The incredibly moving letters from Bridget Burns in New York to her only son, Henry, fighting in the US Civil War.
Bridget Burns married her husband William in Ireland on 18th August 1840. When her husband died eight years later, he left Bridget a widow and their only child, Henry, fatherless at the age of six. By the time 1861 came along, Bridget and her son were living at 125 Greenwich Avenue, New York.
On 19th August that year, 19-year-old Henry enlisted, becoming a Private in Company D of the 59th New York Infantry. With that act, Bridget became one of tens of thousands of Irish mothers who spent each day on edge, waiting for news from the front. Over the course of the war Henry regularly corresponded with his mother; he sent his letters to neighbor Catharine Farrell who read them out to the illiterate Irishwoman.
Henry, always keen to hear from home, felt his mother didn’t write to him enough and chastised her for it- at one point in 1863 telling her that ‘there is no excuse for you not writing.’ Still, he was grateful when letters did arrive, and especially for the occasional boxes he received, especially if they contained alcohol!
As the years passed and the war dragged on, Henry’s term of enlistment began to draw to a close. In December 1863 he decided to take advantage of the financial bounty offered to those who re-enlisted as Veteran Volunteers- and earn himself a furlough home into the bargain. When he got home to New York, he noticed a lot of his friends were marrying their sweethearts.
On his return to the army, he wondered if he should have done the same with his girl Ann; he wrote to his mother asking her to tell Ann to ‘have good patance I will be around there one of the days.’ He had a photo of himself taken that April, and cheekily asked his mother to check with Ann see if she ‘receved that beutifull likeness of mine.’
It seems probable that as well as reading Bridget the letters from her son, Catharine Farrell also wrote the responses for her friend. On 22nd June 1864, the two women sat down to write this letter to Henry, who was now engaged with the Army of the Potomac in the Overland Campaign:
New York June 22 1864
My Dear Son,
I sit down to answer your kind and welcome [letter] which I received on the 11th and I am sorry to hear that your cough is so bad but I hope it is better before this and I hope that this will find you in good health as this leaves me and all friends in at present thanks be to God for his mercy to us Dear Henry I wish to let you know that I sent you that candy in A small box and A small bottle of hot drops for your bowls [bowels] I hope you have it before this for I made no delay in sending it I sent it the day I got yours and the[y] charged me one dollar and 10 cents for postage but no matter what costs it is When you write again I hope that you will let me know if it does you any good and if it does I will send you plenty more.
My Dear son I am sorry to hear that you have such bad times as you have I wish I was near enough to you to give you your hot rum and oysters but I hope withe the help of God that this war will be soon over and that will be speard [spared] to me to see you once more and then I would die contented. Mrs. Finnen feels very bad she had not A letter from John in five weeks since he moved from Harpers Ferry when we last he[a]rd from James he was in the same please [place] at Sandy Hook. Mr and Mrs Farrell and the Children are all well and send there loved in the kindest maner to you and Kate wants you home to give her her gin Mrs Finnen Anne and Hugh sends there best respects to you and likewise others that I have not time to mention wishes to be remembered to you As I hope you will excuse this letter it was wrote in A hurry and I hope you will Answere it the first opperthunity you get so I have nomore to say at present I remain your affectionate Mother until death Bridget Burns
125 Greenwich Avenue
Dear Henry write as soon as you can for I will be very uneasy until I hear from you again
Johnny MGinn is in Co. B 59 and I want you to find him for I know he will be glad to see you
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The very day that Bridget Burns dictated this letter to her son in New York, his regiment was going into action at Petersburg, Virginia. A few weeks afterwards Bridget and Catharine Farrell would once again sit down together, looking at the very letter they had sent that 22nd June. On a blank section of paper at the back of the returned letter the following was written:
HdQrs 59th N.Y. Vet Vols
July 15 1864
Henry Burns of Co D was mortally wounded on June 22, 1864 and died of his wound at Campbell U.S.A. Hosptl Washgtn D.C. on July 6, 1864.
I am Madam,
Horace P. Rugg
Lt. Col. 59th N.Y.V. Vols
A Minié ball had struck the upper third of his left femur on 22nd June. He arrived in the hospital in Washington on 3rd July, but it was too late- his fate was sealed. Henry would never read the letter his mother had sent him. Bridget Burns became just another of thousands of Irish mothers- those whose wish to see their child one more time would go unfulfilled as a consequence of the American Civil War.
*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.
Learn more about their work here:
*Damian Shiels is an archeologist and author whose website can be found at irishamericancivilwar.com.
* Originally published in 2014, updated in July 2023.