On 17th June 1862 a Confederate shell arced through the sky from a battery positioned atop the Saint Charles bluffs on the White River, Arkansas. As it plunged donwards into the Union ironclad USS Mound City, it ruptured her steam chest, precipitating an event which was every Civil War sailor’s worst nightmare. There were few more horrific ways to die. In seconds, murderously hot steam had engulfed the vessel. Dozens of men were scalded to death where they stood, while others, savagely burned, flung themselves desperately into the surrounding water. Of the 175 men aboard, 125 ultimately perished, either scalded, drowned, or shot in the water. Only 25 of the compliment escaped the uninjured. For many of those that did survive, their life was forever altered. (1)
Many Irish Americans were among the USS Mound City slain. But one of those who managed to escape was Richard O’Brien. A recent emigrant to the United States, Richard had joined up in 1861. It seems his decision was largely due to the major slowdown then being experienced in the Massachusetts leather trade. Richard had some maritime experience in Ireland, and so the navy seemed a natural fit. At the time he was 22-years-old, and was described as 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall, with hazel eyes, brown hair and a light complexion. There is no doubt that he was extremely fortunate to survive the steam explosion on the White River, as most of those scalded died of their injuries. After prolonged treatment he was discharged, but his life would never be the same again. Despite the fact that he was struggling from the lasting impact of his injuries, economic necessity caused him to rejoin the navy in August 1864, and for the next year he served as a Coal Heaver aboard USS Clyde as she patrolled the Florida coast. Afterwards he returned to Massachusetts, but the steam that had so maimed him in 1862 continued to claw at his body. His efforts to rekindle his work in the leather trade were hampered by frequent bouts of illness, most of it caused by the steam that had scorched his lungs. Eventually, he was only able to work intermittently, and so he turned to the U.S. Government in search of a pension.
As part of his efforts to secure his payment, Richard turned to his friends and neighbours for affidavits. As was so often the case, they were all Irish- from the man he enlisted with, to the family he boarded with, to the men he worked with in the leather shop. All told a similar tale. Cork plumber Owen Canty had joined up with Richard, and also served on the Mississippi River, though he was assigned to USS Carondelet. As Richard lay gravely wounded in 1862 aboard the Queen of the West at Memphis, Owen went to visit him. He remembered how his friend was “terribly scalded on the head, neck, arms and legs and was covered with flour on account of his burns”. Owen also noted that Richard had inhaled steam into his lungs and throat. John Donohy and Martin Shaughnessy saw Richard when he came home, and recalled he was “sick with a bad cough and raised blood when he coughed…caused by scalding on his head and by inhaling hot steam into his lungs”. Richard had boarded with Thomas Connelly before his enlistment, and returned to Connelly’s Boston home after his first discharge. His appearance shocked Thomas:
he was all covered with scars and sores from the terrible scalding he had received while in the navy. His head, neck, arms and legs and feet were badly burned and he appeared to be injured internally from inhaling the steam. He was in a very feeble condition.
Richard’s neigbour, Denis O’Brien, recalled that “much of the time he was unable to work”, while Thomas Healy, who worked with the former sailor in the leather shop, stated that by the 1880s he was only able to do half the work of an ordinary man. Eventually, Richard gave his own statement. Written in the first person, it offers a fascinating insight into his story, from his arrival at Castle Garden through to his injury in Arkansas, and beyond. It was dictated at Hopkinton, Massachusetts on 11th June 1883, when Richard was 43-years-old:
I was born in Ireland and came to this country in or about 1857, and landed in New York at Castle Garden and came direct to Boston Massachusetts and got there about September 1857 and stayed there till November 1st when I went to Hopkinton, where I stayed till January 1861 then I went to Boston again and stayed there till I enlisted into the U.S. Navy. When I was in Ireland I was a sailor and when I went to Boston I went to work along shore, discharging ships and the like work, during all of which time I was well and strong, after I went to Hopkinton and while I worked there I was working at shoe making and was well and strong, but in January 1861 work was slack and I went to Boston and worked at my old occupation till I enlisted, and was well and strong. I never had any sickness or employed a doctor in this country before enlistment I was always well both in this Country and Ireland. When I enlisted I was a strong and able bodied man.
I enlisted about June 1861 and was in the navy well and strong till June 1862, when I was hurt in action before fort St. Charles on White River, Arkansas. I was hurt from or by scalding from the blowing up of the gunboat or vessel Mound City by a ball from a rebel battery. After I was hurt I was removed as soon as I could be to a general hopstial at Mound City, Illinois, where I was treated and taken care of in hospital by the surgeon in attendance till about the 1st of November 1862. I was short time in a naval hospital at said city. I was transferred to a receiving ship for my discharge. After my discharge I came to Boston and was in Boston 2 or 3 months and was treated by Dr Robert Green I then came to Hopkinton and stayed there and while here I was treated by Dr Pratt. Each of them treated me for a lung disease caused by scalding steam. Subsequently I went into the navy was examined by a surgeon and rejected. By order of the naval officer I was received and I was there till September 1865 and again discharged and since then I have lived in Hopkinton and Ashland adjoining Hopkinton. Since my discharge I have worked at shoe making what I could. I have been able to earn about one third of what I could earn if well, and suffer continually from the burns and from inhaling the steam. I am not able to do much steady work.
When Richard had returned from his second enlistment in 1865 he had married Delia Shaughnessey. The couple went on to have two sons, James (b.1876) and William (b.1878). The family could only look on as Richard struggled ever more consistently with his health. Regularly unable to afford medical assistance, he attempted to treat himself as well as he could. In the 1880s, the examining physicians for his pension laid out the litany of consequences of his 1862 scalding. He had burn scars on his hand, arms, both elbows, neck, face and throat. The burns on his neck and face had contracted his skin, restricting his movement. He suffered from a constant bloody cough, skin complaints and was tender to the touch on his limbs and head. He had bronchitis in both lungs. A “violent catherization” following his injury in 1862 had deformed his genitalia, forcing him to walk straddle legged, and necessitating caution every time he sat down. He was not able to stand any cold or physical labour, which caused cramps in his hands and feet. He suffered from itchy sensations in his head, neck and arms, and was also “troubled with shortness of breadth”.
Thankfully, Denis finally secured a much deserved pension, though he was only able to enjoy it for a few years. The scalding he received on the White River in 1862 finally killed him on 11th January 1889 in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. He was just 48-years-old. The Register of Deaths noted that the bootmaker’s demise had been caused by a “haemorraghe of the lungs”. The following year, his wife Delia would go in pursuit of a widow’s pension, forced to do so as she and the family were reduced to surviving “only on what her children can earn in the boot shop”. (2)
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(1) Joiner 2007: 73; (2) Massachusetts Death Records;
Massachusetts Death Records.
Gary D. Joiner 2007. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy.