In May 1860, 47-year-old Bridget Griffin stepped off the boat in the United States. Her husband John had died in their native Athlone in 1859, an event that likely precipitated her departure. With her was her 13-year-old son Patrick, a boy who grew to manhood during the years of the American Civil War. He would serve during that conflict, initially with the 15th Massachusetts Light Artillery and later in the 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery. June 1865 found him with the latter unit in New Orleans; having seemingly made it through the conflict, his mother probably looked forward to having him home. But instead she received a remarkable letter, written– anonymously– by some of Patrick’s comrades. It brought news of her boy’s death, which had come not at the hands of the Rebels, but as part of a particularly savage punishment meted out to the teenager by his own officers. (1)
Having arrived in America, the Griffins settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, where they knew many other Athlone emigrants– people like Hannah and Celia Keyes, who had left the midlands town a few years before and worked as mill hands. Patrick first got similar employment, working at manufacturers like the Hamilton Corporation, the Root Corporation and the Carpet Corporation. He also did work for a Mr. Fox, and latterly a wood dealer, taking his pay in wood which helped to provide fuel for his mother. Hannah Keyes moved in with the Griffins on St. Patrick’s Day 1863, but within a few months Patrick was on his way. On 23rd December 1863 he was enrolled in Lowell in the Union Army; his records indicate that he was part of the draft. The night before he left for the army, he told a family friend that he intended to send all he earned home to his mother. Before he departed for the front he had managed to buy her a barrel of flour, and also forwarded her the initial instalment of bounty money which he received. (2)
Patrick commenced his service in the 15th Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery. His service record indicates he was born in Co. Roscommon (suggested he was from the western, or Connacht side of Athlone), had blue eyes, light hair and a light complexion, and was 5 feet 3 1/2 inches in height. Patrick formed part of the draft quota from Lowell’s Second Ward. Despite what some of his comrades would later claim, it seems that he may not have been a model soldier. He was listed as having deserted from his unit on 12th May 1864 in New Orleans, and the army advertised a reward of $30 for his apprehension. He was duly captured on 30th May along with two other deserters (Thomas Anderson and Henry Brown), and confined to camp under arrest. The charge of desertion was later removed and changed to one of being absent without leave, as he had been returned to his unit. On 5th January 1865 Patrick was transferred to the 6th Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery. Six months later, his mother in Lowell received the anonymous letter.
New Orleans June 26 1865
From a Friend:-
Mrs. Griffin: I take the painful opportunity, of writing you these few lines, letting you know that your son is dead. This Monday morning, the 26th inst., he was sick, and he was ordered out by the second lieutenant and the sargent of his detachment. He told the sargent that he was not able to ride out the horses, and that if he took them out, that he would fall off, for he was not able to hold on to them. The Second Lieutenant also ordered him out, and that he should go out. Then he had to take the horses, and go out. Then we went out, the distance altogether making about three miles, and it was a wasting hot day. When we got about a mile and-a-half he was thrown off the horse, and could not get on them again. Then in a short time after we were to go to camp; and he was not able to walk to camp. So as we were coming along one of the streets, he had to leave us and sit down. Then the Sargeant had to take his horses and fetch them to camp along with him. So when we got to camp he was reported absent; and there was four guards and a corporal sent out after him to fetch him to camp. Which they found him in the same place as we left him. Then the guards fetched hm to camp, and it was as much as they were able to do because he was scarcely able to walk. So when he was fetched to Camp he was ordered to be tied up by the thumbs in which he was standing almost on the tops of his toes. He was not tied up ten minutes, before he commenced crying, and asked three or four times to be taken down. And still he kept a crying, but it was of no use. Even they did not give him no dinner, nor give him time to get it. And still he kept a crying for God’s sake to let him down; then the Captain came out and ordered him to be gagged, in which he was. And he was gagged so tight, that when he was taken down, the stick was covered all over with blood. Then he was taken down, and taken to the rear, and when he was going to the rear he vomited with the dint of weakness. Then when he came back, he was strung up again, and left so until he fainted away. Then he was taken down, and brought to a little, and left so for about an hour, when at the expiration he died. Mrs. Griffin;- There is coming entirely, between three and four hundred dollars to him; in which you ought to see and get it. Write to the Captain of the Battery, and he will let you know all about it.
Direct you letter to
Captain E.K. Russell
6th Mass. Battery.
New Orleans La.
Write as quick as possible
From friends of his. (3)
The impact of this letter on Bridget Griffin is difficult to imagine. Her son had apparently died not at the hands of the enemy, but of his own officers, and she had been spared little detail on the brutality of the incident. This anonymous letter, which had been written on the day of the event, remained unsigned as the men who wrote it feared the consequences should they append their names to the document. It was not long before the incident made the newspapers. Initially reported in the New Orleans Delta, it soon made its way to the North. On 8th July 1865 the Cleveland Daily Leader reported on the ‘Horrible Affair at New Orleans’ concerning the ‘alleged torturing to death’ of Patrick. They quoted from the Delta correspondent:
We saw him in his coffin next Tuesday morning, when he was fast decomposing. His neck was greatly swollen, and blood was oozing from his mouth and nostrils. The case was reported to General Andrews, Chief of General Canby’s staff, who immediately ordered a medical investigation of the corpse. Two or three Surgeons examined the body, and reported that he died from habitual intemperance. The gag used was of hard cyprus, seven or eight inches long, and where it came in Griffin’s mouth was gnawed to the depth of half an inch. It was deeply stained with blood. The examining surgeons say that, had it not been placed loosly in his mouth, he could not have chewed the gag in the manner he did. General Sherman is investigating the matter…His officers state that he was constantly drunk and running away from camp. He yesterday received a list of forty or fifty names of men belonging to the battery who desired to be summoned as witnesses in behalf of what they termed the murder. A statement of the case was sent to Governor Andrew, of Massachusetts, and another to the Boston Journal. (4)
The story was also reported in Patrick’s home town in Lowell. The Lowell Daily Citizen and News actually refers directly to the letter that I have transcribed above:
… A recent letter, received by the mother of the boy from members of the Battery, substantiates the statements of cruelty, but states that young Griffin was sick and not intoxicated…The affair is being investigated, and, if there are guilty parties, they should be brought to severe punishment. (5)
The immediate furore over the incident, combined with the outrage being expressed over it by the men of Patrick’s Company, necessitated a response. The day after the young man’s death, a report on the incident was compiled by the Acting Assistant-Adjutant General for Brevet Major-General Thomas W. Sherman.
Headquarters, Southern Division of Louisiana
Inspector General’s Office
New Orleans, June 27th 1865
Brevet Maj Gen T.W. Sherman
I have the honor to report that I have investigated the circumstance connected with the death of a private in the 6th Mass Battery who died yesterday and find, 1st. That Private P. Griffin was absent without leave in the morning, that on his return he was ordered to go out where the men were drilling, or exercising the horses, and that after he got on the ground he refused to do duty.
2d. That Captain Russell when he was brought in ordered him tied up by his thumbs and gaged. That some time between 2.30 PM and 3 o’clock he was cut down insensible and that he died about 4 P.M.
2d Lieut Daniel A Shean was officer of the day and his statement and Sergeant of the Guard Young and Corporal of the Guard Parker agree as to the time he was tied up, about 12 m, and the time he was cut down, about 2.30 or 3 P.M. Sergt Young says he was gaged to stop his noise, that when he helped to turn him down he was hanging by his thumbs insensible with his head hanging back and that he remained insensible up to the time of his death. Neither Lt. Shean, Sergt Young or Corporal Parker can tell whether or not the gag remained in his mouth until he was taken down but they think not. Corporal Parker thnks he hung by his thumbs insensible fifteen minuets before he was cut down.
Asst Surg David Stephens 20th USCI was called to see him and I found his certificate that he died of apoplexy. In conversation with me he said that Griffin was insensible when he saw him, had a very hot head was very much exhausted and beyond help. Had [illegible] in his throat and on being turned on his side a fluid ran from his mouth very much mixed with mucous but he discovered no symptoms of liquor. He things his deat was hastened by his punishment, and that was was at first very much reduced by debauchery and that this punishment would increase that weakness, but not knowing the patient before cannot give you an opinion as to how far his death is attributable to the punishment.
Your Obt Svt
W D Smith Lt Col
110th NYV [Acting Assistant Inspector General]
So Div La (6)
Patrick’s mother Bridget understandably requested that action be taken agains the men she held responsible for her son’s death. She reportedly wrote to Secretary Stanton requesting that Captain Russell not be mustered out of the service until he could be tried for court-martial for ‘causing the death of her son.’ But events had already moved beyond this. On 30th June both Captain Russell and Lieutenant Shean had formally requested a Board of Inquiry to be held to clear their names. In this they appear to have been successful. on 16th August 1865 the Lowell Daily Citizen and News provided it’s readers with the following update:
THE CASE OF PATRICK GRIFFIN. In our issue of July 11th some particulars concerning the treatment of a Lowell soldier, Patrick Griffin, of the 6th Battery, and his subsequent death, were given, chiefly on the authority of the New Orleans True Delta, which paper represented that Griffin had been subjected to barbarous punishment while in feeble health, and that death ensued as a result of the punishment. Since this statement was published, some additional facts have come to our knowledge, which go far to relieve the case of its most revolting features. It now appears that a post-mortem examination was had, by which it appeared that death ensued from other causes than the punishment, the form of which was exaggerated and misstated in material points. It also appears that Capt. Russell of the 6th Battery, who had been accused of the ill-treatment of the soldier, demanded and official inquiry into his conduct, which was accorded to him, Col. Buchanan of 1st U.S. Infantry presiding over the court. The document, showing the result of the inquest, have been shown to us. It is not necessary to go into all the details, but it is proper to state that the finding of the court, which was duly approved, ascribes the soldier’s death to other causes than those alleged in the published accounts, and, though the punishment was pronounced both illegal and severe, Capt. Russell was relieved of further blame, and has since been regularly discharged. (7)
Patrick’s previous misdemeanours and apparent fondness for alcohol had stood against him. It seems probable that his officers, who may have witnessed Patrick inebriated before, mistook his illness for drunkeness, and sought to teach him a lesson. Rightly or wrongly, the authorities took the decision that his officer’s had no serious case to answer with respect to his death, which was recorded as apoplexy. When Bridget applied for a pension based on her son’s service, she included the anonymous letter she had received from men of the 6th Battery in her claim. By then the war was over, and those who had served in the 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery had been discharged. In consequence of that, in late 1865 and 1866 three of Patrick’s former comrades came forward to swear affidavits as to what they witnessed on the day of Patrick’s death. No longer concerned about what may befall them, Patrick Carey, George Bagshaw and Alfred Hackett made their marks on the statements. Each of these accounts have been transcribed below. The anger they felt about the incident is apparent, and no doubt they did not agree with the conclusion of the inquiry. I leave readers to form their own opinions– whatever the truth of events, the young teenage emigrant surely did not deserve to meet such a horrific end, testament to the harshness of military justice in 1860s America.
Affidavit of Patrick Carey (Provided in August 1866, the Irish laborer had served with Patrick Griffin in the 15th and 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery):
Patrick told me he was sick, too sick to attend the roll-call. I had occupied the same room with him through the night. I went to his bunk to call him for the roll-call, and he said he was sick and could not go down and did not go. I saw no more of [him]…until about ten o’clock A.M. We had been out to exercise the horses about two miles from Camp. On our way back about a mile from Camp we came to Patrick lying by the side of the road having fallen from his horse when we were going out. Sergeant Dodswort spoke to him and told him to get up and get on to his horse– Patrick replied that he was not able. The Sergeant passed on leaving him in the hands of a keeper. When we arrived in Camp a Corporal and two others went after him and carried, or rather brought him to Camp. He went into one of the guard tents and laid down and said he was sick– no one made any reply to what he said– he laid there a while upon the bank. Then the officer of the day Lieut Daniel Shean, the officer of the day, came out and caused…Patrick to be tied up the thumbs with a small cord and tied on to a spike in a post. They kept him there suspended by the thumbs for nearly an hour or two, then they gagged him with a stick of wood…(I did not see that done, being then absent for a short time)…I then came back he then laid in the guard house, was not able to speak and died in some twenty or thirty minutes. No surgeon or doctor was called until he was dying…I heard…Patrick say he was sick, and while they were tying him up, he told, and tried to persuade them, that was sick, and said he could not live to bear it. (8)
Affidavit of George Bagshaw (A native of Bradford, England, George had served with Patrick in both the 15th and 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery):
I saw him in the morning when he got up– he looked sick– said he did not fel well enough to go out with the horses. He tried to get a man to go out with his horses in his stead but did not succeed. They compelled him to go. I heard him ask a man to go in his place. I was on guard in the camp for that day. He said that morning he wanted a doctor for he was sick. I thought he was sick, [he] showed me his tongue, it was coated with [a] whitish coat. We had no surgeon in the Battery; there was an out-rider that visited us sometimes when we were sick. I don’t remember his name. I saw them tie him up by the thumbs when they brought him in. He declared to them that he was sick, complained of his head, said it ached. After he had been up half or three quarters of an hour he begged them to take him down so that he was sick– that he could not stand it– then he asked to be let down to go to the rear. They did so, and then tied him up again. Then in about twenty minutes he cried out for them to let him go again to the rear, but they would not do it, and did not. He fell upon his thumbs, the cord slipped off, and he dropped upon the ground, and laid motionless. Then Lieut. Shean ordered him to be tied up again, and Corporal Parker tied him up again. He made no resistence but told them he was sick and could not stand it. He began them to cry aloud. Then the Lieut. ordered him gagged, and then Parker gagged him with a stick about 5 inches long and an inch and a half thick, tying it hard into his mouth so that I saw the blood at the corners of the mouth, and I saw the gag was quite bloody when it came from his mouth when he was finally taken down. While he was up there a Sergeant by the name of Young went and told Lieut. Shean that Griffin was dying, and the Lieut. came, put his hand on his forehead, smiled and then went away laughing. Then in about a quarter of an hour afterwards Young went again and told him that he was dying, and then Shean came part way down and told Young to take him down and put him in the guard house, and Young did so. He dropped down, and they carried him in. He told them while he layed there if they would take him out of the guard house into the air he would get well. They did not take him out, then one of the prisoners hollered out that Griffin was dying. Then the Lieut came down and they took him out. They then sent for the Doctor of the Colored Regiment who came. He said the man was too far gone, asked them was [there] any ice in the camp? And the Lieut went and got some, but it was too late he was dying and the Dr did not use it. Said Griffin vomited while they were putting the gag into his mouth, and vomited after the Dr came. The doctor said he did not smell any intoxicating liquor. He had not been drinking any intoxicating liquor that day, I did not smell any– he was sick. I stood by him, was guarding the table on which he layed when he died. He was a very good soldier, he had been constantly on duty at least for several days previous to this time. (9)
Affidavit of Alfred Hackett (A native of Grafton, New Hampshire, Alfred had served with Patrick in the 15th and 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery):
On that day…Battery 6th Mass was on what we called police duty, such as cleaning up the yard and taking care of the horses…at about 9 o’clock A.M. the Battery was ordered out about one and a half miles from Camp under the lead of the Sergeant to exercise the horses, that upon this order…Griffin told the Sargents that he was sick and sore and not able to ride so far, but they ordered him to mount…when we got out about half way to the ground of parade…Patrick fell from his horse and we left him there holding his horse he sitting upon the ground. When we came back we took his horse into camp leaving…Griffin there one man staying with him. Then the next that I saw…he was brought into Camp about an hour afterwards under guard, and by order of Capt. Edward K. Russell he was tied up by the thumbs for not coming into camp when the rest did. He was found as I was informed at the time on the same spot where he fell from his horse. After he had been tied up…(to a spike in a post by a cord so that his toes would but just touch the ground) for about ten minutes, he began to cry and beg them to take him down. Upon this the Captain came out and ordered the Corporal of the guard to gage him, so as to stop his noise. This being done, in about twenty minutes or more he fainted then the Corporal went and reported him to the Captain as having fainted, and the Captain them ordered him taken down. The gag was bloody…Griffin did not speak afterwards. He groaned, but remained insensible, and died in about an hour after he was taken down. From what I saw of this transaction I had no doubt that…Griffin was sick that caused him to fall from his horse, and his death was caused by the gag most wrongfully applied to him while sick, and that aside from the officer, who had a hand in that out-rage, more than two thirds of the Company were of the same opinion as I learnt by their conversation…Griffin I should judge to be not far from 18 years of age… (10)
(1) Griffin Pension File; (2) Griffin Pension File; (3) Griffin Pension File, Patrick Griffin Service Records; (4) Cleveland Daily Leader 8th July 1865; (5) Lowell Daily Citizen and News 11th July 1865; (6) Patrick Griffin Service Record 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery; (7) Ibid., Lowell Daily Citizen and News 16th August 1865; (8) Griffin Pension File; (9) Ibid.; (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.
Widow’s Certificate 85142, Pension File of Bridget Griffin, Dependent Mother of Patrick Griffin, 6th Massachusetts Light Artillery.
Patrick Griffin Service Record, 15th Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery.
Patrick Griffin Service Record, 6th Independent Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery.
Boston Traveleer 4th August 1865. Various Items.
Cleveland Daily Leader 8th July 1865. Horrible Affair at New Orleans.
Lowell Daily Citizen and News 11th July 1865. Inhuman Treatment of a Lowell Soldier.
Lowell Daily Citizen and News 16th August 1865. The Case of Patrick Griffin.