"The Two Catherines," a new book by Frank Burns, tells the stories of two Irish women named Catherine embroiled in the American Civil War.Frank Burns

The recently discovered photograph of Mrs. Mary O'Melia, the Irish housekeeper at the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA reminds us how widespread the Irish presence was in the American Civil War. In addition to the estimated 200,000 who fought, Irish involvement permeated the war on both sides.

But Ms. O'Melia can be counted amongst the lucky. Unlike most of the Irish who were caught up in the war, we know her story; we know how she was trapped for four years in Richmond away from her children, and how she subsequently thrived, becoming a highly successful businesswoman after the war.

However, Ms. O'Melia was not the only Irish employee at the presidential mansion of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

A second Irish woman worked there, but her fate is more typical of the forgotten, and her tale is more sadly told.

In my book "The Two Catherines," I set out to tell the story of some of the innumerable forgotten Irish, so many of whom lived difficult but often heroic lives. One of the Catherines of the title is the woman who worked alongside Mrs. O'Melia in the South's executive mansion.

She was nanny to the Davis children, and despite getting mentioned in two famous civil war diaries, only her first name is recorded for history. So she shared the fate of so many forgotten Irish; her story and voice destined to be lost forever.

I became interested in Catherine because she was blamed for the death of the five-year-old son of Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederate States.

In 1864, as the war entered its final year, Little Joe was killed in a fall from a balcony in the White House. And it was Catherine's fault! At least, this was the conclusion of Mary Chesnut, the renowned diarist, and it became the accepted narrative.

But Chesnut's verdict jarred with me; it seemed over-simplified and harsh, and hinted at an anti-Irish bias. Was this view, I wondered, shared by the parents? The conventional telling suggests Catherine was dismissed following the fatal fall, shunned by grieving parents who blamed her for the tragedy.

Reconstructing Catherine's story was difficult; there was very little to work with, save for one intriguing possibility as to her identity which I explore in the book. But even if we can't definitively identify her, we can unravel her story.

And a remarkable one it is.

The evidence is that she was a young teenage orphan; she had been sent to the Davises by the Daughters of Charity nuns, who ran an orphanage in Richmond.

And, thankfully, there is sufficient evidence to completely exonerate Catherine from any blame for the tragedy. The parents did not hold her responsible, nor did they dismiss her. Instead, Catherine remained with the family, still cherished by them. At the end of the war, she would repay the family by showing remarkable courage and loyalty in remaining with them while most deserted the now despised Davises.

Mrs. O'Melia the housekeeper was able to return to her family after the war, but this was not the case for Catherine. The end of the war brought no peace to her, simply further hardship.

In the Spring of 1865 as the South faced defeat, the Davis family was forced to flee Richmond. Most of the household staff (some of whom were slaves) were happy to quit; there was real danger now in any connection with the fugitive Davises. We know Mrs. O'Melia remained temporarily as housekeeper at the Richmond White House; she was asked by Davis to do so and was there when Lincoln visited it a few days later.

The Richmond White House Photo: Library of Congress

The Richmond White House Photo: Library of Congress

But Catherine, along with one other female servant, joined the family party in flight. It was an horrific five-hundred mile cross-country trek through mud and misery with four children and a baby. There was the ever-present danger of capture and – they feared – execution, either legal or otherwise.

It ended with the capture of Davis and his imprisonment. Mrs. Davis was banished to Savannah with her children. But Catherine quit at this point; she could not, she says, face the summer climate of the Deep South (how Irish is that!).

As the war ended, the young teenager therefore found herself alone, with no family and no money, in an alien land.

The most pleasing aspect for me in re-creating Catherine's story was the confirmation of my initial instinct that she was not responsible for the death of a child she clearly loved. Instead she remained with the family after the tragedy, still looking after the children.

So, importantly, she was there for the birth of Winnie, the last of the Davis children. Winnie was born in the White House just two months after the tragedy. Catherine was her nanny for the first year of her life, and would be replaced by another Irish nanny, Mary Ahearn, after she left.

Winnie Davis had a difficult life, sharing in her parents' “heritage of woe.” She achieved celebrity as the “Daughter of the Confederacy.” She subsequently wrote a biography of the Irish patriot Robert Emmet, helping to keep his heritage alive in America. And she would have as a dinner guest on her eighteenth birthday – possibly the greatest dinner-guest imaginable: Oscar Wilde. In fact, unlikely as it might seem, Wilde was an influence on Winnie writing Emmet's biography.


For more about Catherine’s influence on and time with the Davis family, check out Frank Burns’ book, "The Two Catherines," available via Amazon.

Frank Burns is retired and lives in Dublin with his wife, Anne. You can follow him on Twitter @TwoCatherines.