Column: Remembering the American Civil War through one Irish family’s story
The American Civil War might seem like a long time ago, but the last pensioned Irish veteran was still alive in 1950.
Oct 19 12:00 PM 8,488 Views 11 Comments Share108 Tweet47 Email26
ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY years ago, on 19 October 1864, Irish emigrant Charles Reilly found himself a long way from his boyhood home. The 45-year-old was one of thousands of Union soldiers then in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, camping near a river called Cedar Creek.
That night, as Charles and his comrades had been sleeping, their Confederate enemy was on the march, readying themselves to launch a devastating early morning attack. Now, that onslaught was surging towards Charles’s position. As the drums beat and the Irishman rushed to meet the foe that morning, he was probably more concerned about the man beside him than himself. That’s because the Yankee at his shoulder was not just another comrade – it was his 19-year-old son Anthony.
Charles Reilly was one of approximately 200,000 Irish-born men who fought in the American Civil War. His son Anthony was one of the tens of thousands more who were just as much a part of the Irish-American story, those born in the United States to Irish parents. The Reilly’s first cross the pages of history in the Ireland of the 1840s, when Charles and his wife Marcella decided to take the emigrant boat.
No doubt hoping for a better life, they eventually settled in the city of Auburn, New York, where Charles got work as a labourer. By 1861, the year the American Civil War broke out, the couple had settled in the city’s First Ward, along with their five children; Anthony, then 16, 13-year-old Mary, 7-year-old Ann, 5-year-old Charles, and newborn baby James.
It was the following year that their eldest, Anthony, decided to join the Union army. Perhaps he was seeking adventure, or wanted to supplement his father’s wages with steady army pay. Whatever the reason, the young man enlisted in the 9th New York Heavy Artillery on 15 August 1862. A little over a year later his father also decided to join up. On 20 December 1863 Charles Reilly joined his boy as a Private in Company F.
So it was that father and son stood side-by-side on the battlefield of Cedar Creek in 1864, as the Confederate attack surged towards them. Pretty soon the air around them was ‘boiling and seething with bullets.’ One of those who was with them was Alfred Seelye Roe, another member of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery. Some 35 years after the battle the events that next occurred remained seared into his memory. At the height of the Confederate assault, he remembered:
‘Here one of our boys, Anthony Riley, was shot and killed; his father was by his side; the blood and brains of his son covered the face and hands of the father. I never saw a more affecting sight than this; the poor old man kneels over the body of his dead son; his tears mingle with his son’s blood. O God! what a sight; he can stop but a moment , for the rebels are pressing us; he must leave his dying boy in the hands of the devilish foe; he bends over him, kisses his cheek, and with tearful eyes rushes to the fight, determined on revenge for his son.’
Charles Reilly survived the battle, a fight in which the Union were ultimately victorious. The emotional horror the Irish emigrant experienced during these moments is unimaginable, witnessing the death of his first-born in such brutal circumstances. Charles carried the added burden of having to communicate the loss to his wife Marcella and the other children at home, without being in a position to comfort them.
Unfortunately for Marcella, her hardships were only just beginning. Charles marched on with his regiment, as the war dragged into 1865. He was present for the protracted fighting at Petersburg, Virginia, where the trenches and fortifications that developed around the city were breeding grounds for disease. Charles eventually fell ill and was removed to a hospital behind the lines at City Point. Tragically, he died on 20 March 1865 – less than three weeks before the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. In the space of less than five months, Marcella Reilly had lost both her husband and her eldest son.
The emotional impact of this double loss on Marcella is hard to fathom. Just as real for her was the financial situation it placed her in; she had now lost both her main breadwinners, and still had a young family to feed. She outlined her circumstances in a widow’s pension application, which still survives in the National Archives of Washington D.C. Marcella was eventually awarded $8 per month with an additional $2 for each child under 16. However, this appears not to have been enough – an 1873 copy of the Auburn Daily Bulletin newspaper recorded the disposal of all her property, as part of a ‘Sherriff Sale.’
When Marcella and Charles Reilly left Ireland for America in the 1840s they must have dreamed of a better life. Certainly, Marcella could never have imagined what would be taken from her in the years to come. Many of our emigrants went on to create lives in the United States that they could never have dreamed of in Ireland. However, for many, including many thousands of our Famine emigrants, the American Civil War brought hardship, suffering and death.
We must remember the Irish families affected
Over the course of the last few years the United States has been remembering the 150th anniversary of this dreadful conflict, in which so many Irish and American lives were destroyed. It was the unfortunate reality that many of the Irish impacted by the war had already endured the Famine.
Despite the anniversary, nothing has taken place on this island to remember them, and the Government has stated any efforts in this regard should be driven by the United States. There have been no conferences in our third level institutions, no dedicated supplements or special programmes in our national media, no commemorative stamps from An Post. Ireland is currently remembering the involvement of Irish men and women in World War One. As is right, the Government has not waited for remembrance efforts to be driven by the United Kingdom; there have been numerous conferences, supplements, special programmes and commemorative stamps.
The American Civil War and World War One stand alone in Irish history in terms of sheer scale of Irish involvement. Only 49 years separate the two events. Indeed, it is the case that many Irish counties saw more men fight and die in the American Civil War than any other conflict in history, including World War One. We may feel like it was a long time ago, but the last pensioned Irish veteran of the American Civil War was still alive in 1950.
As a nation it is time for us at home to start exploring – and remembering – the history of some of these emigrants. The story of Charles and Marcella Reilly is just one of thousands that await discovery, if only we take the time to look.
Damian Shiels (@irishacw) is an archaeologist and historian. He runs the www.irishamericancivilwar.com site, which shares the stories of hundreds of Irish men and women impacted by the conflict. He is the author of ‘The Irish in the American Civil War’ published by The History Press in 2013.