The site welcomes back Catherine Bateson of the University of Edinburgh for the second in her series on the 1864 letters of Cork native Daniel Crowley, who served in the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, Irish Brigade (read the first post here). As the regiment pushes on to Petersburg, Daniel writes home of hand-to-hand combat, on his prospects of survival, and of the circumstances of his enlistment.
Three months into his time “in Uncle Sams employment” in the 28th Massachusetts, Daniel Crowley’s letters home to his friend Cornelius Flynn in Marlborough, Massachusetts, had developed from the correspondence of an eager young recruit in March 1864, to a weary, battle-hardened soldier by June of that year, scarred by conflict horrors. (1) The tone of his letters reflected this change, as he mixed an increasingly sarcastic, bitter and despondent voice with attempts at dark cheerfulness, still trying to convey to Flynn that all was well. While the 28th Massachusetts may have had “some hard times”, and Crowley no longer “cared about dancing on the bodies of dead men” as mentioned in the previous post, he also found time to write home for a more light-hearted request. He asked Flynn: “If you can get that old hat of mine from Mrs. Driscoll, fold it up and send it to me…I guess it would be much easier than the cap I wear”. It was a simple appeal, but tainted with the memory of a comment made in an earlier letter about how Crowley had narrowly avoided injury, or worse, after his cap had been shot from his head during one particular skirmish.
By the end of June 1864, Crowley found himself corresponding to Flynn “Before Petersburg”, where the 28th Massachusetts involvement in the siege and sporadic fighting there over the course of the summer months gave him pause to reflect about the wider war, his purpose in the army and, understandably, think about his own mortality and war’s futility. Writing to Flynn on June 30 1864, Crowley opened up again about his near-death experiences and first-hand encounters with Confederate soldiers:
“I had a hard fight myself as I was either a prisoner or a dead man. I had my choice but unfortunately my Irish Blood would not yield and I chanced the latter after Bayonetting one Reb and shooting another. It was a hand to hand affair and believe you me the Johnies are afraid of the steel while it is in an Irishman’s hand”.
For all his fighting Irish pride though, Crowley’s awareness about the battlefield’s diminishing odds returned. Gone were his previous thoughts that Irish Brigade veterans told “tall tales about their escapes from death” as he had told Flynn at the start of his enlistment. Now Crowley realised that his own survival was miraculous and limited. He told his friend fatalistically: “I expect myself I can’t survive much longer after all the narrow escapes I had”.
This was a similar sentiment to the one expressed in his letters from earlier that month, quoted in the previous post. June 1864 took a dark toll on Crowley’s sense of his own mortality. As with his letter on 19 May with the postscript that acknowledged his fear that he “might not write” again to Flynn, his letter from the end of June made similar reference to the awareness that every line he wrote could well be his last. He ended his correspondence promising to visit and “call to see” Flynn and his family, as well as other friends, “when I go home” but added the caveat “if I live” to make it clear that his hope was diminished. Flynn would have come to the same realisation that readers of these letters today will note – when Crowley stated at the end of this particular letter that “I am the Same Boy yet”, the comment could not have been further from the truth. His encounters after just three months of enlistment and service, and the increasing despair exhibited in his letters, revealed that Daniel Crowley was far from “the Same Boy” who had joined the 28th Massachusetts in March 1864. His optimism had been replaced with war weary pessimism.
Crowley’s 30 June letter to Flynn was the last in which he articulated explicit dark thoughts, but the depression and despondency brought on by his experiences thus far left their mark on the way in which he reported the war and his encounters. It also extended to the way in which he talked about his regiment. He noted to Flynn that due to its heavy losses, while the 28th Massachusetts were still standing the illustrious Irish Brigade that it was part of was on far more unsteady legs. Referring to its origins and establishment by General Thomas Francis Meagher earlier in the war, Crowley lamented that “Tom Meagher and the remnants of his Brigade [were] buried in oblivion” by mid-summer 1864 and that “Our Brigade is broken up…there is no longer an Irish Brigade”. Crowley’s comments to Flynn about the Irish Brigade’s history, and the pride it engendered in its soldiers and the Union Army, are interesting given that he had only been serving in it for barely three months at the point of writing. This reflects a recurring primary source theme in Irish American Civil War studies. The level of affection and devotion the Irish Brigade inspired within the Irish American diaspora and the soldiering community which Crowley was a part of, and Flynn would undoubtedly been aware of, is yet again on display in the former’s comments about his association with the unit.
Crowley had taken on the past glories and history of his regiment and the brigade as part of his own military service. While noting with despair the “oblivion” of the Irish Brigade by June 1864, he proclaimed proudly “Thanks to the Irish Brigade for saving this army from total disaster”. It is hard not to picture the battle hardened new recruit standing with pride in the knowledge that the 28th Massachusetts “still retain the green flag”, the flag that “I will die under”. In a subsequent letter written to Flynn in November 1864, Crowley informed his friend that the 28th Massachusetts “again are in the Irish Brigade” as the unit returned in name only, with no loss in its own sense of honour. Again, Crowley drew on its past histories to explain recent brigade developments, stating in a postscript that the Irish Brigade were to be commanded “by Col. Nugent of the 69th N. York – Lt. Col. of the old 69th of Bull Run fame under Corcoran”.
Crowley’s sense of honour about serving in such a famed and noteworthy regiment and brigade was something the young Massachusetts Irishman was very proud of and perhaps explains his bristling when his enlistment was called into question in the second half of 1864. As mentioned in the previous post, Crowley emphasised to Flynn that he was “not sorry for enlisting” and wished for people in Marlborough to know this. He returned to the subject over a couple of letters in July 1864, highlighting how Crowley could not let the matter go without full explanation for the events that took him to a Boston recruiting office several months previously. He claimed to his friend on 8 July 1864, that he had been made to enlist by one “John McCarthy of 108 Federal St., Boston” so that McCarthy could receive “$160 out of it”, which he split with another. Flynn, it would appear through reading the subtext of Crowley’s responses, was being blamed in Marlborough “as being the cause of [Crowley’s] enlisting” and collecting the bounty for his own purposes. The young soldier emphasised this was fundamentally not the case: “No Con”, he said using his affection nickname for Cornelius Flynn, “you often advised me not to, and it was against your consent I done so [enlisted]”. A couple of weeks later, on 22 July 1864, Crowley was still clearly bothered that Flynn was being held to account, defending his friend’s character and conduct by stressing that he “felt greatly annoyed at any person insinuating to you such acts”.
Crowley reiterated his stance that he did not regret the actions that led to his enlistment, nor was he sorry for being in the army despite the mounting psychological toll his involvement was taking. In early August 1864, he wrote to Flynn to state with a sense of ceremony that “I have been made sergeant”, and one month on he wrote “I cannot help doing my duty”. War had become an everyday part of Crowley’s persona. By October 1864 though, another letter from his hometown gave him pause to reassess the realities of war. Flynn had sent a note to his friend, now based around Petersburg, asking, “if I would advise you to enlist”. Crowley was quick with a response:
“I would not advise any person. It’s the task of all for a man to do. I mind this war is not going to end so soon as people think. The Rebs are very far from being whipped yet and God only knows who will live to see the last of it”.
This response to the thought of a close acquaintance enlisting in the Union Army echoes that of Crowley’s fellow 28th Massachusetts solider Peter Welsh, who had written to his recently emigrated brother-in-law in the spring of 1864 to stress “never for heavens sake let a thought of enlisting in this army cross your mind”. (2) Both Irish Brigade soldiers were committed to seeing the war through, but what they had witnessed on the battlefields had both made them resistant to thought they their own loved ones should share the same experience. Experiencing the war through their letters was a close enough encounter.
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) Peter Welsh to Francis (Frank) Prendergast, April-May 1864, in 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), p. 155.