Through the holdings of the National Archives are a myriad of stories that are ready to be told, from struggle and misfortune to triumph and perseverance. In this “Stories From Our Holdings” series, we will endeavor to highlight works that have been created utilizing the tens of millions of our primary source documents, photographs, and films. In accomplishing this mission, we also hope to give well deserved exposure to the individuals who have come through the doors of the National Archives and discovered these stories.
Many stories are discovered while researching the records at the National Archives. One story, “‘The Hard Industry of My Own Hands’: Three American Civil War Widows in Ireland Struggle to Survive,” was created by Damian Shiels, an Ireland- based archaeologist specializing in conflict archaeology, which was first published on his website, Irish in the American Civil War. Mr. Shiels shared his research journey with us by email.
As he researched his story, Mr. Shiels utilized records culled from the pension files of the National Archives, including personal letters and official government correspondence between Washington D.C and the U.S. Consulate in Ireland, to tell the story of the hardships faced by three Irish women: Eleanor Hogg, Maria Sheppell and Honora Cleary. Although these women were from different religious and geographical backgrounds within Ireland, they shared unenviable commonalities in that all three were poor, illiterate, and had lost their husbands to the American Civil War. Interestingly, they also share the similarity that there is no evidence that any of these women ever set foot in the United States.
Shiels believes that the husbands of these women, Francis Michael Cleary, Farrell Hogg, and Nicholas Sheppell, left poor lives in Ireland in order to eventually make a better life for their families in America. During this time, service on behalf of the Union Army in the American Civil War was much more financially lucrative than a farmer or laborer’s allowance in impoverished Ireland. As he continued to research the connections between these women, Shiels discovered appeals made by an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Ireland to the Commissioner of Pensions in Washington, DC. The records showed that a case was made for the women to receive their deceased husbands’ pensions. The records indicate not only where, when, and at what age the men had passed away, but also that they left behind 15 children among them.
Because these records were digitized through a partnership with the National Archives and Fold3, they were available for a researcher in Ireland to discover and use. Since Mr. Shiels is based in Ireland and has no physical access to the U.S. National Archives, finding these records online was extremely valuable. In addition to labeling the NARA/Fold3 holdings on the Civil War Widows’ Pensions an “underused resource by many Civil War scholars,” Shiels also states that:
“I firmly believe it is one of the finest repositories of information on 19th century Irish emigrants both in Ireland and the US available, but is completely unknown by Irish historians… 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.”
170th New York, Corcoran’s Irish Legion on reserve picket duty. A significant amount of Irish immigrants fought for both the North and the South during the American Civil War. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress
If you’d like to learn more about the digitization project that Mr. Shiels used in his research, check out the Civil War Widows’ Pension Digitization Project video on the National Archives’ YouTube channel.