As newly formed regiments left their home states for the seat of war, many wives chose to accompany their men to the front. When the 37th New York ‘Irish Rifles’ settled into their duties around Washington in the summer of 1861, Private John Dooley had his family with him. Waiting in camp was his wife and the unborn child she was carrying. The regiment would soon celebrate the birth of a son, who was given a name that would serve as a reminder of the great conflict.

Although perhaps not an especially frequent occurrence during the American Civil War, the birth of children to camp followers had been commonplace in armies such as those the Britain and France in the 18th and 19th centuries. The children were described as ‘born to the regiment’ (‘ au régiment’ in French) and they often went on to serve in the formations into which they were born.

In the majority of cases the fathers of these children were professional soldiers, who could expect to spend much of their lives on campaign or fulfilling garrison duties in far-flung parts of the world. John Dooley ‘s case was somewhat different. As a citizen soldier who had recently volunteered, he and his wife made a conscious decision for her to follow him to the front.

John Dooley formed part of Company K, which had been raised around Pulaski, NY. The 24 year-old had enlisted on May 25, 1861 and been mustered in on June 7, when his wife was already a number of months pregnant. It is not clear if Dooley’s wife left New York with the regiment in late June 1861 or if she joined up with John in camp later. Clearly they felt that they should stay together – perhaps it was a matter of financial necessity, or a wish not to be separated. Whatever the reasons, the occasion of the birth that September was a special occasion and as such was reported to the New York Irish-American:

The Child of the Regiment

A few nights ago, we had a birth in the 37th, the wife of Private Dooley, of Co. K, bringing him an heir, which the officers forthwith adopted as their protégé, to be the future “child of the regiment.” He was baptized on Sunday, the 15th, by Father Tissot, Col. Burke and Mrs. Lieutenant Barry standing sponsors in behalf of the regiment.

As soon as pay-day comes, it is proposed to contribute a handsome sum, which is to be deposited in bank there to accumulate to the credit of the child when he comes of age. Already has been received several presents of clothing, &c., from kind ladies in Washington and the President is expected to contribute his mite, also, towards his namesake, Abraham Lincoln Dooley.

Baby names was perhaps one of the more unlikely arenas where Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis fought it out (New York Historical Society).

Luckily for the family John survived the war and mustered out with the 37th New York in June 1863. He claimed a pension from 1881 and following his death a widow’s pension was paid out to his wife. The family have otherwise proven elusive, and I have as yet found no further details of their post-war life.

The enthusiastic naming of the Dooleys' boy as ‘Abraham Lincoln’ raises the question as to just how common it was during the feverish days of 1861 to name a child for the Northern (or indeed Southern) President. In an effort to get some idea of the prevalence of this practice I decided to examine the 1870 US Federal Census. My aim was to ascertain how many children born roughly around 1861 had been christened ‘Abraham,’ ‘Abe’ or had ‘Lincoln’ as part of their Christian name. Similarly, I repeated the search using the same data for ‘Jefferson,’ ‘Jeff’ and those who had ‘Davis’ as part of their Christian name.

The results are presented in the tables below. They naturally have to be treated with caution, as they do not allow for alternate spellings (e.g. ‘Abram’ or ‘Jeferson’), nor do they include those who were only recorded by initial, or indeed those who had previously died. Neither can it discriminate between those who were named for reasons other than to honor Lincoln and Davis, e.g. as part of family tradition. Therefore the numbers are not absolute, and there is some potential crossover of individuals (notably with regard to the ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Davis’ elements). Nevertheless, taken in a general sense it is an interesting reminder of how many people chose to make a marked and permanent statement about just whose side they were on in 1861.

That these names increased in popularity as a result of the two men ascending to political power is clear. As a comparative there were 486 children named ‘Abraham’ and 284 named ‘Jefferson’ who were born in c.1851, providing an indication of these name’s pre-war popularity. The fact that thousands of children were named for these men is testament to the strong feelings on both sides at the time. These figures suggest that in the naming stakes at least, Jefferson Davis may have had one over on Abraham Lincoln in the war’s early days.

One individual not represented in these figures is Abraham Lincoln Dooley, as I have been unable to locate him on the 1870 Federal Census, or indeed find any further reference to him beyond the New York Irish-American. Perhaps he chose not to be defined by the name of the sixteenth President, and went by another name in later years. It is also possible that like so many others in this period he did not survive beyond childhood. Hopefully some further information will emerge that will reveal his ultimate fate.

*I am extremely grateful to friend Mark Dunkelman, historian of the 154th New York Infantry, for bringing this account to my attention. Mark has written some exceptional books on different aspects of the 154th’s history and memory- you can find more at his site here.


Damian Shiels is an archaeologist and historian who runs the 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.