As regular readers are aware, my research over the last number of years has focused on identifying and analysing the correspondence of Union Irish soldiers in the American Civil War. Over the course of my work I have read hundreds of letters written to Irish families to inform them of their loved ones’ fate, and this correspondence has increasingly fascinated me. There are many questions we can ask of it, and I intend in the future to develop some of them into a full-length paper. In 2017 I was fortunate to have an opportunity to flesh out some of my thoughts in this area at the excellent War Through Other Stuff Conference held at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland between 22 and 24 February. I wanted to take the opportunity to share the full presentation with readers of the site; the paper is reproduced in full below together with the slides from the accompanying powerpoint presentation. 

The National Archives in Washington D.C. is home to a collection known as the “Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain.” Each of these files-of which there are 1.28 million- contains documentation associated with the claims of individuals for financial support as a result of the death of a family member who had served in the U.S. military, the vast majority during the American Civil War. The files have their genesis in an act signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on 14 July 1862, which provided monthly pensions for both widows and men totally disabled by conflict. In the years that followed, a series of additional pension acts expanded and refined the initial entitlement criteria, part of which saw the inclusion of dependent parents, dependent siblings and minor children.

The wide-ranging pension entitlements that became available to both Civil War veterans and the families of deceased servicemen in the decades following the war created oceans of documentation, unsurprising given that by 1893 some $165.3 million dollars a year- or 40% of the entire Federal budget- was being spent on pension entitlements. As a result, these files are perhaps the richest source of social information on individual families from the 19th century United States. That richness lies in the material that widows and dependents had to submit in order to demonstrate their pension entitlement, which included things such as affidavits, marriage certificates, baptismal certificates, proof of service, medical appraisals, and original letters written by deceased servicemen. Over recent years the focus of my research has been on these pension claims, particularly with respect to what they can tell us about Irish emigrant communities in the United States. This work has largely been conducted on the 11% of files that have been scanned and are available via the Fold3 website. During my work I have created a database of hundreds of Irish-American letters written before, during and after the conflict. Contained among much of this correspondence are letters that are the focus of my paper today, namely the communications informing families that their loved ones had died.

Few historic documents intrude on the intimate emotional experiences of past people quite like the letters that brought them details of a loved one’s death. To read them is to at once imagine the first occasion on which they were read. The letters that brought the dreadful news could come from a variety of sources- officers, comrades, hospital staff, hospital volunteers and religious are the most common. In the majority of instances, correspondents sought to break the news as gently as possible. Many of the writers were aware that the words they chose were of extreme import, and were likely to serve as powerful agents of memory for the bereaved family. There is an awareness that their comments were likely to form a lasting picture in the family’s mind of their fallen kin’s final moments, of their character, of the death’s meaning, and- important in an 19th century context- if they had met a “good death.” When Captain Henry Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts wrote to the family of Meath native James Briody following his death on the streets of Fredericksburg in December 1862, he sought to give his mother pride in her son’s service:

I don’t wish to address to you the common words of condolence merely- I feel, myself, as well as you, too much the greatness of the loss. The first time, I saw James Briody, I was struck with his honest, manly, cheery face. I found him to be one of the two best of all recruits who joined my company. It gave me a great pang when I saw him lying dead in the street.

Aside from showing that their service was valued, another common feature of the letters is an effort to assign meaning to the men’s death, and to comfort families with the knowledge that their loved one had willingly given their life for the Union. Michael Brady, Color Bearer of the 75th Ohio Infantry- whose mother had died at the height of the Famine in Ireland- was horrifically wounded at Second Bull Run in August 1862 when a ball had entered his chest, nearly severing his windpipe before passing through his right lung and exiting his back. Following his death in an Alexandria hospital, the Assistant Surgeon who had treated him wrote home that he was:

perfectly resigned to his fate. When I informed him that he must die he said “welcome be the will of God I could not lose my life in a better cause”…he was perfectly rational to the last and died like a good soldier and Christian.

The number of letters that communicate a peaceful and relatively pain free death, and a life willingly given to the cause of Union, suggests that many writers may have been altering the facts in order to soften the blow. Not everyone was fortunate enough to be spared all the gory details. Mary Clark from Westmeath received two letters from the front in July 1863, informing her of her husband’s death at the Battle of Gettysburg. A comrade in the 65th New York penned a letter that explained how:

Your husband was laying on his back calmly talking of the “Union” when a fragment of a shell struck him nearly taking both legs off…He lingered for about 4 hours when death put an end to his sufferings…

Occasionally it is possible to observe just what information correspondents chose to omit. Owen Fox was a young Irish emigrant in the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry who was mortally wounded battling Mosby’s Rangers at Mount Zion Church, Virginia in 1864. The regimental Chaplain Charles Humphreys wrote to his wife Ann of the incident:

Owen Fox was shot through the kidneys and I picked him up and tended on him all night till 3 o’clock in the morning when he died. After breakfast I was digging his grave when a rebel took me prisoner. He was buried by the kindness of a citizen. His brother Thomas Fox was taken prisoner not wounded.

The Chaplain’s brevity obscured some of the wider details of Owen’s death, which he elaborated on in his memoirs of the war, published in 1918. There he revealed that Owen had in fact surrendered to the Confederates, and had been shot by them while he begged for mercy. As he treated the soldier’s “ghastly wound” he tried to get a message from him for his wife and child, but his “agonies were too great; and he kept crying out even with his dying groans, “Chaplain, they shot me after I surrendered.” In his original letter, Humphreys had chosen to spare Owen’s widow these distressing details.

Many of the Irish troops who lost their lives during the conflict were of the Catholic faith, and letting those at home know this had been recognised was important. Eugene Sullivan from Drimoleague, Co. Cork died of congestion of the brain in 1862 while serving with the 24th Ohio Infantry in Kentucky. A Catholic nun, Sister Mary Joseph, wrote to his wife that:

He did not speak while in the hospital being unconscious, but from his having on the scapulars we knew him to be a Catholic and sent for the priest who gave him absolution and anointed for death.

The American Civil War was a conflict that had a transnational impact, affecting many thousands of people still living in Ireland. In late 1862 Eleanor Hogg was living in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, when a letter arrived from her nephew in New York. It told her that both her son Pat and husband Farrell were dead:

Deare aunt i have two inform about worse news Farrell listed in the Irish brigade that is the 88 regiment new york Volunteer he got wounded on the 29 of june and died of His wound on the 5 of August. He was Captured by the Enemy when he were wounded So they got their liberty and He died on his way Coming Back to the Capital of Washington

We know from Eleanor’s pension file that she was illiterate, and so this letter must have been read aloud to her by a family member or friend. This greatly changes the context in which we view how this information was transmitted- rather than being a personal and private event, it was bereavement experienced in a social setting. This was certainly the case for Anna Heron, whose tale of loss is surely one of the most emotive in the files. On 27th June 1864, having heard her son, a private in Corcoran’s Irish Legion, was wounded at the North Anna River, she had her neighbor in New York pen a desperate letter for her:

My dear son I write you these few lines hoping to find you in good health as this leaves me in trouble about you. Dear son I wrote to you twice and I received no answer yet and if you are alive I hope you will write to me. Dear son ain’t you got anyone to write for you? Dear son I expected you in New York, the rest of your regiment came to New York that was wounded. For God sake dear son write to me.

A few day’s letter Anna’s letter was returned to her, with the following message scrawled on the back:

Washington Hall Branch

2 Div Gen Hospital

Alexandria Va June 29th 64

John E Herron died at this Hospital June 8 1864 with gunshot wound in left knee and was buried in this city in good order.

For a fortunate few, the letter informing them of their loved one’s death might also have brought some final words. When Mary McNamara was informed of the discovery of her husband Hubert’s body on the Cold Harbor battlefield, the writer included fragments of a last letter that had been found in the dead man’s pocket. It told of how Hubert didn’t know the moment he might get killed or wounded, but that he trusted in God. He signed off by telling his wife and children “goodbye for a while”.

Ann Scanlan got a detailed description of her husband Patrick’s final thoughts, as he lay mortally wounded following the Irish Brigade’s charge at Fredericksburg:

He felt sensible, I think, that his end was approaching for he requested me to make a note of his feelings at that time- this was yesterday forenoon, I think. He did not talk a great deal as it hurt him to do so much. “After I am dead, write to my wife and tell her that I died a natural death in bed, having received the full benefits of my church.” “Say that I felt resigned to the will of God and that I am sorry I could not see her and the children once more. That I would have felt better in such a case before I died. It is the will of God that it should not be so, and I must be content to do without.” This was about the substance of what he said. I read it to him and he said it was all that would be necessary to write.

The widows and dependent pension files at the National Archives offer us many avenues for research, but there are few as compelling as the bereavement correspondence, only included in applications by parents and widows out of necessity, as they sought to prove their relationship with the deceased. The emotional cost of war pours off the pages, exposing the human face of loss, and bringing poignancy to the mundane. Even today, such emotions are readily conjured in our mind when we read passages such as that written to Mary Sullivan about what her husband had left behind:

A letter of yours, a pair of beads and a little girl’s picture is all he left…I cut a piece of his hair off after his death which I will send you…

Time constraints have allowed us only a brief exploration of this resource, selecting only a small number of examples from the thousands in the files. Their analysis can expose for us how news of death in war was transmitted, received and in some cases dealt with in the 19th century. Perhaps most importantly, it shines further light on the scale of human cost of the American Civil War on Irish emigrants and their families, both in Ireland and the United States.