“Rather Than Hear My Father’s Tongue”: The Sad Story of Why William Flaherty Fought

In late 1863 the town of Plymouth, New Hampshire needed men. One way or another they had a quota of enlistments to fill, and in anticipation of the draft they determined to add financial incentives in order to meet it. In August Plymouth voted to pay every drafted man– or his substitute– a $300 bounty. These type of financial incentives were commonplace in the latter part of the war, and were intended in part to attract men from out of town, and often from out of State, to enlist as part of their quota. It is apparent that large numbers of Irishmen took advantage of these financial incentives between 1863-65. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that some even travelled directly from Ireland with the specific intent of availing of these bounties (e.g. see here). Ultimately 22 of the men mustered into service and credited to Plymouth’s late 1863 quota were non-residents. One of them was “William Slate”, who along with three others was assigned to the 6th New Hampshire Infantry. William was an Irishman who lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Clearly he chose to enlist in Plymouth because of the financial reward on offer, but was his decision purely based on money? The survival of some of William’s letter’s home reveal the complexities behind his choice. The material in the widow’s pension files is frequently tinged with sorrow, but the story left to us in William’s words– dwelling as they do on why joined up and what he wanted for the future– are almost overwhelming in their poignancy. (1)

Unidentified New Hampshire Soldier in the Civil War (Library of Congress)

Unidentified New Hampshire Soldier in the Civil War (Library of Congress)

“William Slate” was a young man of 22 when he decided to help Plymouth fill its quota. His real name was William Flaherty, and prior to the war affidavits confirm he worked as a hatter. It is clear from his 1863-4 letters that when he joined the army he had just been discharged from a ship. A review of Naval Enlistment Rendezvous records reveals that on 30th December 1862, a 22-year-old hatter named William Flaherty enlisted in Philadelphia as a Landsman for a term of one year. Born in Co. Galway, he was described as 5 feet 6 3/4 inches tall, with gray eyes, black hair and a fair complexion. (2)

William’s family had left Galway sometime around the early/mid 1850s. He had been forced to go to work from a young age, first selling newspapers on the Philadelphia streets before taking on his trade. By his own admission, he had somewhat of a wild reputation. However, given his family’s home life, this is hardly a surprise. William’s father Timothy was an alcoholic, who repeatedly spent his money on drink rather than his family. In the words of one family friend, Timothy “did literally nothing” for their support, and according to another he was a man “of grossly intemperate habits.” So bad was the situation that twice William’s mother Mary went to the Guardians of Poor and sought to institute proceedings against her husband because of his “continual drunkenness and neglect.” Although Timothy did spend a few days in prison he could not be forced to pay alimony. In order to keep their heads above water, the rest of the family had to take up the slack; in addition to William’s efforts, Mary also sought to supplement their income by selling apples. With the coming of war, William had decided in late 1862 to try his hand in U.S. Navy, no doubt keen to take the opportunity to escape for a time the issues which surrounded the family back in Philadelphia. (3)

Unidentified Civil War Sailor (Library of Congress)

Unidentified Civil War Sailor (Library of Congress)

William was discharged from the Navy in late 1863, and initially he intended to re-enlist as a Jack Tar in early 1864. All that changed when he had a ferocious argument with his father– who was presumably drunk– causing him to storm out of the family home. In a fit of rage he went into the army, choosing the name Slate, his mother’s maiden name, “because he was ashamed to be known as related to his father.” He was apparently “ashamed of the name…[as] his father had brought discredit upon it.” The next his mother Mary heard from William was a letter written in Concord, New Hampshire, dated 31st December 1863, the day after he was mustered. In the letter William’s anger towards his father is palpable, as is his regret at having taken such a drastic step in the heat of the moment. Over the course of the next few weeks, he would make sure to send his mother what money he could.

Concord December the 31

Dear mother i no you will be supprised to hear that i have enlisted i asure you i did not want to do it but you are well aware that every time i went in to your house that i was insulted by him i call father [.] i had no place to go or if i had i would stay untill new years day but rather than hear my fathers tongue again i would go anywheres [.] i also asure you that no one is as sorry as myself and if if was free again i would beg for my liveing rahter than do what i have done but what is done cannt be undone [.] when i was discharged from the ship i only had thirty dollars comeing to me out of that i had to get some clothes all i had left was twelve dollars and that i was ashamed to give you i intended to ship on the day after new years and give you my advance but now i am in the army God noes if i will ever get out of it [.] … i have felt verey sick ever since i left philadelphia i cannot eate nothin dont be alarmed [.] i will write to you always when i can you cannot say i am ungratefull i always remember you in my hour of sorrow [.] tell no bodey at Mr Sulivan where i am you need not write untill you receive the money i am going to send you… (4)

At the end of the letter, William wrote that in the army “my name is William State.” His next correspondence came almost a month later, from Camp Nelson, Kentucky. His father was apparently filled with regret in the aftermath of his son’s decision to enlist, and this was communicated to William by his mother. Although William claimed he forgave him, it is apparent he was still bitter about the events which he felt had driven him into soldiering and away from his home. Despite this, it appears military discipline was having a positive impact on him, though he was clearly finding the going tough. William refers to his own wild past, which appears to have included rumours that he had married a woman during his last time at home. He concluded his letter by hoping that he would get an opportunity to prove all his doubters in Philadelphia wrong:

Camp Nelson January the 28 1864

Dear Mother i no you will excuse me for not writeing to you sooner when i tell you that i have been sick and to tell you the truth i am verey weak today [.] i am commencing to think that soldiering wont agree with me but i will try to stick it out i am in hopes this war will be over before next winter [.] …i am verey sorry that my father is so low but i must say that it is his fault that i am here but i forgive him for all he done to me [.] …i shall do all i can for you dont be alarmed i will always write to you when i can i am not ungratefull though people may say i am [.] my nature is to noble to forget you although i acted a little wild sometimes i never forget those that are kind to me no dear mother if i was wild and rough in my young days i am commencing to find out that it will not do to be wild always and if God should spare me to return i will try and lead a different life [.] i am learning a new lesson every day oh mother every night i dream of home it almost drives me mad to think i was drove from the only place on earth i love [.] often do i think of philadelphia i have seen a good maney Citys but there is noun like philadelphia but i must try and forget it now i am banished from there for a long while and if i ever return again all the money in the world cant drive me from it [.] i hope you have not heard no foolish reports about me beeing married this last time it is a wonder that they have let my name rest for once perhaps i may fool them all yet at least i hope so… (5)

The site of Camp Nelson in Kentucky, where William Flaherty wrote two of his letters (C. Bedford Crenshaw via Wikipedia)

The site of Camp Nelson in Kentucky, where William Flaherty wrote two of his letters (C. Bedford Crenshaw via Wikipedia)

The final letter in the file from William Flaherty was written from Camp Nelson in March 1864. Still to the fore is the condition of his father, his apparent efforts to reform, and the anticipation of the heavy fighting to come:

Camp Nelson March the 8

Dear Mother

i received your kind and ever welcome letter on thursday with four dollars which i return you my most sincere thanks [.]…i am verey glad that my father is geting better i hope he has now learnt a lesson that he will never forget [.] i dont no what to make of him for not writeing to [me] i am sure he has as much time as i have camp life is verey dull [.]…i expect we will have some heavey fighting to do this spring and summer if we dont end the war this year i think it will last for four years more… (6)

Shortly after writing this letter, William and his new comrades linked up with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia to prepare for the heavy campaign that the Galwegian had anticipated. The opening clash came at the Battle of the Wilderness. In this, his first taste of action, William fell dangerously wounded in the fighting of 6th May. Another Irish-American, Peter Burns of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves, claimed to have seen him on the morning of 7th May. He remembered that William was “wounded in two places, side and chest, the last I heard of him he was on his way to the Hospital at Fredericksburg in one of our ambulances.” Burns heard that these ambulances may have been captured by the Rebels, but either way William evidently succumbed to his wounds– his mother Mary never heard from him again. The young man’s efforts to escape “his father’s tongue” had cost the highest of prices. How Timothy Flaherty reacted to the news is unknown, but given his apparent remorse following William’s enlistment it likely impacted him greatly. Around this time he went into the Almshouse, and in August 1864 he left Philadelphia to take on work in Nashville, Tennessee, digging trenches for the Government. He never came back. According to differing sources, after a few months there he died, either as a result of disease or at the hands of Confederate guerrillas. (7)

The file of William Flaherty is of particular interest with respect to gaining an insight into Irish-American communities and how Irish-Americans saw themselves. William clearly identified as an American, as is apparent based on his commentary regarding Philadelphia. The fact that many of these Irishmen viewed themselves first and foremost as Americans is one of the strongest themes I have found in the pension files. But within that national identity, William (and it seems most other Irish) also saw themselves as members of an Irish-American community, although it often remained unsaid. We can see this in William’s writings, particularly a passage where he asks his mother to send him the life and eulogy for Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, the famed Irish-American Archbishop of New York who passed away in January 1864. We also see it in the identities of the people who supplied affidavits for Mary’s pension claim (inconsistencies in a number of these statements suggest some were willing to bend the truth to aid the Galway woman). They are overwhelmingly Irish or Irish-American, from Ann Leonard and Mary Sullivan, who were Mary’s neighbours in Galway and Philadelphia, to ex-servicemen Joseph Murphy of the 42nd New York and Peter Burns of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves. When in need, it was the Irish-American community of Philadelphia that rallied around Mary Flaherty. (8)

William Flaherty’s letters are extremely tough to read given what we know about his fate. Men served in the Civil War for many reasons; some did it for patriotism, some did it for money, others for adventure. At a superficial level, the basic facts of William’s enlistment would lead us to believe his primary reason for joining the Union Army was financial. However, the survival of his letters reveal the sometimes complex factors that were at play in the minds of these men. Finances were clearly a secondary factor for William Flaherty. His primary motivation was one of escape– specifically escape from the sphere of a drunken father. The dysfunctional home from where he came directly led him to make the decision that led to his death just a few months later, at the age of only 23. He would never have an opportunity to return to Philadelphia and set his life straight. It is to be hoped that his sacrifice did redeem him in the eyes of some of his Philadelphia community, partially fulfilling the wish he expressed in his letter of 28th January 1864: “perhaps i may fool them all yet at least i hope so.” (9)

The grave of First Sergeant William Jones, Fredericksburg National Cemetery. A native of Wicklow. (Damian Shiels)

Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where many of those who fell at the Battle of The Wilderness were laid to rest (Damian Shiels)

* 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) Stearns 1906: 501-2; (2) Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, Widow’s Certificate; (3) Widow’s Certificate; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) History of the Sixth New Hampshire, Widow’s Certificate; (8) Widow’s Certificate; (9) Ibid.;

References & Further Reading

Widow’s Certificate 117088 of Mary Flaherty, Dependent Mother of William Flaherty, Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry.

United States, Naval Enlistment Rendezvous, 1855-1891.

Hadley, Amos (ed.) 1891. History of the Sixth New Hampshire Regiment in the War for the Union. 

Stearns, Ezra S. 1906. History of Plymouth New Hampshire. Volume 1: Narratives. 

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Civil War Trust Battle of the Wilderness Page.

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Categories: Battle of The Wilderness, Galway, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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One Comment on ““Rather Than Hear My Father’s Tongue”: The Sad Story of Why William Flaherty Fought”

  1. May 28, 2017 at 4:32 am #

    A sad tale indeed.

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