Though we tend not to associate Dublin with large-scale nineteenth century emigration, many thousands of people departed the city and county in the years before the American Civil War. Substantial numbers lost their lives during the conflict, as the widows and dependent pension files attest. The Dubliners I come across had often made their homes in the inner city, and some, particularly those who served in the Union Navy, came home. One of them was Thomas O’Sullivan. Thomas spent much of his life moving around different Dublin tenements. Along with a number of his fellow Civil War veterans in the city, he kept a keen on eye on America, and any legislative amendments that might increase his entitlements as an old serviceman. This caused Thomas to consistently communicate his circumstances to both the local U.S. Consul and to the Pension Bureau in Washington D.C., communications that provide us with a detailed glimpse into his life.

American Civil War veteran Thomas O’Sullivan and his family enumerated in their North Strand home on the 1911 Census (National Archives of Ireland)

Thomas O’Sullivan was born in Dublin on 13th June 1844. Like a lot of men around him, he decided to pursue a future on the sea, and joined a crew when he little more than a boy. He was at most 16 when he did so, and presumably plied the trans-Atlantic routes. By the time he was 18, in late 1862, the Dublin-youngster’s maritime adventures had landed him in the heart of New York City. The lodgings he took at Richard Caradine’s boarding house on Oliver Street were close to both the famed Five Points intersection and the busy Manhattan waterfront. He found himself in the Empire City at a time when his expertise was in demand, and on 17th September 1862 he decided to take advantage of that fact. Claiming he was 21, the 18-year-old presented himself at the New York Naval Rendezvous and enlisted in the Union Navy, where his previous experience led to him being rated an Ordinary Seaman. Thomas no doubt hoped that his decision to join up would be rewarded with prize money from captured Confederate vessels. On enlistment he was described as five feet five and a half inches tall, had a light complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair.

Manhattan and its waterfront in 1873, a landscape that Thomas O’Sullivan was very familiar with (George Schlegel)

When Thomas first started to seek a pension in the early 1900s, he wrote from Dublin to offer a description of his 12 months of wartime Union service:

I joined the US Navy in the year 1861 [actually 1862] at New York and was sent to the Receiving Ship North Carolina, from there to the Receiving Ship Princeton at Philadelphia and drafted to the gunboat Quaker City, took a small yacht, a prize with a gentlemen in her supposed to be J.C. Calhoon. Was on the Blockading Squadron till the rams came out of Charleston [where he later said the Confederates “drove us all off the Blockade, the large ships been at Port Royal coaling”] and got a slight wound then drafted to the frigate New Ironsides and was at the three engagements of Charleston and the taking of Fort Sumpter and I was sent on to Philadelphia and honourably discharged at the navy yard…

The USS Quaker City, which Thomas served on during the Civil War (Navy Art Collection)

Thomas was discharged from the navy on 7th October 1863. His initial recounting of his service after more than forty years was a bit patchy, and he got some details wrong, like his year of enlistment and the capture of Fort Sumter (and it seems in his identification of John C. Calhoun, a noted defender of slavery and had died in 1850). His reference to the “rams coming out of Charleston” was an engagement that occurred on 31 January 1863, when the Confederate ironclads CSS Chicora and Palmetto drove off the Quaker City and other vessels. After his transfer to the New Ironsides, he fought in the First Battle of Charleston Harbor, the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, and the Second Battle of Charleston Harbor, seeing extremely intensive service through to his discharge.

This remarkable image, taken from Morris Island, South Carolina on 7th September 1863, shows the USS New Ironsides (at right) in action against Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie. Thomas was almost certainly aboard, in the final days of his service (Library of Congress)

Thomas didn’t spend long in the United States after his Civil War service. He was back in Dublin by 1867, sporting souvenirs of his maritime service in the form of a Goddess of Liberty tattoo on his right arm, and a sailor and girl on his left arm. On 25th January that year he married Teresa Moy at St. Kevin’s Roman Catholic Church, and they would go on to have five children who survived to adulthood. From then on, Thomas always made his home in and around the inner city. His first address after his return from the Civil War was on Barrow Street beside Grand Canal Dock, but he soon moved on to 10 Kevin Street, and later to Jane Place.

Another depiction of USS New Ironsides, on which Thomas served (U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command)

Thomas secured an initial pension of $10 per month from the Federal government in 1907, based on rheumatism and an injury he suffered to his eye and leg. He explained that his “eye was injured off Charleston in the Quaker City and my leg crushed by a gun carriage in New Ironsides at Charleston”. Thomas also had a 15cm long scar on his trunk, which he claimed was caused by a splinter of wood that was sheared off from the bulwark of the Quaker City after she was struck by a shot. His application had not been straighfroward. He experienced an issue that afflicted many prospective Irish pensioners when he was seeking to prove his pension eligibility. Though his surname was “O’Sullivan”, he had been recorded in the military as “Sullivan”, and so the U.S. government had some doubts that he was the same man. Eventually he successfully convinced them he was who he claimed to be, but his response demonstrated the fluidity of nineteenth century surnames. Thomas explained it as follows:

my right name is Thomas O’Sullivan…as regards my name I have been signing my name these years as Sullivan and O’Sullivan and I did not think the “O” made such a difference and I am very sorry it did but I declare on my oath that all this writing is truth and also correct every particle Thomas O’Sullivan, my personal hand writing.

One of Thomas’s affidavits when he was seeking a pension (NARA)

You can read more about Irish emigrants “leaving off the ‘O'” here. In 1912, Thomas became aware that a pension increase had been authorised by the U.S. Government. This prompted him to write to America from his home at 4 Poplar Row on the North Strand, which by then had been his home of 24 years:

having seen that the Pensions of the Veterans of the Civil War is increased and passed as law, I take the liberty of sending these lines to you as the vice Consulate won’t give any information…I served in the navy for over twelve months and I can give a full account of my service. I am drawing a pension since 1907 first a ten dollars now at 12 dollars…I hope you will forgive any deficency in this as my eye sight is very bad I am sixty eight years of age…Dear Sir, I would wish to know if I will have to pay fees to the Consulate as I am very poor at present. Hoping in antispation of your kind answer, I remain your most humble servant and veteran,

Thomas O’Sullivan, 4 Poplar Row, North Strand, Dublin, Ireland

In a further note written a few weeks later, he added:

I hope you will forgive any errors that is in this form. I am getting old and my eye sight is getting very bad so I am deficient in a good many things. May God spare you to us Old Veterans of War.

Thomas became aware of the increase to pensioners through the newspapers. When he wrote from the North Strand, he included the relevant clipping with his letter (NARA)

By the following year, Thomas and his wife Teresa had left Poplar Row and moved into the Corporation Buildings off Foley Street. Shortly after they made the move, this working-class tenement flat complex was caught up in the unrest that engulfed the city during the 1913 Lockout (which you can read more about here), as police attempted to charge striking workers in and around the buildings. A month prior to that incident, on 29th July 1913, Thomas had written another letter to the United States:

I have made and sent to Washington application for increase of pension under the act of May 11th 1912 I am now 69 years of age and I got no answer as yet there is several veterans has got there papers for the increase of pension in this city, a man that served with me in the Old War in the navy Bishop by name has got his papers, and others…send me a line if there is anything the matter with my papers as I feel it greatly being in failing health, eye sight bad and I got all answers back satisfactory, so I feel as if I was condemned altogether…I have changed my residence on two occasions through my health…Dear Site I hope you will forgive any mistakes in this as I am not a perfect scholar, writing to a gentleman

Tenements in Foley Street, where Thomas O’Sullivan spent the final years of his life (Dublin City Council Photographic Collection)

This letter demonstrates that there was a network of old American Civil War veterans who kept in touch with each other in Dublin’s inner city (for the story of another of these men, see here). In fact, Thomas had initially been alerted to the increase in pension because one of them had brought him a copy of the Washington Tribune, which had carried news of it. When Teresa died on 9th February 1914, Thomas was left alone in Corporation Buildings. It seems that some of his former Union comrades were now among his closest confidants, as his now adult children had moved elsewhere. But it was to be the unfortunate case that over the last years of his life, Thomas’s situation degraded badly.

In December 1920 another of old American military pensioner, Edward Conway, called to 73 Corporation Buildings to see how Thomas was getting on. He found the old sailor “without fire or food”. Edward went to Thomas’s daughter Mary at 3 Fownes Street to tell her of her father’s condition. When Mary saw her father it was clear he was in a bad way, and she called on Dr. Molloy at the dispensary to see about treatment. Molloy-who accepted no payment for his care or the medicine he gave to Thomas-diagnosed him with bronchial pneumonia. Despite his best efforts, the old Civil War veteran died in his home at 10am on 15th December 1920. All that he had apparently left behind him was “one suit of clothing of no value”.

Thomas O’Sullivan’s Death Certificate (NARA)

Thomas appears to have had a difficult relationship with his children, some of the details of which emerged in the aftermath of his death. Aside from Mary (whose married name was Kenealy), there were John and Timothy, who lived a Nos. 9 and 48 Ballybough Road, Mora at 63 Summerhill Road, and Annie whose home was at 145 North Street in Belfast. According to the U.S. Consul, Thomas’s “daughters looked after him during his life while his sons neglected him”. When it came time for the veteran’s burial, the undertaker refused to take the body until the American Consul in Dublin, F.T.F. Dumont, would guarantee the funeral expenses, which amounted to £17. He did so, and Thomas O’Sullivan was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The story had a postscript. When clearing out his scant belongings Thomas’s daughter Annie found a sum of £41 that the pensioner had hidden away. Much to the Consul’s chagrin, rather than using some of it to over the undertaker bill (a sum the Federal Government would eventually recompense), she divided it equally among Thomas’s five children. In May 1921 the Consul wrote to the United States stating that he would keep his word to the undertaker and pay the bill out of his own pocket, but warned that if he was not repaid he would:

refuse in future to have anything to do with the burial of old pensioners and they will have to be buried at the expense of their relatives or of the public in the country in which they have resided- a rather disgraceful way to treat old pensioners

The building that housed Farrell’s undertakers who buried American Civil War veteran Thomas O’Sullivan in 1920 can be seen in this image taken during the Irish Civil War in 1922 (National Library of Ireland)

It doesn’t seem he ever carried out his threat, but it was a sad end to the story of Thomas O’Sullivan. He is one of many Dublin veterans of the American Civil War whose story has remains largely forgotten in the capital. His identification also adds another veteran to the growing list of Civil War dead buried in Glasnevin Cemetery (See here).

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The bill from Farrells for the burial of Thomas O’Sullivan in Glasnevin Cemetery, which forms part of his pension file in Washington D.C.’s National Archives (NARA)


Pension Files.

1911 Census.