Within the files of Irish Americans who died during the American Civil War, certain engagements crop up again and again. As a general rule, the very worst battlefields of the war for Irish Americans were those that took the greatest toll on New York regiments. More than twice as many Irish Americans served in New York units than those of any other state- when New York had a bad day, so did the Irish. The Battle of Williamsburg, Virginia on 5th May 1862 was a particularly black day for New York, and most particularly for the families of men in the Excelsior Brigade.
Though it is rarely regarded as one of the major engagements of the conflict, Williamsburg is a name I come across all too frequently (you can read of its impact on a family from the Aran Islands here and Kerry here). Irishmen were prominent in many of the units closely engaged, particularly those from New York. They abounded in units like the 37th New York ‘Irish Rifles’, the 38th New York ‘Second Scott’s Life Guard’, and the 40th New York ‘Mozart’ Regiment. It didn’t help Irish America that many of the non-New York units engaged at Williamsburg also carried considerable numbers from the “Old Sod” in their ranks. Plenty marched towards the Confederates in the ranks of regiments like the 1st and 11th Massachusetts, and among the Jerseyans of Hooker’s division. When Irish emigrant Alexander McConlogue of the 8th New Jersey fell, the widower left behind a now orphaned 3-year-old daughter. Tyrone native James Taggart went forward at Williamsburg in the ranks of the 7th New Jersey. When he was cut down in the area that would become known as “The Ravine”, he left behind a wife of thirty years and six adult children. These Irishmen’s blood was watering the ground even before the formation that would see the most Irish fall came on the field. At Williamsburg, it was the horrors inflicted upon the Excelsior Brigade that turned the battle from a bad day to a terrible one for Irish America.
The component regiments of the Excelsior Brigade were the 70th, 72nd, 73rd and 74th New York, men recruited in the main from New York City. The Brigade, which was experiencing its first major battle at Williamsburg, suffered an eye-watering 772 casualties on 5th May 1862, almost 270 of them fatal. Having conducted surname and other analysis on these men, it is apparent that in excess of 50 of the Excelsior’s fatalities were Irish Americans. Dozens more were maimed for life. Below are some of the stories of Irishmen and their families, people whose lives were forever altered as a result of that day’s clash.
70th New York Infantry (First Regiment)
Irish American John Nicholas Coyne was a Sergeant in the 70th New York Infantry at Williamsburg (and would be awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions there). He later remembered the moment as the Excelsiors waited to go into their first major battle at Williamsburg:
The rain is still falling, and the roads and woods are dismal. The air is heavy with moisture and seems like a pall. At last we are halted, and as the noise of jingling accouterments ceases, we hear peculiar sounds and reverberations. Our cheeks flush, and we begin tighten our belts and inspect our arms. We know what it means…the increasing noise indicates that the resistance is becoming serious.
When the battle did come, it was horrendous. In the savage fighting the 70th New York would suffer the most. They took almost 50 percent casualties. Irish Americans died in every one of their companies. Neither was it just the New York Irish who felt the pain. Sections of Company A had been recruited in New Jersey, including Sergeant Robert Harvey. The Kilwaughter, Co. Antrim native had been a member of the 1st Presbyterian Congregation of Larne, where he had wed Mary Anne Ogilby in 1849. The couple had only emigrated from Ireland to Paterson, New Jersey with their three young children around 1858. Before rushing to the colors in June 1861 Robert had been a laborer- he laid down his life for his new country on 5th May 1862. He wasn’t alone. George Behan of Company D was another New Jersey Irishman. Originally from Newlands near Newbridge in Co. Kildare, he had been working in a hat factory in Newark before enlisting. Before being gunned down at Williamsburg, he had been helping to support his widower father, who was in his seventies.
The losses sustained in Company H meant that the Massachusetts Irish shared in the suffering caused by the 70th New York’s decimation at Williamsburg. Peter Donahoe had helped to support his mother by working in a Boston glass factory before enlisting. That ended when he took three bullets to the head at Williamsburg. Not far away, Patrick Murphy crumpled to the ground. May 1862 would be a month his three children, 15-year-old Catharine, 14-year-old Michael and 11-year-old Mary, would never forget. Just 22 days after Patrick’s death in battle, their mother Joanna died of jaundice in their Boston Home. Yards away, in the same company, Corporal John O’ Leary breathed his last. John had emigrated to America around 1847, in the midst of the Famine. After four years of hard work, he had finally been able to send for his parents. They all settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, where for the next decade John supported them. Williamsburg left his by then widowed 64-year-old mother without a support.
The impact of Williamsburg was felt by the young as well as the old. In June 1861 Irish American brothers John and Matthew McCann both enlisted in Newark, New Jersey. Their parents has been married in Co. Meath before emigration, and the brothers were born and raised in New Jersey. Their father’s death in 1850 left them responsible for their mother Catherine, who was 62 when they enlisted. Leaving behind their work as Silver Platers, the two boys went to war with Company K of the 70th New York Infantry. 21-year-old John was a good soldier, and by the end of 1861 was a Sergeant, not doubt able to lord-it over his 22-year-old brother Matthew, who remained a private. But war changes everything. While both brothers went into the fight at Williamsburg, only John came out. The impact of his Matthew’s death must have been mental torture. That, together with the fact that he was no his mother’s sole support, may be the reason that John is recorded as having immediately deserted after the fight.
72nd New York Infantry (Third Regiment)
Over in Company C of the 72nd New York, Mathew Henry’s American story ended on 5th May 1862 having only just begun. His sister Margaret had led the way from Ireland, arriving in May 1859. 17-year-old Mathew had followed that Autumn. Both had left their native Co. Cavan to join others from their Irish community in Newark. When Mathew arrived he had boarded with the Boyle family, who had left Cavan around 1857. Their plan was to save as much of their earnings as possible in order to pay for the passage of their other family members. Margaret and Mathew sent regular letters back to their mother Catherine in Cavan. Catherine’s neighbour in Ireland, Michael Sheridan (who would also later emigrate to Newark) remembered “very frequently while in the Old Country being called by Mrs Henry to read letters received by her from her children in America”. Mathew’s letters-and the money that went with them-stopped after 5th May 1862. Later, his mother Catherine would travel to the United States to secure a pension. Once she had done so, she returned to her home outside Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan to live out her remaining years.
22-year-old Maurice Hinchey died at Mathew Henry’s side in Company C of the 72nd. Prior to enlisting the young emigrant had spent four years apprenticed in the shoemaking shop of fellow Irishman Edward Hughes in Paterson, New Jersey. The eldest child of widow Ellen Hinchey, Maurice’s death left her in dire financial distress. Not far from where Mathew and Maurice fell, another Irishman was leading Company E into the fray. Captain Patrick Barrett had left his position as the postmaster in Dunkirk, Chautauqua County to lead a company to war. It was a role he felt made for, having been the commander of the local “Jackson Guards” Militia Company. By the time of Williamsburg, the 29-year-old had just celebrated his third wedding anniversary, and his first child Mary’s second birthday was only weeks away. The bullet that struck him in the lower part of his body on 5th May 1862 led to his slow, painful death the following day. Philip Holland of Company H also took a bullet to the body, though in his case it too nearly six weeks to kill him. He was another new arrival in the United States. He and his wife Mary had wed in Kilkee, Co. Clare in 1859, prior to their departure.
73rd New York Infantry (Fourth Regiment)
Patrick Brennan from Muckalee, Co. Kilkenny was one of the Irishmen who marched towards The Ravine with the 73rd New York Infantry, the “Second Fire Zouaves”. His father had died in Ireland in 1847, during the Great Famine, after which his mother Mary had taken Patrick and his two siblings to New York. They settled in the heart of the notorious Five Points district, where Patrick soon took on the role of the family’s chief earner. In early 1861 he had confided to a friend that he was struggling to pay her rent, and had got a loan of $2 to tide him over. Perhaps financial concerns were one of the drivers for his enlistment in what became Company G of the 73rd. Whatever his original motivations and convictions, the 21-year-old gave his life for them on 5th May 1862. Patrick’s Captain at Williamsburg was fellow Irish American John Feeney. John had been a carpenter by trade, but like many other men who had joined the “Second Fire Zouaves”, he also had ties to the fire department. He was a member of Hose Company No. 50, “Hope”, which operated out of 10 1/2 Mott Street in Manhattan. John had been born into an Irish family in New York, and when he wed in 1850, he had married a member of the Irish community who had been born in England, Margaret Cunningham. Their union is an exemplar of the close ties that bound those of Irish ethnicity, even when they had not been born in Ireland itself. Having been wounded at Williamsburg, John lingered until 20 May 1862, dying in New York. Left with three young children, Margaret soon married again, wedding another Irish American in July 1863.
74th New York Infantry (Fifth Regiment)
Over in the ranks of the 74th New York Infantry one of those advancing towards the Confederate line at Williamsburg was Thomas McCready from Co. Donegal. His family had settled in Brooklyn just a few years before the war, having step migrated through Scotland. Before enlisting in Company C Thomas had worked as gardener in Flushing. Just two days before Williamsburg Thomas the 27-year-old wrote home to his mother and sister:
Camp Winfield Scott
May 3d 1862
Dear Mother I take pleasure in writing to you hoping to find you in good health as I am in at present thank God. I received a letter from you on the 2 inst which gave me great pleasure in hearing that yous are all well…There are seventy thousand to work day and night and we think Yorktown will be attacked next week. The only thing that I have learned since I came here was to dodge the shells they keep firing on us day and night, but still we build the batteries right up to their nose. We think this will be the last battle and I hope again the 4th of July that I will be shaking hands with you…Dear sister the reason that I wish that you and Mother were here was to see all the troops that we had laying around here you would think we had enough to sweep the world before us…I am still in good health myself and wish to the see the Battle of Yorktown over I think we would get discharged. You cheer up your hearts and be of good cheer I hope to see you soon again. I hope I will be in O’Briens once more. We are now got two months paid and I promised to send mother some sometime ago I will now send her twenty dollars and she may be looking for it two days from now. Give my love to Mother and all my brothers and sisters…Please write as soon as you get this good bye.
Thomas had told his mother to look for the $20 from him on 5th May, the day of the Battle of Williamsburg. This letter that was destined to arrive around the same time as news of the 27-year-old’s death during that fight. All throughout New York after the battle, news began flooding into Irish American homes of the cost of the engagement. Another of the 74th New York Irish emigrants to fall was 23-year-old Patrick Kennedy of Company H. Back in New York, his sixty-year-old mother Margaret received the following:
Cumberland Va May 18th 1862
Your letter of the 13th inst was handed to me by Col Butler of the 5th Regiment Excelsior Brigade this afternoon it having just reached him. It is with great regret that I have to inform you of the death of your son Patrick. He died fighting gallantly by my side, being in my Company and under my command. As it was God’s will that he should die in his first Battle it will be some satisfaction to you to know that he did not suffer any, his death being immediate. We buried him with due solemnity and soldiers tears watered his grave. Your son was much esteemed by me for his quick and soldierly manner and I deeply regret his loss. Upon the receipt of my Company Books, which will overtake us in a few days, I will make out a final statement of his accounts and forward them to Washington when you will be enable to get whatever is due to him. He has 2 months and 5 days pay due him, and what is clothing account is I cannot know until I get my books. But as soon as possible I will forward the accounts and at same time write you word. It is with words of regret for your loss, which I know how to appreciate that I now close this and remain,
Very respectfully my dear Madam your humble Servt
Capt. E. A. Harrison
Co. H. 74th Regt N.Y.V.
5th Excelsior Regiment
The author of this letter, Captain Edmund Harrison, was himself killed in action three months later.
While the Battle of Williamsburg does not enter our psyche with regards to Irish American service, it is apparent from the Excelsior Brigade losses alone that it had a devastating impact on many Irish families. The losses there reveal much to us about the makeup and nature of Irish America, and serve to demonstrate how the impact of individual battles can be used as case studies to explore the social history of Irish American working-class groups. For the New York Irish, more losses awaited on the Peninsula and at Second Bull Run, as the nation’s largest Irish enclave continued to pay a high price in blood on the battlefield. The impact of such losses on morale cannot be underestimated, and are a reminder that we must constantly seek to look beyond the Irish Brigade, the “ethnic” Irish regiments, and the most famed engagements if we are to grasp the full realities of what the Civil War meant for Irish America.
*While much of the Williamsburg battlefield has been developed, but there are still tracts that have been preserved and areas that have been targeted for conservation. If you would like to support those efforts you can find out more at the Williamsburg Battlefield Association website.
**The research and cost-of-running of the Irish American Civil War website is self-financed. If you would like to support the work and upkeep of this site you can do so via my Patreon site for as little as $1 a month at patreon.com/irishacw, or by making a one-off donation to the site’s running costs via the “Donate” button in the right-hand sidebar.
Casualties in the Excelsior Brigade at Williamsburg
70th New York Infantry (700 men)
330 casualties, 109 mortally wounded
72nd New York Infantry
195 casualties, 84 mortally wounded
73rd New York Infantry
104 casualties, 27 mortally wounded
74th New York Infantry
143 casualties, 49 mortally wounded
Massachusetts Town and vital Records
National Tribune 9 August 1894
Walter F. Beyer & Oscar F. Keydel 1901. Deeds of Valor: How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor. Volume 1.
Augustine Costello 1887. Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Departments.