Sunday, October 20, 2013

“I Wish to Know Whether My Brother is Dead or Alive.”

Today, in the digital age, information can be relayed speedily and with astonishing accuracy. We tend to take for granted the fact that we can contact our loved ones instantaneously. Even members of America’s military might not expect to be out of touch for very long. This was not so during the Civil War. As many of us know, families and friends relied upon letters. But what happened when the letters stopped coming? How did friends and family members discover the fate of their loved ones on the battlefield? If they were lucky, another soldier might write to them to let them know. They might receive word through casualty lists published in local newspapers, but those could be wildly inaccurate. Barring those options, families turned to the offices of the adjutants-general for information.
The adjutants-general constituted the governor-appointed military officers of each state. They kept the vital military statistics for each regiment of U.S. Volunteers. If a family member wished to know the location of a loved one, they could write to one of these adjutants-general and pray for a reply. In my travels, I’ve seen many of these letters.
Consider the State of New York. During the war, it fielded 194 infantry regiments, twenty-seven cavalry and mounted rifle regiments, sixteen heavy artillery regiments, and sixty light artillery batteries. Just imagine the number of concerned letters that floated across the adjutant general’s desk in Albany! In 1864, the responsibility for answering these myriad requests fell to John T. Sprague and his twelve assistants.  In particular, Sprague and his clerks received voluminous correspondence from Irish-Americans living in Boston. Back in 1861 and 1862, about 4,000 Irish volunteers had left Boston, seeking enlistment in New York City. Boston’s regiments possessed too few Democratic officers, and thus, the city’s Irishmen fled south rather than enlist under a Republican commander. Boston’s newspapers rarely printed the casualties from New York regiments, so loved ones found themselves utterly clueless to the happenings of their friends on the battlefield.
Here is an example of one such letter of inquiry:
September 5th 1864
I beg to be excused for sending you this note. I would not trespass on your valuable time could I find out the information I want elsewhere. I wish to know, Sir, whether my Brother is dead or alive. He enlisted in the 170th Regt N.Y.S.V., Corcoran’s Irish Legion. He enlisted about one year and a half ago in the city of New York. There is a rumour afloat that he is dead. I wish to know something certain about it. His name is Robert Skelly. I would feel for ever grateful if you would ascertain for me some positive information on the matter. I am his brother and, of course, I feel troubled about him. Perhaps it may be necessary to tell you his rank in the Army. He was an Orderly Sergt.
Hoping that you will comply with my wishes. I am,
Sir, Yours truly,
Cornelius Scully
P.S. My address is 14 Avery St.
Boston, Mass.
I do not know if Sprague sent a reply, but there is a happy ending to this story. The brother turned up alive and well. Two months after this letter was written, Sergeant Robert Skelly received a promotion to second lieutenant. He survived the war, mustering out with his regiment in July 1865.
Here’s another letter, this one written a by a concerned girlfriend:
September the 8th [1864]
Honorable Sir,
I take the liberty of Troubling you with these few lines hoping you will be so kind as to let me know about a friend I have got in the 66[th] Reg’t N.Y. Vols. he was a sergeant and belonged to Company D[.] his name was John Monahan and if you would please to let me know what has happened to him or if he is still alive as I have not heard from him this four months[.] I request an answer as soon as possible and by doing so you will relieve an unhappy friend of his from much trouble.
Yours, respectfully,
Catherine Moutray
137 Tyler St.
Boston, Mass.
Again, I do not know if and how Sprague replied. This tale did not end happily. Back in May 1864, Sergeant John Monahan had been captured at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. His Confederate captors shipped him to Andersonville and he died there, in captivity, on August 15, 1864. He was twenty-one-years-old.

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