How an Irish-born great-great-grandfather came to fight in the US Civil War

Author Ellen B. Alden recalls how her ancestor Florence Burke was one of 200,000 Irish-born immigrants who volunteered to fight in the American Civil War.

Author Ellen B. Alden recalls how her great-great-grandfather Florence Burke was one of the Irish-born immigrants who volunteered to fight in the American Civil War.

Alden, a former elementary school teacher turned novelist, was inspired to tell her great-great-grandfather's tale of bravery.

Her book, "Your's Faithfully, Florence Burke" recounts the life of her relative and his decision to enlist in the bloody American Civil War in 1864.

Alden recently penned a moving account of her great-great-grandfather's short life for the Extraordinary Emigrants series in the Irish Times. 

Lovely to meet ⁦the lovely @ellen_alden⁩ and her family at her lecture ⁦@EPICMuseumCHQ⁩ ⁦@chqdublin⁩ yesterday as part of ⁦

— Mervyn Greene 🇮🇪 (@mervyngreene) September 22, 2018

"'If I am doomed to fall on the field of battle and we are destined to never meet again on earth, may we be so prepared to meet in heaven.' - These are the final words written on June 15th, 1864 from my great, great grandfather, Florence Burke, to his wife and children back home in West Springfield, Massachusetts."

Alden reveals that as a 35-year-old father-of-three writing from a "filthy trench deep in the Virginia battlefields", Burke was one of 200,000 Irish-born immigrants who had volunteered to fight in the war. 

He had initially fled to America as a 19-year-old, keen to find his Irish love Ellen who had fled Ireland during the Great Famine in 1849. 

Thank you ⁦@mervyngreene⁩ for being an amazing host ⁦@EPICMuseumCHQ⁩ What a fantastic museum!!!

— Ellen B. Alden (@ellen_alden) September 21, 2018

The young lovers had married in Schull, Co Cork, mere days before Ellen and her family left the country. 

Alden recalls that when her great-great-grandfather arrived, he stayed with cousins in the infamous slums of Five Points in Lower Manhattan.

"Burke longed to reunite with Ellen, so he travelled on to West Springfield, in the vast farmlands of Western Massachusetts. They lived together and raised three children in the years leading up the American Civil War," she writes.

"Working as a tenant farmer as he had done in West Cork, Burke could not earn enough money to raise his family out of poverty. He was desperate. Then came the war. He waited as long as he could, but joined in 1864, three years into the conflict, amid newspaper reports that the war was winding down," Alden continues. 

I'm heading to the Emerald Isle in September presenting my book, "Yours Faithfully, Florence Burke," based on my great, great grandfather's American Civil War letters. Please join me! @irishacw @corkcitylibrary @westcorkarts

— Ellen B. Alden (@ellen_alden) August 31, 2018

"Burke wasn’t drafted or coerced into joining the war. He voluntarily enlisted in the Union Army as a “substitute” for a wealthy banker in his town, in exchange for $300 and an opportunity to use that money to buy a portion of land."

Burke was sent to the frontlines, where he grew terrified of his fate. 

According to Alden, "In March of 1864 he wrote, 'Dear Ellen, I take my pen in hand to let you know I am still living, thank God for it. You commonly hear it talked up North that the Rebels are starving, but you would think they are well fed as they fight and don’t turn back. Keep good courage and do not be fretting as I am doing the same hoping that I will see you and the children once more. Good-bye.'”

In April of 1864, Burke received horrific news from home, his baby girl had succumbed to typhoid. 

Alden notes, "In May of 1864, he wrote: “Dearest Ellen, I take full responsibility for putting my family in this merciless situation. I should never have signed up and left you with such a burden, but I truly thought the war was to end soon and that our family would be greatly benefited by the land. All I want you to do is keep courage and mind the children and keep them in school. That is the wish of an absent father to his family. My love to you and the boys, goodnight.”

Tragically Burke was killed in a trench near Petersburg on June 18th, 1864.

For more about Alden's heartbreaking historical novel, see her website here

Read More: 149 years later, Ellen Alden discovers great-great-grandfather's Civil War letters in attic

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