Confederate line at Kennesaw Mountain. In the bloody repulse that followed, the assisted-emigrant from Ballinascreen was killed.

The story of the Carr family is one of a number from Ulster that will feature in my new book, The Forgotten Irish, which is due out this November. Each of those stories draws on the incredible information contained within the widows and dependent pension files to try and reconstruct the Irish emigrant experience at the level of the individual family. This is something that is possible with thousands of Ulster files. Heretofore, we have spent too long concentrating on the ins-and-outs of questions such as the location of Phil Sheridan’s birth, or the degree of Stonewall Jackson’s Ulster-Scots identity. The real story of Ulster in the American Civil War is one for which we have barely scratched the surface. It is the story of ordinary emigrants like James Kerr and Barney Carr, and the tens of thousands of other Ulster families who were irreparably touched by this conflict.

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Categories: Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Tyrone

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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3 Comments on ““I want to see you before I die”: Last Letters of Ulster Emigrants in American Civil War Pension Files”

  1. July 1, 2016 at 2:10 pm #

    I have included your post in Interesting Blogs at

    http://thatmomentintime-crissouli.blogspot.com.au/2016/06/friday-fossicking-june-30th-2016.html

    Thank you.

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  1. In the Ghostly Footsteps of the Gettysburg Irish | Irish in the American Civil War - October 8, 2016

    […] whom I have uncovered in the pension files, and whose letters I transcribed. These are men like Hugh McGraw from Co. Down, a Lieutenant in the 140th New York Infantry, who wrote his last letter home to his mother in May […]

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