Dying to Vote: How the 1864 Presidential Election Cost an Irishman His Life

It will come as little surprise to readers that my analysis of Irish American correspondence during the Civil War has revealed that they were overwhelmingly pro-Democrat and anti-Republican. When they expressed a political opinion, they showed a general antipathy towards Abraham Lincoln, and strongly supported George B. McClellan in the 1864 Presidential Election. Going to the polls in November 1864 was the event that prompted the majority of political commentary in their writings home. Many of them were undoubtedly disappointed by the result, one which saw President Lincoln re-elected for a second term. But whatever their feelings of loss, they were nothing compared to those felt by the Connolly family. For them, the 1864 Presidential Election had cost them much more than a political reverse. It had cost them their son. To compound their distress, the Government determined that they were to be financially penalised– because when their son died, he had been en-route to exercise his voting rights. The 1860 Census found the Connollys living in Boston’s Tenth Ward–later documentation reveals their home address as 18 Carney Place. The family consisted of 56-year-old laborer James and his 48-year-old wife Johanna, together with their 22-year-old painter and glazier son Eugene, and 18-year-old daughter Catherine. All had been born in Ireland, and as was common among working-class Irish, all of them appear to have been illiterate. On 12th August 1862, Eugene was enrolled in Company B of the 20th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the many Irishmen in what was known as the “Harvard Regiment.” By that time he was his family’s main support. His father had become almost totally blind in 1861, and his mother had long been unable to work as she battled mental illness. John Cadagin, who had known the family in both Ireland and the United States, recalled in 1866 that “Johanna was unable to do anything from sickness she has been in the Insane Hospital about 15 years caused by the death of several Children and has been feeble minded ever since…” Indeed both parents would “have been in the poor house” without the regular payments from their son, sent from the army via mediums such as Adams Express. (1)
Adams Express (National Archives)

Adams Express envelope used by Eugene Connolly to send money home in October 1864. Like many illiterate Irish, he sent money and letters to his parents via intermediaries, in this case Morris Fitzgerald. Morris was also unable to write, but was probably able to read. (National Archives)

  Eugene wrote home to his parents during the conflict, using a literate fellow soldier to prepare his correspondence for him. When the time came, he elected to reenlist as a Veteran Volunteer, providing those at home with his bounty money. But his time at the front in 1864 did not last long. During the fighting at The Wilderness on 6th May he was shot in the face, a severe injury that condemned him to months of medical treatment. The Irishman was sent to McClellan General Hospital in Philadelphia, and a short furlough excepted, he was still there the following November. That month the Government sought to mobilise the soldier vote in the Presidential Election, due to take place on 8th November. Republicans feared the contest would be a close-run thing, and Eugene was among many men allowed home to cast their ballot. Indeed, the crowds of soldiers being crammed onto the trains were so large that they stretched the transportation system to breaking point. For the debilitated emigrant, still suffering from spells of dizziness, it proved catastrophic. The circumstances of his fate were outlined in a long letter written by one H.P. Parrott, an Adams Express agent who was with the Irishman at the end:
Office Adams Ex. Co. B. Port Nov 8/64 Isaac P. Clark Agt. Dr Sir Enclosed I send you 8/- and few buttons all there was in the pcokets of E. Connolly there was a letter from Fitzgerald, and his furlough both of which was passed over to the Provost Marshall as he is out of town I cannot obtain them today. I understand it [is] his duty to return the Furlough to the Hospital with statement of circumstances of his death, as the Govt. need positive information of this death, so that his friends may get his Pension &c. Connolly was on the 3 P.M. Express train from New Haven for Boston Saturday eveg the train was heavily loaded with soldiers as well as all the trains that passed over the Road, many of the soldiers were on the Platform, it is said Connolly was on the Platform got a sleep and fell off the train, he was seen to fall off about a half a mile below the Depot at this station. Train was stopped and he was brot. to my Office in the Depot, his left leg just below the knee was run over and badly mangled his other led was also somewhat injured. There was also a slight cut over one of his eyes. At 7 P.M. he was brot. to my Office. Immediately sent for Physicians. Dr. Bennett one of our best Surgeons was shortly to his side also Surgeon Burnett who is Medical Inspector of 23d Army Corp’s happened to be home on a short furlough. They made an examination and was soon satisfied that he could not live but a short time. He had hardly a perceptible pulse and but slight movement of the bead. Brandy was given him but he did not revive in the least. Doctors though that he must have been injured internally as the loss of his leg would not have so reduced him. He lay perfectly quiet apparently unconscious until he died. I heard him say once plainly “I am dying take me home”. I called him by name but heard no response. Doctors said the only hope for him was to let him remain quiet keep feeding him with stimulants and if he recovered sufficiently move him to a Hotel and they would attend to his leg. They both remained by his side until he died together with myself and several others. I did not move him until after 11 O’Clock P.M. As he seemed to live longer than expected I thought he might live the night out. By permission of the Doctors we removed him on a mattress to the “Sterling House” in this City, a House whose doors are always wide open to take in any soldier in distress (and it is the only one we have I am sorry to say) balance are “Copperheads”. They gave us a good room and a good bed free of expense on which we laid him he however lived but about 3/4 of an hour. He died as easily as if going to sleep not a movement of a muscle could be discerned. He died surrounded by quite a number of warm hearted friends and everything was done for him that possibly could be to resuscitate him. He died about 1/4 after 12 A.M. A brother soldier and a Gent. here volunteered to lay him out and remain with him until morning which they did. Dr. Bennett being an officer in the army examined his pockets and found only the enclosed. I enclose his certif. of death, I telegh. immediately to Fitzgerald Sunday. I procured a coffin and prepared the corpse for forwarding as per ins. recd. your telegraph [Nov] 7th and forwarded the body on Tuesday morning by Express free of charge. I consulted the R.R Office and they claim they have nothing to do about it, as I bought the coffin and made some little expense I intended to have sent bill to you to collect of the friends but since reciving your letter stateing that they are so poor, I will endeavor to collect here if possible. I have given you a hasty account of the circumstances attending this sad case. If there is any questions the friends want to ask I will cheerfully give them all the information I possess. My sympathies run out towards the brave men who stand as a wall of iron between us and our enemies, and I stand ready at all times to minister to their wants, sympmathizing deeply with the afflicted family, I Remain, Respy. Yours H.R. Parrott Agt. Adams Express Co Br. Port. Ct. Have written in such haste that you may find some trouble in reading it want of time forces me to do so. P. (2)

A military train with Federal troops crosses the Bull Run Bridge in the spring of 1863 (Library of Congress)

  One cannot imagine the devastating impact Eugene’s death had on his family, particularly his mother, who had been so affected by the premature loss of her other children. The Connollys may fairly have expected, given what their son had sacrificed, that their pension application would be a relatively straight forward affair. Such was not to be the case. Though Johanna applied almost immediately-a necessity given their financial predicament–her hopes were soon dashed. The Pension Bureau determined that Eugene’s death had not come in the line of duty, and as a result no pension could be awarded. The Commissioner of the Pensions stated it succinctly, if coldly:
It appears from the evidence that this soldier was furloughed to go home to vote and was killed by falling from the cars. As he was not in the line of duty the application is rejected. (3)

McClellan Hospital in Philadelphia, where Eugene Connolly had been recovering from his Wilderness wounds (Library of Congress)

  Johanna Connolly’s attorney was incensed by this determination. When no progress had been made by late 1867, he decided to take the matter directly to the Secretary of the Interior. His incredulity as to the decision shines through in his letter, reinforced by his decision to underline key passages. A portion of his impassioned argument is as follows:
…the transport furnished was inadequate so many going home to vote. Every train was overcrowded. He was furnished with no money or means of subsistence to lay over and was necessitated to take such conveyance as was offered. The cars were so full that the platforms were crowded. This soldier had a standing place on the outside of the car with others, and in passing Bridgeport CT on the evening of the 5th November making no stoppage and running very fast. Connolly was thrown or crowded off and killed, he was at the time suffering under debility from the effects of his wounds and service rendering him unable to protect himself and hastening his death. He lived several hours. If he was furloughed to go home to vote I contend that he was [in] line of his duty, that as it was officially permitted by the Executive and War department of the Government for disabled soldiers to be furloughed to vote. It was as much his line of duty to sustain the Government and the army by his vote as in the line of battle. And that movements in the field were delayed to enable the soldiers to vote in their several regiments and divisions. This soldier had just returned from a sick furlough only two weeks previous and it was not by his solicitation that this furlough was granted, but the action of the Government for their own advantage. Had anything occurred to a regiment in the field or camp while voting would it for a moment have been considered that the men were not in their line of duty. If it should be decided by your honor that it was in fact a sick furlough, then by reason of the enfeebled condition of the soldier suffering from a wound in the head or right side of his face and the imperfect transportation furnished that his disabled condition was the primary cause of his loss of life, his inability to protect himself from liability to dizziness & c. The elective franchise is no private or personal duty, in the election of a President and Congress, and in war times it is in my humble opinion a great public [duty], and to the soldier suffering under wounds a military duty to sustain and encourage the army by his vote. If it were not so considered by the Government and War department it would have never been permitted. The army was subservient to the great public duties of the hour. Was not the proclamation of the President to free the negroes considered a military necessity. And I may add the permission and furnishing the soldier with transportation to vote. This soldier was killed while under Government transportation. The Pension Law being the humane and kindly act of the Government, should have a liberal construction by the Executive department of the Government in the soldiers behalf. An early decision is humbly solicited, all of which is respectfully submitted. Your Most Obt Svt Isaac P. Clark Attorney for Johanna Connolly I have not the General Orders of the War Department to refer to referring to Soldiers Votes. I.P. Clark. (4)
Isaac Clark sent his letter on 16th September 1867. On 27th September W.J. Otto, the Acting Secretary of the Interior, gave his determination to the Commissioner of Pensions. He was unmoved:
Your decision in the case of Johanna Connolly…mother of Eugene Connolly…is affirmed. (5)
The last hope for Johanna Connolly was a direct appeal to Congress–specifically to the members of the Committee on Invalid Pensions, who had the power to grant individual pensions by private act. She duly sent in a petition, outlining the case and her circumstances. Massachusetts Representative Ginery Twichell (R) took up the baton, and referred it to the Committee. Finally, on 6th December 1867, more than three years after his death, Eugene Connolly’s mother was told that her pension would be awarded. She would continue to receive it until her death in 1881. (6) If you have enjoyed this and other posts and resources on the website, please consider supporting my work on Patreon. You can do so for as little as $1 per month, and gain access to exclusive content. You can find out more by clicking here or visiting https://www.patreon.com/irishacw.
Act (NARA)

The Act which finally granted a pension to Johanna Connolly, approved on 27th July 1868 (NARA)

  *None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online. A team of archivists from NARA supported by volunteers have enabled access to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here. (1) WC121737, 1860 Census; (2) WC12737; (3) Ibid.; (4) Ibid.; (5) Ibid.; (6) Ibid.; References 1860 Federal Census Widow’s Certificate 121737 of Johanna Connolly, Mother of Eugene Connolly, 20th Massachusetts Infantry The post Dying to Vote: How the 1864 Presidential Election Cost an Irishman His Life appeared first on Irish in the American Civil War.