“…I don’t care about dancing on the bodies of dead men”: The Civil War letters of Daniel Crowley, Part 1

Friend of the site Catherine Bateson of the University of Edinburgh has previously contributed a guest post on her work relating to Irish Songs in the American Civil WarI am delighted to welcome her back, this time to share some research she has carried out on the fascinating letters of Daniel Crowley, a young Cork man who served in the 28th Massachusetts Infantry of the Irish Brigade. In the first of three posts examining Crowley’s correspondence, Catherine explores the grim change in the tone of the soldier’s letters as he becomes exposed to the horrors of the 1864 Overland Campaign. 

While conducting doctoral research on Irish American Civil War songs and their dissemination in Boston last summer, I came across a fairly unique letter written on specially produced writing paper that had a song sheet printed on one side. The letter had been sent in December 1864 by Irish soldier Daniel Crowley while serving with the 28th Massachusetts, one of twenty or so letters of correspondence between Crowley and his friend Cornelius Flynn. After analysing the song-letter, I couldn’t help but look through the rest of the correspondence to see what comments Crowley had to offer about his wartime experiences – the result was a detailed depiction of the Civil War’s emotional toll on a new recruit, and offers a very personal experience of life in the 28th Massachusetts and the dying days of the Irish Brigade in the final year of the conflict. Crowley’s commentary is an important Irish American Civil War archive discovery and his story is worth sharing in greater detail.

Details of Daniel Crowley's enlistment (NARA/Fold3)

Details of Daniel Crowley’s enlistment (NARA/Fold3)

Writing the first of some twenty letters to his close friend Cornelius Flynn in March 1864, the Irish-born 28th Massachusetts Regiment solider Daniel Crowley apologised for the quality of his penmanship: “Excuse the scribbling as it is on the floor I am writing”. (1) Crowley was informing Flynn – or “My Dear Con” as he often addressed him – that he had volunteered for Union Army service and explained why he had enlisted into the ranks of the famed Irish Brigade. Noting that while he may have been taken “in a state of intoxication in to some recruiting office” in Boston, Crowley stressed that he had no regrets for suddenly finding himself in uniform: “I am not one bit sorry myself for the change I made”, adding that “I was not getting along to my liking in Marlboro”. Fighting in the war offered the recruit new opportunities, but Crowley was soon to learn that these were fraught with bloodshed.

Crowley resided in Marlboro, now Marlborough, Massachusetts, in the years before the war. Situated west of Boston, the town was the centre to a skilled industrial craft community, specialising in shoe making, and comprised of a migrant population that included a sizeable number of Irish-born and descended residents. Little is known about Crowley’s background or when he immigrated to America; he offers few clues in his correspondence other than suggesting that for him, life in pre-war Marlborough was uneventful. The same could not be said of his year’s worth of service in the Union Army. Enlisting in March 1864, Crowley journeyed with the 28th Massachusetts to New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC., before experiencing his first taste of war on the battlefields of Virginia that spring. During his time in army service between March 1864 and May 1865, his letters to Flynn covered his eyewitness accounts of events at Spotsylvania and Petersburg, alongside other encounters with Confederate troops.

Though few in number, Crowley’s letters offer a deeply personal and emotional insight into his battlefield encounters and wartime attitudes, and provide a later wartime counterpoint to the published letters of fellow 28th Massachusetts soldier Peter Welsh’s experiences and views.(2) Welsh’s letters to his wife stop after his death following the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864. This is just the first of the battles Crowley recounts, stating to Flynn that he would not “detail to you the battle which we have been through” as he wrote from the “Battle Field, Spotsylvania County, In front of Rebel Lines”. As such, Crowley provides a fascinating personal and immediate recollection of the conflict’s toll on the final year of the Civil War incarnation of the 28th Massachusetts and the psychological impact its past and current wartime encounters had on a fresh recruit’s experiences at the war’s end.

The Union assault at Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup (Library of Congress)

The Union assault at Spotsylvania by Thure de Thulstrup (Library of Congress)

In his early letters to Flynn, Crowley presents himself as an eager and willing recruit, enjoying new army life. His second letter declared joyfully that he was “in the best of spirits going to the front” as the regiment left Alexandria, reassuring Flynn that “I was never in better spirits”. A few days later in early April he reiterated that he “was never in better spirits than I am at present” as he “close[d] this epistle”. He seemed unconcerned that the regiment “expect to have some hard fighting when we commence”. Several days after this, he noted that he was still “first rate thank God with the exception of a little cold which will wear away in a few days”. Even after his first direct experiences of the war began to take their impact, Crowley reassured Flynn not worry about him. In one passage of correspondence in July 1864, written in response to Flynn reporting how stories had been spreading around Marlborough about why Crowley had volunteered, the latter stressed that Flynn was to inform his hometown: “I am not sorry for enlisting”. Given the impact the war was starting to have on Crowley by this point, this statement points to his resolve to keep putting as fine a gloss on his situation as possible.

By the fifth letter to Flynn, however, Crowley’s high spirits were clearly coming under strain. Writing about his experience of the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864, the now-battle hardened recruit ended his account with relief that “Thank God I have not yet received a scratch…I am in good health and spirits thank God after all our endurances”. It was the last time he articulated the positive state of his spirits. A postscript as the bottom of the letter reveals the dawning reality Crowley faced coming through his first battlefield encounter with the Confederacy: “Goodbye”, he added as an afterthought to Flynn, “for I fear I might not write to you again”. With the fighting around Spotsylvania still raging when he wrote this on 19 May 1864, it reveals awareness injury and death could befall him. This letter in particular marked a turning point in Crowley’s correspondence, with his subsequent writings taking a darker, more emotional tone. After stating he would not give too long an account of the battle, he listed to Flynn statistical detail of casualties and losses before describing the nature of the fighting itself: “bayonet to bayonet we made them yield” but his regiment and “this unfortunate Brigade losing heavily…we took their breastworks at the charge, it was only to keep them for a short time”. Despite doing “its own share of hard work”, the Irish Brigade Crowley fought in “were driven out by a superior force”.

What Crowley then witnessed had a vivid impact: “After taking the breastworks creating terrible slaughter in our ranks, heads, legs, and arms flying in all directions”. The young, inexperienced soldier who had been sheltered from the war for three years in Massachusetts experienced a rude awakening at Spotsylvania in May 1864. In his first letter to Flynn, Crowley had described how “the old fellows here” of the 28th Massachusetts, veterans of campaigns at Antietam and Fredericksburg amongst others, “spin some good ones, some tall tales about their escapes from death”. In his pre-military encounter mindset, Crowley was implying that for all their bravery, those 28th Massachusetts and Irish Brigade stories were perhaps embellished and exaggerated to impress a young new recruit. Spotsylvania made him realise those “tall tales” were based in brutal and bloody reality.

National Park Service Historian Beth Parnicza describes pre-dawn events during the Battle of Spotsylvania 150th anniversary realtime tour, 12th May 2014

National Park Service Historian Beth Parnicza describes pre-dawn events during the Battle of Spotsylvania 150th anniversary realtime tour, 12th May 2014

One month on from Spotsylvania, in June 1864, Crowley wrote of another gruelling encounter. The letter revealed the intensity of continual military skirmishes and attacks around the already war-torn Virginian countryside. This correspondence to Flynn was brief, mostly so Crowley could “hasten to let you know that I am still living, thank God”. Despite saying “I have not much more time to give you any further details of the campaign” and that Flynn would “dare say…see an account of it in the papers before you receive this [letter], Crowley still conveyed a sense of the hard fighting he was experiencing:

“This Brigade was ordered to charge on the rebel works…The enemy’s cannon, which was placed on a hill before us, ploughing through our ranks with grape and canister laying many a poor fellow out…Balls were around me as thick as hail…I shall never forget this day if I live to survive this year. Knocking me over and before, after and along side of me as every man ran as fast as his legs could take him, for more than half mile before you go from under their fire”.

The encounter gave Crowley his own tale of escape from death and he repeated his relief at coming through unscathed to Flynn throughout the letter, reassuring his friend, and himself, that he had survived. “Thank God I escaped unhurt…it is miraculous how I escape unhurt,” he stressed. Though as the quote above reveals, Crowley’s sense of living on borrowed battlefield time articulated itself in the throwaway line about not forgetting his wartime encounters if he “live[d] to survive this year”. With six months of 1864 left at the time of his statement, and no sign to him that the fighting would ease or the conflict would end, the growing pessimism established in his Spotsylvania letter postscript developed into a fatalistic sense of humour.

Two weeks later, with more encounters behind him, Crowley abandoned revealing the horrific sights he had witness, commenting despondently that Flynn “will see full accounts in the papers, there is no use saying any more”. As had become his habit though, Flynn did have more to add. Despite it being a far briefer comment than his other battlefield descriptions, the impact of his grim letter image would have alarmed Flynn as much as it still shocks today. “I am so well accustomed to it now”, Crowley commented, referring to the realities and brutalities of warfare; “I don’t care about dancing on the bodies of dead men and [the] fact we have to trample on them”. Daniel Crowley’s letters home to Cornelius Flynn track this young 28th Massachusetts soldier’s descent into darkness and numbness in the face of war’s true horror. In just three months, Flynn’s writings had gone from revealing the views of an optimistic and excited recruit to those of a battle-hardened, weary and traumatised veteran of some of the Civil War’s most horrific and relentless encounters. His subsequent letters continued a despondent wartime tale.

The fields over which the Union assault on the Mule Shoe salient took place at Spotsylvania, as dawn breaks on the 150th anniversary of the battle, 12th May 2014 (Damian Shiels)

The fields over which the Union assault on the Mule Shoe salient took place at Spotsylvania, as dawn breaks on the 150th anniversary of the battle, 12th May 2014 (Damian Shiels)

References & Further Reading

(1) All quotes from Daniel Crowley to Cornelius Flynn are taken from a series of letter correspondence between March 1864 and May 1865, now held in the Boston Athenaeum special collections archive.

(2) Irish Green and Union Blue: The Civil War Letters of Peter Welsh, Colour Sergeant, 28th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, eds., L.F. Kohl & M.C. Richard (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986).

Civil War Trust Battle of Spotsylvania Page

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

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Categories: 28th Massachusetts, Battle of Spotsylvania, Cork, Guest Post, Irish Brigade

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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5 Comments on ““…I don’t care about dancing on the bodies of dead men”: The Civil War letters of Daniel Crowley, Part 1”

  1. February 20, 2017 at 9:01 pm #

    Our thanks to Catherine Bateson for this entry. If only all of his letters were available… where are these letters held?

    • March 6, 2017 at 11:45 am #

      Absolutely Joe! More to follow soon. The letters are in the Boston Athenaeum.

  2. February 21, 2017 at 2:42 am #

    Quite chilling stuff…great post!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “I am so heartily sick of this life”: The Civil War Letter of Daniel Crowley, Part 3 | Irish in the American Civil War - March 30, 2017

    […] Irish Brigade in 1864-5. If you have missed the earlier articles, you can catch up on them here and here. As the protracted operations around Petersburg continued, Daniel wrote home to discuss […]

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