A Connecticut family struggled with its commitment to the Union cause
On the eve of the Civil War, Thomas Cahill was well-established in New Haven, Conn., a bustling industrial city of 39,000 residents. Cahill was born in Boston in 1828, the son of Irish parents who came to the United States in the early 19th century. The family relocated to New Haven in the 1830s, and Cahill grew up there and did well. He made his living as a mason and owned his own construction business, which provided a comfortable middle-class life for his wife, Margaret, and their two children, Mary and Eddie, who were ages 2 and 1, respectively, in 1861. They had weathered the anti-immigrant fervor that rose with the Know Nothing political party in the mid-1850s, and in the years before the war he was awarded substantial contracts from New Haven’s town government.
Cahill was the captain of a largely Irish-American militia unit, Company E (the Washington-Erina Guards) of the 2nd Regiment Connecticut State Militia. Nativism affected his participation in the martial organization in 1855 when the state passed an act disbanding all militia units composed primarily of foreign-born men. Local papers affiliated with the Democratic Party remonstrated against the ban, noting that Cahill was American by birth, the rank and file was “industrious and skillful,” and with unintended foreshadowing, boasted the militiamen were prepared to “shed their blood and sacrifice…in defense of American liberty….”
One Year Later
In 1856, the ban on foreign-born men in the Connecticut militia was lifted, and just five years later when the war began, many of the men of Cahill’s unit were absorbed into the 9th Connecticut Infantry and elected Cahill colonel of the regiment. Irish-born and first-generation men born to Irish immigrants dominated the 9th Connecticut, the Nutmeg State’s only ethnic regiment. The unit joined Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s New England Expeditionary Force at Camp Chase in Lowell, Mass., and the 9th would go on to serve in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia. The Cahills’ letters, chronicled in the University of Georgia Press book The Greatest Trials I Ever Had, edited by Ryan W. Keating, reveal the ethnic and religious loyalties of a couple who strongly identified with their Irish Catholic community in New Haven.
But the letters exchanged by the Cahills also reflect the pressures that battered most middle-class military families, regardless of religion or ethnicity, as the war dragged on. Margaret (“Mag”) Cahill was left to care for her young children and manage her husband’s business as best she could, exhausting and challenging tasks that left her little time to be involved in patriotic duties on the home front. Her letters capture the limits of her willingness to sacrifice for Union, while Thomas Cahill’s correspondence highlights the frustrations of command, especially for a volunteer citizen-officer. These challenges led him to consider resigning his commission and returning home to Margaret on several occasions, but Cahill remained in uniform through October 1864, compelled to serve the men of the 9th Connecticut and the Union cause, perhaps in that order. Their letters reveal a wartime family motivated less by the cause of liberty than their sense of duty to their community in New Haven and in the 9th Connecticut volunteers. The Cahill’s phonetic misspelling has been maintained in the letters, and in some cases bracketed text has been inserted to enhance clarity.
Colonel Cahill and the 9th Connecticut marched off to war in the fall of 1861 amid pageantry that celebrated their Irish- American pride. “Hard cases” in the ranks, as Cahill called them, however, tarnished the regiment’s reputation from the start.
Camp Chase Lowell
Nov. 7, 1861
My Dear Wife
We arrived safely at this camp on Tuesday Morning at 10 o clock. We had an awfull time with the Hard Cases on the manny [sic] of the Cars had no Lights in them and when they Commenced to hammer one another they could not tell where the blows came from; they smashed the glass in the car windows; and raised the mischief generally….We were met at the Cars by Col E.F. Jones of the 26th Mass Regt and after escorting us through the city delivered us into camp pretty well tired out….
They spent the fall in Lowell, Mass., attached to General Butler’s New England Expeditionary Force until the 9th Connecticut was ordered to Ship Island, Miss., where they could help enforce the Federal naval blockade and assist with invasion efforts along the Confederate coastline. Cahill grumbled because his commander, Brig. Gen. John Phelps, had issued a proclamation emancipating slaves in the region. Cahill, however, also rebuked slave owners for the cruel system of labor. That spring, Cahill took pride in his regiment’s improvement in drill and discipline, which they maintained despite the boredom at Ship Island and later at Camp Parapet, north of New Orleans, where they helped with the occupation of the Crescent City. They did not participate in the capture of New Orleans, though the 9th Connecticut did distinguish itself in a small engagement at Pass Christian, Miss., and in a larger battle at Baton Rouge, La., in August 1862 despite the sickness that weakened their ranks—likely contracted while digging “Grant’s Canal” near Vicksburg. Back in New Haven, Margaret Cahill worked to maintain her husband’s business accounts, collect rent, raise her children, and serve as a conduit between the regiment and the soldiers’ families at home.
Dec. 7, 1861
I am afraid that General Phelps [emancipation] proclamation will make trouble here. I have not seen it but understand that the naval officers denounce it bitterly. have heard some of them myself. Father [Daniel] Mullen [9th Connecticut chaplain] is also very bitter against it and says he will denounce it as Containing Sentiments anti Catholic. it is also said that the Massachusetts Regt are very much opposed to it. some of them are threatening to resign. as for myself shall be Cautious in my movements but certainly shall not Endorse Either Abolition or Infidelity on sectarianism. I[t] is a Little Singular to say the least of it: That he should have issued such a Proclamation with out Consulting Col Jones or Myself.
Dec. 30, 1861
My Dear Wife
…Our men are beginning to look like soldiers since we got our new muskets and I am really impressed myself at their decided improvement. I am working hard to get ahead of the 26th [Massachusetts] and have the Concert to think we Can. the men begin to think so too. we can average more balls in the target than them now as the main guard gives every morning after guard mounting….it is now going on twelve o clock….no one can conceive the amount of reading writing and talking it takes to handle a regiment like ours. the company officers here are working like beavers….
March 29, 1862
My Dear Husband
…I hope you will come home soon. I do not Love to keep accounts I have deposited Johnys money and Carrolls too. Carrolls wife is Making a time about not getting More Money. but if what I hear be true she does not desire to get any more than will bearly [sic] support her….Mrs Lawler recd her Money yesterday. it came to me—she is a very fine woman. tell her Husband she and family are well and Barney Lynch to remember me to him. his wife came to me and got her Money. they are all well….
April 8, 1862
My Dear Wife
The rough ninth have been trooping around the Splendid summer residences [in Pass Christian] of the southern aristocracy built upon the meanest of all foundations: the unwilling labor of the Black….
On Board Steamer Matanzas
off the Dock at New Orleans
May 2, 1862
My Dear Wife we have within the Last hour Come up from the “Passes” to help to hold this immense City. it seems Completely at our Mercy….
do not give yourself any uneasiness about me. their men have Evidently got in the way of running away when we came in behind the Fort Philip….
The Rebels in the Forts mutinied and…Came up to the 26th Regt which was the first to Land and surrendered themselves. They were all let go without their arms.
Reading Cotton Pass
May 4, 1862
My Dear Wife
…Our men find lots of Old acquaintances here. I think if we were to stay here another week we would have the biggest half of the Irish here with us….
Camp Parapet, Carrollton LA
May 26, 1862
My Dear Wife
…I am taking in a large number of recruits and they were verry [sic] stalwart men much Larger than the overage [sic] of our men: They are natives of Ireland Germany and some of the Northern and Western States. They represent themselves as having suffered terribly during the Last year and seem glad to Come among us. our regt has such a tremendous name here some how or other that they walk out here about 8 miles to join us. While I write I heard 6 have Come into Camp….
May 30, 1862
2 OClock P.M.
My dear Husband
I have just recd your Letters of the 13 and 14 from Camp Parapet. I need not tell you I was delighted to hear from you—that you know—but if I say I do not hear from you half often Enough—do not think me too selfish—you know I had no Idea when you levt [sic] home that you would be done [sic] so Long. but enough of this what I was going to say will do neither of us any good under present circumstances. I will trust altogether in Gods Mercy and hope for your return very soon….
On Board Steamer
McClellan Mississippi River
June 1, 1862
My Dear Wife
as you may judge from the heading we are again on the move. This time to Baton Rouge to join 4 other Regts under Brigd Genl Williams….
I have Enlisted near 200 men in New Orleans. they are fine looking men much better looking than the average of our men. I am not at all pleasant with the looks of the Country along the River. there are some fine looking plantations and houses but the land is too flat, it seems well cultivated. there is no Evidence [of] that desperate destruction of property we read so much about: the people seem intolerably passive standing in small groups staring at us as we sail by: I can see manny [sic] females in apparent mourning which is suggestive of friends lost, still it may be mere fancy as some ladies affect that style of dress.
On Board Transport Steamer
Diana off Vicksburg
June 24, 1862
10 OClock P.M.
My Dear wife
…we are detailing 200 men per day to Cut a new Channel for the Miss River in order to turn it away from Vicksburg and to leave her all along on her Bluffs which she has so impudently attempted to use to ban our progress up the Mississippi. [T]his is a great scheme if it will work as it promises and it may be another Evidence that we Cannot be stopped when we want to go ahead….
On Board Steamer Diana
Mississippi River Near
June 30, 1862
My Dear Wife
…we have made no perceptible progress since my last: I say we I mean the Fleet for not much is Expected from the small land force here at this time unless the stupendious [sic] attempt we are making to turn the River out of its usual Channel amounts to more than it seems at present to promise: we are still digging with about 700 soldiers and 4 to 5 hundred negroes: and will let the water on in a few days but as the river is falling rapidly I have not much faith in the scheme. never did but that is not my business. we work as we are told and do as well as we can….
July 20, 1862
My Dear Wife
…The men are a good deal Debilitated from the heat but I do not apprehend a great amount of sickness: there are a good manny however that I would discharge and send home if I could get the necessary [sic] papers….
The men are getting home sick as in fact we all are. the uncertainty of our movements tends greatly to this End. we do not know how where we are going to be from one day to another. all this tends to depress the spirits and make the men uneasy which of course reacts upon the health…. The tremendous Cut off that was to have done so much is about given up so that really things are in worse shape than when we Came here. How it will End I do not know and as I am not responsible let them do as they like.
I will take care of my self and my Command as long as I can and then I will stop. I dislike to offer my resignation but feel that I cannot serve under such a man as we are under at present a great while and I shall take the first opportunity to Escape. but I must try to do so in an honourable manner. if I could only get my papers for discharges I could send home half the Regt before I leave myself: but then I really do not know what to turn my self to. there is not likelihood of their being any business to do for a long time after this infernal war and there must be a complete change in all the affairs of Life. if I could get along with such confounded ____ as I am under now I would continue from seat of Policy as well as from Patriotic motives but this is all speculation. I cannot tell what may turn up. yet however you can understand that I feel like Coming home as soon as I can and I want to take Care of my friends and get them out with me or into better places if they stay in it….
In the summer of 1862, Margaret Cahill gave birth to the couple’s third child, who brought them joy but compounded the pain of their separation.
July 24, 1862
My Dear Husband
Our dear little Thomas Mathew is 11 Days-20 hours old at the commencement of this letter….I have had a great many sudden changes up to two days ago but with Gods help they have all passed over and I am Mag again but only on Conditions and those are that you must come home. now I have said must (but not in anger) and that means a good deal. I cannot help it for my Heart is nearly broken. I cannot hold out much longer and you must give me credit for being patient a good while—you know I have too much feeling or pride or whatever you may choose to call it to let any person know my real feelings about your being absent—but I am not ashamed to tell you that it is the greatest trials I ever had. although I have had many and sore ones too. but none like this I think….
August 16, 1862
My Dear Wife
Your Welcome letter…Reached me during the Excitement following our fight of August 5th [at Baton Rouge]. I think it was on the 7th that I received the letter announcing the birth of little Thomas Matthew. So you see good luck Comes in Couples. to hear of the Birth of a son and win a Battle at about the same time is what is not often vouchsafed to Mortal Man: (I cannot say thus I was as much surprised by the news from home as I was to be Called so suddenly to the Command of the Army of Baton Rouge Even for the short time that I held the verry [sic] responsible position) [when Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams was mortally wounded]….
So My dear wife is anxious to have me come home. Oh dear what makes you talk so. it would do me a heap of good to See you all again. but how Could I part with you and all the Orders from Head Quarters are against the Chances of Getting a leave of absence. and as far as resignation I suppose A Man is a traitor that asks for it at present. I shall try however for your sake….
9th Regt Conn Vols
October 21, 1862
My Dear Wife
… I am sending home a good may discharged men. I cannot bear to see them lying about here looking like death although I know a great manny [sic] of them are playing on me and will be as well as Ever as soon as they get their discharges. but I do not Care. I would send the whole Regt home if I could and then go home myself. I wish I could do so with the whole Regt.
Thomas Cahill returned home to New Haven in January 1863. After enjoying three months with his family, he returned to New Orleans in much better spirits.
May 6, 1863
My Dear Wife
We arrived here safely….The men and officers of the Regiment are all well….the prospect [for victory] is glorious after all the gloom. if we have troops to stand by what we have on if we only strip the Country completely of every vestige of wealth if they will not submit; this is the method to subdue them and take Vicksburg and Port Hudson not by rushing men on Fortifications prepared for their slaughter. They cannot live on the air; and they must be starved if they will not submit….
June 5, 1863
My dear Husband
…There is a perfect Panic here among the Men liable to the first Call [of the Federal draft] namly [sic] unmarried men. Some are being married and consider themselves Save but the majority are running away from it is great pity for Times were never before so good here. Father Hart is down on their running away so soon at least he advised them to form into Associations and have a fund and if necessary buy each other off but you know how excitable our people are….
Head Quarters 2d Brigade
August 8, 1863
My Dear Wife
… Every thing is quiet in this Department since the fall of Port Hudson. the 24th has gone to ship Portland but has left a lot of stragglers around the city which I am picking up and sending off as fast as I can. 2 or three of our officers are going home for the conscripts. We want 400 to fill up with. we send home 6 men for same purpose….I dont suppose we will get a great many of the Conscripts but here now do I suppose a great many will be got by it only way now. in short do I Care whether or not if they dont come. I may be mustered out for which I suppose you will pray, but I dont find much fault as yet, as I am honestly getting on Easier living than Ever before and more money for it.
In the fall of 1863, Margaret traveled south to join her husband in New Orleans. Their correspondence paused until the summer of 1864 when Cahill and the 294 members of the 9th who chose to re-enlist at the end of their three-year terms were transferred to operations in Virginia. Cahill had serious reservations about his decision to stay in the army, and the intensity of the fighting in the Eastern Theater terrified Margaret. Thomas Cahill finally decided to resign his commission in October 1864. It seems that once most of his friends and neighbors in the 9th Connecticut had left the army, he could conclude that he had fought well, cared for his men, and made sufficient sacrifices for the Union. Thomas returned home, and his construction business boomed after the war. He had precious little time to enjoy his success, however, as he died in 1869 at age 42. Margaret died the next year, and Thomas’ sister, Ellen, raised their orphaned children.
Susannah J. Ural is co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, and is currently editing a Texas Brigade family’s correspondence for a project titled, This Murderous Storm: A Confederate Family at War.