My work on Irish in the Widow’s and Dependent Pension Files has led me to read and transcribe hundreds of letters of Irish and Irish-American soldiers who lost their lives as a result of the American Civil War. There are many themes evident across much of these men’s writings; discussion of finances, health and family are the type of topics we would expect to find in the majority of Union soldier’s correspondence. Viewing them from an immigrant perspective, matters such as remittance and community are commonplace. However, the vast bulk of the letters are centred around the day-to-day lives of soldiers and their families, and rarely provide insights into a soldier’s broader sense of identity. This is principally due to the fact that those in receipt of the letters were already aware of that identity- it was unecessary to spell it out in a letter. So it is that we rarely hear reference to Ireland, or how these Irish-Americans identified or related to their ethnicity. It is also relatively rare for political viewpoints or beliefs to be expressed (where they are, they support the view that the Irish were overwhelmingly Democrat). Slightly more common are expressions of ideological motivations behind service, though it is unusual for these sentiments to extend beyond a line or two on the necessity of defeating the Confederacy and preserving the Union. Where ideology was a factor in Irishmen’s service, there can be little doubt that the preservation of Union was the paramount factor- just as it was for the majority of Northern soldiers. The relative sparsity of content of this type are what makes the August 1862 letter of John Cororcan all the more significant. In it he explicitly addresses his own identity, his views on Ireland, his views on England, and how these combined to form his views on America. It was also the last letter he ever wrote home.
John Corcoran was from a large Irish family, who provide an example of 19th century step-migration. Like many Irish immigrants in 1860s America, they had spent a number of years living outside of Ireland prior to their arrival in the United States. In the case of the Corcorans, that involved at least a decade spent in England, prior to a move across the Atlantic- specifically Salem, Massachusetts- around 1849. This is clearly demonstrated on the 1860 Federal Census, which illustrates the tri-nation origins of the primary family group:
|NAME||AGE||OCCUPATION||PLACE OF BIRTH|
|Mary J. Corcoran||12||–||England|
|Julia E. Corcoran||5||–||Massachusetts|
|Lewis H. Corcoran||2||–||Massachusetts|
|Mary A. Condry||1 month||–||Massachusetts|
Table 1. Corcoran household in 1860. Developed from the 1860 United States Federal Census, Salem Ward 1, Essex, Massachusetts. (1)
Interestingly, the Corcorans made their home with another step-migration family, the Condrys. This indicates that Irish-emigrant communities in England employed similar chain migration strategies when leaving for the United States to those seen at local community level in Ireland. Indeed, Irish step migrants likely had an even stronger contact base to draw from when making their move to America, as many would have maintained networks with communities in Ireland as well as developing new ones in countries like England or Canada.
John Corcoran, our letter writer, was a 17-year-old mariner when he was enumerated on 28th June 1860. He had probably just celebrated his birthday, and he was likely still only 17 when he enlisted, mustering in as a private in Company C of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry on 25th May 1861 at Boston. In total his file contains six letters, encompassing his service on the Upper Potomac and in the Shenandoah Valley in 1861 and 1862. They were selected for inclusion in the pension application due to their references to financial support of his parents. From the beginning, John’s correspondence demonstrates that he wasn’t shy in expressing his views. In a letter from Maryland on 13th October 1861, he expressed his anger that people in Salem were comparing his unit to others, particularly the “9 Reg” (possibly a reference to the 9th Massachusetts Infantry, an ethnic Irish unit), whom he said were:
…know [no] soldgers nothing but dirty State Melissa [Militia] our Connel [Colonel] wo[u]ld not put us on a line with such trash… (2)
Evidently some of the family’s community circle were unimpressed with John’s service in the 2nd Massachusetts:
Dear parents you tell me that all the Salem popel [people] are lafhing [laughing] at me for not sent [sending] home my money…[and later in the letter]…Dear parents I know what peopl[e] talks of me it is the Lynchs and Carrols thay had ought to have thare [their] head shaved and drummed out of Salem… (3)
The question as to the identity of the Lynchs and Carrolls is an interesting one. An examination of the 1860 Census for Salem’s First Ward– where the Corcorans lived– reveals some potential candidates, who display intriguing characteristics when compared with the Corcorans. Only one large Carroll family group seems to have been enumerated in the First Ward:
|NAME||AGE||OCCUPATION||PLACE OF BIRTH|
|Peter Carroll||23||Factory Operative||England|
|Thomas Carroll||17||Factory Operative||England|
|John Walsh||22||Factory Operative||Ireland|
Table 2. Carroll household in 1860. Developed from the 1860 United States Federal Census, Salem Ward 1, Essex, Massachusetts. (4)
Similarly, though there are a handful of Lynch family’s in the enumeration for Salem’s First Ward, one has particularly noteworthy characteristics:
|NAME||AGE||OCCUPATION||PLACE OF BIRTH|
|Patrick Lynch||50||Umbrella Maker||Ireland|
|John Lynch||18||Factory Operative||England|
Table 3. Lynch household in 1860. Developed from the 1860 United States Federal Census, Salem Ward 1, Essex, Massachusetts. (5)
These Lynches were not the only examples– another of the smaller family groups in the First Ward consisted of 50-year-old Dennis Lynch, a Dry Goods Dealer, his 60-year-old wife Ann, and their daughter, also Ann, aged 22. While the parents had been born in Ireland, their daughter was of English birth. Like the Corcorans, families like these Carrolls and Lynches had followed an emigration path which first took them to England, where the majority of their children were born and partly raised, before heading for Massachusetts. If, as seems at least highly probable, these are the same families which John refers to in his 13th October 1861 letter, it illustrates that these “English-Irish” maintained something of a community within a community among the Irish of Salem.
As is the norm, the majority of John’s letters deal with the personal and familial. Like many others, he wanted to make sure those at home had enough money to get them through the winter, when the need for fuel added a major financial burden: “All that holds me is to know how you will get along this winter…” He often referred to news of his brother James, who also appears to have been in service, and he signed off the majority of his correspondence with the usual salutations to friends and family, but “especely to Grandmother.” This may have been his maternal grandmother; as an elderly dependent she was likely taken with the family through their step migration. John also saw his fair share of combat. He ended his letter of 21st June 1862, written from Winchester, Virginia:
Give my respect to all my brothers and sisters and all enquiring friends and mother send me you[r] minature for the Reabels has got the one you send me before I lost in on the battel field it was in my knabsack. (6)
The engagement was the Battle of Winchester, fought on 25th May 1862, which ended in victory for Stonewall Jackson’s Confederates. The final letter in John’s file is the most significant, and is reproduced in full below. It was written against a backdrop of the death of former President Martin Van Buren, and the formation of the Army of Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope. The events of the moment inspired John to discuss his own views on a range of issues. Though original spelling has been kept, punctuation has been added for ease of reading.
Camp near littel Washington, Virginia August 1st 1862
I recived your most welcome letter yeasterday and was happy to hear from you…We are know [now] camped in a very pretty place we had a review the other day when Generel Banks and 2 more Generels was on the field. To day is a day of sorrow heare caused by the death of ex Presendent Van Buarn [Van Buren]. This morning I was woke up by the roaring of canons I first tought the Reables was coming but when I enquired into it I found that thay ware firing for the death of the ex Presendent. At 10 am all the troups [troops] was marched on the ground and in the presence of Genarel Banks and marched in review for 3 hours. Genarel Pope is in cheaf [chief] command hear. He came into the field yeasterday. Thare is no sight of the enemie hear thay are in Gordonville 40 miles from hear. Thares Gurrilias [guerillas] enugh a round hear we may have a fight in a short time. Genarel Pope is just the man for this plase the troups is in good condition…Send me a Salem newspaper once in a while. I supose the times will be very hard in Salem know [now] for some time but it will be a short time for yo[u] thare as thare is a place caled Richmond it will fall and then the times wil get first rate. We are know [now] about 5 days march from the rear of Richmond and we ar[e] willing to go there any minet and share in taking it. We have got our minds made up neaver to surrender and if that dame [damn] England has any thing to do with us woe be to the Read Raskels [red rascals]. You may think strong of me for the sentiments I use against my birth place but if England was to entifere [interfere] I wo[u]ld neaver take a live English soldiger. I am down on that nation and willing to do anything for to see that nashion [nation] fall and Ireland the Home of the Brave free from her enemees hands. I suppose you heard of the few mean Irishmen in St. Lewis [St. Louis] when the news come that thay wo[u]ld be drafed if they did not volintear. Some of the mean [men] cant call them Irishmen thay are not worthey of the name. I am glad to hear that thay ware orangemen I knew thare was not a true Son of Earin so mean as to go to the English Counsile [Consul] for English protection. It was the meanest thing I eaver heard of and I am proud to say thay ware no Irishmen but mean orengmen the raskels. Thare was neaver such as good Goverment as that of the United States and it was just the Goverment that gave the Sons of Earen protection and why not fight for it know [now]. Why not fight for liberty and for such a good Union as this and bring back thes[e] trators that rebeled agenest it. It was the onley reagular Republick goverment on earth, it was the onley Countery ware the Peopel rule. I my self is willing to lay down all pleashures of life for to restore the Union and if I should happen to fall you can say I fell in a good Cause. We must and will put down this unholey Rebelion and that before long. It is getting near tattoo so I must close short and bid you a hartey good bye. No more at present from your
John Corcoran Co C 2nd Regt M.V.I.
Direct as before
Washington D.C. General Banks Div
Good Bye (7)
This remarkable letter touches on many aspects of the Irish experience. Here we have yet another example of the complexities of identity in the 19th century. John Corcoran had been born in England, and had grown up both there and in Massachusetts. Though he had spent very little (if any) time in Ireland, he regarded himself as completely Irish. His anti-English comments were made at a time of potential English support and recognition for the Confederacy, the prospect of which had evidently got John’s blood up. Similarly John raged against the actions of Irishmen in St. Louis, who were making the news as they rushed to the British Consul to secure proof of citizenship in order to avoid the militia draft. John would have read in the newspapers of the 29th July of an “Indignation Meeting” held in St. Louis, where Irish leaders called on those seeking exemptions to be “stigmatized and ordered to leave the city,” and in an effort to deflect their embarrassment blamed “Irish Orangemen, who have been more English than the English themselves” for making up the majority of those trying to escape service, though there was no evidence to suggest this was the case. (8)
Perhaps what is most significant about this letter is how John directed his views on Ireland (and England) into support for the Union. The dual allegiances of many Irish-Americans to both Ireland and the United States in this period has been much discussed, but here we have an example where that dual identity– manifested in John’s vision for the futures of both Ireland and the United States– provided this emigrant with a particularly strong fervour for the Union cause. Indeed, it could be argued that it possessed of him a motivation that may well have exceeded some of his native-born comrades. He was fighting for the “onley reagular Republick goverment on earth…the onley Countery ware the Peopel rule.” (9)
John expressed his willingness to die to restore the United States– “if I should happen to fall you can say I fell in a good cause.” Eight days after writing this letter, the Army of Virginia met Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, and lost. John, who was initially reported missing, was later confirmed as killed in action. He was 18-years-old. This, combined with the death of his father the following January, was what led to his mother applying for a pension, and caused her to submit his letters. This letter stands as one of the best descriptions of why many Irish were willing to die for the Union I have yet come across. It also stands as another warning of the many pitfalls in equating birthplace with ethnic affiliation, particularly with respect to the Irish of the 19th century. John Corcoran does not figure among the c. 180,000 Irish who I have classed as fighting for the Union. He is one of the tens of thousands of others– many of whom saw themselves as completely Irish– who are currently classed as English, Scottish, Canadian and American, based solely on their place of birth. (10)
(1) Corcoran Pension File, 1860 Census; (2) Corcoran Pension File; (3) Ibid.: (4) 1860 Census; (5) Ibid: (6) Corcoran Pension File; (7) Ibid.; (8) Brooklyn Daily Eagle 31st June 1862, Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1st August 1862; (9) Corcoran Pension File; (10) 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.
References & Further Reading
Widow’s Certificate WC10461 of Mary Cochrane, Dependent Mother of John Cochrane, Company C, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry.
1860 United States Federal Census, Salem Ward 1, Essex, Massachusetts.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 31st June 1862. A number of Irishmen in St. Louis…
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1st August 1862. Indignation Meeting in St. Louis.