Looking into the Face of a Maimed Irish Soldier

At the close of the American Civil War, a photographer of the Johnson & D’Utassy company paid a visit to De Camp General Hospital on David’s Island in New York Harbor. He was there to capture images of surgical cases then being treated at the site, to preserve a record of the wounds and their treatment for future medical study. The majority of the patients had been hit in the lower extremities, and so were asked to strip as the photographer prepared his equipment. One of those chosen to be ushered in front of the camera was a young man with a lean face and abundant crop of dark hair. When his turn came, he made his way across the wooden floorboards to the blank wall that was to serve as his backdrop, selected so that all focus would be on his form. Facing the apparatus, his hospital shirt was hiked up over his waist to reveal the reason he relied on a thin black cane for support. Deeply pitted and scarred flesh midway up his left thigh betrayed the tell-tale traces of a gunshot wound. Surgical efforts had– at least for now– saved the limb, and were the cause of this image being recorded for posterity. When the cameraman covered his lens, his work done, the dark-haired youth recovered his modesty and limped off into the shrouds of history. Ultimately, his photograph would find its way to the library of the Surgeon General’s Office, preserved with a series of others taken at De Camp. It was recorded simply as “No. 5. Private Thomas Regan, Co. “F”, 2nd Massachusetts Vols.” (1)

The image of Thomas Regan captured at David's Island

The image of Thomas Regan captured at De Camp General Hospital (Johnson & D’Utassy)

Who was the young man behind this image? Where had he come from, and what was his fate? Thomas Regan was born in Co. Cork around December 1845 or 1846 and was a teenager by the time he emigrated to the United States. He is almost certainly the 13-year-old boy listed as travelling in lower steerage aboard the Ship Underwriter, which arrived in New York from Liverpool on 3rd August 1858. Thomas was the only Regan listed on the manifest, and it seems likely that his passage was remitted to him by other family already in America, possibly his older sisters. Thomas is elusive in his early years, until he made the decision– probably financially motivated– to join the Union cause. In early 1864 he travelled to Chelsea, Massachusetts where he enlisted on the quota of that city. Though he claimed to be 20-years-old, he was at most 18, possibly younger. Prior to becoming a soldier the emigrant had made a living by working as a grocer. His military description bears out much of what we can see in his image, taken a little over a year later. It recorded Thomas as 5 feet 8 inches in height, with a dark complexion, black eyes and black hair (though another description in his file credited him with a fair complexion, blue eyes and fair hair!). (2)

Camp of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry at the City Hall in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas was likely one of those encamped here (Library of Congress)

Camp of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry at the City Hall in Atlanta, Georgia. Thomas was likely one of those encamped here (Library of Congress)

We can follow Thomas’s military career through his service record. He mustered in on 24th May 1864 at the Draft Rendezvous on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor, receiving an advance payment of $13 of his $100 bounty. From Gallops, Thomas went to join his new regiment in the field. The 2nd Massachusetts were then engaged in the Atlanta Campaign with the Army of the Cumberland, and Thomas joined them that June. The trials of army life soon caused him to fall ill, and he spent July and August 1864 absent sick in hospital. He returned to the 2nd in time for the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign. By March 1865 the 2nd Massachusetts, and Thomas, were in North Carolina as part of the Army of Georgia. It was clear to nearly everyone by then that the war was in its final stages. On the 16th of the month, as William Tecumseh Sherman’s divided forces (the Army of Georgia and Army of the Tennessee) moved towards Goldsboro, the Confederates launched an attack on elements of the Yankee force near Averasborough (or Averasboro). Although the engagement would be overshadowed by the Battle of Bentonville which followed shortly afterwards, it was nonetheless memorable for the 2nd Massachusetts. The unit took just 129 men into the action and lost seven killed and seventeen wounded, at least one fatally. Thomas was one of the most severely hurt. In fact, so badly was he struck that the regimental history initially recorded his injuries as mortal. A little over a month after Averasborough the Rebel Army of Tennessee surrendered, but it came too late to save Thomas Regan– he was now maimed for life. (3)

Thomas Regan's 1866 Discharge Certificate (NARA)

Thomas Regan’s 1866 Discharge Certificate (NARA)

The Cork emigrant spent over a year recuperating from his horrific injury, during which time his photograph was recorded to document his recovery. He was finally discharged from the service on 16th April 1866, deemed to be two-thirds disabled. How did he cope? Superficially at least, things initially seemed to go well. We find Thomas on the 1880 Census living on East Tenth Street in Manhattan, working as a printer, and making his home with his older sisters Ellen and Mary, both of whom were seamstresses. A decade later he was living at 541 East Twelfth Street with his sister Ellen when he was enumerated on the 1890 veteran’s schedule, but it would appear that by then things were on a downward spiral for Thomas. On 15th October 1890 the veteran, now in his mid-forties, checked himself in to the Southern Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Veterans at Hampton, Virginia. Down on his luck and apparently suffering from his 1865 wound, he appears to have relied on the Homes for the rest of his life. On 21st September 1904 he was transferred to the Mountain Branch, located in Johnson City, Tennessee. His sister Ellen was still living back in East Twelfth Street, but Thomas was destined never to rejoin her. He died in the Home on 15th January 1906. His cause of death may provide one of the reasons he found himself in the Home– hypertrophic dilatation of the heart, caused by alcoholism. We will never know how major a factor a life lived coping with the physical consequences of his wounds played in his disease, but they must surely have contributed. Today the Cork emigrant’s remains rest in the Mountain Home National Cemetery; but he continues to stare back at us from 1865, when he was just embarking on decades of life as a permanently injured veteran of the American Civil War. (4)

The grave of Thomas Regan at Mountain Home National Cemetery (Bruce Williams)

The grave of Thomas Regan at Mountain Home National Cemetery (Bruce Williams)

(1) Johnson & D’Utassy; (2) Thomas Regan Civil War Service Record, 1900 Federal Census, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, Chelsea City Council: 149; (3) Thomas Regan Civil War Service Record, Quint 1867: 268-71; (4) 1880 Federal Census, 1890 Veteran’s Schedule, 1900 Federal Census, Southern Branch National Home, Mountain Branch National Home, Find A Grave.

References

United States Federal Census 1880 for Area 324, New York, New York.

United States Federal Census 1900 for District 0008, Chesapeake, Elizabeth County, Virginia.

Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War (1890 Veterans Schedule).

Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York 1820-1987. M237, Roll 186.

Historical Register of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938, Southern Branch.

Historical Register of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938, Mountain Branch.

Thomas Regan Civil War Service Record, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, Company F.

Chelsea City Council 1880. Roll of Honor of the City of Chelsea. A List of the Soldiers and Sailors who Served on the Quota of Chelsea in the Great Civil War for the Preservation of the Union from 1861 to 1865.

Johnson & D’Utassy, n.d. Photographs of surgical cases treated at De Camp General Hospital, Davids’ Island, New York Harbor.

Quint, Alonzo H. 1867. The Record of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, 1861-65. 

Find A Grave Memorial for Thomas Regan.

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Categories: Cork, Massachusetts, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

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

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