One of the aims of the Andersonville Irish Project is to use the men identified within the National Cemetery as a vehicle for exploring the wider social story of 1860s Irish America. Just such an opportunity surrounds the case of Irish immigrant James McMahon, who rests within Grave 1139. James’s death in 1864 played havoc on his family, inflicting a blow from which they struggled to recover. This was particularly true for his widow Annie, who experienced many dark moments in the years that followed the Civil War– moments that brought near disastrous results for herself and her children.
The 1860 Census found James and Annie McMahon living in Philadelphia’s 17th Ward, where James was employed as a weaver. The Irish immigrants had married in the city’s St. Michael’s Catholic Church in 1850. By the time 1860 came round they had six young children, William (b. 1851), James (b. 1853), Patrick (b. 1854), Margaret (b. 1857), Elizabeth (b. 1858) and Mary Jane (b.1861). In August of 1861 James enlisted in what became Company F of the 73rd Pennsylvania Infantry. The 73rd formed part of the ill-fated 11th Corps, which experienced such difficult days at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. James survived them both, and was still with his regiment when it was transferred to the Western Theater. But further horrors awaited the 73rd at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, Tennessee on 25th November 1863. Although a Union victory, the regiment took enormous casualties during the fighting. James was one of many who fell into Confederate hands.
James and his captured comrades were first sent to Richmond before their ultimate transfer to Andersonville in 1864. One of those taken with him was Joseph Fortescue, who later recounted James’s fate in the Georgia prison:
I saw him every day. In the latter part of March McMahon was taken sick with Chronic Diarrhoea and continued getting worse until he died on or about the 25th day of April 1864 [it was actually the 16th May]. I cannot state the exact day of the month, as every day seemed alike to us during our captivity. I was present with him about two hours before he died, and after death helped bury him.
Back in Philadelphia, Annie had received news of James’s fate by the end of 1864. By then the eldest of her six children had just turned thirteen– her youngest was three. If she was to stave off economic disaster, she had to move fast in an effort to try and secure some financial assistance. She applied for a pension that December. Among those who witnessed it for her were her aunt, Mary Mallon, and another Irish American woman, Ellen Donnelly.
Annie was successful in claiming a pension, but many difficulties lay ahead. The loss of her husband appears to have taken a major emotional toll on her, something that must surely have been exacerbated by the constant financial stress and strain of trying to raise young children alone while living on the margins. Worse, there is a strong indication that her youngest, Mary Jane, may also have died, as the young girl’s name ceases to be mentioned as a dependent child. Understandably, it all proved too much. By 1868, Ann was hitting the bottle, and hitting it hard. The scale of the problem was revealed in August that year, when Father Walsh of St Michael’s wrote the following letter to the Pension Bureau:
You would confer a favor on the undersigned if you would retain for some time yet the pension of Mrs Anne McMahon. She is a drunken disorderly character and takes no care of herself or children. You will therefore retain it until you hear from me through her or her Aunt Mrs Mallon, a very worthy woman who has charge of her children. By complying you much oblige your humble servant,
Pastor St. Michael’s
August 24th 1868
Society showed little sympathy towards working-class women like Annie in such situations. Rather than an acknowledgement of the trauma and untold hardship she had experienced, instead she was looked down upon as a woman of weak character and moral failing. In such instances the Pension Bureau were usually quick to suspend pension payments; Annie’s case was no different. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that there were very real concerns for Annie’s children. This was demonstrated by the actions of Annie’s aunt, Mary Mallon. In September 1868 Mary also wrote to the Bureau, declaring her intent to apply for guardianship of the children. Given that Mary had been one of those who had helped Annie first secure the pension, the comments she made as to why she was doing so reveal the extent of Annie’s illness:
Ann has become a perfectly abandoned character and is drunk whenever she can get a cent to buy liquor with…she does not support any one of the children but has pawned everything she could get hold of and deponent [Mary] fears she is past any reformation. If she draws her own Pension on the 4th September she will spend the whole of it for drink and none of it will be devoted either to the children or to buy any requisite comfort for herself.
Mary’s actions clearly came from a place of real concern. She was successful in her application for guardianship, which was granted in March 1869. Had it ended here, the story would be yet another to add to the long list where alcohol abuse and Civil War loss combined to bring tragedy to the lives of Irish Americans. But Annie McMahon was a determined woman. Just three months later, Mary was giving another statement to the Pension Bureau about her niece, one that was much more welcome:
Ann has to every appearance reformed and she believes is going to be a better woman and will hereafter take proper care of her children. She has entirely abstained from drink for a time, and has taken a house and put her children in it and has promised and entire reformation.
Mary asked that Annie’s pension suspension be revoked, and promised that she would help her niece as much as she could. Against the odds, Annie had managed to come back from the brink. Her “reformation” was confirmed by one of the Bureau’s agents, who met with the two women to assess the case:
Ann McMahon is now before me with her aunt Mary Mallon. Ann appears to be genteely dressed, and looks as if some considerable reformation has taken place and she assures me that however bad she may have been, or neglectful of her children that she is in the future going to be a better woman and mother– I think she had better be trusted and her pension paid her so as to enable her to do what she promised to do in reference to taking care of her children.
The treatment of Annie McMahon throughout her case is illustrative of the prejudicial and judgmental attitudes towards poor working-class immigrant women that were ever present within 19th century society, and which were a constant within the pension system. It is a testament to Annie that she succeeded in overcoming them in order to hold her family together. We will never know the extent to which this was a “happy-ending”. It is unlikely that the underlying causes of Annie’s alcohol problem simply disappeared, and she probably long struggled with the mental impact of the losses she had endured. However, she never again faced the censure of the Bureau for her drinking, and appears to have maintained her relationship with her children for the remainder of her life. In the end, Annie outlived her husband James by more than forty years. When she passed away in 1904–then in her early seventies–she did so at the home of her daughter Elizabeth. Today the Irish immigrant and her daughter rest together at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Philadelphia.
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73rd Pennsylvania Infantry Muster Rolls