The U.S. Bureau of Pensions was in a bind. They were unable to verify–or even approximate–the age of one Richard Ewing, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who previously served two years in the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry and one year in the Navy during the Civil War. Every one of the numerous enlistment documents they had for him pointed toward a different year and/or month of birth. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Ewing tried in vain to track down a baptismal record that could narrow down his actual birth date. His brother John Ewing, himself a veteran, penned several letters to the Bureau and his local congressman in an ultimately successful effort to provide clarity and advocate for his sibling’s pension. Richard, he explained, “might have had a few drinks in him” each time he enlisted, causing him to provide inconsistent birth dates as a result. Whether this was the case or not, a dive through an array of records sheds light on the lives of the Ewing brothers and reveals another possible explanation as to the discrepancy–at the time of his first enlistment in the 25th New York Infantry, Richard Ewing was just fifteen years old, three years below the legal age of eighteen. (1)
“My father, William Ewing, who was born in Glasgow Scotland,” wrote John Ewing, “went from there, when a young man to the city of Dublin Ireland and was married to my mother, Mrs. Emily Ewing in Dublin Ireland….There in that city, he built a large Iron foundry and done a lot of work for the Corporation of Dublin Ireland….My father and mother came on some ship some merchant ship, from the city of Dublin Ireland, and landed at New York City, U.S.A., and me John Ewing, my Brother Richard Ewing, were the only two as near as I remember came with father and mother here from Ireland.” He went on to explain that while neither brother could recall the name of the vessel or the year they arrived, Richard heard from their father “that we came to this country while the mexican war was going on.” (2)
A surviving ship manifest from the Queen of the West, which arrived in New York from Liverpool in August 1848, confirms the information John Ewing provided and reveals that Richard was about two years old at the time of his emigration, while John was merely an infant. John Ewing’s pension testimony also indicates that he and Richard had older siblings who initially stayed behind in Dublin, only to join the family in New York later on. As a skilled tradesman who had owned his own business, William Ewing was probably better off than most Famine Era emigrants. Nonetheless, the Ewings came to America to start their new life with just two items of baggage. And what of the life they left behind in Dublin? There are some surviving clues to that as well. (3)
The Dublin Almanac and General Register of Ireland for the year 1847 contains an entry for William Ewing, showing he kept an iron foundry on 27 Church Street near Arran Quay along the River Liffey. Baptismal records confirm that the Ewing children were baptized into the Roman Catholic faith at nearby Saint Michan’s Church. John Ewing’s baptismal record is crisp and legible and dates to February 1848. His parents’ names are listed there as William Ewing and Emily Bennett. Considering how well-preserved this body of records is, I ventured to see if I could locate Richard Ewing’s missing entry at Saint Michan’s. Sure enough, a boy called Richard was baptized there in February 1846 to a William Eyan (sp) and Emelia Bennett. The capital “E” in Eyan appears to be smudged, giving the name the appearance of “Lyan” or “Lyon.” This little smudge, combined with the unusual spelling variant, likely accounts for why church officials were previously unable to locate Richard’s baptismal record. (4)
By the time of the 1860 US Census, the Ewings lived on East 12th Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Richard and John were not attending school; it is possible they had already begun to work at the foundry alongside their father. In May 1861, at the outset of the Civil War, Richard Ewing enlisted for two years’ service as a private in Company A of the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry. The regiment’s rolls recorded his age as nineteen, though we now know he was only fifteen. The 25th New York, also known as Kerrigan’s Rangers or the Union Rangers, carried with it a reputation for rowdiness. One officer in its division wrote that the regiment was “composed of New York roughs, Bowery boys, ‘Dead Rabbits,’ etc.” While this description is undoubtedly an overgeneralization, the original officer corps of the Rangers did include prominent New York underworld figures, including close associates of the notorious William “Bill the Butcher” Poole. Its commander, Colonel James E. Kerrigan, had been a suspect in Poole’s murder and was himself the former leader of an Irish American street gang called the Molly Maguires as well as a participant in the 1857 Dead Rabbit Riots. By the time of the Civil War, Kerrigan was a Democratic U.S. Congressman. (5)
It is unclear whether young Richard Ewing was affiliated with any New York street gangs, but he was not alone as an underage recruit. My research into this regiment has so far revealed that at least ten percent of its enlisted members (musicians excluded) were under the age of eighteen upon enlistment. Underage boys in the regiment included runaways from the nearby suburbs and countryside, a few of whom employed aliases to conceal their true identities. One boy traveled all the way from Ohio before enlisting in the Rangers. Other young enlistees were recent inmates at the New York House of Refuge and the Five Points House of Industry, petty thieves and vagrants caught sleeping out on the city’s streets and along its docks. (6)
Colonel Kerrigan was court martialed and dismissed from the service for a litany of offenses; by the spring of 1862, he and most of the original officer cadre had been pushed out due to the regiment’s lack of discipline and training. The new slate of officers were transfers from other New York regiments as well as promotions from the 25th’s rank-and-file. Led by Colonel Charles Adams Johnson, they quickly transformed the Rangers from a disorganized rabble to a well-drilled, efficient fighting force. Richard Ewing served with the regiment through its service in all the Army of the Potomac’s major campaigns of the war’s first two years, save a short period in which he was attached to the Ambulance Corps during the Second Bull Run Campaign. The teenager survived the bloody Battle of Hanover Court House, in which the Rangers suffered about 45% casualties. He faced John Bell Hood’s Texans at Gaines’ Mill, spent a harrowing night among the dead and wounded on the battlefield of Antietam, and charged Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg as his regiment was cheered on by the survivors of the Irish Brigade’s own doomed assault. Ewing served faithfully through it all, and was promoted to the rank of corporal in January 1863. Following the Chancellorsville Campaign, the 25th returned to New York in July 1863, and Richard Ewing and the other surviving original volunteers were mustered out of service. (7)
Richard’s little brother John remained in New York during this time. It is likely the two boys kept in touch through letter writing, and perhaps John also tried to keep up with the 25th’s activities by following stories about them in the press. One can imagine that he and his parents scanned the published lists of dead and wounded with trepidation, fearing they might one day see Richard’s name. But all worries aside, it wasn’t long after Richard’s return that John decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps. On April 7th, 1864, he enlisted as a private in Company D of the 51st New York Infantry at the age of sixteen. He testified in his pension correspondence that “his father gave his age to the recruiting officer as eighteen and took his bounty.” At that time, he was recorded as being just 5’2 ½” tall, with blue eyes, auburn hair, and a light complexion. John Ewing was in the service for less than a month before he had his first taste of combat. The 51st New York was engaged in the Overland Campaign, incurring over 130 casualties in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. It was again put through the wringer during the Siege of Petersburg, fighting in numerous engagements including the Crater, Fort Stedman, and the final assault of 2 April 1865. Ewing would have been present with the regiment for Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and marched in the Grand Review at Washington the following month. (8)
While Richard Ewing probably had his fill of the Army after his time with the 25th New York, he chose to reenlist all the same, perhaps again under the influence of “a few drinks.” He signed up for a one year term of service as a landsman in the Navy at the New York Rendezvous less than three weeks after his little brother. He was then 5’6”, with gray eyes, light hair, and a light complexion. Naval records also document Richard’s tattoos–he bore a cross on his right arm and the number “3” on his left. While the significance of the “3” is not entirely clear, it is worth noting that a fire company, Forrest Engine Company 3, was headquartered on East Eleventh Street near the Ewings’ home. It is possible that Richard was a firefighter or a runner for this company either prior to the war or between his enlistments; it was common practice for New York City firemen to get tattoos of their company numbers (for more on this practice and the tattoos of New York Irish sailors, see previous posts here and here). He shipped aboard the USS Iuka and the USS Proteus, mostly performing blockade duty along the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coastline. Two years after the close of the war, Richard found his way into the military yet again, this time as a U.S. Marine. He served on and off in the Marine Corps for the better part of the next 26 years, rising to the rank of sergeant, until his declining health earned him a disability discharge in 1893. (9)
(1) US Navy Survivors’ Certificates.
(3) Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897 (National Archives).
(4) Catholic Parish Records (National Library of Ireland).
(5) 1860 US Federal Census, New York Muster Roll Abstracts (National Archives), Oliver Wilcox Norton, Army Letters, 1861-1865, Tyler Anbinder, Five Points.
(6) 1860 US Federal Census, Civil War Pension Indexes.
(7) US Navy Survivors’ Certificates, New York Muster Roll Abstracts (National Archives).
(8) US Navy Survivors’ Certificates, New York Muster Roll Abstracts (National Archives).
(9) US Navy Rendezvous Reports, US Navy Muster Rolls (National Archives), US Navy Survivors’ Certificates.