I recently came across the remarkable letters of Sergeant Thomas Mangan, which are here transcribed for the first time. The 22-year-old Dubliner was a recent emigrant from Ireland, who within a year of arriving in his new home found himself in the midst of the savage and brutal struggle for control of the Western Plains. Written from an isolated military post in Colorado Territory in 1866 and 1867, Thomas’s letters traveled over 4,000 miles before arriving in their ultimate destination– inner city Dublin. There they were read by his widowed mother, who learned about the gory realities of this savage fight to the death, including scalping and other forms of mutilation. The letters also discuss life on the frontier, as well as Thomas’s experiences with his family since emigration, and his future plans for himself and his mother.
Thomas Mangan and Sarah Connolly were married in Castlekevin, Co. Wicklow on 3rd February 1834. From there the couple moved to Dublin, where their son Thomas Jr. was born in 1845; he was baptized in the Church of St. Andrew in Westland Row on 8th December that year. Thomas Senior died in 1857, leaving Sarah raise their young son alone. Thomas Jr. started his working life in Dublin at the age of 13, helping his mother to run the household. By the mid-1860s mother and son were living at 14 Wood Street in the heart of the city. Thomas appears to have been working on nearby York Street at this time, earning 5 shillings a week, while Sarah was employed in a nearby business. Then in the spring of 1865 Thomas decided to try his luck in the United States.
He made his way to Chicago, where his maternal uncle Edward (Ned) Connolly lived. However he soon grew disillusioned with the support he got from his family in America, and after only 8 months– on 2nd January 1866– he enlisted in the U.S. Army at the aged of 21. His papers describe him as 5 feet 8 inches in height, with fair complexion, gray eyes and brown hair who was by occupation a clerk. It would be months before he had an opportunity to write back to his mother in Ireland. When he did so, he was a soldier at Fort Sedgwick in Colorado Territory– an isolated post surrounded by large numbers of hostile Native Americans.
Fort Sedgwick Colorado Territory
Sunday 2nd December 1866
Dear Mother after a long absence I take up my pen to write to you I would have wrote to you months before this only I was away on detached duty and I never could get the chance to do it then. This is not an easy place for a man to write that is knocked around and to let you know the reason we were knocked around is the Indians played hell here all summer [?] and is expected to be worse they have killed over 100 men of our regiment alone besides men of other regts. and citizens they attack these trains passing over the plains here to California & Salt Lake and other places they attack those trains then take their stock and all, kills the men and scalps them. They likes to scalp well they carry those scalps they take on a cord or string round their body, thats an honour they think as much as a soldier thinks of medals on his breast and a great deal more. When they take a good lot of scalps any of them above others they make him a chief or warrior of them, a big brave they call him, so they like to scape well then. I received that newspaper you had sent me and the other thing all right. I sent fifty dollars to Larry to send to you about 2 months ago and I don’t know whether he sent it to you or not. He sent me a letter about 3 weeks ago, a blank sheet of paper in the envelope a powerful lot of news indeed, I told him to send me a couple of stamps to write to you and after a long absence he sent me one. Indeed I wrote t[w]o letters to him after I sent the money would be in the express office when he get[s] that letter and after 2 months absence he sends me a blank sheet of writing paper with one stamp, never letting me know one word about it one way or the other. I sent it back to him the same way. Dear Mother I must say he is very ungrateful. I even wrote to the man he is working for to know was he with him. The reason I followed it up so much is for you to get the money. All I say is I hope he has sent you the money or will against Christmas, it will be £6 or £7 pounds of English money.
Dear Mother I would like you to find out on the quay what is an American dollar worth there for I am sorry I didn’t put the 50 dollars in a latter and sent it to you for a man in our Compy. sent 100 dollars in a letter home to London, England and it went all wright and moreover I could send you money far oftener– they would change it on the quay for you I should think as well as London, now don’t forget to let me know in your next letter. Dear Mother I remember by your last letter that you wanted to know is there any people out here or is there any winter. Well I will tell you there is a little town 4 miles from the post with about 40 people that is all, they call it a town it has about 4 or 5 log buildings and for the winter, I need not tell. [illegible- For?] 3 or 4 hours one night last week it snowed it was more than [illegible] high the snow. The stage or mail coach drove into the river [illegible] road it was coming down so heavy the driver could not see [illegible- over the?] horses heads and three people was nearly killed, the 4 horses [illegible]. So you many guess the winter that is here by that.
Dear Mother if you have got the money I would like to send me the Dublin Nation newspaper every week to read by giving them my name and address. It would come to me, they would send it themselves from their office for to me for about 4s the price for six months. Dear Mother when I am paid I will send you some money also for some newspapers. A few dollars here is nothing to lay out and to send it home it would look something, it would give you as much reading for a year as you would wish besides having home news. When I get a letter from you I will send you some money for to give for papers. Its greenbacks I will send you when I hear from you about them in your letter by you seeing at the exchange office this side of the Custom House on Eden Quay.
Dear Mother I have in 11 months of my time to-day and against you get this I will have close on one year, so I intend to forward myself in reading, writing and so forth for the next 2 years. I am going on very well as you will see, the last letter I wrote to you I was only Corpl. but now I am a Sergeant so you must know that I am conducting myself well or a man won’t be raising in the army.
I must conclude with wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.
No more at present from your affection son Thomas Mangan.
Direct for Sergt. Thomas Mangan Co. E 3rd Batt. 18th U.S. Inftry.
Fort Sedgwick Col. Ter.
Give my best respects to Mrs. Nolan, let me know how is her health, is her stock going on well. I hope both her and her business is for they could not go on better than I would wish, indeed I think I will see her yet in Ship Street and have a glass of cordial with her. Give my respects also to Mrs. Smyth & Eliza I hope they are going on well too as to Humphry I suppose he is in the country now if not he is any how in O’Briens with James and likewise to Mrs. Hart and husband and to all enquiring old friends let me know about James Routledge, James Daniel, Johnny Wichkam and all the boys. Tell Johnny Wickham to tell James Daniel I was asking for him I would like to hear from him, indeed enclosed is my directions for him to write to me. Tell Johnny Wickham to tell James Daniel to come to you for my directions if he gets them fro you let me know and if he is going to write and when to me.
I remember in your last letter of you saying that Mr. Sullivan was going to write to me I never heard from him any, tell him I was asking for him if he call’d and give him my respects.
This remarkable letter combines descriptions of the savage fighting taking place during the Plains Indian Wars with thoughts of family, friends and business back in Dublin. It is difficult to imagine a sharper juxtaposition. Thomas does not spare his mother the gory details regarding what happened to those who fell at the hands of the Native Americans. It would not be long before he was proved right regarding the worsening situation. Less than three weeks after he had written to Dublin, the United States was rocked by the crushing defeat inflicted on their forces by a combined Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho force near Fort Phil Kearney. An entire detachment of 81 men was wiped out in what became known as the Fetterman Fight, the worst defeat government forces experienced until Custer’s Last Stand a decade later. Fully 25% of the men who died there were Irish-born (you can read about each of them here).
Thomas’s next letter exhibits the absolute shock which that defeat had caused. In it he describes attempts to hunt down some of the Indians responsible, and he asks his mother to tell the tale of the horrors at home in Dublin. He also makes strong efforts to dissuade his mother from following him to America, encouraging her to stay at home instead and recounting his own poor experiences with their family already there. Instead Thomas hoped to himself return to Dublin one day, perhaps to set up a business.
Fort Sedgwick Co. Ter.
Sunday Feb. 3rd 1867
Dear Mother I received your kind and welcome letter about 2 weeks ago. I would have wrote to you long before this only I was away on duty so I could not write till I got back. You told me you wish to come out to the States and you wish to know what I think of it and Laurance. I wrote to him twice about it and I got no answer from him, but my opinion is for you to stop at home for no matter how humble a home is home is sweet. Your sister may say a great lot of things in her letters to you, something like Ned and his family to me. When I was home I believed all they said then for I was foolish then. I have known it well since, I did not know the want of a home before I seen the way I was treated. I went off an enlisted, if you can out here and they treated you bad what would do. In the first place how can you tell what kind of a man her husband is, it is very well to think he is a nice man by seeing him on your own floor in your own home, remember the old saying, if you want to know what I am come live with me. After I being 8 months or about with Ned I was only 3 days idle thats when I came there from home without working. I came to Neds on Sunday and went to work a Wednesday dear Mother and after 8 months when I left I paid her every cent I owed. Mrs. Kirwan turned and told somebody I owed her for three days when I landed board, you do not think on any account of coming out here at least while I am in the army. Stay at home and do not fret about Mrs. Nolan giving up for you shall never want a cent while I can get it. I am going to send you all my pay and live well and if you have anything over its all right. Every time I am paid I shall send you my money home. I intend to save £70 while I am in the army this 3 years. I shall send it all to you so if you have any over you can keep it against I am out of my time, I may go home and put up in a little bussiness for soldiering here is far worse than in England. A man never goes to church, I never seen a clergyman this last year and two months, if a man is discharged here and cannot get work what would he do in this part of the country about military posts. The few citizens when they are idle they have to pay £2 10s a week for board and only gets two meals a day for that, 1s for the washing of a shirt. If a man goes to the States he may not get work either. A soldier here is put down as a loafer, you may thing a soldier bad at home but here he is taught less than a dog if I may say it.
Dear Mother I am thinking when my time is up if I had a little money saved I could do well some place at home where I would not be known. I have a Cockney chap a comrade from London he is saving all his money and sending it home to his mother against he is done with the army here. Me and him enlisted the one day. I think he is doing a very good thing indeed. I suppose you read in the papers at home or heard of the fearful massacre of some of our soldiers here at Fort Phil Kearney. There was 90 men and 4 officers killed by the Indians. The[y] fought them 7 hours 5000 Indians there was. Our First Lieutenant were killed amongst the officers. When they were dead the[y] cut their breasts open took out there hearts and put them in their mouths, pulled out their eyes, cut off their ears, fingers, toes and noses and then scalped them, burned some of the wounded after doing all that. In fact I could not describe it to you. Just now as I write the Compy. of cavalry is coming into the Fort after being 15 days in the snow after them. They went out about 3 weeks ago the same and they had a little skirmish with them. They killed about 40 Indians and our Cavly. lost 1 man whom the Indians shot with their arrow knocking him off his horse and left to froze on the ground frozed to death, found dead in the snow next morning. When he was knocked off his horse the horse ran away and left the poor fellow to die. There was two more wounded not badly. There was 27 frozed of them, 3 of them since has lost both feet. The boy was frozed was Irish only 16 years of age. We are all armed here to the teeth. Every Cavlry. man had a 7 shooter carbine and 6 shooter revolver. There was never a man escaped of the 94, I forgot to tell you to tell the tale, not one, all butchered. I got a letter from my aunt McGurk yesterday I wrote to her to-day against you get this letter I will have money on the water to you.
I must conclude, give my best respected to Mrs. Nolan and Mrs. Smith.
No more at present from your affectionate,
Son Thomas Mangan.
Direct Sergt. Thomas Mangan Compy. E 36th U.S. Inftry.
Fort Sedwick [sic.] Colorado Territory.
I wish to tell you we are the 36th now under the new organisation in the U.S. Army there is no more 2nd or 3rd Batts. every Batt. is a Regt. in itself now so leaves us the 36th Regt.
Thomas’s reference to soldiering in England and finding a place in Ireland where he ‘would not be known’ raises the possibility that he might have served briefly in the British Army. A few weeks after writing this second letter, on 23rd May 1867, the young Dubliner was carrying his company’s mail from Pole Creek Station to his unit on the Spring Creek in Dakota Territory when he was set upon by a group of Cheyenne. His body was found three days later near Lodge Pole Creek by his comrades.
Thomas ultimately met the same fate he had described in such detail in his letters home to Dublin. His death had knock on consequences that he would not have wanted, as his mother emigrated to Omaha, Nebraska in order to pursue her pension claim. It would seem she lived out her final days in the United States. Stories like those of Thomas Mangan are rarely told. His service in the ruthless suppression of the Native Americans raises interesting questions regarding remembrance, some of which were explored in this previous post. Whatever the circumstances which led him to his ultimate demise, one has to feel for the young Dubliner’s premature end. His last letters reveal his hopes and dreams for a future that never came to pass.
* Punctuation and grammatical formatting has been added to the original letter for ease of reading. None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here:
* 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 in August 2015.