A previous StoryMap post on the site explored the devastating toll the 1866-67 Cholera epidemic took on immigrant and African American families connected with the Regular army (you can read that here). In this post, we take a look at a letter that emerged as a result of that wave of death which struck the army’s ranks. It was written to Irish woman Mary Duggan from Fort Hays, Kansas in 1867 to inform her of the circumstances by which her son Daniel, a Corporal in the 5th United States Infantry, had lost his battle with the disease.

The Duggan family had emigrated to New York from Co. Limerick in July 1857, Dan’s father Gordon having died during the Famine years. In the United States they made their home at 53 East Broadway on Manhattan. Dan was a slater and plasterer by trade, but between the Panic of 1857 and the Civil War he struggled to get regular work, able only to secure occasional labouring positions. It was apparently this that led him to enlist. His 5th regiment served out the Civil War in New Mexico, where they were involved in some of the most westerly fighting to take place during the conflict. In 1867 they were moved to Kansas in order to protect new settlers moving into the west. It was during the journey that Dan fell ill.

The stone blockhouse at Fort Hays, Kansas (IVeGoneAway via Wikipedia)

Fort Hays K.S. 

November 17th 1867

Mrs Mary Duggan

Maddam I received your welcome letter of Novb 7th last and was glad to receive a note from the mother of my friend Danial Duggan who departed this life August 8th 1867 at Fort Wallace Kansas after a long march from New Mexico and was in good health all the time up to the day he took sick he died with Cholera after suffering 4 hours only. He died without a Clergy Man as did a great manny more of my old friends the same day and next day. I attended to Dan untill he died he departed this life with a good will after a fue remarks I made to him in those words so cheering as I thought: Dan you are a Roman Catholic and put your Trust in God and he said he would, asking me to remember him to his dear mother and sister. So saying he took my hand in his and bid me a last farewell. His old company interd him the next day with the honour due to a good soldier. May he rest in peace amen. 

Mrs Duggan I gave my captain $60 of dollars that Danial gave me the day be took sick it will be sent to you by express there are also comming to him $127 and 36 cts clothing mony, $75 bounty one month and 8 days Corporals pay propper and 8.36 dollars back pay all this you can obtain by getting some one to write to the Adjutant General of the Army. 

Please Mam answer back soon

And I remain your obedient friend

Denis Byrne

1st Sergt Company G 5th US Inf

There are a number of interesting elements to the letter. As we have seen countless times, it was a fellow Irish American who took it upon himself to inform Dan’s mother as to his fate- a marker of how tight knit these ethnic groups tended to be in service. Denis also does his best to reassure Dan’s mother that–despite the absence of a priest to administer last rites–he had a “good death.” The passage where Denis describes Dan’s final moments is particularly poignant. The wider Duggan pension file also provides us with an interesting insight into working-class letter curation. The family reported that this letter was the only one that survived, and that the other correspondence Dan had sent home had been destroyed. This was a common occurrence among poorer families, who could not keep lots of personal possessions, and often were only partially literate. That is one of the reasons there is a relative dearth of correspondence from working-class Civil War soldiers and sailors–and one of the reasons the pension files are such an invaluable resource. 

The grave of Daniel Duggan at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (Walter Schley via Find A Grave)