The key focus of my research is on examining the letters of Irish emigrants in the Widows Pension Files. These letters, and the stories which surround them, have an incredible amount to tell us about Irish emigrant life. One of the most important aspects concerns how emigrants maintained communications both between Irish-American communities in the United States and with their home communities in Ireland. Increasingly, they demonstrate that those who wished to stay in touch with Ireland following their departure did so. I have previously written about how we can dissect these letters to assess what they can reveal about the Irish experience (see for example Analysing 19th Century Emigration, A Case Study: Dissecting One Irishman’s Letter Home). The post below attempts something similar. It comprises two elements, the first of which explores Irish involvement in the United States Regulars and the fate of one their number, Irishman Edward Brady, at Shiloh. The second examines in detail the fabulously rich letter of Ellen McCarthy, Edward’s cousin, to her aunt– Edward’s mother– informing the woman of the loss of her son. It is a letter that reveals a great deal about both the process of emigration and the emigrant networks that existed in the wake of the Irish Famine.

With the coming of war in 1861, it was determined to increase the size of the U.S. Regular army. In the ante-bellum period the Regulars had been dominated by Irishmen, who served in even greater numbers than those born in the United States. As the analysis of Dr. Mark W. Johnson has revealed, during the war itself one in every five enlistments into the Regulars was Irish-born. Indeed, for many in the Irish community, service in the Regulars had become a traditional employment option. The first of these new Regular formations to take to the battlefield did so at Shiloh, Tennessee on the morning of 7th April 1862. Fresh from the Army of the Ohio transports at Pittsburg Landing, most of them had never been in action before. It fell to the men of Major John King’s command– soldiers of the 15th, 16th and 19th United States Infantry, to become the first of these new men to “see the elephant.” For some it would be their first and last taste of action. (1)

US Regulars

The monument to the United States Regulars on the Shiloh Battlefield. Special thanks to friend Craig Swain of “To the Sound of the Guns” for permission to use this image (Craig Swain)

One of the soldiers in the 16th United States Infantry that day was Private Edward Brady of Company E. He was Irish-born, though his enlistment registration did not record where on the island he hailed from. Edward had joined up for a period of five years at Dubuque, Iowa on 16th August 1861, where he was described as a 5 foot 5 1/2 inch laborer, with blue eyes, brown hair and a light complexion. Although recorded as 30-years-old, it seems probable he was somewhat younger. (2)

At Shiloh Edward Brady and his comrades got their first taste of war at the Duncan Field and the surrounding woods, which they managed to cross after some heavy fighting. Moving westwards along the Corinth Road, they encountered a new Confederate counter-attack near Review Field. As the blaze of fire erupted, portions of the 16th United States had been manoeuvering either side of a large fallen oak tree while in line of battle. Coming back together, some of the men were momentarily bunched and disorganised. This made things extremely dangerous for the front rank as the Regulars returned Rebel fire. Private Van Zwaluwenburg of the 16th later remembered:

Instead of two ranks we were driven into four… [which] made it dangerous for the front rank to raise…and fire. It was here Pvt. Brady was killed by one of our own men lying back of me who fired just as Brady rose to fire and sent a bullet thru the back of his head. (3)

Battle of Shiloh (Chromolithograph by Thure de Thulstrup, 1888)

Battle of Shiloh (Chromolithograph by Thure de Thulstrup, 1888)

The Regulars eventually continued their advance and ultimately they and their comrades secured victory at Shiloh. But Edward’s war was over. It fell to his cousin Ellen, an Irish immigrant in St. Louis, Missouri, to inform Edward’s mother (her aunt) of his fate. Her name was Bridget Brady. Around 60-years-old in 1862, she had been married to Edward’s father Denis by a Father McDonagh in Ireland around 1839. In 1862 Bridget was living near East Bloomfield, New Jersey, and Ellen twice penned her letters bearing the sad tidings, to which she received no response. Fearing that her aunt was either dead or that her post was not getting through, Ellen wrote one final time in August, some 4 months after Edward’s death in Shiloh. The letter is a fine example of how news was transmitted from Ireland to immigrants in America, and between disparate Irish-American communities within the United States itself. It begins:

its now August 28

Dear aunt this is the third letter i have sent you about the death of your son edward and yet no answer i am tired writing and getting no answer to any of them i thought i would once more try and if i would get no answer i would quit writing and i would think that you were dead [.] Dear aunt if you are living i wish that you would rite to me and let me know if you got an account of edwards death as there is a good [d]ale of edwards wages comeing to you that he lost his life for it besides you will get a farm of land and he had a farm of his own bought and paid for a bout eighty acres and i do not [k]now who had got the deed of it [.] aunt you had better look after his property and you will get it and if you do not want it yourself you can give it to your sisters children that lives there so do not fail in loking after his money [.] (4)

Ellen’s primary concern was one shared by many Irish emigrants in the widow’s pension file letters, namely making sure that Bridget received the monies and land bounties that were due her son at the time of his death. From the description, it seems likely that prior to his enlistment Edward had already been living out west; perhaps Ellen- based in St. Louis- had served as a conduit between him and his other family back in New Jersey. Ellen went on in her letter to describe an interesting detail leading up to Edward’s death- the revelation by his Company Captain that the Irishman had anticipated his impending demise at Shiloh. This may well have been nerves resulting from the knowledge that the unit would be going into combat for the first time, but, as we have explored on the site before (see “I Was Forewarned by a Dream”: 1860s Emigrant Letters between Kansas & Kerry), such premonitions were commonplace:

the Captain Comd come to me and told me that he [k]nowed he would be killed in that battle and he prayed night and day and he said he was the best man he had and he liked him very much he was killed at Pitsburg landing April the 7 1862 this is his address when you will go to look for his money Captan Corkren Comp E 16 Infantry Privat US Regulars Regulars [sic.] (5)

Ellen then sought to disseminate news from Ireland to her aunt. Again, this clearly demonstrates that far from never being heard from again, those who wished could and did keep in contact with those across the Atlantic in the mid-19th century. It was also common for news passed to one emigrant to be widely distributed to other members of the Irish-American community through the continent. Ellen also mentioned her need to remit money to Ireland, and the prospect of paying for the passage for her brother– but not until after the war:

My dear aunt i got a letter from home a few days a go the[y] are all but badly off the[y] said in the letter that mary was getting bad health and that she had 5 sons and 3 daughters living i must try and send a little money to my mother for she is in the need of it and if this war was settled that we would send for brother Patt (6)

"Answering the Emigrant's Letter", an 1850 painting by James Collinson, depicting an English family replying to correspondence from Australia (Manchester Art Gallery)

“Answering the Emigrant’s Letter,” an 1850 painting by James Collinson, depicting an English family replying to correspondence from Australia (Manchester Art Gallery)

In addition to providing news of their family in Ireland, Ellen passed on the best wishes of her Irish-American circle in St. Louis to Bridget’s Irish-American circle in East Bloomfield:

we are all well Patt Torvey [?] sends his love to you and also sister margret give my love to all the neighbours answer this when you get it and direct to in care of Wm G Eliot St Louis Misury for Mrs Elen mcCarthy (7)

Although Irish immigrants in America kept in touch with each other through their networks, clearly long periods of time could elapse between updates. Ellen provided news of her own which demonstrated just how commonplace the tragedy of child death was in the period:

Dear aunt i had a young daughter after my husband dying and she lived for five months i am getting along very well my oldest little girl is will [well] she will be soon four years old (8)

Ellen next gave details on Edward’s burial, and in the Catholic tradition noted that she would pray for his soul and have a mass said for him. Ellen also expressed a hope that the fact Edward was just one of many men killed in the war might help to assuage her aunt’s distress, a sentiment that is often found in contemporary letters (see for example the letter in Speaking Ill of the Dead: Eulogies and Enmity for an Irish Brigade Soldier).

the Captain told me he buried Edward and put a board over his head and his name on it please rite soon and let me [k]now what you are going to do about his affars or if he sent you the deed of his land [.] This is his address Capt Corkrin Company E 16 Infantry Privat U S Regulars edward Brady killed Pitsburg Landing April the 7 1862 [.] Poor Edward is gone the lord have mercy on his soul and we must pray for his poor soul and i will get a mass said [for] the poor soul of edward [.] Dear aunt Dear aunt [sic.] i rote all the particulars in the last letters about…him but you will excuse this letter for it is not well done [.] Dear aunt it is no use for you to be fretting for many a fine man killed on account of this war so goodbye and answer this right away…Dear aunt i think some one must have taken out your letters out of the Post Office or else you would get them (9)

In a further demonstration of the process of chain migration, Ellen concluded by making reference to the potential that more people from Ireland may be about to emigrate. She also asked after one Dominic Dunbar, who lived near her aunt in New Jersey. Ellen made direct reference to their crossing together on the emigrant boat, a remark that allows us to identify their probable ship and date of arrival. On the 2 May 1849 the Silas Grimshaw docked in New York from Liverpool, carrying among its passengers a 22-year-old Irish workman called Dominic Dunbar, and a 20-year-old woman called Ellen Brady, one of a number of Bradys aboard. This is surely our correspondent Ellen prior to her marriage and subsequent name change to McCarthy. The information indicates that the Bradys were Famine-era emigrants. On the 1870 Census, we find Dominic living in Belleville, New Jersey, beside East Bloomfield. He was now working in a copper factory, supporting his wife Mary and eight children, all of whom were born in New Jersey. One of Dominic’s near neighbours in 1870 was 68-year-old Bridget Brady, presumably Edward’s mother, making her home with another elderly Irishwoman, Margaret Lavin.

Give my love to Dominick Dunbar and ask him if he remembers if the time that we were comeing over in the ship togather tell him if he knows any thing of Mr Reighers people to let me [k]now i would like to hear from them you will tell the Mrs Mulleagues that we had a letter from brother Michael and his wife and two sons the[y] are all in good health an talks of comeing out to this country

Dear aunt so you will inquire of any of the neighbours and the[y] will tell you where to get edwards wages that was comeing to him when he was killed (10)

For a family for which we have so little information (not even their county of origin in Ireland), Ellen McCarthy’s letter nonetheless provides us with a range of valuable insights into both the process of emigration and the maintenance of networks between Irish communities across both America and Ireland. The story also highlights the extremely important place that service in the Regulars held for many Irishmen in 19th century America– service which in terms of numbers often eclipsed that of those who had been born in the United States (for more on Irish Regulars in the West, see Irishmen in the U.S. Regulars: A Case Study of the Battle of Stones River).

Shiloh National Cemetery Ernest Mettendorf)

Shiloh National Cemetery (Ernest Mettendorf)

* 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.

(1) Johnson 2012: 202, 295, Johnson 2003: 105; (2) Register of Enlistments; (3) Johnson 2003: 105-110, Van Zwaluwenburg n.d., cited in Johnson 2003: 110; (4) WC10976 of Bridget Brady; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.; (9) Ibid.; (10) Ibid., 1870 Federal Census, Famine Irish Entry Project;


WC10976 of Bridget Brady, Dependent Mother of Edward Brady, Company E, 16th United States Infantry.

Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914.

1870 United States Federal Census for New Jersey, Essex, Belleville.

National Archives and Record Administration. Famine Irish Entry Project, 1846-1851.

Johnson, Mark W. 2012 “Where are the Regulars?” An Analysis of Regular Army Recruiting and Enlistees, 1851-1865. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University at Albany, State University of New York.

Johnson, Mark W. 2003 That Body of Brave Men: The U.S. Regular Infantry and the Civil War in the West.

Van Zwaluwenburg, Jacob n.d. Memoir. Unpublished manuscript at William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Swain, Craig 2009. Remembering Shiloh. To the Sounds of the Guns Blog.