Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In pension file docs, snapshots of a life lost at Fredericksburg

The Stone Wall at the base of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Va. Private Thomas Roach
and his 72nd Pennsylvania comrades were in the first wave of attacks on the heights west of town.
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While Mary Roach's son served at the front in the Army of the Potomac, the Irishwoman eked out a living in Philadelphia by washing clothes and cleaning houses. Her husband, whom she had married in Liverpool, England in 1841, didn't support the family financially and probably never would. In his early 60s in 1862, John Roach was "a habitual drunkard," a family acquaintance noted, "totally incapable of earning a living in consequence of said habitual drunkenness."

In the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 16, 1862,
Private Thomas Roach was listed among the
104 killed and wounded in the 72nd Pennsylvania.
Before he enlisted in the 72nd Pennsylvania -- Baxter's Fire Zouaves of the Philadelphia Brigade -- Thomas Roach worked as a clerk, giving a major portion of his weekly wages to his mother. And while he was in the army, the 21-year-old private often wrote letters to his mother on impressive patriotic stationery, including $20 or so with the correspondence -- enough money for Mrs. Roach to pay rent on the house and to meet other family obligations.

Then came Dec. 13, 1862, a date that rocked the Roach family forever. Sometime during the first wave of attacks on Marye's Heights, Thomas suffered a mortal wound. Along with scores of other Union dead, he may have been stripped of clothes and shoes by the enemy and later tossed into a trench by a Union burial crew. Roach's final resting place is unknown.

Soon after her son's death, Mrs. Roach, who had four young children to raise, filed an application for a mother's pension. Included in her paperwork were several war-time letters written by her son, who often mentioned in that correspondence about sending his mother money. Unsurprisingly, Mary's pension application was approved at the standard $8 a month.

Here are documents from the Roach pension file in the National Archives (via fold3.com) that provide a glimpse of a soldier whose life was snuffed out on the plain outside Fredericksburg, Va. (Note: Some words in the letters below are illegible. Can you help decipher? E-mail me here or put a note in the comments section.)


On patriotic stationery, Thomas Roach wrote this letter on Dec. 4, 1861.

Poolsville, Md.
December 4, 1861

Dear Mother

I take the pleasure of return [ing] you these few lines to let you now [sic] I am rite well and to send you some good news. We got paid to day and i will send you $20.00 dollars to morrow by Adams Express Company which i hope you will get. I got $34.53 dollars. I [illegible] the sutlers [?] $7.00 dollars and i had to ...

Private Roach signed his letters with a bold flourish.
... pay him and less the balance to by things I will want. I will get paid again the first of January. Those will be more truble [sic] after the first payment. Give my best respects to all enquiring friends. Now [sic]  more at present.

Dec 4th 8 o'clock in the evening i send this letter to Washington a [illegible] men [illegible] as you will.

Your obedient son,

Thomas Roach


Mary Roach lived at 1341 Olive Street in Philadelphia. (Google Street View: Olive Street today.)


Adams Express Co. was widely used by soldiers for shipping money and more back home.


In early June, the 72nd Pennsylvania was involved in fighting at Fair Oaks, near Richmond.

Camp Dispatch Station
June 6/62

Dear Mother

I take the pleasure of returning you these few lines to inform you that I am well and hope you are all the same. I send you $20 dollars by express to day. Have nothing new out here at present. We are with in 4 miles of the city of Richmond and we expect a battle every moment. We have drove the rebels back 2 miles since the battle. General Sumner says our regiment made one of the best bayonet [charges?] ...

that ever was made. He says he will put our regiment and batery against brigade in the rebel army. Our regiment jumped a 4 railed fence and chased and drove them half mile this morning. We have lost 2 men killed and 8 wounded. The regiment was left a [illegible] at the time in to the line of battle. News come down to day our regiment charged over one of Richardson's brigades. It has been raining for 5 days very near. ...

We are camp in the line of battle all the time with tents. We are released every 12 hours. I wish you would get me a red flannel shirt, one all ready made 16 inches wide in the neck, and take it down to the post office and have it mailed to me. Don't send it by express or I won't get it. Get a good one as a bad one aint worth nothing out here. ...

... Yours respectfully, Thos Roach


Roach used phonetic spellings for some words in his letters home.
June 11/62

Dear Mother, 

I received your kind and efecsined letter this morning and i am glad to here that you and all the children is well as i am the same. I sent you $20 dollars on the 6th by Adams Express Company. I did not get your letter in time to send it to where you moved to. It is directed to 1324 Heath St. ...

Our regiment had a skirmish with them on Monday. We drove them out of their rifle pits and a half mile on charge bayonets. We lost 4 [illegible] killed and 38 wounded. Don't forget to send that red hat [?]. Rap it up nice and tite and take it to the post office and have it waided [sic].

Your Efecsined son
Thomas Roach
Comp. A Baxter's Fire Zouaves 72 P.V. 
Burns Brigade Sedwick's division


In this pension affidavit, an acquaintance of the family did not have nice things to say
 about Private Roach's father, John. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)


By February 1895, Mary Roach lived at the "insane dept."of the almshouse in Philadelphia.
She died there on Sept. 29, 1896. The fate of her husband is unknown, as is 

the final resting place  of Thomas. 

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


  1. June 6 letter: obliquing (spelled phonetically) into line of battle?

    1. Spelled in letter as "A bleaking"

  2. December 4 letter: think you're right, owed (owied?) the sutler...

  3. Could the June 11, '62 letter say "we lost 4 misen" (missing)?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.