In 1911 John Fitzgerald of Liscelty sat down to write a letter to America from the rural fishing village of Dunmore East. He was doing so on behalf of a local fisherman, a man named John Dunne. By then in his seventies, John had quite the story to tell. With many long years of hard physical labour behind him, both men hoped it was a story that would illicit a positive response from the United States government. John Fitzgerald outlined the fisherman’s situation:
this fine old veteran who served as Quartermaster in different ships during the Civil War and who so gloriously fought for the Stars & Stripes is now incapable of doing anything for his livelihood through the effects of old wounds and age. He has been trying to supplement his small provision of 6 dollars a month by fishing, as he is now incapacitated from same and being a true patriotic son of America he is not eligible for any old age pension from the British Government…I am sure I am not making this appeal to you sir in vain, that the great and noble country for which he fought and bled will not see this fine old veteran descend to the level of a pauper…
John Dunne had been born in Corballymore, Dunmore East around the year 1840. He was from a family of fishermen, a trade which remains strongly associated with the Co. Waterford village to this day. In the late 1850s, the young man took the decision to leave his home waters and seek to make a life as a sailor further afield. He saw much of the world in the years that followed, and rose to become a key member of the crew aboard one of the most notable ironclads of the American Civil War. Many years later, John would recall his adventures:
I left Ireland February 1858 in the Active Captain Allen for Cardiff, Wales left her there and shipped in the Busteed of Boston…for Shanghai, China from there to San Francisco, California, paid off there shipped in Ocean Telegram, Captain Williams for New York arrived there fourth of July 1861…
Two days after his arrival in New York John enlisted in the United States Navy. He was described as 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes and dark hair. On 6th July he was sent to the receiving ship USS North Carolina, and five days later went on active service. John continues:
[I shipped] on board the Iroquois under Captain Palmer having sailed from New York bound for West Indies in search of “Sumter” which we found in Martinique but would not be allowed to engage her (under Relief of the Port) we then proceeded to St. Thomas’ where Capt De Camp succeeded Capt Palmer. We then proceeded to New Orleans under the command of Admiral Farragut we then proceeded to Vicksburg from which we were ordered to New York.
The USS Iroquois was a Sloop-of-War. John served aboard her while she was active in the Caribbean, seeking out Confederate commerce raiders. As John alludes to, they tracked down the famous CSS Sumter at Martinique, but could not attack as she was in a neutral port. John and his shipmates next sailed to participate in operations around the Mississippi River. They fought in the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip in April 1862, which ensured the capture of New Orleans. Moving up the river, a landing party from the Iroquois helped to secure the surrender of Baton Rouge, and they also aided in securing Natchez before successfully moving past the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg. By September they had moved back into the Gulf of Mexico, before heading for home to end their cruise in New York in November 1862. John again takes up the story:
[I was] then sent on board North Carolina and transferred to Passaic [which John pronounced “Pessick”] and proceeded to Hampton Roads from there to Charleston in tow of a steamer and placed under Admiral Dahlgren and then proceeded to New York where I was paid off in September 1864..being in ill health I returned to my native place…
USS Passaic was one of the famous ironclad Union monitors that operated during the Civil War. John was assigned to her on 26th November 1862, and was part of her original crew. She was initially assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, but necessary repairs made her put into the navy yard in Washington D.C. While there, she was visited by President Abraham Lincoln that December, providing John with an opportunity to see the most famous man in America up close. Passaic eventually departed the capital with the famed USS Monitor, and almost shared her fate when treacherous weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina sent Monitor to the bottom.
In the months of service that followed, Passaic and John were involved in a number of actions against Confederate onshore positions, mainly off South Carolina. The vessel took a battering off Charleston in early 1863 in an action that wounded John and forced the ironclad back to New York for repairs. John survived to return with Passaic to South Carolina waters, participating in attacks such as those against Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. Discharged onto USS Vermont on 28th July 1864, John’s term of service in the United States Navy came to an end on 15th August 1864.
Though he would later claim to have become an American citizen in 1862, John did not spent too long in the United States after the war. By the beginning of the 1870s he was back in his “native place”, where he married Mary Downey in Tramore. The couple went on to have three living children, Thomas (b.1873), Mary (b.1875) and Ellen (b.1878). Ultimately settling down in Summerville, Dunmore East, John returned to the fishing trade. Since he had last fished off Ireland’s South-East coast, John had circumnavigated the globe and brushed shoulders with some of the most famous people and vessels in history.
John did not immediately become eligible for a United States pension, but as the decades passed he found that his many years at sea began to take a toll. His list of ailments had grown long by the 1890s, and included “atrophy of right knee, defective eyesight, wound of right temple, loss part of right thumb and resulting loss of use of hand and varicose veins”. He later gave a detailed description of how he came to lose his thumb in action:
In January 1863 while on the Ironclad Pessick [Passaic] in command of Captain Ronayne and under fire at Fort Sumpter the slide of the turret was knocked off by a ball from the fort and fell on my knee while in the act of loading my gun. In lifting the shutter from me, my thumb was injured which subsequently resulted in the loss of the first joint of same
John received a pension in the 1890s, though difficulties that all foreign pensioners encountered following an 1893 law change forced John to move briefly back to New York in 1894 to resolve payment issues. While there he lived at 27 Fulton Street, and met up with old Irish comrades from his time in the navy- William O’Brien, who had served in his squadron, and Hugh Cunningham, who had been with him on the crew of the Iroquois. Once his issues were settled John returned to Dunmore East, where he would see out the remainder of his days.
The 1911 letter which John Fitzgerald wrote on John Dunne’s behalf was an effort to secure an increase in the elderly veteran’s payments. These efforts proved successful, and thankfully for the old sailor and his family they were able to benefit from his increased allowance for many more years. John Dunne ultimately passed away on 9th February 1924 in Summerville, and was buried in the local Corbally Cemetery. As a final act of recognition for his service, the United States Government paid for his funeral expenses.
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John Dunne Naval Pension. 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.