One battlefield. One regiment. Three bodies. Three families. A story of Step Migration, Chain Migration, and Americanisation- and of the Kerry diaspora in Ireland, Canada and America.
As the last wisps of lingering gunsmoke departed the woods and ravines of the New Bern battefield, the 51st New York Infantry began to count the cost of victory. For 34 men of the regiment, the 14th March 1862 proved to be the day that brought their doom. As was inevitable with an urban New York unit, Irish America was all too prominent on the butcher’s bill. Among the crumpled blue bodies strewn up and down the North Carolina treeline was that of 27-year-old Robert Smith. An engraver in civilian life, the Brooklynite met his death as the First Sergeant of Company B. Not far from him lay the motionless form of John Kavanagh. A few months before, the Company K private had told the recruiters he was 19, but that was a lie. In reality he was a child of at most 16-years when his life was snuffed out near the Atlantic & North Carolina railroad. Further down the line, the left side of his chest driven in by a Southern bullet, the mortal remains of Felix McCarthy hugged the earth. In his mid-twenties, Felix had traded the tenements of the Five Points for Company F of the 51st. It was a gamble that had cost him his life. (1)
These three men were united by more than their shared-death, their regiment, or their home state. For all were also part of New York’s Kerry diaspora- the county where both John and Felix had been born. Their deaths at New Bern precipitated the creation of a document trail that allows us to draw back the veil not just on their lives, but on those of their families, and the wider Kerry community in the Empire State. In addition to telling those stories, these narratives also reveal wider perspectives; not the least of which is the the fact that even where emigrants shared strikingly similar backgrounds and backstories, every individual’s prospects and fortunes remained remarkably variable.
At an economic level, there was no mistaking which of the three men had been the poorest. Felix McCarthy’s decision to enlist likely had as much to do with the war-induced recession as it did with patriotism. In anycase, it probably took little encouragement for the illiterate laborer to depart his wretched accomodation in the world’s most notorious slum. In 1860, Felix had been crammed into a tiny apartment with seven other people. They included his own family; wife Mary, and daughters Mary (2) and Anne (4 months), as well as the Sheehans; Mary (70), John (28), Alice (6) and John (2). The family address told its own tale. Their home was at 9 Mulberry Street, which in 1850 had been one of a new set of six-story brick tenements constructed in front of the Old Baptist Church. By 1860 the Church too had been crudely converted into living space, and in short order had become notorious for poverty, stench, filth, alcoholism and vice. By the time Felix pulled on Uncle Sam’s uniform in October 1861, this was an environment that had already claimed the life of his baby girl Anne. (2)
Felix didn’t have to go far in the Five Points to find fellow Kerry emigrants. Kerry and Cork dominated among the Irish there, and included a sizable number of former Landsdowne tenants from around Kenmare. But unlike many of his countymen, Felix’s transatlantic adventure had not begun in New York. He was a step migrant, having only arrived from Canada as the 1860s dawned. Prior to that, Felix and Mary had been part of the significant Irish community based in Hamilton, Canada West (now Ontario). It was there that they had married in 1857, and it was there that they had celebrated the birth of their first daughter in 1858. Their decision to move to Manhattan was probably influenced by community as much as economy. Perhaps they were among those Landsdowne immigrants who in the 1850s had been forced to sail via Quebec rather than go direct to New York. Whatever the truth of it, they knew a number of people in New York who had been with them in Hamilton, and who moved with them at the same time. They included Felix’s mother Mary; his best friend who had lived near him “in Ireland and in Canada” and who had “stood up” for him at his wedding (also Felix McCarthy, though no relation); and Abbie Shay, who had helped to guide Mary through the birth of her first child. (3)
Following Felix’s death in 1862, Mary took their surviving child to Pittsburgh, but it wasn’t long before both were back in Manhattan. As well as her older connections, she had made new bonds there, among them some others who had lost loved ones in the 51st New York. Nonetheless, times were hard for a widowed woman. In the late 1860s Mary complained that difficulties in transferring her pension had left here in a “very distressful case for want of money”, particularly, as she revealed, as “i cannot get no work”. She managed to make it through, and continued to claim the pension paid for in blood at New Bern until her own death in 1907. (4)
Whereas Felix McCarthy had step-migrated to New York, Robert Smith had lived there his entire life. Nevertheless, he was every bit a part of the Kerry diaspora. His father William had left his native Dingle, Co. Kerry for a new start in America at the beginning of the 1830s. By the time the war came along he had gone some way to making good on the American dream. William and his wife Ann had welcomed all their children in New York: Ann, Robert, Richard, Eliza and Rachel. Despite the tough economic climate after the Panic of 1857, times seemed good. By the age of 50, in 1860, the shoemaker had amassed a personal estate worth $1000, and was making his home at 85 Portland Avenue in Brooklyn. He was even earning enough to employ a live-in servant for his family, 25-year-old Irish woman Bridget Welsh. (5)
William’s two boys were still living at home when war began. Both Robert and Richard seemed to be on the path towards fulfilling the Irish American goal of inter-generational improvement. Richard was holding down a position as a clerk, while Robert had recently graduated from a carver to an engraver. While the family maintained strong ties to Kerry- many of their direct family still lived in Ireland, and their home would have been a regular stop off point for recently arrived relatives-young Robert also celebrated his American identity, and appears to have been every inch the “Irish American”. In 1859, at the Thirty-First Annual Fair of the American Institute of New York City, he was awarded a diploma for his efforts in carving baseball insignia, the quintissential American sport. He had also become an active member of the 13th New York State Militia, based in Brooklyn, a military apprenticeship that helped him secure his post as First Sergeant in the 51st. Had he survived New Bern and some of the engagements which followed, he would rightly have expected to continue his upward trajectory by rising into the regiment’s officer class. (6)
The Smith family’s relative success sat in stark contrast to the experiences of Felix McCarthy, but ultimately their story provides a cautionary tale of how quickly emigrant gains could be lost. By 1870, the Census no longer recorded William Smith as a shoemaker, but as a 60-year-old laborer. Apart from suffering the death of their eldest son, it appears that the 1860s may also have forced William and Ann to endure the failure of an enterprise they had built across more than three decades. It is possible that downfall is tied to a City Court of Brooklyn Summons issued against one “William J. Smith” in 1868, which brought notice of a complainants claim that $187.20 was owed as part of a contract dispute. (7)
Robert Smith had come from a family that had built its way into American life across almost three decades. In 1861, his life experiences and future prospects appeared significantly brighter than those of our final soldier, John Kavanagh. This was despite the fact the young boy who fell beside him at New Bern was his Irish first cousin. It is with John’s story- whose fortunes sat somewhere between those of Felix McCarthy and Robert Smith- that the greatest insight into the Kerry diaspora are revealed.
John Kavanagh’s story began on 17th April 1845 just outside Dingle in Co. Kerry. That morning, 18-year-old Emily Smith set out from her home on the most momentous journey of her young life. Emily had been living with her older brother since her father’s death, but she was about to strike out on her own. With her 13-year-old sister Jenny and 18-year-old friend Sarah Ann in tow, she headed for the altar of the parish church in Ventry, some three miles away. Waiting there for her- along with Reverend Thomas Moriarty-was John Kavanagh, her future husband, and the man who would become the father of a soldier son. After their wedding ceremony and the celebrations that followed, the young couple moved into John’s home to begin their married life. Emily’s sister Jenny joined them there two-days later. She stayed with them for more than a year, as John and Emily started a family. Across the five years that followed they would welcome three sons: John Junior, Joseph and James. They were not easy times. It was to be their misfortune that the happy occasion of their union had come in a year that would be remembered by all for very different reasons. As the newlyweds got used to each other’s company in the Autumn of 1845, reports began to mark the arrival on Ireland’s shores of Phytophthora infestans– the long struggle of the Great Famine lay ahead. (8)
John and Emily Kavanagh were in a better position that many during the Famine. Though they were far from wealthy, they had some means, enough, at least, to save themselves from the Workhouse. Nevertheless, as work and opportunities dried up their situation grew increasingly desperate. So it was that around the year 1849 they took the decision to emigrate. But their funds couldn’t stretch to a passage for five. Like so many other families, they would have to seperate. John would blaze the trail, seeking to earn enough money in the New World to quickly send for his wife and children. But at least John wasn’t travelling into the unknown. When he left, he did so with the New York City address of his Dingle cousin Mary Ann Sullivan tucked into his pocket. Emily also told him to be sure and call on her older brother William- then plying his trade as a shoemaker in Brooklyn. (9)
When John Kavanagh Senior landed in New York he made straight for Mary Ann Sullivan’s home. Apart from being a welcome-face, John could help supplement his cousin’s income as a boarder. This was particularly welcome in 1849, given the fact that Mary Ann was expecting another child. Her eldest son Thomas would later recall how John talked about his wife and three children back in Kerry around their New York dinner table. Looking to make money as fast he could, John took a position at the docks, where there was always demand for laboring men. Many of them were set to work unloading vessels laden down with “white gold” from the South, the slave-picked cotton that was such an important part of the New York economy. On the morning of 17th April 1850, John was told to make for Pier No. 5, where the ship Universe lay awaiting his attentions. As he and his workmates sweated over the heavy cotton bales, one of them broke loose, and made straight for John. It smashed directly into his head, striking him “with so much force as to knock him down and kill him”. (10)
Young Thomas Sullivan and his father had to go to the dead house to see to his cousin John’s body. Mary Ann was unable to attend, as she was suffering from “sickness”, having giving birth to her baby just seven days earlier. While they attended the funeral, Thomas and his father couldn’t accompany the body to its final resting place, as it took place over the river in Williamsburgh. Perhaps this was an arrangement attended to by John’s Smith in-laws in Brooklyn. (11)
Back in Kerry, Emily was none the wiser. Indeed, she had recently received a letter from John, telling her he had gathered enough money for her and the children to join him. She and her friend Sarah Ann had pored over this joyous news together, excited by the fact that it was “giving her directions about coming”. Hot on its heels came the next comminique, which told Emily of John’s death. The news undoubtedly rocked her, and thoughts of America had to be put on hold. But hopes of a better life and better prospects were infectious, and with each passing spring fewer and fewer of her friends and family were to be seen around Dingle. In 1851 her sister Jenny and Sarah Ann departed for New York, settling in Brooklyn and New York City respectively. Finally, in 1852, Emily rekindled her plans. She gathered together her three boys, and headed for the emigrant boat. (12)
Though her brother William was steadily improving his lot, Emily’s position as a widow with three young children consigned her to a life on the breadline. Friends and relatives alike agreed the she “was left poor when her husband died and she is still poor”. She went straight to work, earning what she could, and her sons soon followed her. While her sister and brother made their homes in Brooklyn, Emily seems to have spent at least some of her time in New York City, perhaps working as a live-in domestic. In the early 1860s, she had an address at 9 East 14th Street. By then John Junior, a “good, industrious boy” who “always appeared to be glad to aid his mother” had moved in with his uncle William and taken a job as a store clerk on Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue. Meanwhile, his brother Joseph went to sea. By the beginning of the 1860s, only James- born around the time his father left Ireland in 1849-remained fully dependent on Emily. (13)
The coming of the war presented new opportunites for young men, and in September 1861 John Junior threw in his lot with the 51st, mustering in a month ahead of his older cousin. He passed every cent of pay he could spare to his mother, sending her $20 following his first pay muster, and $23 after his second. Then in early 1862, everything fell apart. In February, news arrived at Emily’s door that her second son James had been drowned at sea. She barely had time to digest that catastrophe before word arrived of John Junior’s fate at New Bern, dead alongside her nephew Robert. Aside from the incomprehensible anguish, the harsh practicalities of this double loss would have quickly begun to bite. Emily’s sister Jenny felt sure that “had he lived, [John Junior] would have been a great help to her in affording her a support from his own earnings”. That help was now gone. (14)
William, Emily and their wider circle of Kerry family and friends were united in loss. But circumstances and their combined means did allow them one comfort, often denied grieving parents during the American Civil War. They were able to send for the bodies of their two boys. The 22nd April 1862 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle carried news of the funeral, to be held at the Smith home in 85 Portland Avenue. From there the remains were conveyed the two and a half miles to Green-Wood Cemetery. The Dingle and Ventry diaspora gathered once more at the graveside. All the brothers, sisters, cousins, in-laws and friends were there; emigrants who had left West Kerry across a period of almost 25-years, together again in shared pain on the other side of the Atlantic. Once the last shovels of earth were placed on the graves, many of them would set themselves the task of recounting elements of Emily’s life, hoping their efforts would secure her a pension. Almost 160 years later, those affidavits, together with those given by others connected to the three New Bern Kerrymen, offer us a unique window into the individual and collective realities of life for the nineteenth century Kerry diaspora in Ireland, Canada and America. (15)
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(1) Official Records, 51st Roster, Pension Files, Muster Rolls; (2) 1860 Census, Anbinder 2001: 352-4, Pension Files; (3) Pension Files, Anbinder 2001: 64; (4) Pension Files; (5) 1850 Census, 1860 Census, Pension Files; (6) 1850 Census, 1860 Census, Transactions of the American Institute; (7) 1870 Census, Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1 February 1868; (8) Pension Files; (9) Pension Files; (10) Pension Files; (11) Pension Files; (12) Pension Files; (13) Pension Files; (14) Muster Rolls, Pension Files; (15) Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22nd April 1862;
Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
51st New York Infantry Roster.
New York Civil War Muster Rolls.
1850 Federal Census.
1860 Federal Census.
Civil War Pension Files.
American Institute of New York 1860. Transactions of the American Institute of the City of New York 1850-60.
Official Records of The War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 9. Report of Colonel Edward Ferrero, Fifty-First New York Infantry.
Anbinder, Tyler 2001. Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, And Became The World’s Most Notorious Slum.