Thomas Doherty:  A Search for Civil War Records
 by Mimi Steffen, January 2000

        In Eddie Kilroe's book of correspondence about the family he tried to confirm the Civil War service of Thomas Doherty, son of Patrick and Mary.  It was believed Thomas had served in Meagher's Irish Volunteers.  A search of war records in Washington, DC failed to turn up a likely candidate.

        Various searches of the Internet turned up several possibilities. So when I had an opportunity in December of 1999, I visited the National Archives.

        The search itself is time consuming, but interesting.  The archives have several volunteers and staff who are very helpful in locating research sites.  First one checks the microfilm records of all the Thomas Dougherty's and Thomas Doherty's  who enlisted from New York State.  There were a lot!  The search was helped by the fact that I knew his date of birth and death and his widow's full name.  Quite a few of the names could easily be eliminated using this criteria.

        Next, one asked for the original records of the remaining possibilities.  After filling out forms and being accepted as a researcher, one goes down a few floors.  Here all  purses, notebooks and coats are stored outside in a locker.  The researcher is given one set of records at a time.

        There was a Thomas Dougherty who was captured at Gettysburg.  Since he had been a corpsman in service, he worked for the Rebels there collecting the dead and wounded from the battlefield.  A fascinating story, but enough details were given so that I could eliminate him as a relative.  By the end of that day I had a few possibilities and many more names to check.

        The next day I searched  under widows' pension applications.  This was where I was sure I finally had it!  I found an application from an Ellen Doherty (correct name) filed from Scranton, PA (where they had lived)!  It takes a few hours for staff to locate records after a request is made.  Perusal of the widow's pension application was a confirmation .  This gave me the company and regiment to secure Thomas' records.

        The following is an excerpt from the Civil War book The Irrepressible Conflict: 1

    It was not for love of, or pity for, the enslaved  African that the Irish poured into the army.  Indeed, Negro emancipation was the great bogy of the Irish paddy who feared that the Northern states might be flooded with free blacks with resulting competition for jobs2. In the hearts of these sons of Erin there burned a consuming passion for Irish freedom.  The Hiberian order had nursed this sentiment since its inception in 1851.  It was supplemented shortly by the American branch of the secret Fenian Brotherhood under John O¹Mahoney who directed the collection of money and arms and the organization of an invisible Irish army scattered through the chief Northern cities.  In 1863 an Irish Republican organization upon the American model was launched with headquarters at New York City, which levied taxes and contributions, issued bonds, organized its army and made every preparation to strike for Irish independence.

    Many an Irishman felt that service in the Union army was but a preparation for the great day of Ireland's deliverance.  When the war began Colonel Michael Corcoran of the Sixty-ninth New York Militia promptly took the field with his Irish battalion; over a year later, after his exchange by the Confederates as one of the prisoners of Bull Run, he raised an Irish legion and was made brigadier general.

        An incident in 1860 endeared Corcoran to the Irish. The story was detailed by Cole and others.  The Prince of Wales visited New York City in 1860.  Corcoran refused to march his Sixty-ninth in the parade in the Prince's honor. As a result, he was suspended from serving with his beloved Sixty-Ninth.  The beginning of the Civil War led to his reinstatement. He was captured at the first significant battle of the war, the battle of Bull Run. While in prison, the North captured the southern schooner, Enchantress. The prize master was taken prisoner and after a trial, condemned to death for piracy.  In retaliation, the South, by lot, chose Corcoran to meet the same fate.  The challenge succeeded and neither was executed.

        Thomas was a volunteer in this  brigade.  He enlisted at Staten Island, September 22, 1862 in Corcoran's Irish Brigade, Company F of the 170th New York Infantry. This was the organizational date of the company. His term of enlistment was three years, not the 60 days that Eddie Kilroe had supposed. He is described as five feet five inches in height, a dark complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. His age is given as 21.  According to family records, he was only 19.

         A book on New York Regimental Histories3 states that  the 4th Corcoran Legion was mustered in at Staten Island on October 7, 1862. On that date Thomas was appointed Corporal. They left for Washington, DC on October 16 and then went to Newport News, Virginia until that December.  They were in action  at Deserted House on January 30th and the siege of Suffox from April 12th until May 4th. Interesting in that Thomas was present for a special muster call on the eve of that assault, April11th. There were operations on the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad from May 12th to 26th of 1863. They were involved in Dix's (is this for whom Ft. Dix, NJ is named?)  Peninsula Campaign from June 24th to July 7th.  Thomas was promoted to Sergeant, July 15, 1863.

    The Regiment moved to Washington, DC on July 12th. They guarded the city and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad until May of 1864.  Apparently the company was quartered at Devereaux Station,  Virginia.  Thomas went on leave and never returned. He was last paid on February 29th of 1864. He was listed as a deserter on April 13th. Also lost by him were one waist belt, a cartridge belt and bayonet scabbard. On a card titled Muster-out Roll, dated July 15, 1865,  his clothing account was last settled on October 13, 1863 and since then he had drawn $24.19. Another section said he had been paid a bounty of $25 and was due $75.4 Under remarks it stated: Deserted from Union Mills, VA, April 16, 1864 while on Furlough.

Again quoting from The Irrepressible Conflict5 :

    More troublesome...was that of the deserter.  Untold thousands of the latter became a veritable plague to the civil and military authorities of the Union as well as of the Confederacy.  Deserters were not of necessity unwilling conscripts dragged into the fray; ardent recruits of the bounty jumping persuasion furnished their full share. Desertion increased with conscription, of course, though even the volunteers of 1861 and an amazing number of their officers indulged in the practice.  Criminal types and arrant cowards were numerous enough and they sowed seeds of discontent among their fellows.  The facts of officer absenteeism and of civilian profiteering weakened enthusiasm for a cause which, on both sides, became vague in the mind of the private soldier.
Soldiers deserted singly and in groups of varying sizes. The second winter of the war opened with over one hundred thousand absent without leave from the Northern armies; the average monthly desertion for the remainder of the war was over five thousand.  The grand total was roughly two hundred thousand.

       While each side encouraged desertions from the enemy, desperate efforts were made to check it in their own ranks. Thousands of troops were detached to hunt down absentees, an unpleasant task in which the "tears and screams of wives and children" often touched the tender chords of those detailed to that duty.  The death penalty was increasingly applied in the later years until executions became an almost daily occurrence. Deserters from both armies were scattered over the Confederacy, especially in the mountain region and in back country districts, where bands of them held sway or added their contribution to the local guerrilla warfare.

        Did Thomas know that his Regiment was to return to the field shortly thereafter? His company was involved in the siege of Petersburg and other fighting.  They were at Appomattox Court House on April 9th for Lee's surrender.

        How much of this history did he share with Ellen Feeney?  They were married  in Honesdale, PA on October 3, 1868,  by the same Rev. J. J. Doherty who married my grandparents. Thomas died May 4, 1872 of a gun shot wound to the head.  She was left with three babies.

        The first application for a widow's pension was filed May 1, 1891 under an Act of June 27, 1890 .  In the archives it can be found under file #514.616; numerical number 637533. At that time she lived at 628 Forest Alley in Scranton.  At first she gave his company as K and he could not be found on that company's rolls. Her attorney submitted a letter with no proof. It stated that Doherty served until Corcoran was killed.6 He re-enlisted in the Marines and continued there after the war was over for about a year and that a substitute finished out his term of service. (This information somewhat fits with information Tom Kilroe recently provided. He said that Tom enlisted at least three times to get the enlistment bonus.  However, no proof of this has been found to date.  Ellen always testified that she had filed no other claims than the ones in her records.  I stopped my search when I found her application.)

        Ellen began trying again two years later.  She could not produce discharge papers, claiming they had been lost.  She did provide affidavits attesting to her marriage and from others confirming that she was the widow of Thomas and had not remarried. By this time she was residing at 745 Crisler St., still in Scranton. This application claimed that she had no property and was supported by those not legally bound for her support.  On June 9th of 1896 the application was denied due to the desertion from service of Thomas. During these processes she hired at least two lawyers to pursue her claim.

        A new law relevant to Civil War pensions was passed on April 19th, 1908. In April of 1914 she reapplied and was again denied.  I wonder why she went to the expense of again engaging a lawyer.  Was there something in the new law that might have worked to her benefit?

        As I was researching the Corcoran Brigade, an archivist noted that he had deserted:

        "He must have been a very intelligent individual."
         "He got out!"
        I'll leave it to each reader to make a judgment on Thomas' actions.  As noted above, desertions were fairly common during the Civil War.  Thomas was promoted to Sergeant to replace another deserter.

        Before you judge, read the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier and think about the agony our country was subjected to when many young men considered the Vietnam War not worth fighting.


1.  Cole, Arthur Charles; 1934; pages 310-311

2.  According to a television series on the History of New York, this was the main cause for the week long Draft Riots in July of 1863 that were only stopped when soldiers from Gettysburg could be diverted to restore order in the city.

3.  Dyer, Frederick H., A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion; T. Yoseloff, New York, 1959.

4.  Question:  How was bonus for enlistment paid?  That he was not given all his bonus might lead one to doubt the Kilroe tradition that he kept deserting and reinlisting to get the bonus.

5.  op cit. pages 314 and 315

6.  Corcoran's horse fell, killing him.  The accident occurred December 22nd, 1863.  Corcoran was riding with General Thomas Meagher near the Fairfax, Virginia courthouse.