‘Beyond the Power of My Feeble Pen’: The Fate of a Limerick Octogenarian’s Sons in the West, 1862

Limerickman Patrick Vaughan had lived a long life by the 1860s. He was born sometime around 1783, the year that the conflict between the American Colonies and Britain had finally drawn to a close. When rebellion broke out in Ireland and French troops marched to their support in 1798, Patrick was a teenager. He was in his early twenties when Napoleon Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor in 1804, and in his thirties by the time the ‘Little Corporal’ had his last hurrah on the battlefield of Waterloo. There are many details we don’t know about Patrick Vaughan’s life, but there is no doubting the momentous times he lived through. However, it seems unlikely that anything impacted him quite like events that took place in Tennessee and Arkansas in the spring and summer of 1862. By then in his eighties, it might have been expected that he had survived the worst life had to throw at him. But he had not reckoned on the escalation of the American Civil War in the Western Theater, and the extreme personal loss the fighting there would bring. (1)

One of Fort Donelson's River Batteries (Hal Jesperson)

One of Fort Donelson’s River Batteries, Tennessee (Hal Jesperson)

Patrick Vaughan and his family are not easy to track in the historical records, and efforts to locate them in the census and passenger lists have yielded little. Despite this, there are a number of things we know about their story. Patrick married Mary Long in Co. Limerick sometime around the year 1839. Patrick was many years Mary’s senior and was likely in his mid-fifties when they wed. The couple’s sons John and Patrick Junior were both born in Ireland, John around 1842 and Patrick about 1843, and they also had at least two–  probably at least three– daughters. Honora appears to have been the youngest in the family, and was still a child under 16 in 1862, by which time another daughter, Mary (Junior), was married to a man called Norrish in Pennsylvania. It seems highly likely that the family was in fact much larger– for example, another potential sister, Margaret, is referred to in family correspondence. The date of the Vaughan emigration to the United States is unclear, but was probably in the late 1840s or early 1850s. Mary, the matriarch of the family, died around 1854. This may have occurred after the family came to America, where they seem to have initially settled in Buffalo, New York. It was from there that Patrick’s two sons enlisted in the Union military at the coming of the American Civil War. (2)

The first of the Vaughan boys to march off to the conflict was the elder, John. He was still listed as a resident of Buffalo when he enlisted on 15th July 1861 at Saxon, Illinois. He was described as 19-years-old and 5 feet 10 inches in height with brown hair, blue eyes and a dark complexion. By trade John worked as a printer. On 20th July he mustered in as a private in Company B of the 11th Illinois Infantry at Bird’s Point, Missouri. His younger brother Patrick Junior followed him into the army a few months later. He was 18-years-old when he enlisted in Buffalo on 2nd September 1861, mustering in the following day as a private in Company D of the 49th New York Infantry. Patrick did not remain with the 49th for long, as he was earmarked for service with the Western Gunboat Flotilla. Duly transferred, by 1862 he was serving as Seaman aboard the ironclad gunboat USS Mound City. (3)

The USS Mound City, on which Patrick Vaughan Junior served (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The USS Mound City, on which Patrick Vaughan Junior served (Naval History and Heritage Command NH72806)

Meanwhile John had been writing home to his elderly father. The first letter that survives was written on 10th January 1862 from Bird’s Point, Missouri, where the 11th Illinois were encamped. As was (and remains) common, John had accidentally labelled the letter 1861, given how new the year was.

Camp Lyon, Bird’s Point, Mo, January 10th 1861 [sic.]

Dear Father:- I received a letter from Maurice Vaughan last Saturday stating that you were disabled by rheumatism and that you were dependent on the poormaster for support. I have delayed answering it until the present time in the hope that I would get paid off, so that I would be able to relieve your wants. We have not got paid off up to date, and all the troops here, are all fixed up for a march the wagons are all packed, and the boys are all fixed up for it. There is a rumor now in camp that we will get paid before starting. If we do, I will send you ten dollars immediately, and I am going to send the same amount to Margaret as I have received a couple of letters from her. I have written to Patrick requesting him to do all he can for you. I think this expedition is bound to take Columbus as it will compose about 7 seventy five thousand troops. I have been sick for the last two weeks and this morning the doctor told me not to go, but I am bound to go though I have to disobey doctors orders. I will direct the package in care of Maurice Vaughan. I have nothing more to say at present but hope you will enjoy good health.

From your affectionate son,

John Vaughan. (4)

Patrick Vaughan had remained in the workforce despite his advanced age, but bouts of rheumatism were affecting his ability to earn a living, forcing him to rely on charity. With two sons in the army, the erratic nature of their pay must have hampered their efforts to support him, as John’s letter indicates. John’s determination to go on the mission from Bird’s Point also demonstrates a strong motivation for service, reflected in his early enlistment date. Three days after writing, John did indeed move out on an expedition towards Columbus, Kentucky. By the time of his next letter, written ten days later, he was back Bird’s Point:

Camp Lyon, Bird’s Point, Jan 20th/62

Dear Father:- I sent you my likeness a week ago, with ten dollars enclosed in it in care of Maurice Vaughan. I sent you a letter the same day also. I hope you have received them by this time. In the letter I informed you of our going on a march the next day. We went on the march, and returned this afternoon, after an absence of six days. We had a hard time of it, as it was either raining, snowing, or thawing the whole time. We had to march through mud and [illegible] over knee deep, but the boys did not care for that, as we all thought we would have a fight. We were doomed to disappointment however, and the only grumbling the boys done was when we were ordered to return to our old quarters. The expedition went out the Columbus and Bowling Green railroad, burned some bridges, and destroyed several miles of the railroad, so as to keep the enemy from reinforcing them at that latter place, and battle is expected there every day. Before starting, I bought myself a pair of boots for five dollars, an I got my moneys worth out of them on the one trip. I sent twenty dollors to Margaret in a likeness the same day I sent yours. I also sent a likeness to Patrick. I would like to have your likeness as soon as convenient. I will do all I can for the whole of you, and none of you will want to for anything while I have a cent. I have written several letters to Patrick urging him to do all he could for you. I would like to have you write often, as nothing will raise the drooping spirits of a soldier quicker than to receive a letter from those he holds dear to him. We have a good time here, but I hope this war will soon be over, so that I can again go to work at my trade. There is nothing of interest going on here at present, so I will bring my letter to a close as it is now getting late.

From your affectionate son,

John Vaughan.

Direct your letter to,

John Vaughan

Co B, 11th Regt, Ill. Vol.

Bird’s Point, Mo. (5)

John and his comrades went on another brief sortie between 25th and 28th January, before embarking on transports on the 2nd February – twelve days after the above letter– for one of the key campaigns of the war. They were part of the force Ulysses S. Grant was taking to subdue the Confederate positions of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Fort Henry fell on 6th February without the infantry being seriously engaged, but it would be a different story at Fort Donelson, located twelve miles away. The Union troops moved into position around the Fort on 12th February, with John and the 11th Illinois forming part of W.H.L. Wallace’s Brigade in McClernand’s Division, holding the right of the line. They were still there three days later, when the Confederate defenders in the Fort decided to target their sector in an attempted breakout. The 11th Illinois were attacked from front and flank, and even had to contend with cavalry in their rear. They, like the majority of McClernand’s men, were forced to retreat. Though the route for Confederate escape from Donelson lay open, they inexplicably failed to take it, and retreated back into the Fort, where they would ultimately be forced into an unconditional surrender the next day by Ulysses S. Grant, as he began to build the reputation that would see him become the conflict’s leading General. But it was a victory that had come at a staggering cost to the 11th Illinois. The regiment had brought in the region of 5oo men into the fight at Fort Donelson, suffering a shocking 330 casualties. John Vaughan was one of them, wounded by a gunshot. He died on the hospital transport ship City of Memphis, either on the 18th or 21st February (though one report suggests he may have survived until landing in Paducah, Kentucky). (6)

Seeking Union wounded on the field at Fort Donelson. John Vaughan was one of those who fell injured there. (Library of Congress)

Seeking Union wounded on the field at Fort Donelson. Limerick’s John Vaughan was one of those who fell injured there. (Library of Congress)

Patrick Vaughan had lost his older son. His younger son Patrick Junior–the seaman in the Western Gunboat Flotilla– likely only missed the action in which his brother was mortally wounded because the USS Mound City was not employed with the other boats of the Flotilla in the engagement. He was probably with her at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River in March, and was heavily engaged at Plum Point Bend on the Mississippi in May, when she was very heavily damaged. The next action for Patrick Junior and the Mound City came as part of the White River expedition in June 1862. The aim of the expedition was to bring support up the White River to Union General Samuel Curtis’s troops operating in Arkansas. On 17th June the expedition encountered Confederate batteries at St. Charles, Arkansas. After disembarking troops to attack the position from land, the USS Mound City and the rest of their flotilla headed upstream to engage from the water side. Lieutenant McGunnegle, of the USS St. Louis, described what happened next:

The moment we discovered the situation of the enemy’s battery the cannonading from our side became terrific. In a few moments the Mound City had advanced to within about 600 yards of the enemy, when a well-directed shot from a new battery situated a little higher up the bluff penetrated her port casemate a little above and forward of the gun port, killing three men in its flight and exploding her steam drum. So soon as this sad accident occurred many of her crew leaped overboard; all boats were instantly sent to her relief…The Mound City drifted down and across the stream. The Conestoga boldly came up and towed her out of action…the enemy shooting all the while at the St. Louis and the wounded of the Mound City struggling in the water…Our victory was a complete one, but the loss of life on board the Mound City by the explosion of the steam drum is frightful…to endeavor to describe the howling of the wounded and the moaning of the dying is far beyond the power of my feeble pen. (7)

The interior of a sanitary steamer, similar to the 'City of Memphis' on which John Vaughan breathed his last (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The interior of a sanitary steamer, similar to the ‘City of Memphis’ on which John Vaughan breathed his last (Naval History and Heritage Command NH58897)

The horrific scalding death caused by steam explosions aboard Civil War vessels were among the most feared in the naval service. Bearing witnessing to such events also left an indelible mark. Only two of the Mound City officer’s survived unscathed, and it was remarked that one of them– First Master Dominy– had to be sent back to Memphis, as ‘having witnessed the terrible catastrophe, his mind appeared to be greatly exercised.‘ Aside from those who died a horrible death on board, Lieutenant McGunnegle also believed that ‘many, very many, must have been killed by the enemy while struggling in the water.‘ The loss of life was truly astonishing. No fewer than 103 of the crew were killed, with many more severely wounded. Unsurprisingly given their high service rates in the Union Navy, many Irish were among them. One was Patrick Vaughan Junior. Whether he had died in agony engulfed by scalding steam or been shot down while struggling in the river will remain a mystery. (8)

Within the space of four months in 1862, Patrick Vaughan lost both his young sons to the fighting in the Western Theater. Though the two boys  had initially enlisted in the army, it seems they were fated to both breath their last aboard ships. The future of the octogenarian once again hung in the balance. In the pension application that followed, he decided to base his claim on John’s service, as his elder son had given more financial aid for his support– between $50 and $60 a year. It did not prove difficult for him to prove his incapacity to earn a living. William Watson, a surgeon in Dubuque, Iowa, examined him in 1869. He recorded that Patrick was ‘entirely incapacitated by old age…he also has a large inguinal hernia of the left side which would disable him if he were many years younger.’ In 1870 Watson was also asked to comment on Patrick’s age, which by this point was said to be 87 years. The surgeon had no doubt this was correct, as ‘his appearance fully justifies its truthfulness.’ Patrick was being examined in Dubuque because he had moved to Ballyclough in Dubuque County, a largely Irish settlement–unsurprising given its name. It is there that he makes the only census appearance I have been able to locate, where he was enumerated as ‘Patrick Baughan’ in 1870. He lived with 55-year-old farmer Michael Nagle, his 54-year-old wife Johanna, both Irish natives, and their 19-year-old Iowa born daughter Philomena. Why he was with them is unknown, but perhaps they were relatives. Both Michael and Johanna gave statements as to their knowledge of his marriage and the support provided by his sons. In an interesting postscript, in 1863 Patrick’s minor daughter Honora was to be found in New Brighton, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, where Moses Knott, an English-born toll clerk, was appointed her legal guardian, seemingly with the support of Honora’s sister Mary. Moses applied for a pension for Honora based on the fact that her brother John had supported her, though this appears to have been unsuccessful. (9)

Patrick Vaughan seems to have lived until around 1877. Though the details on his family, spread across Ireland and the United States, are scant, there is little doubt that the emotional hardship he experienced across those four months in 1862 must have been on a par with the worst days of his already very long life. On the roll call of momentous events that he had lived through across more than nine decades, Fort Donelson and the fate of the USS Mound City must have loomed large.

The list of dead from the USS Mound City from the Official Records. Limerick's Patrick Vaughan is among them. (Official Records)

The list of dead from the USS Mound City from the Official Records. Limerick’s Patrick Vaughan is among them. (Official Records)

(1) John Vaughan Pension File; (2) Ibid.; (3) Ibid., Illinois Muster Roll Database, New York Muster Roll Abstracts; (4) John Vaughan Pension File; (5) Illinois Adjutant General Regimental & Unit Histories, John Vaughan Pension File; (6) Illinois Adjutant General Regimental & Unit Histories, Civil War Trust Fort Donelson Page, Official Records Series 1, Vol. 7: 199, 182, John Vaughan Pension File; (7) Official Records Navy Series 1, Vol. 23: 166; (8) Ibid.: 167, 180, John Vaughan Pension File; (9) John Vaughan Pension File, 1870 US Census; 

* 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

WC143659. Pension of Patrick Vaughan, Dependent Father of John Vaughan, Company B, 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

John Vaughn: Illinois Muster Roll Database.

Patrick J. Vaughn New York Muster Roll Abstract.

1860 U.S. Federal Census, New Brighton Ward 1, Beaver, Pennsylvania.

1870 U.S. Federal Census, Table Mound, Dubuque, Iowa.

Civil War Trust Battle of Fort Donelson Page.

Illinois Adjutant General Regiment and Unit Histories.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 7. Return of Casualties in the First Division (McClernand’s), at Fort Donelson, Tenn., February 13-15, 1862.

Official Records Series 1, Volume 7. Report of Lieut. Col. T.E.G. Ransom, Eleventh Illinois Infantry. 

Official Records Navy, Series 1, Volume 23. Report of Lieutenant McGunnegle, U.S. Navy, commanding U.S.S. St. Louis, regarding the attack on St. Charles batteries and explosion on board the U.S.S. Mound City. 

Official Records Navy, Series 1, Volume 23. List of dead belonging to U.S. gunboat Mound City, to June 19, 1862.

Fort Donelson National Battlefield.

Hal Jesperson Photography Wikipedia Page.

Naval History and Heritage Command.

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Categories: Battle of Fort Donelson, Iowa, Limerick, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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3 Comments on “‘Beyond the Power of My Feeble Pen’: The Fate of a Limerick Octogenarian’s Sons in the West, 1862”

  1. John Murphy
    August 26, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    Another moving story, thanks.

  2. September 4, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

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