This is the first part in a series of articles by myself and several guest contributors, chronicling the lives of several related Hamilton emigrants from County Tyrone. While our first subject, William Hamilton, fought in the American Civil War, the real purpose of these posts is to explore the broader experience of emigration and diaspora. As I’ve learned more and more about these family members who ended up in different corners of the world, some common themes emerged regarding poverty, conflict, citizenship, and how 19th century Irish immigrants and their communities sought to carve out new places for themselves and subsequent generations. The stories that emerged aren’t always pretty, and their endings sometimes tragic, but diasporas are, at their core, driven by dislocation, separation, and trauma.

The muffled beat of drums amid the patter of rain roused a motley crew of Federal troops from their slumber within their two-man pup tents. It was three a.m. on the morning of 27th May, 1862. The officers of the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry ordered their men to be ready to march in an hour’s time and instructed them they would be moving in light marching order, leaving behind all unnecessary items with the supply wagons, but carrying two days’ rations and 60 rounds of ammunition. The New Yorkers knew well what the orders meant–that a battle awaited them somewhere at the end of a muddy Virginia road.

Soldiers of a New York regiment photographed outside their encampment, ca 1861 (Library of Congress)

It had been a long, strange year for these Federal volunteers, most of whom had enlisted in New York City in May 1861. In the course of one trip around the Sun, they’d gone from a raucous–at times mutinous–band of undisciplined street roughs to a well-drilled regiment that had already weathered the siege of Yorktown and the various hazards of Virginia’s swampy Peninsula. Although they’d seen plenty of skirmishes in that time, the regiment had yet to engage in a large-scale action. Surely they’d long felt that the prospect was always looming somewhere in the near future. In the early morning hours of 27th May, they had just enough time to hastily prepare a few small fires and swig some coffee in a downpour as they contemplated the various paths that led them to the frontlines of the American Civil War and the horrors that might soon await them there.

The 25th New York, like most units recruited in Northern cities, contained a large number of Irishmen. By my estimation, about 40% of this regiment were born in Ireland, while many others were first generation Irish Americans. One of these Irish immigrants, Private William Hamilton of Company H, was my great-great-grandfather. I’ve been researching William’s life for over a decade, and, with the help of various digital records databases, genetic genealogy resources, a number of savvy relatives, genealogists, and friendly archivists, I’ve been able to piece together a fair amount about his life.

(Catholic Parish Registers at the National Library of Ireland)

This is William Hamilton’s baptismal record from the Roman Catholic parish of Dungannon (note that “Guil” is an abbreviated form of  “Guilhelmus,” a Latin form of “William”). It shows he was baptized on 28th July 1831, and names his parents as Robert Hamilton and Ann Cushnaghan. The townland, recorded here as “Drumai,” was likely Drumey, near the village of Newmills in Tullyniskan civil parish. While Hamiltons and Cushnihans appear in Drumey in the 1826 Tithe Applotment Book, by the time of the Griffith’s Valuation in 1851, they were gone (or at least, no longer recorded there). The Great Famine may have been a factor. It almost certainly influenced William’s decision to leave Ireland for America circa 1852. (1)

“Landing from an Emigrant Ship,” ca 1851 (New York Public Library)
(1855 New York State Census)

The 1855 New York State Census is the earliest US record I’ve found pertaining to William Hamilton. It shows William, a laborer, residing in a brick building in New York City’s 21st Ward with his wife Mary (née Campbell) and fourteen other Irish immigrant families. William told the census taker he was an un-naturalized alien who had been residing in the city for three years, whereas Mary, five years William’s senior, had been there for nine. At the time, there was no Ellis Island, nor even Castle Garden, through which immigrants were processed upon entry to the United States. They simply arrived in New York harbor, where legions of corrupt immigrant runners and other sordid figures were waiting to swindle the unprepared, sometimes before they even reached the docks. In 1855, Mary could read but not write, and William could neither read nor write. They had no children yet, and had likely just recently been married. I know from subsequent records that, like William, Mary hailed from County Tyrone. (2)

(1860 United States Federal Census)
1869 cartoon of a cartman and his somewhat overloaded horse and cart (City University of New York via Wikipedia)

Though starting out as an illiterate immigrant laborer, William clearly had aspirations to build a future for himself and his family in their adopted homeland. By the spring of 1860, he and Mary had moved to Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, where they were raising three young children–Catherine, William, and Mary Jane. William filed a naturalization petition in 1858, and by the 1860 Trow’s Directory, his occupation changed from that of laborer to “carman.” New York City’s carmen, or cartmen, drove standardized one-horse carts to haul a wide variety of goods, and sometimes passengers, across the city. Entering into this new trade was an important step for William, likely representing an upgrade in both pay and social standing. Though still considered unskilled labor, the job was highly regulated and required a municipal license, which itself required the applicant to be a naturalized US citizen. And becoming a cartman meant entry into a sort of proud fraternity within New York’s working classes. Cartmen banded together in trade associations to advance their mutual interests in the political sphere, met regularly, and marched together in city parades. New York’s cartmen formed a citywide “Cartmen’s Protective Society” in 1859 which quickly became a formidable political force, to the extent that Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the new organization directly at its mass meeting at Convention Hall in February 1860. (3)

“The American Fireman: Always Ready.” Currier & Ives, ca 1858 (Library of Congress)

William Hamilton wasn’t long at the cartman’s trade before he entered into another brotherhood of a kind–that of the volunteer firefighters. The family changed neighborhoods again, this time to Greenwich Village, and William Hamilton soon appeared on a roster of the Oceanus Engine Company, No. 11 compiled between 1861-1862. “Cartman” was then the most represented occupation in the company, with seven of them including William listed on the rolls, so it is quite possible that his associations with other cartmen influenced his decision to join. Known for their athletic prowess and boisterous demeanors, the volunteer firemen of New York captured the imaginations of period journalists and playwrights alike. They embodied the paradoxes of the working class b’hoy subculture–fiercely individualistic, yet tenaciously tribal, heroic and selfless, yet fun-loving and hard-drinking. While firemen were fearless in their responses to the numerous fires plaguing Manhattan at that time, they were also extremely competitive, and would famously brawl with members of rival companies over access to hydrants. Volunteer fire companies were also deeply entwined in the political life of the city, and were often employed by local politicians as muscle to intimidate voters and tip the scales of a primary or general election. The Oceanus Engine Company, headquartered at 99 Wooster Street, was captained by John “Jack” Wildey, a Tammany Hall loyalist, experienced fireman, and city coroner. Author Meg Groeling previously contributed a fascinating article about Wildey and his fellow firemen-in-arms on our site (see here). Firefighting also provided an introduction to martial training for many New Yorkers, and this may have been the case for William Hamilton. Like many other volunteer fire companies, Engine No. 11 hosted its own target company, the Wildey Guards, which practiced military drill and went on excursions to the countryside to compete in target shooting contests. (4)

Captain John “Jack” Wildey (Image via Meg Groeling)

At the outset of the Civil War, Jack Wildey joined Elmer Ellsworth’s famous Fire Zouaves, the 11th New York Infantry, where he was commissioned captain. Wildey recruited some ninety firemen for his new company, including a handful from Co. 11. William Hamilton was not one of them. He chose instead to join a different regiment–an outfit billed alternately as Kerrigan’s Rangers or the Union Rangers, but officially designated the 25th New York Volunteer Infantry. Why William chose to enlist, and decided upon this particular unit, is a matter for speculation. While patriotic motivations may have been involved, there could also have been an economic incentive; the Secession crisis caused a financial panic in New York City that undoubtedly impacted the cartmen’s trade. And William’s choice of Kerrigan’s Rangers was likely influenced by a number of factors, including the unit’s connections to friends, colleagues, and community. The Rangers included a number of firemen both among its officers and enlisted men, and likewise recruited many cartmen and residents of the neighborhoods in which William and his family lived prior to the war. In fact, William’s family’s home addresses before, during, and after the Civil War overlap with those of several members of this regiment. Additionally, Kerrigan’s Rangers actively recruited in popular places of entertainment where numerous b’hoys, firemen, and sporting types could be found both merry and well-lubricated. The regiment’s first two recruitment locations, for example, were the Bowery Theater and the concert saloon at 444 Broadway. And local politics could also have played a role–the regiment’s officers included prominent Democrats, affiliates of the Tammany and Mozart Hall political machines, and members of some of the city’s most notorious street gangs. (5)

In the next post, I intend to delve further into the formation of the 25th New York Infantry, its shady cadre of officers, and what William Hamilton’s experiences may have been as a working class Irish immigrant volunteer at the start of the Civil War.


(1) National Library of Ireland: Catholic Parish Registers; Griffiths Valuation; 1826 Tithe Applotment Book.

(2) 1855 New York State Census; Cray, Robert E., A Notable Bully; New York Emigrant Savings Bank Index Books.

(3) 1860 US Federal Census; New York, Naturalization Petitions; Hodges, Graham Russell Gao, New York City Cartmen, 1667-1850; “Cartmen’s Protective Association: Speech of His Honor Mayor Wood,” New York Times, 1 Mar 1860.

(4) Trow’s New York City Directory; Annual Report of the Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, 1862; Anbinder, Tyler, Five Points; Groeling, Meg, “Ellsworth’s Zouaves & the Gallant New York Fireman Who Saved the Colors of the 69th,” Irish in the American Civil War.

(5) New York Muster Rolls Abstracts; Spann, Edward K., Gotham at War; 1860 US Federal Census; Trow’s New York City Directory;  “The Union Rangers,” New York Daily Tribune, 22 April 1861