“Mother many a good man wint acrost the river but never come back, it was murder”: An Irishman at Fredericksburg & Gettysburg

I am currently working through the New York unit casualties at Gettysburg to draw together all those of Irish-birth or Irish ethnicity who lost their lives as a result of that engagement. Four men of the 65th New York Infantry (1st United States Chausseurs) died as a result of the fighting that July– almost certainly three were of Irish birth. The story of one of them, Westmeath’s John Clark, has been told on the site previously (see here). Another was John O’Brien. A few months before his death, he wrote his mother a letter– it would seem following the Battle of Fredericksburg– which described a near fatal incident during an artillery bombardment. John was once again subjected to such a bombardment at Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg on 3rd July 1863, with less fortunate results. (1)

John’s parents John and Margaret O’Brien had been married in Ireland on 26 June 1840, by a Reverend Father Delaney. They had afterwards settled in the United States, but John Senior had passed away in Paterson, New Jersey on 21st September 1852. Both Margaret and young John had to dedicate themselves to working for their own support. While her son contributed his wages towards the family rent, Margaret provided the majority of the other necessaries through her work as a servant, one of the countless “Irish Bridgets” in domestic service. During the 1860s their home was in Manhattan, at 243 Mulberry Street. (2)

Today’s 243 Mulberry Street in New York. Margaret O’Brien lived at this address in the 1860s.

Although not an Irish regiment, the 65th New York Infantry had many Irishmen in the ranks. Perhaps the most notable was Andrew Byrne, who would eventually return to Ireland and write his memoirs, now published (see here). John O’Brien was another. He had enlisted on 21st August 1861 at the age of 19, going on to serve as a private in Company H. The regiment had seen heavy fighting on the Peninsula during the summer of 1862, but had avoided the worst of the fighting at Antietam and Fredericksburg, though they were more closely involved in the action around Fredericksburg during the Chancellorsville Campaign. In John’s file is the letter he wrote to his mother, which although problematic, appears to have been composed after the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg (though there are slight errors in dates, location names and casualties, John’s description of the fighting would appear to match the regiment’s experience there). Despite the fact that the 65th was not heavily engaged, John’s correspondence provides an extremely interesting insight into cooperation with Rebels on picket duty, the strains of experiencing a bombardment, and the shock that the heavy defeat at Fredericksburg caused throughout the Army of the Potomac. (3)

VA the 22nd 1862 [sic]

camp at fare oak church [White Oak Church]

Dear Mother

wit pleasure i rite thoes fue lines to you hoping that they may finde you in good helt as the departure of them leves me at preasant thanks be to god for his mercies to us all. Dear Mother we crosed the river on the 11th and we wer the 1st Division to cross we re crost on the 17th all the time we wer on the other side we had to stand the fire of artilire the ground shuck with the fire of canon we were on picket the night our army fell back all day we had good time the rebel picket said if we did not fire on them they would not fire on us so there was no firing all day at a bout 4 oclock our artilirey opened on the rebel batrie and they made it the hotest place I ever was in the rebels did not fire a shot but our batrie sent half there shells in to our picket the most of them fell in our company but if our batrie had not opened the rebel batrie wold sweep us of the face of the ert [earth] they wer siting there pecies to open on us but ower battrie left not a man at the rebel batrie after our batrie had stoped the rebels came and drove [?] these batrie of wit hand after that we had a good time of it we fell back a bout 10 oclock that was the first we knew of our army falling back they wer a crost the river when we got relieved we could not speak above our breth until we crost the brig[e] so we wer the first and last to cros. Dear Mother I sent 60 Dolers to you on the 18th rite as soon as you get it I rote a letter to you on the 30th of last mont but got no answer rite as soon as you get this let me know how all the folkes is. Mother many a good man wint a crost the river but never come back it was murder you could compare it to any thing else we had to stay on the plane and look up on the rebels in there fortifickasions and redouts I believe they could [have] slane every man that crost the river if they opened there guns on us but thank god for it we lost about 9 out of our regt it was as looky as any in the field I may thank my aging[?] for my life the shell came so close that I doged it and it tuck the next companie it tuck two men if I had not droped to the ground as soon as the shell left the gun my hed wold have been swept of. it is very cold here nights we ar on the bankes of the river and it is more than cold you asked me how long I was enlisted for I am enlisted for the ware or 3 years I hav one yare to serve after the 1st of Jeulia [July] let me know how Mr Haley and familie is No more at preasant from your son

John O Brien. (4)

Of course, the reason this letter survives is because John O’Brien died as a result of his service. During the bombardment which the 65th New York endured at Culp’s Hill on 3rd July (the same bombardment which so horribly killed John Clark), John’s luck at dodging shells ran out. His officer later recorded that he was “killed at the Battle of Gettysburg Pa on the 3rd day of July 1863 by a solid shot passing through his body.”  (5)

The monument to the 65th New York at Culp's Hill, Gettysburg, which I took the opportunity to visit on my recent trip. Both John Clark and John O'Brien died as a result of artillery bombardment not far from this spot (Damian Shiels)

The monument to the 65th New York on Culp’s Hill, Gettysburg, which I took the opportunity to visit on my recent trip. Both John Clark and John O’Brien died as a result of artillery bombardment not far from this spot (Damian Shiels)

(1) John O’Brien Widow’s Pension File; (2) Ibid.; (3) 65th New York Roster, John O’Brien Widow’s Pension File; (4) John O’Brien Widow’s Pension File; (5) 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

WC73540 of Margaret O’Brien, Dependent Mother of John O’Brien, Company H, 65th New York Infantry.

New York Adjutant General. Roster of the 65th New York Volunteer Infantry.

Gettysburg National Military Park.

Civil War Trust Battle of Gettysburg Page.

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Categories: Battle of Fredericksburg, Battle of Gettysburg, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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4 Comments on ““Mother many a good man wint acrost the river but never come back, it was murder”: An Irishman at Fredericksburg & Gettysburg”

  1. Hugh Curran
    November 11, 2016 at 9:31 pm #

    The O’Brien letter is very touching. That he would be remitting almost all his money to his mother speaks highly for him and his family values. By the way, my cousin, Aidan O’Hara, has been doing some research on the Irish in the American Civil War as well as the Irish in Scotland.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:14 am #

      Hi Hugh,

      I know Aidan he is going some brilliant work! Thanks for reading!

  2. November 12, 2016 at 2:16 am #

    Thanks so much for bringing this letter to light.

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