“After remaining silent so long I am almost ashamed to write now:” A Letter from September 9, 1862

ECW welcomes back guest author T.J. Bradley

Jeremiah O’Brien’s original letter to his friend Daniel O’Sullivan. Alexandria Library Special Collections.

Housed in the Local History/Special Collections section of the Alexandria, Virginia Library is a largely unknown and surprisingly candid letter that provides a unique insight into the mindset of a Union soldier having just endured the setbacks of the battle of Second Manassas and the 1862 Northern Virginia campaign.

Jeremiah O’Brien was a native of Ireland and a sergeant in the 26th New York Infantry. He joined the newly raised regiment at 25 years old in May 1861 at Utica, New York.[1] In a few months, Jeremiah O’Brien and the 26th New York found themselves stationed in the vicinity of Alexandria, Virginia, manning the new forts in the developing defenses of Washington.[2] Sometime while in Alexandria, during those early stages of the war, O’Brien made the acquaintance of fellow Irishman and local bar owner Daniel O’Sullivan.  The friendship must have developed to the point that when Jeremiah O’Brien and the 26th New York moved out of the Alexandria area in 1862 for points south, they kept up a correspondence.

Today, you’ll find a surviving piece of that correspondence preserved by the Alexandria Library in the collection of papers relating to Daniel O’Sullivan. Most of the original pieces in the collection have nothing to do with the war or even the period in question, but if you take the time to leaf through the collection, there’s a 159-year-old letter dated September 9, 1862, addressed to Daniel O’Sullivan from our very own Jeremiah O’Brien. O’Brien noted that he was writing from Washington and proceeded to summarize his experience in the Northern Virginia campaign that unfolded across the state during August of 1862:

Dear Friends,

         After remaining silent so long I am almost ashamed to write now but I know you will be glad to learn that I escaped uninjured through all the fighting and running that has been going on in Virginia for the last month and our reg’t done their share of it I assure you.

         We were in the battle of Cedar Mountain then moved on to the very banks of the Rapidan. Fell back again to the Rappahanock and was under fire there for three days. Our next move was to Warrenton Sulphur Springs where a battle was going on for nearly a week. The next move was to Throughfare Gap where we had quite a smart brush with a part of Longstreet’s force on the evening of the 28th Aug.

         We were in the battle of the 30th and lost about half of our men in it. We were in line of battle again on Monday while the battle was going on near Centerville but our skirmishers were all that were engaged in it. Then we moved back to Falls Church and I thought we were going to Alexandria so I did not mind writing as I thought I would soon see you. On Sunday, our brigade come over to this side of the river and yesterday moved on towards Rockville. I am left here with some sick men in charge of some baggage but don’t know how soon we will move forward. We are some three miles out from the city near the soldiers home.

         There is no use in making any comments on what has happened this last month. Every body is doing that and it don’t do any good but another month like it will drive us back into York State and if I get there you may bet your life I’ll stay there.
I have no more to say at present but hope this will find you and family in the full enjoyment of health and happiness and I hope to have another drink at your bar yet before Jackson drives you out.

         I wish you would write and let me know how you all are and how things are going round Alexandria.

                  Address Co. E 26th

                   N.Y.V. Towers Brigade

                   Washington D.C.

I remain your grateful friend,

Jeremiah O’Brien

Letters like this one from O’Brien succinctly capture the frustration and lack of confidence resulting from the recent fighting in Virginia. There is much to unpack in its few hundred words.

From the threat that if the army were driven into New York, O’Brien would simply stay there (presumably deserting), to the desire to have another drink at the bar before the Confederate boogeyman of Stonewall Jackson descends on the region, O’Brien provides the modern reader a glimpse at the state of morale in the aftermath of the 1862 Northern Virginia campaign.

Recriminations flew inside of the Union army’s high command. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia seized the initiative and took the war across the Potomac River. Events would quickly lead both armies to the bloodiest day in American history at Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Jeremiah O’Brien survived the Maryland Campaign and the rest of his service in the war, mustering out with the remainder of his two-year regiment in Utica, New York on May 28, 1863. We don’t know if Jeremiah ever made it back to his friends in Alexandria, Virginia, but we do know they preserved his letter with his thoughts on the state of the war effort in early September 1862. Small treasures like this, tucked away in collections and archives across the country, give us insight into the mindset of the common soldier in the Union army who faced setback after setback and mounting frustration throughout 1862.

26th New York Infantry at Fort Lyon, Alexandria 1861. The Medford Historical
Society &Museum.

T.J. Bradley is an international development professional with a specialization in civil wars, conflict and reconstruction. He’s worked in several major conflict zones in the past decade and has been a lifelong student of the American Civil War. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Heidelberg University and a Master’s degree from American University. T.J. has presented on Civil War topics to a wide variety of public, student and volunteer groups; to include military staff rides in Virginia. T.J. is also a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and Sons of Veterans Reserve. He is an active participant in several Civil War Roundtables in the Northern Virginia area.

[1] Adjutant General of the State of New York, Annual Report 1899: Registers of the 26th-32nd Regiments of Infantry (Albany, NY: James B. Lyon State Printer, 1900), https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/application/files/6415/5059/6221/26th_Infantry_CW_Roster.pdf

[2] “26th New York Infantry Regiment’s Civil War Historical Sketch,” New York State Military Museum and Veteran’s Research Center, accessed August 17, 2021, https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/index.php/?cID=2096

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