Saturday, 9 February 2013

'Cannon and musket balls flew around me'

Page 1 of Michael McCarty's letter
(Thanks to Brendan Foley for the image)
This week I thought we'd have a bit of change from the First World War, although you may not guess it from the first few lines of this soldier's letter:

'My dear wife, I take my pen in hand in order to let you know that I am well and I hope this may find you enjoying the same. No doubt but that you have heard of the great battle, which was fought last Thursday the 7th. I was there and done all I could for my adopted country.'

No, it wasn't written during the First World War but in 1861, during the American Civil War. Its author was a Unionist soldier called Michael McCarty and the things he wrote about were very similar to those in letters some 50 years later: a vivid description of battle, acceptance that death may be just around the corner, the wait to be paid, and concern for those at home.

McCarty was an immigrant from Ireland who served with the Illinois 31st (nicknamed the 'Dirty First') Regiment and he wrote the letter three days after the Battle of Belmont, in Missouri. It was kindly sent to me by McCarty's great-great-grandson, Dan Foley, and you can read the rest below. The gunboats mentioned were on the Mississippi River (in case, like me, you were wondering whatever boats were doing in the middle of a continent!) and the 'Sesh' referred to the Confederates - the Secessionists.

'The battle was fought in Missouri at a place called Belmont opposite Columbus on the Kentucky shore. The gunboats began the battle about 9 o'clock in the morning and we infantry a little before 11o'clock, which lasted until night. I can not give you a full account of whole fight as it would fill several sheets of paper but this I know that I never saw such a time in all my life and I hope that I may never see such another. But if I must, I must and therefore am ready.

'I escaped unhurt, but how it was God only knows for I am sure that I don't. Cannon and musket balls flew around me as thick as hale [sic]. Cutting down trees and bushes and tearing up the ground in every direction. Others of whom there were many were less fortunate and met a soldier's doom - Death. The Sesh were badly cut to pieces losing a great many more than our side, but ours is bad enough and who the victory belongs to it is hard to tell but it is claimed by the Union troops.

'We captured and spiked their guns but had to retreat to the boats hotly pursued by the enemy who were reinforced by many thousands from Columbus. We lost a considerable of clothing. Consisting of coats and other equipments. I would have written to you before but was expecting to get paid off every day and will write to you again when we get paid, we are looking for it every day. Write me how you and the children are getting on. No more at this time, but remain yours Michael McCarty'

Sadly, McCarty was injured later in the war at Atlanta and did not survive, but his family remains proud to this day: 'He died in the service of his new country. He was a hero, as the letter establishes pretty well,' said his great-great-grandson.

'I escaped unhurt but how, God only knows' - pages 2 and 3 of McCarty's letter
(Thanks to Brendan Foley - McCarty's great-great-great-grandson! - for the image)

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