The pension applications of widows and dependants for Civil War pensions pull back the curtains on the hardships that many 19th century working class Irish American women suffered at the hands of their husbands. For many, physical abuse, alcoholism and abandonment were an all too common feature of their lives. Although they often recounted such hardships in their own affidavits, it is relatively rare for such themes to be explicitly revealed in contemporary correspondence. The case of Maggie McGrane is an exception. When she sought a certificate, she included the last letter her husband sent–even as he was in the process of abandoning her–and the letter from her brother-in-law that outlined his ultimate sorry fate. 

Margaret McGrane was born to Irish emigrant parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1840s. When still a teenager she met fellow Irish American Joseph Gallagher (given their surnames, their families may have come from the same part of Ireland). The two were wed in Cambridge on 23rd May 1861, when Maggie was around 19, and Joseph 21. A few months later, Joseph enlisted as a Landsman in the Union Navy, signing on at Charlestown Navy Yard on 10th September 1861. Assigned to the USS William G. Anderson, he was deployed as part of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron until his discharge on 21st November 1862. How the next few years passed for the couple is unknown, but Joseph secured work as a coach painter, and by 1866 they had at least one child. In May of that year he appears to have simply disappeared from his home in Massachusetts, leaving his wife and baby to fend for themselves. Maggie heard nothing from him until she received the following correspondence from her husband, penned in Kansas on 4th June:

Fort Leavenworth

Kansas June 4th/66

Dear Wife

I take my pen in hand to write you these few lines to let you know that I am well hoping this will find you and the baby and all the family enjoying the same blessing. Dear maggie i suppose you wondered where i had gone to but i told no one where i was going and i am away from friends and home and i am going to see what i can do and if god spares me i bet i will make a good thing by the time my time is out which will not be long going around we are going to leave here in a day or two they say we are going to relieve the 1st Cavalry they are in California but we wont go for 2 or 3 months although we may go sooner and i bet i will look out for [illegible] Dear Maggie i hope you will forgive me for leaveing you so but i hope in god it is all for the best and if i live to return i think i wil not be sorry for my journey Dear Maggie kiss the baby for me and some for your self i will send some money when i get settled that wont be but a short time if you write direct to Co B 2nd Regiment U.S. Cavalry

Fort leavensworth Kansas

for Joseph Gallagher or else where

i may be gone from here but i think they will send it to the regiment and if i should not get it i will write when we get to the next post no more at present from your affectionate Husband Joseph Gallagher

i had not ought to say affectionate for i was not but never mind if god spares me things might take a change

Good by God bless you and the baby and all the family give my love to all (1)

Joseph’s somewhat rambling correspondence, particularly the postscripts, suggest that he was suffering from a fit of guilt about what he had done. He chastises himself for using the literary convention “your affectionate Husband” when his actions had demonstrated he was anything but. Joseph also appears to have convinced himself–at least while he was writing–that what he was doing was for the best. How Maggie reacted to the letter is unrecorded. Perhaps the promise of financial support for her and the baby together with the expression of hope for a future reunification provided her with comfort; perhaps she was all too aware that these were empty words. Whatever the case, she would never heard from Joseph again. Fifteen days after he wrote this letter Joseph deserted from the 2nd Cavalry, and once again disappeared. It would be almost six years before Maggie discovered his fate. (2)

Fifth Street, Leavenworth, Kansas as it appeared in 1867.

Fifth Street, Leavenworth, Kansas as it appeared in 1867. Joseph Gallagher wrote his final letter to his wife from Fort Leavenworth in 1866 (Library of Congress)


In the years that followed, Maggie stayed in touch with the family of her estranged husband. She learned from them that Joseph had an older brother James–whom Joseph had never met–living out west. When her mother-in-law died around 1871, Maggie wrote from her Salem home to James Gallagher to break the news, and also to inquire if he had any knowledge of her husband’s whereabouts. In January 1872 she received a long response from Portland, Oregon, which filled in some of the gaps of Joseph Gallagher’s life after he had fled Federal service in 1866:

I received your letter on the 4 of october and i need not say it took me by surprise not only to hear from Salem where i have not heard from for years but to hear of my Mother’s Death and likewise to hear that my Brother had a Wife and Child living there. It took me by surprise you may be shure. You said in your letter that you heard he was here with me so he was and was getting along very well. But to go Back to where i first heard of him Being out here it is a long story But you must have patience and try and bear with the News for it is as bas as you sent me. i am sorry to inform you Joseph has Been Dead over a year he died in San Francisco in the Marine Hospital Had i known he had a Wife i would have Wrote long a go i suppose you will like to know the [illegible] i will tell you. it is not a very interesting subject for me to write about or i suppose you to read And under no consideration would i wrote it only you wer his Wife and i suppose you would like to hear all the perticulars. Had i known he was married things mite Have been different. But i suppose it was to be so and and we must mak the Best of it.

The first i heard of him he was in the U.S. Ship Saginow up in sitka [Alaska] that is up north from here. There is a Steamer running there from here And as i am well known in portland Among Steamboat men being an engineer on A river steamer myself. he inquired of the crew if they knew me and they did so he wrote me a letter claiming to be my Brother this is over two years ago.

However i answered the letter asking him to prove it to me whitch he did and would try and get discharge i was sent by this Company that i work for Now to run a steamer on the sound that Brought me nearer to him. i left my wife in portland and came back over land and brought her And the Children over there and staid 5 or 6 months. in the mean time Joseph had procured his discharge and came down to Victoria where my wife was liveing. i was away then 4 days of the week so When i come back he had found her And he was stopping at the same hotell so they wer acquainted before i got home. i got home late at Night but he sat up for me and came on board the boat with A friend of mine and come in the engine room where i was. he asked me if i knew him i told him i did not so he made himself known and we went home together. we talked over one thing and another he told me he was going to settle down And work at his trade. he Never let on he was Married all this time so i just told him if he would go to portland he would get a job at his trade. he had but very little Money at the time what he done with it i do not know. so he came here and My friends found out who he was he Got work right away but i suppose i not being there my friends was glad to see hime And he got to drinking and after a while lost his job. he promised to go to work for a man and instead he got on a spree So when i come back to portland i found him out of work and out of money and sick from hard drinking you must not think hard of me for writing so plane but i considder When a man forgets his wife and child he Does deserve nothing Better.

Well we went to housekeeping when we got back and made him come and live with us. he stayed with us 5 or 5 Weeks and we got a doctor for him. he had a very bad cough. he used to cough a great Deal. but whenever he got a chance he would Drink and i used to talk to him about it And he did not like it so he thought he Would go to the Hospital at Astoria that is down the river from here so i Got him a pass and he went. i used to hear from him every Night he was Getting Along well for a while then he began to get worse so he thought he would go to San Francisco and go to the Marine Hospital. he got a passage on a sailing Vessel and the day before he left My Wife sent him some Shirts and drawers that she made for him. he sailed for San Francisco Next month one year ago and went in to the Hospital some time in December and in the days after he died. he never wrote me a word after he left hear to let me know how he was or anything but a friend of mine went Down there to find out about him and they told him a man answering that Discription died in ten days after he came there. had i known he had a Wife liveing you should have known it long ago But to write to amy of my folks i thought it mite shair the same fate as the rest of my letters but receiving a letter from you it makes me look back to seans that that has allmost been blotted from my Memory for i have wrote letters and received no answer. i even sent my childrens Pictures home but whether they even got them or not i Never heard. i wish you would let Me know how they all are and what my Mother And Brother Died with. you must excuse this Writing for it is so long since i wrote a letter that i am all out of practice. Give my regards to all that inquire for me and now that We have opened a Corrospondence with each other i am in hopes to hear from there a little oftener Alltho our first letters was verry sad ones

i will close Now with the expectation of receiving an answer from you As soon as Convenient My wife and children join with me in sending our Love to you all to my father and sisters allso. we have 4 children 2 Boys and 2 girls and one died made 5 if you wish to send your pictures and the childs it will be very exceptable i assure you

I Remain yours Truly

James Gallagher

Portland Oregon

Direct your letter to James Gallagher engineer Steamer Rescue (3)

James’s letter provides a remarkable level of detail regarding Joseph Gallagher’s final months. Clearly intending to begin a new life without his family in the west, his descent into alcoholism and the illness that followed cut his life short. Poignantly, James also revealed his own efforts to maintain correspondence with his family in Massachusetts, correspondence that for whatever reason had gone unanswered for years, causing him to give up letter writing completely. Just as Maggie had been forced to endure not hearing from her husband in the west, James had suffered a similar fate, seemingly forever waiting for news from his own kin in the east. Despite the topic of the communication, the joy James felt at finally having a link with family is palpable, and he longed to establish a longer term relationship with Maggie. Whether this ever occurred is unknown. By the time the 1890s swung around, Maggie hoped that her husband’s wartime naval service might secure her a pension. As part of the application she included both her husband’s final letter and that from James. It would have been just reward for her to have received it, particularly given the fact that her husband had deserted his familial obligations. Unfortunately she did not, and the letters today rest in the National Archives among those files that the Pension Bureau marked “Disapproved.”

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1871 advertisement from the Morning Oregonian which includes details of the Steamer Rescue on which James Gallagher was engineer (Wikipedia)


*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) 1865 Massachusetts State Census, 1880 Federal Census, Margaret Gallagher Navy Widows’ Certificate Application; (2) Margaret Gallagher Navy Widow’s Certificate Application; (3) Ibid.; 


1865 Massachusetts State Census.

1880 Federal Census.

Margaret Gallagher Navy Widow’s Certificate Application (Disapproved).