The Civil War world has been captivated in recent weeks by the identification of a previously overlooked burial map of the Antietam battlefield, prepared by Simon G. Elliot in 1864. The staff of New York Public Library first recognised the map’s historic value, digitising it and making it available online as part of their Digital Collections (you can explore the map in full on their site here). It was there that Timothy Smith and Adam Davis of the Adams County Historical Society discovered it while conducting research, immediately recognising its incredible significance. The identification of the map made national news across the U.S. in June 2020, and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from marking out the locations of Federal and Confederate burials, the map identifies numerous graves to unit, and remarkably, 50 of them are individually named. If you are interested in gaining an insight into just how significant a discovery this is, check out the new dedicated page to the map on the Antietam National Battlefield website here.
For those of us with a particular interest in Irish American service, there is much to be excited about on the Elliot map. Not least are graves associated with “green flag” units, such as the 63rd New York (Irish Brigade), the 69th Pennsylvania and the 28th Massachusetts, and those of heavily Irish regiments like the 42nd New York. It also soon became apparent that at least some of the individually named graves were those of Irish Americans. I was particularly drawn to a small group of isolated Federal graves that were depicted close to the Newcomer Farm, just across the Middle Bridge on the west side of Antietam Creek. Two of three graves immediately jumped out as likely Irish American, that of “W. Finley U.S.” and “J.N. Laughlin 4 Pa.” I decided to see what I could find out about these men and their origins, and how they met their end. The stories I uncovered are below.
Private William Finley, Battery M, 4th United States Artillery
William Finley was born around 1835 in Co. Tyrone. His military career began on 3rd September 1855, when he enlisted in the Regulars at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Then he was described as 5 feet 9 inches tall, with blue eyes, brown hair, and a light complexion. He was assigned to Company C of the newly formed 10th United States Infantry, and was initially stationed at Fort Snelling, in present day Minnesota. Across the next five years William grew into a veteran soldier, participating in wide-ranging operations on the western frontier. He served against Native Americans and also participated in the “Utah Expedition” of 1857-8 against the Mormons. He was in Kansas Territory when his time ran out on 3rd September 1860, and was discharged from a camp in the field. (1)
William does not seem to have taken to his new life as a civilian. He spent a little over five months out of uniform before once again opting for the military. The now 26-year-old duly presented himself at Newport, Kentucky on 16th February 1861, where he signed on for another five years in the service. This time, the hardened infantryman was assigned to Battery M of the 2nd United States Artillery. He probably joined up with his unit around the time it was relocating from Kansas to Texas, just as the American Civil War was breaking out. Having successfully extricated itself from what soon became a Confederate state, the battery and William went on to participate in the First Bull Run and Peninsula Campaigns, before arriving at the banks of Antietam Creek with the Army of the Potomac. (2)
On 17th September 1862 William’s Battery M was under the command of Lieutenant Peter Hains. That officer later described the action which led to the young Tyrone emigrant’s death:
We crossed the bridge at the Antietam Creek, moved forward, and immediately engaged the enemy. One section, under command of Lieutenant Hamilton, was placed in position on the right of the road [William was stationed here], the other, under Sergeant Reilly, on the left, placed there by Captain Robertson. The enemy were in considerable force in front of us, and concentrated a heavy artillery fire on the right section. Sharpshooters sent forward by the enemy, and posting themselves behind a stone wall, annoyed us some, they being in good rifle range. After several hours’ hard fighting, the enemy were either driven from their guns or compelled to retire. About this time I received orders to retire my battery, which not being immediately obeyed was repeated. I then retired the right section one piece at a time. As soon as the right section was fairly on the road I retired the other. Our loss in the whole engagement was, with the exception of one single horse, confined wholly to Lieutenant Hamilton’s section. In that section I lost Lance Corporal Frain, wounded, 2 privates killed, 2 wounded, and 2 horses wounded. (3)
William was one of the two privates who lost his life. He was buried behind the guns either during this first action, or after Hains returned to fight here again after 5pm. He was later removed to Antietam National Cemetery, where is grave remains today.
Private James McLaughlin, 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry
The grave marked as that of “J.N. Laughlin” on Elliot’s map was actually that of James McLaughlin of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry. James had enlisted on 13th of August 1861 in Wayne County, becoming a private in Company M of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry. His regiment had moved across the Middle Bridge to support William Finley’s guns, and were caught up in the counter-battery fire directed against them. The day after the battle, one of James’s comrades wrote of what occured, a description which provides us with an exact account of what led to the death of James and his 4th Pennsylvania comrade:
Camp near Boonesboro
Washington Co Md
Mr Ross Patterson
It is my painful duty to inform you sir of the death of James McGlothling. He was instantly killed by the explosion of a shell in the Battle of yesterday which killed him and one of his comrades wounding two others and killing four horses. I took from his pocket after the battle seventeen ($17) dollars which I enclose to you he had no papers of any description about him having destroyed them a few days before.
If you know where his parents and friends are please inform them and forward them the money. Having heard the deceased often speak of you as a friend I address you this please write and acknowledge this letter.
Co M 4th Penn Cav
Washington DC (4)
Given he had taken the time to search James’s belongings, it may well be that Cramer was one of those who originally buried James and his Company M comrade William Daunt, the other man killed by the shell, on the battlefield.
Aside from the fact that his parents were certainly Irish emigrants, much of the rest of James McLaughlin’s background is shrouded in mystery. In the years following his death a battle over the dependent pension entitlement based on his service developed. The protagonists were two former sisters-in-law, Catharine McCarty of Palmyra Township, Wayne County and Mary Campbell of Carbondale, Lackawanna County. Though both bore the surnames of their second marriages, in the 1830s they had been married brothers John and James McLaughlin, and both claimed that the deceased James was their son. (5)
The area near the Newcomer House where William Finley and James McLaughlin were buried as it appears today (Google Maps)
Catharine McCarty stated that before the war her son James, born in 1844, had helped her on the family’s small land holdings at Cherry Ridge and later Berlin in Wayne County. As well as the affidavits she offered in support of her claim she was able to produce the above letter concerning James’s death. It had been sent to Ross Patterson of Waymart, Pennsylvania, who had been James’s employer when he had enlisted. Mary Campbell’s son James had apparently been born around 1833, and had been a boatman on the North Branch Canal before enlisting. In support of her claim she brought forward those who claimed to have visited James in the regiment, and also procured testimony from James’s former comrades Captain Alfred Dart and Private John Martin. Both of them vociferously swore to the fact that James was her son, not least because they contended that he bore a close family resemblance to Mary Campbell, but none at all to Catharine McCarty. (6)
We may never know which of these first cousins was actually the man who enlisted in the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, though further exploration of his compiled military service record may reveal which of the two was likely closer in age. What is certain is that when he fell at Antietam, his comrades wanted to make sure his grave would be readily identifiable in the field, an obligation they also felt towards his company comrade, William Daunt. A little further upslope, his fellow Irish American William Finley was afforded similar respect. Together, all three held fast in their lonely corner of the battlefield, as they awaited their final move to Antietam National Cemetery.
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(1) Register of Enlistments, Rodenbough & Haskin; (2) Ibid.; (3) Official Records; (4) Pension Files; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.;
New York Public Library Digital Collections.
U.S. Army Register of Enlistments.
Official Records Series 1, Volume 51, Part 1. Official Report of Lieutenant Peter Hains, 26th September 1862.
Theodore E. Rodenbough & William L. Haskin (eds) 1896. The Army of the United States: Historical Sketches of Staffand Line with Portraits of Generals-in-Chief.