As I have discussed frequently on this site and elsewhere, the Widows and Dependent Pension Files from the American Civil War represent the greatest repository of detailed social information on ordinary nineteenth century Irish people that exists anywhere in the world. In the future, their most important utility will not be what they can tell us about the Irish in the conflict, but what they can reveal about the life of working-class Irish people in both Ireland and among the Irish diaspora. This will be most true for the story of ordinary Irish women, given that they overwhelmingly dominate among the applicants for dependent pensions.
In the latest of a long series of posts that explore and highlight such potential, I am taking a look specifically at what a group of mainly illiterate Irish women had to say about their marriages in Ireland. These accounts are often rich in detail, and can shed light on multiple areas. The small number shared below provide insights into who these women married, where they married, their marriage ceremonies and celebrations, the process of emigration, the hardships endured during transatlantic travel, the prevalence of chain migration and the maintenance of transatlantic contacts.
All the accounts that follow were provided by women who lost a husband or son serving with the 61st New York Infantry. This was not an ethnic-Irish regiment, but like the majority of urban formations in New York City it had a large Irish contingent. In each case, the woman in question was seeking to prove her relationship with the soldier; if a widow, that they were married to them, and if a mother that they had been married to the man’s father, who was no longer in a position to support them through death, disability or abandonment. Each of them faced a slightly different set of challenges and circumstances that informed the type of information they provided, and the additional affidavits they garnered. All of the women featured below were ultimately successful in obtaining a Federal pension.
Julia’s husband Francis was killed in action at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, on 1st June 1862. Julia provided her affidavit on 19th March 1863. As is evident from her mark, she was illiterate.
[She was] married in Longford Ireland by Father Murry on the 1st day of January 1840…she received no marriage certificate or any instrument which could be tendered in proof of her marriage…the Priest who performed the ceremony has long since been dead…the best evidence of her said marriage which she is able to procure is the accompanying affidavits of having the general reputation of being man and wife…she has no minor children…the number of the house and the name of the street in which she now resides is No. 569 3d Avenue New York City.
The reason women such as Julia were providing such detail on their marriages was usually because they did not have any documentation to prove their union in the United States. Some did manage to obtain this evidence during the application process, by sending back to Ireland where (for a fee) copies could often be obtained. In the absence of that, they hoped that their own statements and those of supporting witnesses would suffice. In Julia’s case, two reputable men were able to give statements that confirmed she and Francis had lived as man and wife, which proved sufficient for the Pension Bureau.
Mary’s husband James was shot through the thigh in line of battle near Corbin’s Bridge, Virginia on 8th May 1864, dying shortly afterwards in the divisional hospital. The couple had made their home in Albany, but they had been married in Co. Waterford on 7th May 1846. The key evidence in Mary’s case not from her, but from two affiants back in Waterford–a local priest and Mary’s sister. Mary had sought to get proof of her marriage, but it was found not to exist. However, she was greatly aided by the following statement from J. Mullins, Parish Priest of Ballymacart, Co. Waterford, on 31st January 1866:
[The] Register of this Parish was greatly neglected thro’ the services and protracted illness of the Parish Priest who lived here at that time. I havent the slightest doubt of the marriage of the parties, they remained but a short time in this Parish after their marriage, and then emigrated to America.
It was most common for young married couples to emigrate relatively soon after their wedding, suggesting it was often pre-planned. These statements also demonstrate that while Mary was illiterate, this had not prevented her from maintaining contact with home. She was also able to secure a statement from her sister Ellen (also illiterate–see image above), who was still living in Ireland and making her home in Coolroe townland. Ellen gave the following account on 1st February 1866:
I am the sister in law of James Carey late a soldier in the United States Army whom I have heard and believe was killed while serving in the said army…I was present and a bridesmaid at his marriage with my sister Mary McCarthy which took place in or about nineteen years ago in the Priests house at Loskeran in the County of Waterford the Revd Mr Slattery then a Curate of the Old Parish celebrated the marriage ceremony died in or about one year and nine months after the marriage…James Carey and his wife Mary McCarthy…emigrated to America before doing so they had…one son who died on the passage out.
Here we learn that Mary’s marriage had not occurred in church, but in the “Priest’s House”. The lack of church marriages was relatively common in this period, and many such statements reveal that weddings had taken place either in the priest’s house or in the family home. Mary, who had acted as her sister’s bridesmaid, also provided the heartbreaking information that the couple’s only child had not survived the rigours of their journey to America. It appears they were never able to have any more, at least none which survived their infancy.
Margaret’s husband John drowned when he accidentally fell from the boat in which his unit were crossing the Potomac at Alexandria, Virginia on 5th April 1862. She gave her statement on 18th February 1863:
she was married to…John Donnelly at the parish church in Moy, County of Tyrone in Ireland in the month of February A.D. 1849 by Rev Father Michael Coyne…she has never had any certificate of her said marriage, neither is there any record of her said marriage in the United States to her knowledge…she does not recollect the day of the month of February upon which she was married…she lived with the said John as his wife for about two years and a half after they were so married, in the County of Armagh in Ireland, when they moved to the United States…they arrived in the United States on the last day of July 1851, and lived together as man and wife in the City of New York from that time until said John went away to the war in the month of August 1861…she has had five children born of her said marriage, but only two of them are now alive…
It was relatively common for illiterate women not to remember the exact date of their marriage, but they invariably were able to recall the name of the man who had performed the ceremony. As with Mary Carey, Margaret had endured the death of her children, losing three of them in infancy. Her case was substantially strengthened by the supporting affidavits she was able to secure from a number of women who had known her and her husband in Ireland, evidence of the chain migration that was such a feature of Irish life in America. The first statement was from Margaret’s sister, Catherine McKenna, who gave the following account on 19th February 1864:
she is the sister of…Margaret Donnelly…she was well acquainted with the said John Donnelly for several years prior to the time when he was married to the said Margaret, in fact ever since he was a little boy…they were neighbors and went to school together…she was married about one year before the said Margaret and lived away from her father at the time Margaret was married…she received an invitation to come to her father’s to be present at Margaret’s wedding dinner, and went home and was present at that dinner, and the wedding party…she was not present at the Church at the time of the marriage ceremony, when said John and Margaret were married, but she was at her fathers house when they came from the Church and said they had been married and then had what was called Margarets Wedding dinner and party…John and Margaret lived together as man and wife from that time until he went away to the war in the month of August 1861…they lived together as man and wife in Ireland about two and a half years and then came to the United States…that she…came to the United States a few months before…John and Margaret…she saw them often as once a week on an average from the time they came to the United States until said John went away to the war…she has been present when one of their children was born and saw three others of them the next day after they were said to have been born…John and Margaret always spoke of each other and to each other as man and wife and…their marriage was never called in question by their relatives or acquaintance…
Catherine’s account is a fascinating one. She notes that she went to school with Margaret’s husband (despite her schooling, Catherine was illiterate), indicating that Margaret and John followed the common Irish trend of wedding another local. Her affidavit indicates that the couple had a celebration at the father of the bride’s home after the ceremony. The couple emigrated relatively soon after their wedding and were chain migrants– Catherine and her husband had already been in America for a number of months. One can imagine the emotional impact the emigration of siblings within such a short space of time must have had on those left behind, particularly Catherine and Margaret’s parents. A further sign of the Armagh/Tyrone support network these women enjoyed in New York is provided in the next affidavit, which was supplied by Ellen Donnelly, who was a cousin of Margaret’s husband:
[she] is a native of the county of Armagh in Ireland…she is well acquainted with Margaret Donnelly widow of John Donnelly…she and said John Donnelly…were first cousins…she has been acquainted with said Margaret Donnelly since childhood and that they were brought up together in the town of Kilmoor [Kilmore] in said county of Armagh up to the time of the marriage of said Margaret to…John Donnelly…she was also acquainted with the said John Donnelly for many years before his marriage…deponent was present and stood up with the said Margaret Donnelly as bridesmaid on the occasion of her marriage…which took place at the Parish Church in Moy county of Tyrone in Ireland in the month of February A.D. 1849…she has been intimately acquainted with the said John Donnelly ever since his marriage with…Margaret Donnelly being a near neighbor of theirs and continued to be up to the time of his enlistment except for the space of three weeks when they were coming out to this country…
In her statement, Ellen identifies the precise location where they all grew up, and reveals that she acted as bridesmaid during the wedding. One wonders how many of the original wedding party ultimately relocated to New York. The extent to which they transposed their community to the United States is evident– Ellen had been a near neighbour of the couple in Ireland, and remained so in New York.
Bridget’s son Martin was killed in action at the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia on 1st June 1862. Her reason for divulging details of her marriage was in an effort to prove her relationship with her son, who had contributed towards her support. She is the only one of the applicants who was able to sign her own name, though notably (as discussed in this post) she spelt “Tiernan” rather than the more usual “Teirnan” and she was likely only partially literate. Bridget provided her statement on 22nd September 1862:
her maiden name was Bridget Hanly…she is fifty years of age…she is the widow of Dominick Tiernan…she was married to Dominick Tiernan on or about the 1st day of October 1837 by the Rev Father Thornton then a Catholic Priest in the Parish of Kilgiffin [Kilgefin] County of Roscommon, Ireland…she never had a marriage certificate and has no knowledge of the existance of any record evidence of her marriage…the only evidence she is able to give other than her own affidavit and the fact of her having had three children by the said marriage is the testimony of…witnesses who know her and one of whom knew her husband…her husband has been dead about thirteen years…
Bridget lacked affiants who had been present at her marriage, but she did have access to others who had known her in Ireland. These people did not always have to be close family friends. Bridget was accompanied at the time of her statement by Elizabeth Fleming, who had been Bridget’s landlord when she lived in Co. Roscommon, as she pointed out:
[she] knows of her own knowledge that she is the person she represents herself to be and that the statement made by her is true in all particulars…Bridget Tiernan and her husband Dominick were tenents of hers in Kilgiffin County of Roscommon, Ireland…she knew of her marriage…at the time it occurred….
This tiny sample of Irish widows and dependent mothers from the 61st New York Infantry provides us with a glimpse into the enormous potential of these applications. That potential is made all the more exciting when we consider the fact that c. 250,000 Irish Americans served in the Northern military during the war, and that as a result thousands of Irish emigrants successfully secured these pensions. One of the great boons of their service is that it indirectly led to the creation of a historical treasure trove–one that now provides us with the potential to unlock unparalleled detail on the lives of ordinary Irish women in the nineteenth century.
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Widow’s and Dependent Parents Pension Files (NARA). Analysis of these files is only possible thanks to the efforts of the team at the National Archives who worked so hard to make them available for study and analysis.