Thursday, June 01, 2017

Pluck of the Irish: Archaeologist digs deep for soldier stories

Irishman Damian Shiels at the 73rd New York monument at Gettysburg.
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During my Civil War travels, I’ve met a former FBI agent turned battlefield preservationist; a former CIA agent; a relic hunter in his 70s who has found, along with his brother, more than 10,000 bullets over five decades; an Antietam expert who owns a piece 1862 corncob  from The Bloody Cornfield; a museum owner whose collection includes a human skull and a man who owns a replica Gatling gun that he fires at special events. It’s an eclectic and interesting group.

Let's add Irishman Damian Shiels to the list.

Shiels' latest book, recently released 
in the U.S., is available
on and elsewhere.
Although Shiels and I came close to talking about all things Civil War over a brew or two in Gettysburg in October, we have never met in person. But I feel like I know him quite well nonetheless. I'm a huge fan of his Irish in the American Civil War blog and of his use of pension files available on to tell stories of common Civil War soldiers. Tapping into those terrific resources, he has written two books, The Irish in the American Civil War and the recently published The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America.

Originally from Country Limerick in Ireland’s midwest, Shiels has lived for the past decade in County Cork, on Ireland’s south coast. An archaeologist by profession, he works in his day job as company director of a commercial firm called Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd. He specializes in conflict and battlefield archaeology, so he gets the opportunity each year to work on a range of Irish conflict sites, particularly those that date to the 16th and 17th centuries.

Before he joined Rubicon, he was curator at the National Museum of Ireland, working with the military collections. Shiels was one of the team there who developed the permanent military exhibition, “Soldiers & Chiefs” which charts the military history of Ireland and her people from 1550 to the present day.

“One of my areas of responsibility for that exhibition was the Irish in the United States service,” he told me. “It was from there that my interest in the Irish experience of the American Civil War developed into something approaching an obsession.”

Shiels took time out from his day job and his obsession to answer my questions about his latest book, famed Irish general Thomas Meagher, three American Civil War battlefields he wants to visit and more. (As a bonus, he also reveals his favorite ale.)

What's the level of interest in the American Civil War in Ireland?

Shiels: It is the relative lack of interest and knowledge of this in Ireland that drove me to initially establish my blog and to seek to tell the story of these forgotten emigrants in Ireland. Many people in the U.S. are surprised to learn that Ireland doesn’t really spend much time either researching or remembering the stories of those who emigrated in the States -- which is a great pity given the sheer numbers of people who left these shores. This has really come home to me over the last decade or so, particularly when I and a group of like-minded individuals, including some leading academics, largely failed in our efforts to get more focus on the subject here. This is a pity, as the majority of Irish people remain unaware that the American Civil War was Ireland’s largest conflict -- in terms of the numbers who served -- outside of the First World War.

A lack of interest in Ireland about the 
American Civil War spurred Shiels to start
 a blog on the subject.
For those counties where Famine emigration was particularly heavy -- places like Cork, Kerry, Galway, Sligo, Mayo, Donegal, Roscommon, etc. -- the American Civil War was the greatest war in their history. I have spent a lot of time over recent years giving talks and lectures around the country on local people who were caught up in the conflict, and when those in attendance learn about the scale of involvement, they are always keen to find out more. It is just a matter of Irish people being unaware of it. Over the next few years, it would be nice to see some growth in interest in this emigrant generation. Incredibly, we have never even had a full academic conference in Ireland on the topic of the Irish and the American Civil War, so there is a lot of work to be done!

Your recently published book makes great use of pension file documents from the National Archives. And you did almost all your research for the book accessing those documents via, a premium web site for military records. Give us insight into that process.

Shiels: The files available on Fold3 are the full focus of my new book, just released in the U.S., which is entitled The Forgotten Irish: Irish Emigrant Experiences in America. Each chapter is based around research from a specific file relating to the pension application of a widow or dependent of an Irish soldier who died as a result of the war. In each case, I have supplemented the story with additional research using other resources and printed material -- I have a pretty large library at this stage! -- but the vast bulk of my work was carried out online.

Although most people don’t realize it, the information in these files almost certainly represents the greatest body of detailed social material on Irish people in the 19th century available anywhere in the world -- including Ireland. Over the last few years, I have been systematically looking through these files to identify Irish people, and also to uncover the letters written by them and included with their submissions. I now have a database of letters relating to hundreds of Irish and Irish-American soldiers as a result. They are a topic I will be pursuing full-time PhD research into starting in the next few months. Of course, you can never beat direct archival research, but it is interesting to consider how this type of research I am conducting would not be possible by viewing the original records.

In the Archives itself it would only be possible to review a handful of files a day, making it unviable to go through them en masse to analyze things like ethnic origins, for example. The tremendous work of the National Archives in getting tens of thousands of these pension files available online has to be commended. The U.S. is very fortunate to have an institution like them.

"It becomes my painful duty ...," begins Lieutenant Henry Ropes' letter to the father 
of 20th Massachusetts Private John Donnelly, who was killed at Fredericksburg. Shiels expertly
 mines pension records on to find gems such as this condolence letter. 
What is the most remarkable discovery you've made in the pension records?

Shiels: That is a very good question -- there have been so many! In terms of a personal story, probably the most remarkable for me was that of Barney Carr, as I was able to pull multiple sources in to tell the story of his life. I won’t give too much away (it is one of the chapters in the new book!), but eventually I was able to trace the Carrs from Ulster, where they were assisted emigrants, to New York, where Barney had to be put into care as his mother didn’t have the funds to care of him.

When her circumstances changed, she sought Barney out, putting ads in the newspapers, and eventually got back in touch with him, by which time he was serving in an Illinois regiment in the Western Theater. He wrote her a series of amazing letters, expressing his wish to see his family again, the struggles he was having with the “killing of men” and his determination to see the war through despite his hardships. It culminates with him writing a letter under fire from the line at Kennesaw Mountain. It is probably the best example I have from the files of taking a family experience from Ireland to the U.S. and across a period of years.

Why did you launch your web site on Irish and the American Civil War?

Shiels: As I alluded to above, I became very aware during my time at the National Museum of Ireland that the American Civil War was one of the biggest stories in Irish military history, and in the Irish emigrant experience generally, yet there was very little being done on it. A desire to increase its profile in Ireland was central to my setting up the site. I didn’t imagine then that it would still be here more than seven years later, with over 500 posts. To be honest, I wasn’t sure at the time if I would last a week at it! The story of these emigrants in this time period has taken over a major portion of my life, and finding out more about them continues to fascinate just as much now as it did back in 2010. There is still an awful lot we don’t know.


Captain Dexter Ludden of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery wrote this note to the widow of
Private Hubert McNamara of the 155th New York. It was written on the back of
McNamara's final letter, cut from his pocket five days after he was killed at Cold Harbor.
(National Archives via

Battlefield 7 miles from Richmond Va
June 8 1864


This was cut from the pocket of a man I had buried last eve– he was killed– June 3d 1864– & buried on the spot where he fell.

The place was marked by a cut on a tree where his head lies by Sergt Ewell of my company.

Yours Truly
S. Dexter Ludden
Capt 8 NY Arty

Miss Mary McNamara

Buffalo NY 

Your web site has a wealth of human interest stories. The one that stands out for me is the story of Irish immigrant Hubert McNamara, a private in the 155th New York, who was killed at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864. A soldier found his last letter home on his corpse and sent it to his wife. Tell us more about him, and have you been to Cold Harbor?

Shiels: Hubert’s story is another that also appears in the new book. I was also very fortunate recently to be sent an image of Hubert and his wife by relatives of theirs, which they kindly gave permission to share on the site. Hubert’s story is one that is indicative of the potential of the files. When the 8th New York Heavy Artillery were burying men on the field a few days after the battle, they went through the pockets of one of the fallen from Corcoran’s Irish Legion to see if they could uncover any identifying material. They discovered three pieces of paper, the remains of one or more letters that the soldier had been writing before the assault. This allowed them to identify the body as that of Hubert, and they sent the letter, with a note, to Hubert’s widow, Mary. Mary later included the pages in her pension application to prove her relationship to her husband. I sought to transcribe the letters to reveal what some of Hubert’s final thoughts were. It is this type of powerful material that makes the pension files such an amazing source.

        COLD HARBOR PANORAMA: Union dead, wounded lay in this field in June 1864.
                                         (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

In terms of visiting Cold Harbor, I have had the opportunity to visit the site, albeit briefly. In 2014, I made my first trip to the U.S. to be present for the 150th anniversary commemorations of the battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and tried to take in as many other battlefields as I could over a couple of weeks. The U.S. is extremely lucky to have so much of their battlefield land preserved, and to have the wonderful staff of the NPS to both look after it and help visitors to interpret it.

James Rowan O'Beirne, who died in 1917,
was one of Lincoln assassin
John Wilkes Booth's pursuers.
If you could go back in time and meet one soldier whom you wrote about in your book, who would that be and why?

Shiels: With respect to the first book, that would probably have to be James Rowan O’Beirne. It is something of a mystery to me why he is not better known in Ireland, given the role he played both during the war and in hunting Lincoln’s assassins. Indeed with respect to the latter event, Irish-American Edward Doherty seems to get more of the “Irish” focus. He also had a very interesting post-war career, with involvement in locations like Ellis Island.

I often read that the Irish are the most studied ethnic group in the Civil War, and while this is most certainly true, there is an awful lot of individuals and Irish groups that have received relatively little attention -- our focus tends to return again and again to men like Thomas Francis Meagher and Patrick Cleburne, and units like the Irish Brigade. O’Beirne is one of those who definitely needs to have a serious amount of work done on him.

Perhaps the most renowned Irishman in the Civil War was Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade. Tell us something about him that we may not know.

Shiels: Meagher is by far and away the most talked about -- and most written about -- Irishman of the American Civil War. [A massive bronze bust of the general will be dedicated in New York in July; read more on my blog here.] He is undeniably an absolutely fascinating character, who inspired great loyalty and was by all accounts one of the greatest Irish orators of the 19th century. I have read many of his speeches, but would love to hear how he actually delivered them -- it must have been quite something to witness.

Thomas Meagher, commander of
the Irish Brigade, "is undeniably
an absolutely fascinating character,"
Damian Shiels says.

In terms of something that you may not know ... after his death, his American wife Elizabeth paid a visit to Thomas’s home in Waterford, to see where her husband had grown up. She brought with her some mementoes of the Irish Brigade, including a couple of guidons, and interestingly a piece of boxwood to represent what the brigade had placed in their caps at Fredericksburg -- an indication of how soon that story became important after the war. These items are still in Ireland, mainly in Waterford Treasures Museum, who also lent one of the guidons to the National Museum of Ireland for the exhibition we did there.

What are three American Civil War battlefields you want to walk and the reasons why?

Shiels: I have been fortunate to visit quite a number of fields in recent years, making my first trip to Gettysburg late last year, which is quite something. For the purposes of this, though, I will look at three sites I haven’t had an opportunity to visit yet:

Petersburg: Although obviously multiple sites, Petersburg is one of the most important stories in terms of the Irish-American experience, as so many Irish died around it. I come across it again
and again in the files. I probably have a deeper interest in the late war years, even with respect to formations like the Irish Brigade and Corcoran’s Legion.

Chickamauga: Certainly in my early years of looking at the Civil War, I always focused on the Western Theater, where individuals like Patrick Cleburne were so prominent. The scale of Chickamauga and the casualties there, of whom I have written about many, make it a must. Though I have never been, it also looks to be a most beautiful part of the world.

Shiloh: Again a site about which I have written extensively regarding ordinary Irish soldiers on both sides and their fate. It was also a harbinger of the large-scale destruction of life that would be a hallmark of the conflict.

Although not a battlefield site (and so not included in the three above), I would have to add Andersonville to that list. I look at a lot of pensions that were claimed outside of the U.S., and Andersonville by far and away looms largest. It killed more emigrants than any battle ever did, and it is a constant companion to anyone who spends any time looking in the pension files.

            CHICKAMAUGA PANORAMA: Federals were surprised by James Longstreet
            in this field on Sept. 20, 1863. The battlefield is on Damian Shiels' bucket list.
                                         (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Finally, if you could raise one glass of beer to an Irish soldier, the brew would be ____________  and the soldier would be _____________.

Shiels: Well, as an ale drinker, I would have to say Smithwick's (which is older than Guinness!). In terms of the soldier, I couldn’t pick just one. I would have to raise to it all of the men and their families who I have written about from the pension files. It is a privilege to be able to do so, and to try to uncover their stories -- something that is only possible because they all made the ultimate sacrifice.

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

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