As we look forward to the tour of the 69th New York State Militia at Bull Run in May 2019 (details here), the first months of the year will have a number of posts that examine aspects of the 69th’s experience. Among them will be a piece I have been working on for a couple of years that explores the efforts the New York Irish made to support the families of the regiment, both before and after the engagement. The correspondence I am sharing below came to light as part of my research in that area.
Even as the Civil War grew into a conflict that dwarfed the fighting of 21st July 1861, those who had marched onto the field at Bull Run retained a special place in the hearts of their former commanders. By 1862 both Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Corcoran had gone on to command brigades, but they still found time to assist the widows and mothers of men who had lost their lives at Bull Run. The families of those who had died in the first major battle of the war faced a difficult time financially. The pension act that would ultimately aid them was still a year away in the summer of 1861, and the 90-day character of the 69th’s service also presented problems. Turning to those who held influence became a necessity for many.
One of the women forced to seek the Generals’ aid was the widow of John Dunphy, who had served with Meagher’s zouaves in Company K. John Dunphy and Matilda Cowell had made their home at 214 East 23rd Street in New York. The couple had married at St. Peter’s Church in the city on 26th October 1860, when Matilda was 20-years-old. By that time Matilda was already a number of months pregnant– the couple’s daughter Maria was born on 15th February 1861. Baby Maria had just turned 6-months when her father was killed in action at Bull Run. Matilda was initially supported by the funds set up for the bereaved families of the 69th, but also sought the pay that her husband had never received before his death in service. In order to aid her efforts, she turned to her husband’s old Captain, Thomas Francis Meagher, who wrote the following note:
HeadQuarters Irish Brigade
New York, July 31st AD 62
I hereby certify that John Dunphy, of the City of New York, was a private in Co. K, 69th N.Y.S.M., and served with his Regt during the three months campaign in Virginia, in the summer of 1861, and that he was killed in battle at Bull Run on the 21st of July, 1861; and I do further certify that he was the husband of the bearer, Mathilda Dunphy, and that she is entitled to all the pay due to her late husband.
Thomas Francis Meagher
Coammandg the Irish Brigade
late Captain of Co. k. 69th N.Y.S.M.
Matilda would ultimately receive a pension based on her young husband’s death. It was stopped when she married another Irish emigrant, William Manly, in 1870, but was reinstated after she was once again widowed in 1879. The Dublin-born woman outlived her first husband by almost 70 years, passing away in New York in 1928.
Catherine O’Neill (née Ryan), lost her husband Corporal Cornelius O’Neill who had marched to Bull Run in Company D of the 69th. Initially reported missing, he was later confirmed as having received a mortal wound. Catherine and Cornelius had married in the famous Five Points Transfiguration Church on 12th June 1853, when Catherine was around 20-years-old. Their first daughter, Elizabeth, was born on 13th February 1856. Their second, Josephine, arrived in their home at 126 Pearl Street on 4th November 1861. By then the father she would never meet had been dead for over three months. Almost a year after Josephine’s birth, Catherine appealed to her husband’s former Colonel for help. She was not requesting intercession with the Pension Bureau; rather she wanted Corcoran to give her a letter of recommendation:
Head Quarters “Corcoran’s Irish Legion”
New York Oct 8th 1862
Daniel Devlin Esq.
My Dear Sir
This will be handed to you Mrs. O’Neil wife of Corporal O’Neil of the 69th Regt who was killed at the battle of Bull Run. He left a large family behind him without adequate means of support. Mrs. O’Neil is known to me to be a very deserving woman and merits the needful assistance which her misfortunes renders necessary for her to have. She desires some employment connected with your store, that she may earn a livelihood for herself and children. By granting her request and assisting a person whom I know deserves it,
You will much Oblige
Your Obt. Servant
Brig Genl. U.S.A.
Corcoran was writing from the famed New York hotel for the attention of Daniel Devlin, one of the most prominent Irish citizens of New York. Devlin, a native of Buncrana, Co. Donegal, was a major philanthropist of Irish emigrant causes. He was also a leading supporter of Irish ethnic units, particularly the 69th and the Irish Brigade. The position Corcoran was seeking for Catherine was in the Devlin & Co. Clothing Store, now located in his magnificent new premises at 459 Broadway, built in 1861 (which still stands).
The Devlin Clothing Store as it appears today
Catherine was not just relying on General Corcoran. When she did seek a pension, she secured affidavits from more 69th veterans– Cornelius’s former Captain, Thomas Clarke, and his Sergeant, Martin Ryan. It is not clear if she ever did go to work at Devlin’s premises; she was later listed as a domestic. Catherine was eventually granted a pension in early 1864, but would receive it for just five years. She died of Peritonitis at the age of just 37, leaving her children orphaned.
The everyday experiences of the ordinary men of the 69th New York State Militia and their families will be the focus of much of what I will be talking about in May, together with experts on the battlefield that changed their lives forever. Between now and then, keep an eye out for more explorations of the topic.
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National Archives Widows and Dependents Pension Files
Jessica WeatherbeeJanuary 2, 2019 7:02 pm
Thanks for posting on this very touching topic. It’s nice to see so much light cast upon these individuals whose travails would otherwise be lost to history. So many researchers have simply emphasized tactics and leadership, whereas you have really brought out the human side of the American Civil War.