Back in 2015 Brendan Hamilton and I published a piece on the site entitled Recruited Straight Off The Boat: On the Trail of Emigrant Soldiers From the Ship Great Western. The work was based on Brendan’s discovery (and his extensive subsequent investigations) that revealed a large number of men who had been recruited into the army on the very day they arrived in America. These men had traveled from England, ostensibly to work in the New York Glassworks of Messrs Bliss, Ward and Rosevelt. Prior to their departure, controversy erupted as Confederate agents informed British authorities that they were in fact intended for Union service, and had been “recruited” in England by a Federal agent called Shaw. The original post outlines the details of the case, and the experiences of some of the men who subsequently enlisted. Now a new affidavit has come to light, provided by an Irishman on board who decided he did not want to join up. His testimony provides not only fascinating detail about what occurred, but also raises questions about just who was involved in these dubious recruitment efforts. The affiant’s name was James O’Brien, who recounted his version of the story for the British Consul five days after the Great Western had docked:

I am a native of Cork of the age of twenty years. Have been living in London for about twelve months as a gentleman’s servant. About the 18 of November last I was engaged at No. 19 Old Pye Street Westminster by one Shea to come out to New York to work in Glass Works. There was about fifteen others engaged at the same time and place. Shea agreed to give us all fifteen dollars a month and our board and lodging, besides a suit of clothes suitable to the climate when we arrived in the States. Next day we all came down to Liverpool. Shea paid our fares and came with us. We were taken on board the Great Western and were there about a fortnight before we sailed. Nothing was said about enlisting in the army until the ship arrived here on Friday last. Bread and cheese and pipes and tobacco were brought off, and we were then told by some one that we should have to enlist. This was the first I heard of it. I came on shore in the tug boat on Saturday morning with the others. After signing names, we were taken into the enlisting station, the Police took us in and went with us. I was there urged to enlist. I refused, I was several times asked and refused. I said and so did others of those who came from London that it was not for to be soldiers we came out, but to get the work appointed for us in London. Some one said in reply that it was for soldiers we came. I said it was not. They told us we would get no work we had better list, and said we would get five hundred dollars bounty. I refused to list. The door was closed all the time I was there and a man at the door. I got out of the station about three o’clock. I do not know the names of any who asked us to list. Shea was not there. I am quite destitute since I have been here. I can hardly walk a few yards but a man comes up to me to ask me to list in the Navy or Army. I do not know what to do, and want employment.

Theodore Roosevelt Senior. What, if anything, did he know about the recruitment of men from the Great Western? (Wikipedia)

James O’Brien’s account of events is fascinating. It is difficult to credit his assertion that nothing had been said about enlisting in the army before his arrival, given that many of his fellow passengers had been on board the Great Western in Liverpool on 17th November when authorities came on board to question them about potential recruitment. But this was the day before James was signed on in London. It is entirely believable that he had journeyed with the express intention of working in the glassworks, and had no desire or intention to serve in the military. Clearly, the intensive focus on the activities aboard the Great Western did not dissuade Shea from continuing to source men for the passage. It seems probable that this “Shea” is the same man as the “Shaw” referenced in contemporary accounts of the incident. If so, it suggests he was Irish. It is evident in almost all the cases of suspected illegal recruitment (and inducement) that I have encountered that Irish intermediaries were key players. They frequently used their shared nationality and ethnicity to exploit their countrymen (both in Ireland and America) in pursuit of the huge profits on offer (See for example posts here and here).

The Union League Club of New York (Image: Beyond My Ken)

Further adding to the explosive nature of O’Brien’s account is his claim that New York’s Metropolitan Police were involved in trying to force him to enlist. Were some of New York’s authorities and leading citizens colluding in an effort to exploit these men? The financial rewards would have made it a tempting prospect, while patriotism may also have seen some willing to take any measures necessary to procure Union recruits. Intriguingly, Brendan’s investigations into the Bliss, Ward and Rosevelt glassworks–where the men were ostensibly coming to work–has revealed some tantalising and compelling links. The “Rosevelt” was most likely Theodore Roosevelt Senior, father of the future President. Roosevelt Senior, George Bliss Junior and George Cabot Ward were all part of a special committee of the Union League that formed in 1864 to assist with recruitment into the Second Corps (at the request of Winfield Scott Hancock). The majority of the men who entered the army from the Great Western ended up serving in the Second Corps. Roosevelt, Bliss and Ward were also members of the “Hancock Exemption Committee” which oversaw issues regarding substitution. Furthermore, Bliss was the former legal partner of Francis Barlow, who had held joint command of the 61st and 64th New York in 1862, and commanded the 1st Division of the Second Corps (which included the 64th) during the Petersburg Campaign. Many of the men from the Great Western enlisted in the 64th New York.

Another member of the Union League was Charles H. Marshall, owner of the Black Ball Line (and the Great Western) who was the author of the letter that informed men in Britain and Ireland that Rosevelt and the others would pay their passage to work in the glassworks. Were the connections of all these major figures with elements of the Great Western story coincidental, or were they in some way involved in procuring these men for Union service? If the latter, what were their motivations? And just how commonplace might this activity have been? These are all fascinating questions, and ones we will hope to return to in future posts.

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The passenger manifest from the Great Western. The name of James O’Brien appears at the bottom (National Archives)


James O’Brien Affidavit 19th January 1865.

New York Times 16th August 1864.

United States Department of State 1865. Papers relating to foreign affairs, accompanying the annual message of the president to the first session thirty-ninth congress.

Henry Whitney Bellows 1879. Historical Sketch of the Union League Club of New York.