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Mayo Alive - 18 June 1996

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The American Civil War
A Mayo Connection

Marybeth Van Winkle,Pennsylvania

Having found "Mayo Alive" on the Internet I am moved to write about my great-uncle, John Kearney, who was quite a hero, at least in my eyes. Here's the story.

It seems that John Kearney was born in the late 1820's in an area called Ballyglass, County Mayo. (I'm told that there are two or three such places in Mayo). He, Margaret and another brother, Patrick, and possibly other family members emigrated to England in about 1845, most likely as a result of the Great Famine. They remained there until 1859 when they left from Birmingham and arrived in New York on June 15, of that year. In the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania census of 1860, Patrick was boarding with an Irish family and working in the coal mines. Margaret married Dominick Gillespie in 1863 in Scranton. Her daughter, Alice, was my grandmother. There was no sign of John.

John seems to have moved south to Mecklenburg County, Virginia, which is on the North Carolina border. Certainly the prospect of a lifetime in the PA coalfields and our absolutely nightmarish weather were enough to drive braver souls away. In any case, in January of 1861, John was in a Confederate uniform. (His brother Patrick was a member of the PA 8th. Infantry but served only three months in the Spring and Summer of 1861. No one thought our Civil War would endure as long as it did.) John was a member of the 22nd Virginia Infantry Battalion which was part of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Beginning with the first Manassas (Bull Run) in which the 22nd. was part of an artillary unit, John was in every major battle of the eastern theater of the war. He was at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Antietam and finally, at Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, the 22nd. was part of the advance unit that first engaged the famous Indiana Iron Brigade and which lost about 60% of its force. John was shot in the leg and sat out the rest of the battle.

According to the records I received from the National Archives, he developed gangrene from his wound but refused amputation. Then he contracted typhoid fever. By December of 1863, he was judged fit to return to duty. (In those days and with the size of Lee's army shrinking because of casualties and desertions, anyone able to stand up and walk two steps in a designated direction was considered fit.) His next engagement was in the Wilderness Campaign against Grant. Grant, of course, had the numbers and they say that there were enormous casualties during "friendly fire." In other words, the smoke was so thick in the already thick woods that the soldiers were accidentally shooting their own men. John was wounded there and captured on May 6, 1864.

He was first sent to a detention camp at Point Lookout in Maryland and then sent by train to Elmira Prison, the North's answer to Andersonville, the infamous Southern P.O.W. camp. Conditions at Elmira were probably less hospitable than they were in the South because of the awful weather up here. (It isn't far from Scranton.) It was built to house about a thousand prisoners but had as many as sixty thousand. John had the distinction of being one of the first guests. They slept in tents during the winter, did not have blankets and ate sporadically. Rats were used as currency because they could be eaten, if all else failed.

Somehow, John survived. In his discharge papers, dated May 15, 1865, he expressed a desire to go to his brother, Patrick, in Luzerne County, PA. I don't know what happened but I think having a brother who served in the Confederate Army may have been an embarrassment to the sensitive Patrick because John did not remain here. In 1880, he was admitted to the Robert E. Lee Home for Disabled Confederate Soldiers in Richmond, Virginia. He listed his closest relative as Mrs. Margaret Gillespie in Scranton. For this reason, I think that Patrick had been less than hospitable to him on his return from the war.

He was enthusiastically recommended for placement in the home by his former regimental officers. He also checked himself out once and was re-admitted on the authority of a General Cook so he probably had earned his retirement. (No doubt.) John died on November 11, 1902. He seems to have been a miner in Virginia because the cause of his death was listed as asphyxia, a common problem among miners and he had listed this as his occupation prior to getting caught up in this war. The papers from the Virginia State Archives say that he was "buried by Catholics." I don't know where he is buried in the Richmond vicinity but I have two friends, a fellow teacher, A.J. Curmaci, who will be visiting down there this year, and Monsignor Kevin O'Neill, a former classmate, looking into where he might have been buried. If I can, I would like to put a marker on his grave.

As you might know, prior to the Civil War, the arrival of the impoverished Irish in America was often met with some hauteur by the establishment WASPS. The Civil War did much to enhance the position of the Irish here because those who led Irish brigades or who had large numbers of Irish in their commands were ALWAYS impressed with the men's fighting ability. As far as discipline was concerned when they weren't fighting, there were a few complaints. However, the ability of the Irish to forage when supplies were cut off was renowned and if a commander needed food for the troops, it was always good to turn a few Irishmen loose and they would come back with bounty fit for a king!

As far as I know, there are no surviving letters in the family from John. I don't think that he could read or write as his name was alternately spelled Carney and Kearney, depending upon who was doing the writing. He seems to have been a redhead, about five foot six and stocky in build. When I received the military records from the various archives, I couldn't help but be impressed. Very few went through the whole war as he did. You have to wonder what a nice Irish boy from County Mayo was doing in a war like that.

I'm sure there are a lot of Mayo people who are unsung heroes in our country and in others.

Marybeth Van Winkle can be contacted at

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