“Hoping you will not take it to heart”: The Final Days of an Irish-American Boy Soldier

The site has consistently returned to the many members of the Irish community in the United States whose nativity was neither Irish or American. Many of these Irish-Americans had been born during the process of step-migration, in places such as Britain and Canada. Thousands of such men fought during the conflict, and generally identified with the Irish-American community. For some this service was so tragically brief their families barely had time to adjust to the fact they were in uniform before learning of their death. Such was to be the experience of Hannah O’Brien. 

A young Illinois soldier in the Civil War (Library of Congress)

A young Illinois soldier in the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Hannah had married labourer Cornelius O’Brien on 14th January 1840 in St. George’s Fields, Southwark, London. The couple are recorded on the English 1841 Census living in the parish of St. Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey. At some point, perhaps in the 1850s, the family emigrated to the United States (they may be the O’Briens recorded as living in Salem, Massachusetts in the 1855). Cornelius died around 1855, and by the mid-1860s Hannah was resident in LaPorte, Indiana. Her son, Cornelius Junior, was probably only around 16-years-old when on 19th February 1864 he wrote the following letter to his mother:

Quincy Ill. Feb 19th

Dear Mother I take my pen in hand to address a few lines to you. I enlisted a week ago at Oquawka in the 16 Reg Ills. Vol. and started for Quincy on Wednesday last when we were sworn into the U.S. Service. This Friday morning I received 73 dollars down and I have sent by express 43 dollars to you. I also send the receipt and hoping that you will not take it to heart on account of my going as there was nothing for me to do in Oquawka. I have written to Larry and I suppose he will feel quite bad about it. I am quite well at present do not write to me till I write to you again as we are about leaving this place as I will write to you in a few days. I will send you some more as soon as I get it. Nothing more at present,

From your dear son,

Cornelius O’Brien

Give a kiss to Jimmy and Maria for me hoping to be at home again soon,

I close yours truly

Cornelius O’Brien

It is probable the Larry, Jimmy and Maria referred to by Cornelius are three of his siblings. Cornelius presumably did write again a few days later, after joining his regiment. His mother Hannah responded to the correspondence, but rather than hearing from Cornelius, this is the reply she received:

Camp near Rossville, GA

April 17th 1864

Mrs H. O’Brien

Laporte

Enclosed you find the likenesses & letter to your Cornilius returned. I have [to] announce to you the death of your son. Cornilius died on the 12th April in hospital near Rosville of Typhus Fever. Cornilius was under the time he belonged to the camp a very good young man; a have sent to the War Department his papers and I hope that you madam will recive in due time his due pay ects. So soon as I kan dispose of Cornilius effects I will send the money and remain,

Respectfully Madam

Henry Watson

2nd Lieut Comdg Comp F.

It would have been less than two months since Hannah had learned of her young sons enlistment, and already he was dead. He had contracted and succumbed to one of the great killers of the Civil War in Graysville, Georgia, almost as soon as arriving with his regiment. No doubt stunned by the news, Hannah wrote to Lieutenant Watson for more detail. She received a response dated 6th May, as the 16th Illinois embarked on the great campaign that would result in the fall of Atlanta.

Camp near Ringold Ga

May 6th 1864

Mrs O’Brien

I received your letter just in time to answer, we [are] on the march and very little time to communicate. Your Cornilius was only 5 or 6 days in the hospital his sickness started with a fever witch gradually icnreast tothe famous Typhus Fever and ended the life of your boy. His effects ar[e] in my possession and stored at present in Bridgeport, so soon as the Campagne is over I will despose of the same and send the money the liknisses…Your son was [nearer?] the presents of his maker… your son was a very good boy and soldier and I am sorry for his loss from the company

Respectfully Yours

H. Watson

1 Lt Comdg Compy

Hannah O’Brien, whose life spanned Ireland, Britain and the United States, died in 1887. Her son, a product of England, the United States and Ireland, was no less an Irish-American than the thousands of native born Irish who served during the Civil War. His military experiences lasted only a matter a weeks, a timeframe that surely added greatly to the shock of the boy’s loss for his mother.

The grave of Cornelius O'Brien in Chattanooga National Cemetery (LuvFlowers via FindAGrave)

The grave of Cornelius O’Brien in Chattanooga National Cemetery (LuvFlowers via FindAGrave)

* 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

WC84143 Widow’s Certificate of Hannah O’Brien, Dependent Mother of Cornelius O’Brien, 16th Illinois Infantry.

Massachusetts State Census 1855, Essex, Salem Ward 4.

1841 England Census, St. Mary Magdalen Bermondsey, Surrey.

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Categories: Indiana, Irish in Britain

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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3 Comments on ““Hoping you will not take it to heart”: The Final Days of an Irish-American Boy Soldier”

  1. carolmcl
    May 13, 2017 at 6:01 pm #

    Sad to read of this just before Mother’s Day. Bless her, all mothers whose children have died in war, and those children.

    • Karen
      May 15, 2017 at 12:18 am #

      Sad story

  2. May 17, 2017 at 3:21 am #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

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