The return of the Witnesses to History series sees long-time friend of the site Gary Chiaramonte share news of a new acquisition by the The American Military Heritage Museum of North Carolina. Gary has spent many years researching and collecting material relating to the Irish experience of the American Civil War, and has identified a letter written by Irish Brigade soldier John Curran. Gary takes up the story:
New to the museum is this letter, composed by John Curran of “I” Co. 88th Regiment New York Volunteers (Irish Brigade) The letter reads:
Camp Near Falmouth, Virginia
April 13th 1863
I take my pen in hand before I leave for the Summer Campaign to let you know I am in good health. As I hope this will find you also. I have wrote to you before, but I got no answer to it.
We are now under marching orders. We will be into a fight before two days. So I send you my likeness. It is not a good one. But it’s as good as can be expected in Virginia.
When you get this, write to me and let me know how you and all friends are. I wonder why you never wrote to me. I hope nothing serious is the matter with you. I have not much time to write as I am packing up to be off.
So good bye for a while.
I remain yours till death,
Company I, 88th Regiment New York Volunteers
Washington, DC or elsewhere
Address as above and let it be soon.
John Curran was born in Ireland in 1843. (1) Curran would arrive in America and become a butcher. Soon after the outbreak of the American Civil War John heard the call. He would enlist in New York City on September 27th, 1861. (2) John would be mustered into “I” Co. 88th New York Infantry part of the famed Irish Brigade that same day. On the muster roll John Curran is listed as a Private.
He was described as being five feet eight inches tall, with light hair, grey eyes, and a fair complexion. In December Curran and the 88th left for The Capital. They would remain to defend Washington till April of 1862, when the regiment participated in the siege of Yorktown. The 88th and Private Curran would be engaged at White Oak Swamp, Battle of Fair Oaks, The Seven days before Richmond, and Battle of Antietam. Here the 88th New York:
“crossed Antietam Creek (9:30 a.m.) at Pry’s Ford. As it formed at the edge of a cornfield Father William Corby, Chaplain rode along the line, giving absolution to the soldiers. The 88th New York crossing the cornfield, the command encountered a rail fence which was torn down under severe fire an opposing Confederate column advanced within 300 paces of the brigade. After several volleys, the Irish Brigade charged with fixed bayonets. At 30 paces it poured buck and ball into General George B. Anderson’s Brigade (2nd, 4th, 14th and 30th North Carolina Infantry Regiments) which fell back to “Bloody Lane”. After fierce combat its ammunition exhausted the Irish Brigade was relieved.” (3)
The next engagement Private Curran would be involved in would be the Battle of Fredericksburg. Before the battle:
“The men of the Irish Brigade placed sprigs of boxwood in their caps in honor of their Irish heritage. Later in the day, they took part in the futile assaults against confederate positions on Marye’s Heights. After the battle, the Union dead closest to the Confederate positions wore sprigs of boxwood in their caps.” (4)
At the time of this letter Private Curran and the 88th were posted in Falmouth Virginia. In the letter he states “We are now under marching orders. We will be into a fight before two days” This is a reference to the upcoming “Mud March”, and the Chancellorsville Campaign. During the Battle of Chancellorsville the regiment lost 5 men killed or mortally wounded, 4 officers and 18 men wounded, and 19 men missing. (5) In July of 1863 Private Curran would fight at Gettysburg:
“The brigade entered the battle under command of Colonel Patrick Kelly 530 strong, of which this contingent, composing three battalions of two companies each, numbered 240 men. The original strength of these battalions was 3,000 men. The brigade participated with great credit to itself and the race it represented”. (6)
Campaigning and the toll of battle must have weighed heavily on Private Curran. According to a letter, written by Assistant Surgeon William Parkinson Moon in October of 1863. (7) Curran was on kitchen duty at Mower Hospital in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. It is unclear why he was there, however since Curran was not listed as wounded one can assume he was admitted for either disease, or “soldier’s heart” (The 1860s term for PTSD).
Private Curran would re-enlist in the 88th on March 22nd, 1864. He would participate in the following engagements: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Po River, and the assault on the Salient or “Bloody Angle”. He would desert while on furlough on May 16th, 1864. (8)
After seeing all that death, one cannot blame Private Curran for his desertion. He served his adopted country honorably till his desertion. One could surmise that a lack of knowledge about the psychological toll of combat, and its treatment damaged Private Curran in an irreparable manner. His story ends here since no further records can be found.
(1) “New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts,” Fold3, accessed January 7, 2022.
(3) “88th New York Infantry Regiment,” The Civil War in the East, May 28, 2019.
(7) Moon, William Parkinson. Letter to Mary Jane Curran. “William Parkinson Moon RE: John Curran.” Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania: Mower Hospital, October 23, 1863.
(8) “New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts.” Fold3. Accessed January 7, 2022.