Hubert McNamara, leaving behind a wife and three children in Ireland, died in the bloody slaughter of Cold Harbor.Painting by Gilbert Gaul / From Wiki Commons

On the June 8, 1864 Captain Dexter Ludden and his men from the 8th New York Heavy Artillery were picking their way through corpses. They had been assigned the unpleasant task of burying some of the many, many dead who had fallen during the assault on the Confederate works at Cold Harbor. By then, the bodies they were interring – who were from their own brigade – had lain on the field for five days.

As they went about their gruesome work, Ludden’s soldiers checked each of the bodies for anything that might identify them. Turning over one of the lifeless forms, they hunted through the dead man’s pockets. Finding two scraps of paper inside, the burial party alerted the officer to their discovery. Reading through them, Captain Ludden recognized the papers as a hastily penned letter, written by the dead man before the assault. Later, Ludden sat down to sketch a few brief words of his own to add to them, before sending what amounted to the dead soldier’s last words on their way to New York.

Battlefield 7 miles from Richmond Va
June 8 1864

Madam,

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

The body that Dexter Ludden and his men had buried was that of Irishman Hubert McNamara, a private in the 155th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion. Hubert had enlisted in Buffalo on August 28, 1862, when he was 34 years old. Before becoming a soldier, Hubert had supported his wife Mary and three children by working as a cart man. He was described as 5 feet 6 inches in height, with hazel eyes, brown hair and a light complexion.

Hubert had married Mary Donovan on January 2, 1859, but that had not been his first marriage. Hubert’s first wife Margaret (née McGrath) had passed away in Hudson, NY on January 26, 1855, leaving Hubert to support their three-year-old daughter Maria alone until his remarriage.

By 1864, Mary had borne Hubert two more children at their home on Exchange Street; Thomas, who arrived on November 30, 1859 and Maria, born on May 6, 1862 – his youngest daughter was only a month past her second birthday when her father met his death.

By June 2, 1864, the day Hubert wrote his last letter, Corcoran’s Irish Legion had been with the Army of the Potomac for less than a month. By the standards of many other brigades, the first 18 months of the Legion’s service had been relatively quiet. That had all changed in May 1864 when they joined up with the Army of the Potomac at Spotsylvania, VA. In the days following, the Irishmen had to become accustomed to almost constant combat – and ever mounting casualties.

It was in this context that Hubert penned the few words to his wife on June 2. He was aware when he wrote them that he was going to be involved in an assault on the Rebel works the following day. Given the strength of the enemy’s position, many of his unit would have been apprehensive about what lay ahead.

The 155th was brought into battle at Cold Harbor by Captain Michael Doran. As he dressed his men’s lines for the advance, they were temporarily shielded from fire behind a slight ridge. When they moved forward beyond this cover they could see the main Confederate line some 150 yards away, but they would never reach it. A storm of fire erupted from the Rebel position. One member of the regiment recalled how the ‘balls commenced literally to mow us down,’ while another said of the attack that ‘it was murder, not war.’

The Irishmen never stood a chance; by the time they got to within 50 yards of the enemy position the charge was halted and was soon forced back. The slaughter cost the 155th some 130 casualties, almost half their number. Unfortunately, Hubert was one of those to fall, with the newly written letter to his family unsent in his pocket.

The sheets of paper recovered from Hubert’s body were included by his widow in her pension application, in order to prove both Hubert’s death and her relationship with him. They are transcribed below for the first time and labeled as Sheet 1 Obverse?, Sheet 1 Reverse? and Sheet 2 Obverse. It is written in faded pencil which, together with their exposure on the battlefield with Hubert’s body, makes transcription difficult. They are reproduced below as Sheet 1 and Sheet 2, with the original transcription accompanied by an edited version for modern readers.

[Sheet 1 Obverse?]

…almigty god that we will soon get tru with them I all right soe far thank be tow the almighty god for his merci[illegible] possible [?] to I am [ad] dressing you with a few lines hope tow find you and the children in good helth as the departure thes few lines leves mee me in at present thank be to the almighty god for his to me we are fighting with rebble for last 10 days and we have drove them for as much 30 miles but there is grete many of our men kild and wonded but the purty well sourrounded in the [?]

[Sheet 1 Reverse?]

Jun the 2 1864

 

Camp of the armi of the portommack 7 miles from Richmond mi Dear wife and children I take the favorable opportunitie [?] [illegible] tell what moment I wold get kild or wonded but I trus in god for his mercis tow me there is afful fight ing going on her we ar fight ing knight and fight ing day my Dear wife an children there is no thing more that I can let you know now it I have now time

[Sheet 2 Obverse]

it is verry hard tow get paper or ink any thing els her John Dempsey is well and alsoe michael lawler is I wish that you wold tell his wife there is no thing more my Dear wife and children that I think soe good bie for afile

 

now more at present from youre afectionate husband Hubert Mc Namara 2 Corps 2 Divison 4 brigade Co I 155

 

armi of the portom mac

 

good bie write soon

Edited

[Sheet 1 Obverse?]

…almighty God that we will soon get through with them. I [am] alright so far thanks be to the almighty God for his mercy [illegible] possible to, I am addressing you with a few lines. I hope to find you and the children in good health as the departure [of] these few lines leaves me in at present thanks be to the almighty God for his [mercy] to me. We are fighting with [the] Rebels for [the] last 10 days and we have drove them for as much [as] 30 miles, but there is [a]great many of our men killed and wounded but they [are] pretty well surrounded in the [?]

[Sheet 1 Reverse?]

June the 2nd 1864

 

Camp of the Army of the Potomac 7 miles from Richmond. Dear wife and children, I take the favourable opportunity[illegible] tell what moment I would get killed or wounded, but I trust in God for his mercy to me. There is awful fighting going on here, we are fighting night and fighting day. Dear wife and children there is nothing more that I can let you know now I have no time.

[Sheet 2 Obverse]

It is very hard to get paper or ink [or] anything else here. John Dempsey is well and also Michael Lawler is, I wish that you would tell his wife. There is nothing more my dear wife and children then I think, so goodbye for a while. No more at present from your affectionate husband Hubert McNamara, 2nd Corps, 2nd Division, 4th Brigade, Company I, 155th New York, Army of the Potomac. Goodbye write soon.

The precise order in which Hubert’s letter was intended to be read is not clear from the separate pages. I have interpreted their order as presented above based on content. I believe that the first page (Sheet 1 Obverse?) was part of a letter Hubert may have been writing prior to his arrival at Cold Harbor. In it he refers to fighting the Rebels for the ‘last 10 days’ which would place it around the May 28. I suspect he may have then found himself in front of the works at Cold Harbor and, realizing that he was about to go into action, abandoned his previous letter to jot down a few words in the event of his death. If this is the case then it makes the letter all the more poignant.

The section titled ‘Sheet 2 Obverse’ may have also been written at Cold Harbor, though that is not clear. Captain Ludden wrote his note to Hubert’s wife on the back of this page. Of those comrades mentioned in Hubert’s correspondence, Cold Harbor was also Michael Lawler’s last battle. He was mortally wounded, leaving behind a wife and four children. John Dempsey seems to have also been wounded at Cold Harbor, but ultimately recovered. Hubert’s wife Mary lived a long life after her husband’s death, remaining a widow for more than half a century. The elderly Irishwoman passed away at the Holy Family Home in Williamsville, NY on September 2, 1916.

* Damian Shiels is an archaeologist and historian who runs the IrishAmericanCivilWar.com website, where this article first appeared. His book 'The Irish in the American Civil War' was published by The History Press in 2013 and is available here.

*Originally published August 2015.