Patrick Quilligan from Co. Clare was a 22-year-old tailor when he first took the decision to join the United States Army. The 5 foot 10 1/2 inch Irishman was described as having grey eyes, dark hair and a ruddy complexion on the day he enlisted in Boston, on 22nd September 1857. Becoming a private in Company E of the 1st Dragoons, he was sent West to serve in what is now Washington State, primarily in operations against the Spokane tribe. With the coming of the Civil War, Patrick and his comrades were soon transferred back East. It was while on service during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign that Patrick’s first stint under the colours came to an end, when he was discharged for disability at Walnut Grove Church, Virginia. (1)

In July 1862, less than a month after he left the army, Patrick married fellow Irish emigrant Bridget Mulvihill in Washington D.C.’s St. Patrick’s Church. The couple decided to settle in the city, where Patrick seems to have elected to return to his trade. On Independence Day 1863 they celebrated the birth of their first child–daughter Kate– who was baptised in the city the following August. Kate was followed by a brother before war’s end. (2)

Troopers of the 1st United States Cavalry–Patrick Quilligan’s first unit– pictured during the American Civil War (Library of Congress)

Tailoring was a difficult trade in an increasingly industrialised America, and it may have been difficulty in securing employment that led Patrick to turn once again to the army in 1866. He was recorded as a laborer on 28th July that year, when he signed on for another five-year term, this time becoming a private in Company B of the 4th United States Cavalry. Again his destination would be the West, but this time there was a notable difference– he was able to take his family with him. Patrick, Bridget and their two young children duly set out for their new home, which was to be Camp Sheridan, near San Antonio, Texas. The Assistant Surgeon of the 4th Cavalry, P.V. Schenck, described San Antonio at the time the Quilligans arrived in 1866:

San Antonio is an old Spanish town, located on a river of the same name. It is in a dry limestone region, and is only cultivable where it is irrigated from the river, which is done by means of ditches, which run through all portions of the town. No regard whatever is paid to the observance of sanitary laws. The population is mixed, composed of Americans, Germans, and Mexicans; the latter live in a most primitive manner, a bull hide on four sticks answering with many the purpose of a house; jerked beef, a corn cake, or tortilla, and red pepper sufficing for food. (3)

The young family had not been long in this frontier posting when a deadly threat began to rip through army posts across the United States–Cholera. It appeared in San Antonio that September, and it’s outbreak was described by Schenck:

Cholera during the past month appeared in this city [San Antonio] and among the troops in an epidemic form. It was brought into the city in the person of a Mrs. De Witt, who was taken sick at a mission several miles below the city, to which point it had been carried by Mexican trains from the Rio Grande [Despite this claim, it is apparent that U.S. army recruits were also transmitting it from post to post across the country]…As soon as possible an order was given for the removal of troops from the town, and the camp commenced to be removed to the Medina, a distance of twelve miles…The time for moving proved peculiarly unfortunate, for when one-half of the command had moved, a flood of before unheard of severity came, causing the river to overflow the camp, and converting that which had been dry into one huge mud-hole. Over two hundred recruits had just arrived from the coast, many of whom had been sick. In this condition of affairs cholera broke out among the troops. (4)

San Antonio, Texas in the 1870s, only a few years after the Quilligans were there (Library of Congress)

Schenck established a Cholera Hospital in Medina. He recorded the regiment’s first case on 7th September, their first fatality on the 10th. Deaths appeared to peak ten days later, and by the end of the month he hoped the worst was over. With large numbers dying, the Quilligans must have been terrified about the potential loss of their children. Though they appear to have been initially fortunate, their luck would not hold. On 14th October Patrick died, the official cause being given as “congestive fever.” Worse was to come. Although the date is not specified, Bridget also fell ill and died at the same time as her husband. Kate, still just a toddler was, with her brother now an orphan on the frontier, over a 1,000 miles from anyone she could call family. (I have previously written on the impact of the 1866 Cholera outbreak on a number of Irish families, in my book The Forgotten Irish).(5)

The 4th United States Cavalry did not abandon the Quilligan children. Instead, they took them into their care, effectively making them “children of the regiment” (For a fascinating instance of this during the Civil War, see here). My research is increasingly indicating that ethnically Irish troops in this period tended to develop close bonds with each other, and the case of Kate is another indicator of this. The man who seems to have taken on primary responsibility for her was Sergeant William McNamara of the 4th, a longtime soldier who was from Co. Mayo. All through 1867 Kate stayed in the West, until in 1868 a decision was made to send her back East. That decision seems to have been precipitated by yet another tragedy– the death from disease of Kate’s younger brother. When they put Kate on the road back to Washington D.C., the 4th Cavalry sent along an escort to accompany her, Private Peter McHugh– himself also almost certainly another Irishman. (6)

The intended destination for Kate was the Soldier’s Orphans Asylum in Washington D.C. Setting out around April 1868, when she and Peter McHugh arrived after their long journey the Asylum were surprised to only see Kate, as they had expected both Quilligan children. This indicates there had likely been significant correspondence about the children’s fate. Seeking clarification, they eventually tracked down Sergeant McNamara in Fort McKavett, Texas, who apprised them of the boy’s death.* Kate was now back in a city where she had family, and on 9th April 1869 Ellen Mulvihill (Kate’s Aunt) successfully applied for guardianship. Kate would spend more than a decade living with her extended family. The 1880 Census records them in the city’s First District. By that time Ellen had married an Irish laborer called John Rowan with whom she had three-children, all making their home with 17-year-old Kate. It would be the last Census in Kate’s lifetime that recorded her outside of an institution. (7)

The Center Building at Saint Elizabeths, formerly the Government Hospital for the Insane, in Washington D.C. (User:Tom via Wikipedia)

On 30th May 1885 Kate was admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane (later St. Elizabeths Hospital). It seems that she may have suffered from mental disabilities since her birth; in the insensitive parlance of the day she was variously described as “idiotic”, an “imbecile”, “demented” and a “helpless child.” Her disability was such that when she reached the age of 16 in 1883, the pension that she had been receiving as a minor child based on her father’s service was extended by the Senate Committee on Pensions. By 1885 her Aunt clearly felt she could no longer care for Kate, and so her long institutional stay commenced. The Government Hospital for the Insane which became her home had been founded in 1852 with the aim of providing “humane care and enlightened curative treatment” to members of the armed forces and residents of Washington D.C. It came into being in no small part thanks to the effort of Dorothea Dix, a tireless advocate for the mentally ill. At the core of the hospital’s mission was an effort to provide “moral treatment”, whereby patients were treated humanely and with more dignity than had often been previously practiced. Although a leader in the field of mental health and undoubtedly markedly better than many other institutions, the realities of nineteenth century treatments for the mentally-ill, coupled with over-crowding and occasional charges of patient abuse, suggest Kate likely faced many hardships during her stay (You can read more about the history of St. Elizabeths via the National Archives website here). (8)

The bill extending Kate Quilligan’s pension entitlements beyond the age of 16 because of her disability–click to enlarge (NARA)

As the years passed official guardianship of Kate’s pension passed from her Aunt Ellen to her cousin (Ellen’s daughter) Mary Rowan. When Mary spent any element of Kate’s money she had to account for it: $11.40 in June 1900 on clothing items, $3.00 during the course of that year for fruit and candy taken to the ward- the latter surely occasions that must have been a high point in Kate’s calendar. In December 1900 more money for clothes, including some luxury items such as a fascinator and gloves, together with– in the terminology of the clerk who recorded it– “small articles for the comfort of the imbecile.” As the years of the new century stretched on, Kate continued her life in what was now St. Elizabeths Hospital. During that period there had been increases to the pension entitlement, but in 1908 it was discovered that Kate was the only pensioned dependent child on the Bureau’s rolls who had not had her allowance increased to $12 per month (she was receiving $8). This was duly rectified, but the prior oversight may have been in part because there was no family member to seek it on Kate’s behalf. Kate Quilligan passed away at St. Elizabeths Hospital on 15th June 1913, just shy of her fiftieth birthday. Her primary cause of death was recorded as “imbecility”, the immediate cause as “Cholecystitis [inflamed gall bladder] with impacted stones. Kate was buried in the cemetery attached to the hospital, where she seems to have spent around 28 years of her life. The document notifying the Bureau of Pensions of her death left the section for the address of any relatives or friends blank. (9)

The document which records Kate’s passing. Note the section for the address of relative or friend has been left blank–click to enlarge (NARA)

Would Kate’s life have been different had her immediate family not lost their lives in Texas during 1866-7? We will never know, though certainly her immediate relatives in Washington D.C. did seek to care for her, probably for as long as they could. At the end, though, it would seem she was alone. There is the tantalising possibility that there may be more information on Kate’s life, condition and treatment contained within the records of St. Elizabeths Hospital. These are housed in the National Archives, and it is a collection that includes patient files. I hope in the future to have an opportunity to explore them, to see if we can add more detail to the life of this Irish American woman, who had to endure such extraordinary trials in her life.

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An elderly female resident of St Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C., in the first part of the 20th century (Library of Congress)

An elderly female resident of St Elizabeths Hospital, Washington D.C., in the first part of the 20th century (Library of Congress)

*There are conflicted reports as to the death of Kate’s brother. McNamara in one note stated the boy had died of Cholera prior to his parents in September 1866. However a number of other documents state that he survived, and lived with his sister and the regiment for a year, with his death precipitating Kate being sent East.

**None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online. A team of archivists from NARA supported by volunteers have enabled access to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.

(1) Register of Enlistments; (2) Patrick Quilligan Civil War Pension File (3) Report on Epidemic Cholera, 41; (4) Ibid. (5) Ibid., Patrick Quilligan Civil war Pension File; (6) Register of Enlistments, Patrick Quilligan Civil War Pension File; (7) Patrick Quilligan Civil War Pension File, 1880 Census; (8) Patrick Quilligan Civil War Pension File, McMillen & Kane 2010; (9) Patrick Quilligan Civil War Pension File;


U.S. Federal Census 1880.

U.S. Army Register of Enlistments.

Dependent Pension File of Kate Quilligan, Daughter of Patrick Quilligan, Company B, 4th United States Cavalry.

District of Columbia, Deaths and Burials, 1840-1964 [Online Database].

United States Surgeon General’s Office, 1867. Report on the Epidemic of Cholera in the Army of the United States, during the year 1866.  

Frances M. McMillen & James S. Kane 2010. “Institutional Memory: The Records of St. Elizabeths Hospital at the National Archives“, Prologue Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 2010.