Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Christmas Eve message home: 'You will be pained to learn ...'

Chaplain William Channing's condolence letter to Sergeant James McLaughlin's brother-in-law.
(National Archives via
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After Civil War battles, families North and South anxiously awaited news of the fate of loved ones. If a soldier had been killed or wounded, word often was found in casualty lists printed in a hometown newspaper or conveyed by an officer in a soldier's regiment. In the case of Sergeant James McLaughlin of the 28th Massachusetts, a regiment in the famed Irish Brigade, news of his fate was delivered to his family by a chaplain in a short note written on Christmas Eve.

William Channing,
chaplain in Stanton
On Dec. 13, 1862, McLaughlin was wounded in the arm by an artillery shell during the Irish Brigade's disastrous charge on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg. He was transported across the Rappahannock River to a makeshift hospital and then on to Washington, where hospitals were set up throughout the capital to care for thousands of sick and wounded soldiers.

Nine days after the battle, McLaughlin took a turn for the worse. Perhaps wracked by infection as well as other effects of his wound, the 39-year-old soldier died on Dec. 22. Two days later, William H, Channing, a chaplain at Stanton Hospital, jotted a few lines about McLaughlin's sad end to the soldier's brother-in-law back in Massachusetts. (See complete transcription of note below.) The cause of death was "mortification of the arm," wrote Channing, who noted "all was done for him that was possible under the circumstances."

"His life," the chaplain added, "could not be saved."

McLaughlin's death was particularly tragic. He left behind two orphaned children, 14-year-old Mary and 8-year-old George, whose Irish-born mother, Mary, had died of consumption in 1858. Peter Kirlan, McLaughlin's brother-in-law, traveled to Washington, recovered James' body and returned with the remains to Massachusetts, where he was buried in a cemetery in Watertown.

James McLauglin's grave in
Catholic Mount Auburn Cemetery
in Watertown, Mass.
(Find a Grave)
Cared for by family members, Mary and George eventually received a small government pension because of their father's death. After his sister's death from consumption in 1867, George sought an increase in his monthly minor's pension from the government. The outcome of his case is unknown.


Stanton Hospital
Monday, Wash. D.C.
Dec. 24, 1862

To Mr. Peter Kirlan 
East Cambridge, Mass


You will be pained to learn that your friend and correspondent, Sergt. J. C. McLaughlin of the 28th Mass., Co. A, died on the 22 inst. of mortification in the arm produced by the terrible wound which he received at the Battle of Fredericksburg. All was done for him that was possible under the circumstances. His life could not have been saved. Will you communicate to his friends the sad intelligence that this brave man died, as became a gallant soldier, and let the knowledge of his heroic fidelity to duty be their consolation. The priest who attended upon him in his last hours will probably write to you or to his parish. He will be buried today in the cemetery at the Soldiers Home. .

With true sympathy, I remain yours truly
W.H. Channing
Chaplain Stanton Hospital

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-- James McLaughlin pension file, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C., via

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