This incredible archive of letters were penned by Henry McGrath Cannon—a diminutive young man who reassured his father as the war came to a close, “I was always ready to do my duty when called upon by my superior officers and I have not up to this time received one harsh word or any kind of punishment from them—nor I hope I will not as long as I am in the service.”
Henry was born in June 1846 in Newburgh, Orange county, New York—a key link on the Hudson River between the state capital of Albany and New York City some sixty miles to the south—made famous for being the headquarters of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In mid-19th Century, Newburgh was a burgeoning city with industries that include the manufacture of cottons, woolens, silks, paper, felt hats, baking powder, soap, paper boxes, brick, steam boilers, tools, coin silver, bleach, candles, shirts, felt goods, as well as shipyards, foundries and machine shops; tanneries; leatherette works; and plaster works.
Young Henry grew up on a farm outside of town where his father, Westlake Cannon (1822-1897), apparently made a meagre income raising cows and selling milk as well as selling cord wood from their wood lots. We know from a letter by his father that Henry skipped out of school, straining the relationship between father and son. In the only letter in this archive written by Henry’s father, came the following rebuke: “It appears to me by your writing so often that you must think of home although perhaps you used to think it was a very poor one. Oh! why did you not stay and help me to make it a richer and better one? …I suppose whenever I corrected you, you used to think I did it because I like to do it. But if you argue that case with yourself, you will come to a different conclusion. If you had been more obedient, it would have been very different.”
By the time the Civil War was in its second year, Henry could refrain no longer from his desire to enlist. Most certainly his mother, Ann (McGrath) Cannon, begged her oldest son—just turned sixteen—to reconsider his decision. Surely his father needed him worse than Uncle Sam, she must have argued. But it was no use. Henry enlisted, leaving his parents, two sisters—Achsah (age 13) and Jane (age 7), and his younger brother Jimmy (age 4).
Henry’s service in the vaunted 124th New York Infantry was short-lived, however. Whether it was the new boots that wore blisters on his feet as he marched along with his regiment into the “sacred soil of Virginia” or the “rheumatism” doctor’s later diagnosed, young Henry was soon on the sick list and sent to St. Aloysius Hospital in mid-October 1862. The brevity of Henry’s time with the 124th New York Volunteers in the field is undoubtedly a disappointment to scholars who might look to this archive of letters as a newfound source of information on the well-published regiment. But though this archive reveals little about the 124th, it reveals much about the St. Aloysius Hospital which had just opened it doors prior to admitting Henry. In fact, Henry was most certainly among the first 250 patients admitted to the hospital, located not far from the Union Depot on K Street near First Street and in plain view of the U. S. Capitol. In this hospital, Henry fared better than the average soldier in army hospitals. Newspaper articles stated that “water and gas had been introduced; and the iron bedsteads, bedding, and tables beside each bed were handsomely arranged.” Patients were tended to by nuns from the Sisters of Holy Cross. Henry wrote six letters from the St. Aloysius Hospital, one of which describes the wounded soldiers brought into the hospital’s wards following the Battle of Fredericksburg.
By February 1863, with less than six months service, Henry returned to his home in Newburgh, discharged from the service on a surgeon’s certificate.
Fast forward 10 months and we find that Henry is anxious to once again try his mettle in the service of his country. This time he opted for the cavalry service where his feet and his rheumatism would be less of a factor. Enlisting in Co. B, 16th New York Cavalry, Henry reported to the regiment at their headquarters in Vienna, Virginia, where they were utilized in guarding the approaches to Washington D. C. and scouting for bands of guerrillas in Fairfax county prowling along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, hoping to disrupt Union supply lines and destroy Union stores. An apparent darling of the regiment, we learn that Henry soon managed somehow to finagle a situation serving as an orderly for Col. Mathew Murphy of the 69th NYSV who serving as a temporary brigadier general of Corcoran’s Irish Legion at nearby Fairfax Station. Impressed with Henry’s horsemanship, Murphy utilized him as a courier—carrying dispatches on a horse provided to him that was once owned by Gen. Corcoran himself.
No doubt Henry was the envy of his comrades. While daily routine consisted of picket duty and scouting patrols, Henry had the opportunity to ride along with the officers as they performed inspections and observed drills, and in his leisure hours he read and taught himself to be a telegraph operator. But while serving as a courier in guerrilla infested Fairfax county, Henry faced dangers too—even sending the following unsettling warning his parents in one letter, “If you hear of me being taken prisoner, don’t be surprised.” A month later, Henry wrote them, “I suppose you seen in the New York Herald that there was an orderly captured. It was me but I got away again.”
The adventure of his assignment and the opportunity to rub shoulders with the brass in Corcoran’s Irish League seemed to engender a new-found swagger in the young trooper, still not yet 18 years old. Whether it was braggadocio or not, Henry could not resist relating the details of a scout in mid-May 1864 when the small squad he rode with captured a “johnnie” after shooting his horse out from under him. “I wanted to shoot him on the spot but the sergeant would not let me,” he boasted.
But the special privileges Henry enjoyed came to an end when Grant launched his Overland Campaign and Col. Murphy marched south with his men. Henry tagged along until his regimental commander heard of his departure and ordered him back to ranks of Company B. Six weeks after the Battle of the Wilderness, Henry accompanied his regiment to the battlefield to retrieve some Union soldiers who had been left in field hospitals there, and upon return to Annandale, told his parents that he had just witnessed “one of the most horriblest [sights] there ever was.” He told them “the dead lay some places in piles [and] we could hardly get our horses along the roads without stepping on dead rebels.”
Unfortunately there is a gap in Henry’s correspondence that follows this excursion into the Wilderness. Seven months later we learn that Henry has been in the Brigade Hospital at Falls Church for at least several weeks though he does not reveal the nature of his disability. Two months later, he is still at the hospital but apparently recovered sufficiently to take excursions. My hunch is that he had befriended the surgeons and was employed performing various tasks for them. He returned to his regular duty in Company B, however, in time to participate in the regiments response to the Lincoln assassination. Henry wrote his parents that the day after Lincoln was shot, “my regiment and the 8th Illinois and the 13th New York established a skirmish like fifteen miles long which reached from Fairfax Station to the Chain Bridge across the Potomac river. The men were from 50 to 60 feet apart so if Mister Booth had come across the river, he would not of had much chance for escape.”
No doubt the service hardened Henry. If he was being truthful, we learn (as stated earlier) that he was willing to shoot a surrendering rebel. In another letter, he related an incident to his folks in which he ordered a woman to give him a loaf of cornbread—the last bit of food she had in her home. In Henry’s defense, however, he shared that he “had not had a bite to eat all day or night.”
Henry’s letters are delightful to read. From the foot-sore drummer boy and the naive volunteer who had his bounty money picked from his pocket on the train, to the hardened trooper who participated in the Lincoln funeral procession in Washington D. C. and told his parents that “I shall never forget that day as long as I live,” Henry relates in absorbing candor what it was like to live through the Civil War.
Henry wrote in broken English and he spelled many words phonetically. In my transcriptions I have corrected most of the spelling to make the letters easier to read and to follow the content. Scans of the original letters are posted with each transcript.