Patrick Coffey was a labourer in his 30s when he went to war. In the summer of 1861, he marched off to Virginia as part of Company D, the “Fitzgerald Guard” of the famed 69th New York State Militia. Like many other dedicated Irish American servicemen, his family’s personal story was one of gradual step-migration, first to England, and then on to the United States. His parents had married in Ireland in 1815, but had ultimately settled in Manchester, where Patrick’s father died in 1852. His mother and he afterwards removed to New York. There Patrick had married fellow Irish immigrant Bridget Gilligan in Manhattan’s St. James’s Church on 1st March 1859.

Healy Hall at Georgetown. Though now the most famous building associated with the College this was built in the 1870s, and would not have been on the site when Patrick Coffey and the 69th were present (though a number of antebellum buildings so survive) (Damian Shiels).

Patrick and his fellow Irishmen of the 69th left New York towards the end of April 1861, first stopping in Annapolis, Maryland before moving on to Washington D.C. in early May. Encamped at the famous Georgetown College, Patrick wrote home on 10th May:

Georgetown College D.C.

Friday May 10th 1861

My Dear Wife

I received your kind and welcome letter yesterday evening an I am pleased to hear of you all being in good health as I am at present thanks be to God for it.

I am now stationed at the College of Georgetown where we have our quarters, it is about 3 miles from Washington and is a beautiful place. There are some 8 or 10 Clergyman here besides Father Mooney. We have mass every morning and a great number approach the sacraments every other day. We have however no beds as yet, but have to lie on hard boards and our food is not of the daintiest kind. Yesterday morning we were received by President Lincoln and in the afternoon we took the oath for 3 months, we are not far away from our enemies at present and we know not the moment that we may be called into action. I would advise Mr Poer to remain at home for there are many here who are sorry for coming but who would not go back as they have taken the oath and it is the last thing in this world that would want to do to break it. There were 19 men yesterday who would not take the oath and they were stripped and turned out of the Regiment in the presence of all the soldiers and a crowd of officers & people from Washington and other places. Dr Wife I know not the moment when the Regiment may be called away from this place. I think we will next go to Alexandria- a place about 7 miles from here and where the Secessionists have strong forces. In case that you write however to Georgetown all letters will be sent to us wherever we go. We had an alarm in the dead hour of last night that Washington was on fire and in less than 10 minutes the whole regiment were out of bed dressed into line and ready for march when it was found out that the rumor was false and we all returned to our bunks greatly disappointed that we had no chance to fight or show our courage as we are waiting patiently for a chance to show the Southerners what we Irishmen can do when we get a going. I have no chance of getting any money here so you may get all that you can in New York for the papers all write that the wives and families of the volunteers will be provided for until the war is over.

Remember me to my mother & sisters, tell the boys Mrs Dougherty & family and all enquiring friends and well wishers and tell Ellen that the only dance we have here is to the music of the fife and drum in a hot sun with a big musket on our shoulder.

Write as soon as you get this and send me the Herald once in a while. Direct your letter to me at Georgetown College Co. D. 69th Regt District of Columbia.

No more at present but I remain your loving husband till death.

Patrick Coffey.

The 69th New York State Militia spent the following weeks forming part of the defensive force around Washington, specifically in the area of Arlington. In July they formed part of Sherman’s Brigade, Tyler’s Division during the Battle of Battle Run. Patrick was wounded and taken prisoner during the fighting of 21 July. Sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, he died of his wounds on 17th August.

The historical marker in Arlington marking the site of Fort Corcoran, initially built and occupied by the 69th New York State Militia in 1861 (Damian Shiels).

Following Patrick’s death Bridget, who often went by Delia, claimed a pension based on his service. By then she was living at 35 Mott Street in the 6th Ward’s notorious Five Points. The couple had no children. It seems there was probably an acrimonious family split, as Patrick’s mother Margaret, in her 70s at the time of Bull Run, also sought a pension, claiming her son had no wife. Bridget’s pension was suspended for nearly two years while the claim was investigated, but it was eventually reinstated, mainly because she could produce the letter quoted above. Bridget ultimately remarried in 1869.