In 1865 Ellen McCann of 87 Mulberry Street in New York’s infamous Five Points district went in search of a pension. She was not a typical widow. By the time her husband Francis had elected to join the Union cause she was already 55-years-old, and their children Annie and John were adults. Francis had been extremely economical with the truth when he enlisted in August 1863. He had claimed to be 42, but he was actually ten years older. The Sixth Ward shoemaker may have been one of the many urban Irish who experienced tough economic times during the war, or he may simply have found the increasing financial bounty on offer too difficult to resist. Whatever his motivations–one of the other McCanns in his unit may even have been his son–Francis took the fateful decision to become a private in the 18th New York Cavalry, a regiment with a heavy Irish contingent. (1)
Having initially served in the Washington Defences, the 18th Cavalry spent most of their war in the Department of the Gulf. It was there that Francis McCann died, passing away in Louisiana on 2nd September 1864. Ellen found out about her husband’s fate within a few weeks. When she commenced her efforts to obtain a pension in January 1865, she stated she was 60-years-old. In fact she was more like 57. Ellen was illiterate, and as was common among illiterate and semi-literate individuals she had a tendency to round her age up to the nearest five or ten, a process known as age-heaping. Interestingly, while Ellen’s pension application confirms her illiteracy, she is not recorded as such on the 1860 census- a discrepancy I consistently encounter. It suggests she was either partially-literate (i.e. she could read) or that the couple had chosen to conceal their illiteracy on their census return. (2)
Ellen’s first task in her quest to secure a pension was to prove her relationship with Francis. They had wed in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone on 13th February 1836 at Ellen’s family home (her maiden name was Hagan). Like nearly all Irish emigrants, when they made their new lives in New York City, the couple enjoyed their closest relationships with those from their former Irish neighbourhood. In 1865, when Ellen needed to prove her marriage, she was able to call on 66-year-old Arthur O’Brien and 35-year-old Mark O’Brien, also from Ardboe, who claimed they “were present at the house of James Hagan…and witnessed the marriage ceremony performed according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church…by Father Peter O’Neill, the Priest.” Both the O’Briens and the McCanns had emigrated to America during the Famine, but despite the passage of years (and their semi-literacy) they were in constant contact with Ireland–Ellen was able to strengthen the O’Brien’s testimony with a certified record of her marriage from Tyrone. This serves as yet another reminder that emigrants rarely severed their ties with their native land after departure. Rather, families and communities maintained regular contact, even as the years passed into decades. (3)
Having satisfactorily proved her marriage to Francis, Ellen next had to demonstrate that her husband had died in service. Though this might seem as though it should have been straightforward, it was here that Ellen encountered her most major obstacle. It quickly became apparent that confusion reigned as to where Francis had died, and even what had ended his life. This lack of clarity prevented the Pension Bureau from granting Ellen’s claim. All through 1865 she hunted in vain for further detail. In February 1866, more than a year after her initial application, The Charity Hospital of New Orleans wrote to state that no such person as Francis McCann had ever been a patient with them, despite the fact that he was said to have died there. Neither could the Medical Director’s Office in Louisiana find any record of the Tyrone emigrant. Ellen’s problems had been compounded by the fact that the 18th New York Cavalry had remained in the field in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas through 1865 and 1866. With none of her husband’s closest comrades or direct officers in New York, she had been unable to make contact with anyone in the regiment. Finally, more than 15 months after she had started her application, and 18 months after her husband had died, it seemed as if her fortunes were about to change. (4)
The first apparent good news arrived for Ellen in March 1866. It came when William du Bois, the First Lieutenant of Francis’s Company G wrote from San Antonio Springs in Texas. The officer’s letter finally provided particulars as to Francis’s death. Firstly, it transpired that his end had come at Thibodaux, not New Orleans. du Bois also claimed that Francis had not succumbed to illness, but in fact was a victim of “Coup du Soleil”, or sunstroke. It looked like Ellen was finally reaching critical mass with the evidence she was gathering, particularly as she and her agents had also tracked down the former surgeon of the 18th New York, Robert P. Murphy. Surely a letter from him, when combined with that of du Bois, would be enough to satisfy the Bureau. But they would have to wait– as Murphy’s correspondence had to travel from Ireland. (5)
Robert P. Murphy had been 23-years-old when he mustered into the 18th in October 1863. The surgeon served continually with the regiment until he was mustered out at Victoria, Texas, on 31st May 1866, whereupon he almost immediately departed for Ireland. By the time he was alerted to Ellen’s plight he was already back in Dublin– indeed the fact that she managed to track him down at all was a substantial feat. Eager to help, he penned a letter for Ellen from the Royal College of Surgeons on Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green:
Royal College of Surgeons
September 29th 1866
I Robert P. Murphy member of the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland late Surgeon of 18th New York Volunteer Cavalry do hereby affirm to the best of my knowledge and belief that Francis McCann a private of Co G 18th New York Cavalry died at Thibodaux LA on or about the 2d day of September 1864 from injuries received (while in discharge of his duties) by a fall from his horse. At which time I was the Medical Officer in charge of the regiment.
R.P. Murphy M.R.C.S.I.
Late Surgeon 18 New York Vol. Cav. (6)
Murphy’s letter is unique in my experience in the files, in that it was provided by an officer who had left the United States in order to aid a fellow Irish family who had remained in America. It is testament to the strong bonds of camaraderie that tied servicemen together, as it was surely one of the other members of the regiment who supplied Ellen with his contact details. Unfortunately, despite Robert Murphy’s good intentions, his letter did more harm than good. Rather than assuage the Pension Bureau’s concerns, it served only to heighten them. The surgeon’s assertion that Francis has died as a result of a fall from his horse did not tally with Lieutenant du Bois’s claim that he had succumbed to heatstroke. The Bureau could not be satisfied that the two officers were referring to the same man. Ellen had no choice but to renew her search for information. (7)
In the end, it would be February 1868 before Ellen secured the testimony that at last pushed her claim across the line. Somewhat ironically, the key evidence came from an officer who had been dishonorably dismissed from the service in November 1864. His name was Lieutenant Samuel Curran; despite his wartime tribulations his recollection proved decisive. In his statement he recalled Francis distinctly, relating that he had died of “camp fever after a few days sickness”. Although yet another variant on Francis’s cause of death, the cumulative evidence of three different officers proved sufficient to satisfy the Bureau. They finally approved Ellen’s pension claim in December 1868, more than four years after Francis’s death. The Tyrone woman could finally begin to collect her $8 a month from her new home in Philadelphia, and begin to move on with her life. (8)
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(1) Francis McCann Pension File, 1860 Census, New York Muster Roll Abstracts, New York Adjutant General Reports; (2) Pension File, 1860 Census; (3) Pension File; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.; (8) Ibid.;
1860 U.S. Federal Census, New York Ward 6, District 2.
Francis McCann’s Widow’s Pension File.
New York Adjutant General Roster of the 18th New York Cavalry.
New York Muster Roll Abstracts.