I have recently had a conference paper accepted on the topic of letters communicating bereavement to those on the Home Front. Since I began my work on the widow’s and dependent pension files, I have become particularly interested in these types of document, and in exploring the multitude of questions we can ask of them. How was news of death transmitted? What degree of detail was provided (or not)? What was the language of consolation (if any) employed by the writer? I have also been thinking about how this information was physically imparted to the bereaved and experienced by them– for example, for illiterate families the correspondence would have to be read aloud by a third-party. What responses did they compose (if any?), and what questions did they ask? To demonstrate just how much of this type of correspondence survives in the files, and also something of its variety and range, this post takes a look at bereavement letters written to the Irish emigrant families of four soldiers– all of whom died as a result of the savage fighting endured by the 20th Massachusetts Infantry on the streets of Fredericksburg on 11th December 1862.
On the evening of 11th December 1862 the 20th Massachusetts Infantry– the “Harvard Regiment”– was one of the units engaged in driving the Confederates from the city of Fredericksburg, clearing the way for the main assault of the Rebel positions that followed two days later. What they experienced that day would become one the famed episodes of the war. As Union troops sought to expand their bridgehead in the city, the 20th Massachusetts was sent forward to face an enemy who were ensconced in both buildings and at street intersections. The main body of the 20th advanced from the direction of the river up Hawke Street towards Caroline Street. Commanded by Captain Henry Macy, the regiment’s advance was led by Henry L. Abbott, who brought his company forward to march on the intersection. As the Massachusetts men pushed on, a Michigander Major warned them that “no man could live beyond that corner.” The Confederates were waiting. Once the 20th marched into the cross street the darkness was “lighted up by the flash of muskets” as a sheet of fire poured into the regiment. Although his command was almost wiped out, Abbott ran the gauntlet and crossed the intersection. As he sought to continue west, another battalion of the 20th faced south onto Caroline Street, while a third turned north. The fading light made it difficult for the Union men to see their targets. In the words of Captain Macy “we could see no one and were simply murdered.” While the other two battalions held the intersection, Abbott continued up Hawke Street; all three groups sustained terrible losses. The city was eventually taken by the Federals, but for the 20th Massachusetts it had come at a staggering cost. They had suffered 97 casualties in the space of just fifty yards. Many Irish-Americans were among the fallen. (1)
Among the 20th Massachusetts Irishmen in the streets of Fredericksburg that day was James Briody (sometimes Briady). He was part of an emigrant family from Castlerahan, Co. Meath, who left Ireland for North Andover, Massachusetts. An express driver before his enlistment, he joined up on 11th August 1862. The 24 years-old was described as 5 feet 7 inches tall, with blue eyes, light hair and a fair complexion. On the night of 9th December, two days before the fight for the streets of Fredericksburg, he wrote to his widowed mother, seemingly with little idea of what was to come:
Dec 9th 1862
I am well at this time and hope you are the same. I got your letter yesterday and was happy to hear you was well and my sister. I do not know of any news at this time we go on picket tomorrow and that is a job we do not like as we have now log huts to live in which we have built. I like to have you send me a pair of gloves by mail, as we have no chance to get them here, and we do not have any money now, nor do I know when we will get any. I hope soon as we cannot get anything without the money and it must be a good pile too, for the article we buy. I am out of money and I want to get a pair of boots and in order for to get them I want you to send $5 so I can get them. It is now very cold and wet here, and muddy. There is now some 3 or 4 inches of snow on the ground and it is poor shoes that the government gives us. As regards the box, you will not send it untill I write you again, as I do not know how long we shall stay here, and I shall have time to send it before I need it. When you do send it, send me a pretty good share of paper and envelopes, as it is hard to get them here, as there is not any chance to buy them here. Give my love to all of my sisters and send those things as soon as you get this, and be sure to write as often as you can as I am always happy to hear from you, and tell all of my sisters to write as often as they can. I am glad that all things are going on so well at home. I do not know of any more at this time, but I will write you more next time, if I have a plenty of time. I will now wish you good night, as soon as I get paid off I shall send you the most of my wages as I shall not want it all myself, but do you get the state aid, let me know, as I am in hopes you will let me know in your next without fail. No more from your son,
Direct as follows
Mr James Braidy
Co “I” 20 Reg Mass Vols
Washington D.C. (2)
As is often the case with last letters, foreknowledge of what was to occur brings poignancy to the mundane. The events of 11th December meant there would be no opportunity for James to get new gloves or boots, there would be no “next time” to write. Beyond what this letter can tell us about the events of 1862, it also represents an object of memory in its own right. The context of its survival allows us to infer the emotional value that James’s mother Maggie invested in this last letter. We know this because the document in file is not an original, but a copy. Instead of submitting the actual correspondence– as so many others did– she instead had it transcribed in front of a Justice of the Peace, in order that she could keep hold of a cherished memento of her son. This fact allows us to consider how a very ordinary letter could be invested with additional meaning and emotional value because of subsequent events. How many times in the years ahead did she look at the original, her last communication from her son? Another who felt James’s loss was his Captain, Henry Livermore Abbott. On 17th December 1862 he penned the following to the Co. Meath emigrant:
Near Falmouth VA
I don’t wish to address to you the common words of condolence merely- I feel, myself, as well as you, too much the greatness of the loss. The first time, I saw James Briody, I was struck with his honest, manly, cheery face. I found him to be one of the two best of all the recruits who joined my company. It gave me a great pang when I saw him lying dead in the street. He was killed instantly. A board with his name on it, marks his grave in a vacant lot in Fredericksburg. Believe me that I sympathize most deeply with you, in your awful loss.
Capt Co I 20 Mass
The pay due him can be got by applying through a lawyer to the dept at Washington. (3)
These letters informing loved ones of a soldier’s death had the potential to be powerful agents of memory. The words an officer chose in the hours and days after a death could form a lasting picture in a family’s mind of their fallen kin’s last moments, and whether or not they had met a good death. In that context, the words chosen had the capacity to resonate across decades. Abbott took up his pen again the following day, this time to the sister of another Irish emigrant, John Deasy. Unlike James Briody, John had grown to adulthood in Ireland, marrying his wife Joanna in Clonakilty, Co. Cork in February 1845. The couple subsequently emigrated to Boston during the Famine, where they began to raise a family. They had four surviving children by the time Joanna died of consumption in July 1860. The network of fellow Cork emigrants and family that surrounded John helped him to care for his children when he enlisted on 18th July 1861. By the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg his eldest Mary was 14, Daniel was 12, Catherine was 9 and Margaret was 6. John had already survived a wound in the arm during the Seven Days’ battles, but on 11th December his luck had run out. Captain Abbott demonstrated that he was well aware of the Corkman’s personal circumstances when he wrote to Boston:
Your brother John Duecy [Deasy] was mortally wounded in the battle of the 11th. He lived, I believe, till the next day, & was buried from the hospital. He was as honest and brave a fellow as ever lived. I trust his orphan children will be properly cared for. You can get his pay by applying through a lawyer to the dept at Washington.
Very truly yours
Capt Co I 20 Mass. (4)
Henry Abbott was not the only officer of the 20th Massachusetts who had to relive the horrors of the Fredericksburg street-fighting in the days following the engagement. Lieutenant Henry Ropes, commanding Company K, wrote to the father of John Donnelly on 20th December. John’s journey to his fate at Fredericksburg had begun in Co. Tipperary. His parents James Donnelly and Ellen Mackie had been married in the Premier County, and John was born there. According to other Tipperary people in Boston they had arrived in the United States aboard the Ocean Monarch around September 1847, at the height of the Famine. They were perhaps fortunate to have made it– the Ocean Monarch, a new vessel in 1847, would catch fire and sink the following year with the loss of 178 lives. John’s parents were living at 1309 Tremont Street in Boston when the dreadful news arrived:
Near Falmouth VA
Dec. 20 1862
My dear Sir,
It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son John Donnelly, a private in my company.
He was instantly killed by a musket ball which passed through his head during the desperate fight in the streets of Fredericksburg VA. on the afternoon of the 11th inst. He must have instantly died without suffering. His body was buried near the spot where he fell, by his friends and the place marked by a head board bearing his name, company & regt.
Your son was a brave and faithful soldier and he fell bravely fighting with his Regt. A true soldier’s death. Please accept my dear Sir my sincere sympathy for you & for your family in this deep affliction and believe me,
Your Obdt. Servt.
Lt. Comdg. Co. K
20th Mass. Vols.
Mr. James Donnelly (5)
Some Irish families first learned of their loved ones’ fate from enlisted comrades rather than officers. Daniel Shannahan from Co. Cork was an 18-year-old former shoemaker in Company F at the time of Fredericksburg. After the fighting, he took it upon himself to write to the family of another Cork native, Daniel O’Brien. Daniel, who was also 18-years-old at the time of the battle, had been a painter before he enlisted in Boston on 13th August 1862. He was described as 5 feet 5 inches in height, with blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion.
Falmouth Va Decbr 1862
Your brother Daniel and some others were killed and wounded in the fight on thursdays night I was picked out to pick up the dead out of the street I laid him in a yard and then a burial party buried him and some others. He was helping off a wounded man and stepping into the mans place and was shot…My sergeant for the envelope (With your address) that you sent in your last letter, otherwise I would have wrote you before.
Co “F” 20th Mass. Vols. (6)
Upon hearing the news, Daniel’s sister back in Boston wrote to the 20th Massachusetts to find out more about the circumstances of her brother’s death. On 26th December Sergeant Thomas H. Kelly responded:
Headquarters Co F. 20th Mass. Vols.
Camp near Falmouth Va Dec 26th 1862
To Miss Margaret O’Brien
I received your letter of the 21st of December on the morning og the 26th in answer to mine of the 12th in which I informed you of the death of your dear and beloved brother Daniel J. O’Brien of Co. F. 20th Regt Mass Vols who fell in battle on the 11th inst at the city of Fredericksburg Va. Our regiment was engaged at the corner of Woulf and Caroline Streets where the Rebels occupied the houses and fired from the windows at us, we were not more than ten minutes engaged when our Captain Charles F. Cabot fell and in less then two minutes after your brother was shot in the side. I had him fetched into a store close by and sent for a doctor but the poor boy died in a short time…next morning he was buried my one of his comrades…
I remain your Friend
Thomas H. Kelley
Co “F” 20th Regt Mass Vols
Howards Division Burnsides Army (7)
Captain Macy, who commanded the 20th Massachusetts, also later confirmed that Daniel was “killed by a minnie ball from the enemy on Caroline Street.” (8)
I have always felt that examining the ripple effect of the losses sustained by a single regiment in a single action is one of the most effective ways of imparting the cost of war (for more of my thoughts on this, see Visualising the Demographics of Death: 82 Men of the 9th Massachusetts). The brief exploration above also illustrates how we do not need to look at ethnic Irish regiments to uncover the impact of the conflict on large sections of the Irish-American community. Needless to say, officers like Henry Abbott and Henry Ropes would have written to the families of large numbers of their men in the days following Fredericksburg, native-born and emigrant alike. How did these obligations weigh on them? Did they adopt standard language throughout, or did they vary their compositions? What (if anything) of the impact of battle and loss on them personally can be seen in such correspondence? (See for example this letter of Charles McAnally after Gettysburg, where he confessed to being “confused”). How might these elements have changed through the course of the war? It would be interesting at a future date to study a large body of such bereavement letters from a single officer across a protracted period of time- a project I would be keen to have an opportunity to undertake at some point in the future.
(1) O’Reilly 2003: 91-95 (2) Briady Service Record, Briady Widow’s Pension File; (3) Ibid.; (4) Deasy Service Record, Deasy Widow’s Pension File; (5) Donnelly Service Record, Donnelly Widow’s Pension File; (6) Shannahan Service Record, O’Brien Service Record, O’Brien Widow’s Pension File; (7) Kelley Service Record, O’Brien Widow’s Pension File; (8) 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 WC9732 of Margaret Briady, Dependent Mother of James Briady, Company I, 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Widow’s Certificate WC11238 of Mary, Daniel, Catherine and Margaret Deasy, Dependent Children of John Deasy, Company I, 2oth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Widow’s Certificate WC133477 of Ellen Donnelly, Dependent Mother of John Donnelly, Company K, 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Widow’s Certificate WC32800 of Ellen O’Brien, Dependent Mother of Daniel O’Brien, Company F, 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
20th Massachusetts Infantry Service Records; James Briody, John Deasy, John Donnelly, Daniel O’Brien, Daniel Shannahan, Thomas Kelley.
Bruce, George A. 1906. The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry 1861-1865.
O’Reilly, Francis Augustin 2003. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.