The afternoon of 20th September 1863 found Privates Daniel Harrington and Denis O’Leary facing into a maelstrom. Fate and circumstance had placed them on the line at Chickamauga, as a tide of Confederate infantry swept towards the position they had been rushed forward to hold. With the crescendo of battle reaching fever pitch, Company E of the 96th Illinois Infantry was not a good place to be. As the opposing lines threw curtains of lead at each other, men quickly began to stagger and fall. One who was there claimed the firing kept up “until the muskets were so hot that a ball could not be got down in them.” In the midst of the ferocious exchange a Rebel Minié ball spun through the trees in search of a target. It found one in Daniel Harrington. Striking him just above the navel, the missile drilled through his bowels before blasting out beside his backbone. As the 20-year-old crumpled to the ground, Denis O’Leary rushed to his side. The two young men were not only brothers-in-arms, they were tent mates and life-long friends. Leaving the firing line, Denis dragged his mortally wounded comrade to the regimental surgeon, positioned only 15m behind the firing line. Denis knew his friend was doomed. Leaning Daniel against a tree, he shouted to the physician above the din of battle: “I will leave Harrington with you, and go back and avenge his death.” With that Denis O’Leary rushed back to the fight, and his own appointment with eternity. Within moments Daniel Harrington had breathed his last. Only minutes later, Denis too went down, struck in the right hip, spine and bowels, perhaps a victim of the charge of grape shot that “cut out almost every man for several files near the centre.” Twenty minutes after Daniel Harrington had fallen, the 96th Illinois were retreating, forced to leave behind not only Daniel’s lifeless body but also the gravely wounded Denis O’Leary. Denis was captured, but was so badly maimed he was soon returned. The 22-year-old died from his injuries in Chattanooga on 26th October. The experiences of Daniel and Denis on the firing line at Chickamauga are just one vignette from thousands on that savage field. But who were the two men behind that combat experience, and what was the path that had led Daniel Harrington and Denis O’Leary to their ultimate doom in Georgia on 20th September 1863? (1)
Both Daniel Harrington and Denis O’Leary were American born, but their stories were ones of Ireland and America. Indeed, in many respects their lives had remarkable parallels. Both sets of parents were Irish emigrants and may even have been from the same part of Ireland– the O’Learys came from Bantry Bay in West Cork, an area closely linked with the Harrington surname. Both families initially settled in New York, where Denis was born around 1840 and Daniel around 1843. And by the late 1840s, both the Harrington and O’Leary families felt that their future lay in the west– more specifically in Wisconsin. Daniel’s and Denis’s fathers shared a trade that drew them to a burgeoning settlement in Lafayette County that was quickly becoming home to large numbers of Irish. The village of New Diggings was especially welcoming of those who had the skills that John Harrington and Denis O’Leary Senior possessed; they were miners, and New Diggings was experiencing a lead mining ‘boom.’ This growing rough and tumble town was where Daniel and Denis grew up, and where they became friends. A description of New Diggings at the time gives an insight into the locale:
From 1840 to 1850, the village grew…In early days, the miners “burrowed” for protection from the blasts of winter, or lived in huts of primitive comforts or conveniences. When the village became an established fact, frame houses were substituted for the caves and huts, and woman’s taste was evidenced in the neatness of surroundings that had theretofore been “shiftless.”…Like all young villages, its ways were not ways of pleasantness…the residents, as a rule, are measured by their excesses [rather] than the absence of them. Gambling and drinking were usual, and the saloons, where these accomplishments were held in high regard were numerous as the lice in Egypt, and equally as voracious. (2)
In October 1850 both families were enumerated on the New Diggings census. Daniel was recorded as 7-years-old, living with his older brother Philip (10, also born in New York) and parents John (35) and Julia (30). Denis was 10-years-old, while his father Denis Senior was 42 and mother Catharine 37. Also in that household were Denis’s older sister Mary (13), who had been born in Ireland, his younger siblings Catharine (8), James (6) and John (4), born in New York, and 9-month-old baby Hannah who had arrived in Wisconsin. As the two young Irish-Americans grew to adulthood in the 1850s, the fortunes of New Diggings dipped somewhat. The coming of the gold rush in California had drawn many of the miners away, abandoning the pursuit of lead in hopes of finding a path to fortune on the west coast. These circumstances forced Daniel’s father and a number of other Irish miners in New Diggings to range further in search of work. They eventually found it in a coal mine at French Village, Illinois, near the Missouri border. There disaster struck on 3rd December 1851, when John Harrington was killed during a mine collapse. His Irish companions dug him out, and bore their sad tidings with them back to their homes in New Diggings. Some three years later Denis’s father also died, reportedly succumbing to cholera. (3)
Both young men now had added financial burdens to bear. Daniel Harrington seemingly did not want to do so by carrying on with mining– a decision perhaps influenced by the loss of his father. Instead, he sought out a position as a farm labourer. Each season from 1854 on he worked the land of Ohioan-born John Chambers, who had a farm near New Diggings, at White Oak Springs, Wisconsin. It was here that 17-year-old Daniel was recorded on the 1860 Census. His efforts, along with that of his brother Philip, allowed them to secure for their mother a one-half share in 10 acres of land and a couple of cows, as the family sought to exploit the opportunities for improvement that had brought them to Wisconsin in the first place. Daniel was not the only Irish miner’s son from New Diggings working the land in White Oak Springs in 1860. The neighbouring farm, owned by North-Carolinian farmer Samuel Scales, had two agricultural hands– one of whom was none other than Denis O’Leary. (4)
Daniel may have combined some seasonal farm labouring with mining– it seems that Denis certainly did so. By 1862 Daniel was also making the journey across the state line to Apple River, Jo Daviess County, Illinois, to work the farm of Ohio-born Louis Chambers. It was while labouring there that Daniel learned of a regiment being newly recruited in Jo Daviess and Lake counties. That August both he and Denis enlisted in what became the 96th Illinois Infantry– the regimental history claims they did so at Scales Mound, Illinois. As the two friends marched off to war, Daniel asked Louis Chambers if he could send him money to pass to his mother, a request to which the farmer agreed. Meanwhile Denis’s mother reportedly “turned gray before [he] had been in the army long.” Perhaps mercifully, she had reportedly passed away before the autumn of 1863, when both Daniel and Denis found themselves rushing to stem the flow of Union defeat in the wooded landscape of Northern Georgia. (5)
For Julia Harrington, Daniel’s death at Chickamauga did not bring an end to her suffering. Her surviving son, Philip, was drafted from New Diggings on 29th September 1864. He became a private in Company A of the 17th Wisconsin Infantry, the state’s Irish regiment. On 15th March 1865 Philip died at the regimental hospital in Fayetteville, North Carolina, succumbing to apoplexy. His death meant that the Irish emigrant woman was now alone. Having been widowed due to the mining accident, she had lived to see both her children lost to the war. In an effort to survive she sold her share in the ten-acres, exchanging it for flour and fire-wood. Worse was to come in her endeavours to claim a pension. The fact that her son’s body had not been recovered, combined with the misfortune that Denis had also died, meant that it took her more than four years to prove her claim. The last reference I have located for her is in the 1880 Census for New Diggings, where she was recorded as a pauper. (6)
The descriptions of Daniel Harrington and Denis O’Leary’s final actions at Chickamauga are preserved because a number of veterans of the 96th Illinois provided Julia Harrington with their recollections of those events so she could prove her son’s fate. Those final moments open for us a window, allowing us to glimpse these soldiers lives in a fuller, more comprehensive fashion. In so doing they become more than just the sum of their last actions at Chickamauga. Their lives are revealed as parts of a family and community, with shared experiences stretching back to Wisconsin’s Irish miners, to the Irish of New York, and ultimately all the way to West Cork, where the decisions were first made that set in train their presence on the bloody fields of Chickamauga.
* 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) Daniel Harrington Widow’s Pension File, Partridge 1887: 215, Register of Deaths of Volunteers; (2) Mary O’Leary Hamilton Recollections; 1850 Federal Census, Butterfield 1881: 567-8; (3) 1850 Federal Census, Butterfield 1881: 566; (4) Daniel Harrington Widow’s Pension File, Leonard Family History, 1860 Federal Census; (5) Daniel Harrington Widow’s Pension File, Mary O’Leary Hamilton Recollections, 1860 Federal Census, Partridge 1887: 787, 789, Leonard Family Tree; (6) Daniel Harrington Widow’s Pension File, Wisconsin AG 1886: 51, Register of Deaths of Volunteers;
References & Further Reading
Widow’s Certificate 126005 of Julia Harrington, Dependent Mother of Daniel Harrington, Company E, 96th Illinois Volunteers.
US Register of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865.
US Federal Census 1850, New Diggings, Lafayette, Wisconsin.
US Federal Census 1850, Apple River, Jo Daviess, Illinois.
US Federal Census 1860, New Diggings, Lafayette, Wisconsin.
US Federal Census 1860, White Oak Springs, Lafayette, Wisconsin.
US Federal Census 1880, New Diggings, Lafayette, Wisconsin.
Mary O’Leary Hamilton Recollections as told to her family [sister of Denis O’Leary], scanned at Leonard Family tree, Ancestry.com.
Butterfield, Cosul Willshire 1881. History of La Fayette County, Wisconsin.
Patridge, Charles A. 1887. History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry.
Wisconsin Adjutant General 1886. Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865.