Monday, February 24, 2014

Who was Antietam 'hero' Michael McMahon?

Michael McMahon's obituary in the Hartford Courant
on Jan. 25, 1930.
The fully searchable historical archive of the Hartford Courant made available online by my local library is one of the more indispensable Civil War research tools, especially for delving deeper into the Battle of Antietam. From casualty lists to first-hand accounts of the battle to reports of soldier funerals, it helped immensely in the reporting of my book, "Connecticut Yankees at Antietam." (I often wonder how people did such research in the olden days -- like, say, in 1994 -- when this kind of information wasn't at our fingertips.) A quick Antietam search of the Courant database often leads to stories worth pursuing further, such as these accounts of the funerals of Sergeant Charles Lewis of the 8th Connecticut and brothers Samuel and Henry Talcott of the 14th Connecticut.

And then there's the intriguing story at right, published in the Courant on Jan. 25, 1930, on the death of an 86-year-old Antietam "hero" named Michael McMahon. According to the account, the Rebels came close to capturing the 14th Connecticut's regimental colors (presumably during the attack at Bloody Lane) until they were "frustrated" by McMahon, a young private in Company F. If true, it's odd that I have not found another account of McMahon's valor in any other of the usual Connecticut sources. Not in this 1868 Connecticut history of the war. Not in the regimental history or in this 1891 account of the 14th Connecticut veterans' visit to Antietam. Not in any of the many soldier letters that I have read about the battle.


Cursory research on McMahon's background yielded interesting results. He was born in Donegal, Ireland in either 1841 or 1845, arriving in the United States in 1848. From New Britain, Conn., he enlisted in the Union army on April 20, 1861, five days after President Lincoln issued a call for volunteers. He was mustered into Company G of the 1st Connecticut, a three-month regiment in which he served until July 31, 1861. The 1st Connecticut fought July 21 at the First Battle of Bull Run, where it "was met by a body of cavalry and infantry, which it repelled, and at several other encounters at different parts of the line the enemy constantly retired before us," according to an official report by Colonel Erasmus Keyes.

"This early service was an excellent school for the citizen soldiers of the State, and by far the larger part of those who participated were soon again in the service for three years or the war, fully one hundred and eighty from the 1st Regiment holding commissions," General Daniel Tyler wrote. "Connecticut can always look back with pride on her three months' volunteers of 1861."

According to this pension file index document found in the National Archives (and digitally
 on premium web site,  McMahon and later his wife made a claim for his pension.
Perhaps eager to continue to serve his adopted country, McMahon re-enlisted on July 17, 1862, mustering into Company F of the 14th Connecticut as a private a little more than a month later. He was wounded at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863, but was listed as captured at Ellis Ford, Va., five days later and sent off to Andersonville, where he spent a little more than 10 months as a POW. McMahon survived the war, married a woman named Joanna, started a family and joined the Theodore Stanley No. 11 Grand Army of the Republic Post in New Britain, serving as its senior vice-commander.

So what else can we find out about Michael McMahon and was he really a hero at Antietam? Perhaps details of his life and service in the Union army will be revealed at the National Archives in his pension file, often a source of rich material. McMahon filed for an invalid pension on Feb. 24, 1887, and Joanna filed for a widow's pension after her husband's death. Surprises such as the letter found in this post and this one often turn up in musty, old files in the Archives or on, a pay-per-view site. I'll aim to pull McMahon's file during my next trip to Washington. In the meantime, perhaps a reader can help fill in the blanks on the Irishman's life. I'll keep you posted.

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