Over the years I have come to realise how extremely rare it is to be able to identify precisely where in Ireland ordinary American Civil War servicemen originated. There are only a handful of times where sufficient information has survived that enables us to zoom into the very field or house that these men and their families called home before they made for the emigrant boat. As such, it is always a special moment when the surviving records make it possible. Today brought one such moment. It relates to the story of Charles McKenna, whose family had journeyed from Tyrone to Rhode Island, the state where he would ultimately become a corporal in the Rhode Island Cavalry. The key to uncovering their Irish farmstead were the post-war efforts of two Catholic Bishops located on different sides of the Atlantic.
The McKennas appear to have left for America around the early 1830s, where they made their home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Charles’s mother Catharine died in their new home in the summer of 1838. In the years afterwards, Charle’s father Patrick- a laborer- began to suffer increasingly from a severe ulceration on his leg. By the time of the Civil War age and infirmity meant he increasingly needed the support of his son in order to maintain the household. Charles McKenna had spent the seven years leading up to his enlistment as an employee of the Dunnell Print Works in Pawtucket. Each month he brought home between $18 and $25 a month, much of which he gave to his widower father. Charles helped out by putting money towards flour, pork, potatoes and rent, as well as the other necessities of life. Finally, he decided to don Union blue. His first taste of army life came in June 1862, when he enlisted in the three-month 7th Rhode Island Cavalry, serving in the Washington Defences and during the Maryland Campaign. Charles must have enjoyed the experience, as upon his muster out he was quickly back in uniform. In October 1862 he mustered in as a Corporal in Company B of the 2nd Rhode Island Cavalry, and immediately gave his father $375 in bounty money. He would continue to send large sums home throughout his time in the army.
Charles spent the remainder of his war in the Department of the Gulf, serving in a number of campaigns in and around Louisiana, including the operations against Port Hudson. In January 1864 his much-reduced unit was transferred into the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry, based out of New Orleans. On 8th February 1864, Charles was out watering his horse when the animal became frightened and bolted. He was “violently thrown to the ground” and struck on the head, causing lacerations which proved fatal. His body was eventually taken to what is now Chalmette National Cemetery in Louisiana, where it remains today.
The key to unlocking the precise location of the McKenna homestead in Tyrone came in the post-war pension application of Charles’s father Patrick. Patrick revealed in his application that he had been married to Catharine McElroy “in the Parish Church of Clogher near Augher” by the Reverend Father McCaffery, a Roman Catholic Priest, in October 1823. But Patrick needed to prove it, and he had difficulty doing so. Such had been the degree of emigration from the area that those who had been present at the marriage were now all in America, and none of them could remember the exact date of the ceremony (a regular problem for illiterate people). In desparation, Patrick turned towards the Church for help.
The man Patrick McKenna asked to intercede was Francis Patrick McFarland, the Bishop of Hartford, Connecticut. Though he had been born in Pennsylvania, Bishop McFarland’s parents had emigrated from Co. Armagh, and so he would have had sympathy for the plight of the McKenna family. In an effort to glean some concrete evidence of the marriage, Bishop McFarland wrote to his counterpart, Bishop James Donnelly in Ireland. Donnelly was the Bishop of Clogher, the diocese in which the McKennas had been married.
Bishop Donnelly in turn put Father Carolan onto the case. He was the parish priest of Clogher, and he set about investigating the matter. On 4th November 1868, Father Carolan sent in his report:
4th November 1868
Most Revd Dr. Donnelly [Bishop of Clogher]
I was in such a hurry to catch the post yesterday that I had not time to allude to the marriage case which his Lordship, the Bishop of Hartford, inquires about.
I had public notice given about it in all the churches of the parish. I can find no person who was actually present at the marriage or can fix a precise date; but several trust worthy persons testify that they know the parties mentioned (Patrick McKenna and Catherine McElroy) to have been lawfully married and to have lived as man and wife in the immediate vicinity of this town.
Among others, Mr. Patrick Gartland and his wife remember them well. They purchased the farm (in a townland called Derries) on which McKenna and his wife had lived for some time. They (Mr and Mrs Gd) also state that they themselves were married in February 1819, and that the marriage of Patrick McKenna and Catherine McElroy took place about three or four years afterwrds, which corresponds with the date (1823) mention in Bp McF’s letter. Your Lordship is aware there was no marriage register kept in those days.
I remain Your Lordship’s Obedinet Servant
P. Carolan, P.P. Clogher
The levels to which Father Carolan had gone in order to prove the marriage of a long departed emigrant is testament to the power a request from a Bishop held. The priests letter served its purpose, and proved sufficient to secure the pension for Patrick. But more than 150 years later, it also allows us to trace precisely where the McKennas were from, and the land they had farmed prior to their pre-Famine emigration. Father Carolan had spoken with Patrick Gartland, who had purchased the farm that Patrick and Catharine McKenna had worked before their emigration. It was almost certainly the purchase of this land that financed the family’s emigration to Rhode Island.
In 1851, long after the McKennas had left for America, the assessment known as Griffith’s Valuation was undertaken in the Parish of Clogher. In Derries townland, outside the village of Augher, one of the seven tenants recorded was Patrick Gartland. He held a little over 17 acres of farmland, valued at £13 and 15 shillings, with a house valued at 5 shillings. It is this map that in turn allows us to position where the McKennas had orignated. The buildings that they and the Gartlands called home have long disappeared beneath the plough. Nevertheless, their identification allows us to imagine their lives here, in the fields and lanes that clung to the north bank of Tyrone’s River Blackwater, and to contemplate the impact of nineteenth century emigration on this landscape.
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Griffith’s Valuation (www.askaboutireland.ie).
Find A Grave.
Gary Carville. 2012 “Bishop James Donnelly and the Catholic Electorate: The Monaghan Liberal Registration Society 1874-1885”, Clogher Record 21 (1), 2012, 43-64.