The site regularly returns to the topic of letters written to inform families of the death of a loved one (see Communicating Death & Creating Memory on Fredericksburg’s Streets). As we have seen, these communications occasionally didn’t hold back in providing the gruesome details of an Irish emigrants demise (e.g. Imagining the Horrors of Death: An Irishwoman Learns of Her Husband’s Death at Gettysburg). Sometimes these letters addressed not only the distressing but also required new widows to deal with issues that previously would have seemed mundane, but which now must surely have been painful. Such was the case for Cork woman Mary Fallon, upon learning of the death of her Roscommon-born husband John, a soldier in the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.
Mary Halloran was born in Co. Cork around 1833. She was 24 when she married 20-year-old laborer John Fallon in East Greenwich, Rhode Island in October 1857. John hailed from the parish of Kilbride in Co. Roscommon. If these dates are accurate the couple already had a child, James Henry, who had been born in East Greenwich on 6th February 1857. The young couple’s family grew quickly, with John Edward arriving in Pawtuxet on 2nd May 1858, Mary Ann in East Greenwich on 18th December 1859 and William in Warwick on 6th December 1861. By the time William was born his young father had gone off to war, enlisting in the 3rd Rhode Island at Providence on 20th August 1861. (1)
A little over 18 months later, Mary received the following letter:
Entrenchments near Beaufort S.C.
April 25th 1863
I suppose you have heard before this of the death of your husband on Thursday morning the 9th of April the Steamer George Washington was attacked by the Rebels with light artillery the second shot from the rebels entered the magazine of the George Washington which caused a terrible explosion. Your husband was torn almost to pieces, he only lived a few moments. His loss is felt deeply by the Officers and Company. He was a good soldier always prompt and ready to obey orders. Although we mourn his loss we have the consolation to know that he has gone to a happier home where there will be no more suffering. I send you the two letters that came on the last mail for him. This morning there was a package came here for him containing two calico shirts, and as it would cost ninety nine cents to send you the package I thought I would not send it untill I heard from you. I think it would be the best way to sell the shirts here to some of the Company and then I would forward you the money for them or I will send you the shirts just which you think best, if you conclude to sell the shirts here, please write me how much I shall ask for them, hoping to hear from you soon
I remain yours respectfully
2d Lieut. Co. A. 3d R.I. Artillery
Beaufort S.C. (2)
One can only imagine the agonies of John’s death. He had been one of a detachment of 37 men of the 3rd Rhode Island aboard the George Washington when she was engaged by the Confederate artillery. The steamer had been on a mission along with the gunboat Hale to reconnoiter the Coosaw River and determine if the Rebels were organising for an attack on Federal troops at Port Royal Island in South Carolina. The regimental history described the ferocity of the explosion that tore the Roscommon emigrant “almost to pieces”:
Early in the afternoon, when about four miles east of Port Royal Ferry, the Hale missed the channel and grounded. The Washington, coming to her relief, gave her a hawser but could not pull her off, and hence lay by her for her defense, till by the ebb-tide, she herself was grounded and nightfall came on. During the night both boats floated again with the flood-tide, and the Hale, just before morning, without giving notice, moved on her way.
At break of day the Washington, discovering that she had been forsaken by her consort, made ready to follow, but had proceeded only a few hundred yards when her officer spied a light battery of the enemy hurrying into position on the shore of the main-land, only about twelve hundred yards distant. The rebels were quick and skillful in using their opportunity. In a moment they opened their well-directed fire. The first shot ricochetted and passed over the boat; the second, a shell, entered her starboard-quarter and fired her magazine. The explosion carried away all the rear portion of the boat, lifting that part of the deck, guns, and rigging into the air, and shattering and disabling the entire vessel… (3)
The regimental history noted that John Fallon was “mangled by the explosion” and “died in a few moments.” It is unclear if his remains were ever recovered, as one source claimed that his “body was burned with the steamer.” Lieutenant Waterhouse, who wrote to Mary, was one of those who rushed from the company headquarters near Beaufort to aid the wounded. Among the others to be remembered for their assistance were troops of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, who were picketing the island at the time. The 1st South Carolina was a regiment composed of escaped slaves– later designated the 33rd USCI, they were one of the first African-American Regiments. (4)
As Lieutenant Waterhouse had surmised, Mary almost certainly knew of John’s death prior to receiving his letter. She may well have received correspondence from others in the unit, but her husband’s fate was being reported in the Rhode Island newspapers as early as a week after the tragedy. On 16th April 1863 the Manufaturers’ and Farmers’ Journal of Providence told of “THE DISASTER TO THE RHODE ISLANDERS AT COOSAW RIVER”, stating that “a private letter received in this city gives the following names of those killed and wounded on board the gunboat Washington.Killed– John Fallon of Pawtuxet (where he leaves a wife and four small children,), William Greenhalgh, John Hyde.” Mary was presumably the one who had sent the calico shirts to John, which arrived too late for him to ever wear them. Who knows what decision she made with respect to the clothing, but regardless it was a decision that she would undoubtedly have preferred not to have to make. The young Cork woman received a pension for the remainder of her life, passing away on 23 January 1893. (5)
* 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) WC of Mary Fallon, Ireland Births and Baptisms; (2) WC of Mary Fallon; (3) Denison 1879: 147-8; (4) Ibid: 149; (5) WC of Mary Fallon, Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal;
WC7187 of Mary Fallon, Widow of John Fallon, Company A, 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.
Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal 16th April 1863. The Disaster to the Rhode Islanders at Coosaw River.
Ireland Births and Baptisms, 1620–1911.
American Civil War Research Database: Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery.
Denison, Frederic 1879. Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment in the Rebellion 1861-1865.