I am pleased to bring to readers the third and final instalment of Catherine Bateson’s guest posts charting the correspondence of Cork’s Daniel Crowley, who served in the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, 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 topics such as the failed assault at the Crater, and to express his views on the upcoming presidential election. He also relates an intriguing encounter with an Irish Confederate between the lines, and tells of the march home, passing former battlefields ‘where the grass grows over a good many Irishmen.’
The last quarter of Daniel Crowley’s correspondence to his friend Cornelius Flynn, from the second half of 1864 to the end of the war in April 1865, take on a far more factual and wide-ranging focus than his earlier letters quoted in the previous two posts. Gone are the vivid details and recounting of battlefield encounters. Gone too are justifications for why he was fighting and concerns that he would not live out the war. As the 28th Massachusetts remained around Petersburg, Virginia, from the summer of 1864 onwards, Crowley’s letters reveal both a sense of stalemate and how, after just four months or so in army service, he had become a veteran sergeant keen to provide his bitter and weary thoughts on the wider conflict. These final letters offer a personal insight into the mentality of one Union soldier, and while Crowley’s despondency needs to be taken on its own merits, he does provide an interesting view of life inside the remnants of the Irish Brigade and 28th Massachusetts in its final few Civil War months.
The main topic that dominates these final letters to Flynn is the issue of army and government leadership as it stood in the second half 1864. One figure especially made several appearances in Crowley’s letters – General George B. McClellan, the perennial soldiers’ favourite commander whose presence was still felt within Union Army ranks despite the fact he was no longer in charge by this point of the war. According to Crowley,
“The men here don’t want to fight anymore under the present leaders. They say they will lay down their arms and surrender soon than be led by such Damn fools. Sending men to the slaughter pen for nothing…Unless McClellan is sent in command you’ll see no good done here.” (1)
Crowley’s comment on army leadership incompetency was most likely born from him witnessing one of the Battle of Petersburg’s most infamous moments. The letter above was written on 7 August 1864, barely a week after the Battle of the Crater, which resulted after Union troops attempted to blow up sections of Confederate entrenchments only to be killed in the ensuing aftermath. “The slaughter pen” Crowley describes is undoubtedly a reference to that bloody incident which left a mark on those present around Petersburg at the time. Indeed, it often makes an appearance in other Irish American wartime writings. For example, in his Civil War memoir, Irish Brigade chaplain Reverend William Corby noted that the unit, of which Crowley would have been a part, were:
“In the vicinity of the mine on July 30…we witnessed from some great distance the destructive work of death….[and] horrid confusion…Through this breach in the Confederate works the Union troops pushed, but some misunderstanding confusion set in and prevented the successful accomplishment of the well-devised plan”. (2)
This was the “slaughter pen for nothing” Crowley was describing to Flynn. The Crater incident marked the starting point of his more critical attacks on army and administration war plans in the latter half of 1864.
Crowley had never served under McClellan’s command, yet he seems to have adopted the reverence and praise often found within Union ranks for the Army of the Potomac’s controversial former leader. Irish American soldiers were just as supportive of McClellan as their Union Army fellows. The fact that even in the summer of 1864 a still relatively new recruit like Crowley was willing to articulate this belief that McClellan would be better placed back in command is part of another story relating to the General’s contemporary legacy. By September 1864, McClellan’s potential as something even greater than an army commander was raised by Crowley in one of his most intriguing letters to Flynn. At the end of the month he recounted how “a few nights ago” he went out between the Union and Confederate lines around Petersburg, “where it was not more than 100 yards distance, and had a chat with one of them”, meaning a Confederate soldier, thus creating the image of a cross-front line encounter that is predominately lost within Civil War histories despite these occasions happening more frequently than is often remembered.
This particular Confederate encounter takes on a greater relevance when Crowley discovered that he was talking to a fellow Irishman, and for a short while the conversation it seems returned to matters far away from Virginia:
“I told him we belonged to the Irish Brigade. He said he was an Irishman also and enquired when I left the old land, if I heard from there and how things were looking at present. He expects…we will have a chance of trying our mettle for the old sod.”
After this hint about a future fight of Irish independence, conversation between this Irish Confederate solider and Crowley turned to the 1864 election, with the former stating that “he expects when McClellan is elected President there will be peace and we will all be happy”. Crowley does not dispute this view in this particular letter, merely commenting to Flynn that whatever the outcome by November 1864 “I am sure we will have hot work here before the election comes off”, taking a soldier’s focus that the war was still being fought regardless of the political battles ensuing elsewhere in the country.
Crowley himself later commented to Flynn on his political preference of McClellan in the presidential election’s aftermath. Writing four days after on 12 November 1864, Crowley reveals how the army had yet “received no authentic information so far as to who will be President for the next four years. Some say Lincoln and some say little Mack”. Crowley himself hoped “it’s the latter for the country’s sake”. This echoed the previous sentiment that a McClellan victory would bring peace, though he added a curious afterthought on this particular subject matter. He commented to Flynn that in reality, he did not mind who won the presidency: “Not that I care a great deal for my part as I am rather indifferent on that line”. Given he devoted so much of his correspondence to the issue of army and administration leadership it is hard to believe Crowley was being honest in this indifference, though there is no reaction in subsequent letters to Lincoln’s victory. This particular afterthought could well be a sign yet again of Crowley’s complete disengagement with a world beyond war and military life, which as the other letters have revealed, had become his dominate focus.
November 1864 did bring some light-heartedness in the form of Thanksgiving for the 28th Massachusetts, which Crowley recounted to Flynn in a letter from early December, written on writing paper that contained a printed song, Disbanded O!, on its reverse, an extremely rare example of song dissemination and the printing culture of wartime stationary. Sadly, Crowley offers very little comment on the song, but does offer a glimpse of Thanksgiving celebrations in the Union Army during the American Civil War. However, ever the despondent by this stage of his war’s service, Crowley could not help be sarcastic about the “magnificent thanksgiving dinner” he received – “one turkey between 200 men of the gallant 28th Massachusetts Volunteers”. Perhaps Crowley did not see the irony of this rare dinner treat in relation to the song lyrics on the reverse of his letter. Disbanded O! was a volunteering soldier’s song that had pre-Civil War origins. This 1864 version included lyrics about eating “good rations every day”. Even one turkey for an entire regiment sounds better than the food in one verse:
“To eat the stuff that’s on the table landed…
Sour bread and rotten pork, with a rusty knife and fork,
We would rather have good fare than be disbanded O”.
Crowley appears to have either stopped writing to Flynn at the end of 1864 and into early 1865, or the letters have not survived, but by 14 March 1865 he wrote to inform his friend that he was still “Before Petersburg” and now “heartily sick of this life that I wish I were in Jerusalem sometimes”. Sheer war weariness, prolonged sieges and skirmishes, and almost one year’s full service had brought Crowley to his lowest point. This was tinged with the concern that no immediate end to the war kept death an ever-constant companion. “I have with a few others come to the conclusion of being either a free man or a dead one before many days” he philosophised to Flynn. The soldier’s mood, however, had been darkened not just by the war, but also by an encounter with a fellow Irish Brigade soldier belonging to the 88th New York Regiment. This “young man” had brought Crowley “intelligence from the old Country…He belongs to where my father lives”. The news from Ireland was bad: “my mother was buried last August”. His depressed sarcasm reappeared as he reflected on this personal news and loss: “Everything to cheer the drooping spirits of a sick Yankee soldier” he concluded.
A month later, on 25 April 1865, a few weeks after General Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, Crowley’s penultimate letter back to his friend in Marlborough offered up this assessment of the war: “The fighting portion of the business is over”. Crowley’s bluntness was extended in his concluding opinion now that war’s end was reached. It was over, “I think. In fact I don’t care whether it is or not”, revealing a significant level of disinterest and numbness to the experiences of his previous twelve months generated from all that he had seen and taken in part in over that time. Even in these relative few short letters to Flynn, Crowley’s mental state and the impact of war on his increasing inability to communicate and situate his surroundings and experiences reflect the internal strain of the Civil War. Against the odds he had given himself, Crowley had survived, and subsequent archive letters from the 1870s suggest he returned to live in Marlborough. Undoubtedly the war’s personal impact on the young Irishman would have left a legacy for the rest of his life.
One other legacy which Crowley came to realise he was a part of, was that of his regiment the 28th Massachusetts and the Irish Brigade to which it belonged. In his final letter to Cornelius Flynn, written in “camp near Alexandria” on 17 May 1865, Crowley described the start of his unit’s journey home. He depicted what he witnessed and returned to the recent past of his famed brigade and the sights of the “tale tales” the veterans mentioned in the first post had told him:
“We passed through Richmond, Fredericksburg and the small towns…Richmond is as you are aware burned…Fredericksburg is almost as bad…I passed through where this Brigade charged under Meagher on the 13 Dec 1862, where the grass grows over a good many Irishmen”.
Given his involvement at engagements around Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, and his near death encounters during heavy fighting and skirmishes as he detailed in his early letters to Flynn, the fact Crowley did not end up with the ranks of “a good many Irishmen” beneath the Virginian grass would, in his own view perhaps, be nothing short of miraculous, especially as he seemed certain his luck would not hold out. It did, however, and the final comment in his letters to Flynn reveal a sense of relief that his war service was now at end: “I hope to get out of this service as I have about as much of Yankee soldering now as is good for my health”. One can not help but agree with this self-assessment when reading Daniel Crowley’s letters, one example of a 28th Massachusetts soldier and the true realities and mental toll the Civil War took on a young Irish American soldier.
(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) William Corby, Memoirs of a chaplain life, by W. Corby, three years in the famous Irish Brigade (Chicago, 1893) p. 253