The Last Roll Call of an “English Alien”

James O’Neill’s gravesite, in advance of the dedication of a new headstone.

ECW is pleased to welcome back Gina Denham, chair of the Monuments For UK Veterans of the American Civil War Association

My great great grandfather, George Denham, was a former private in Company E 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and later transferred to the USS Chickasaw as a 2nd class fireman serving down at the battle of Mobile Bay. He died in London in January 1914 and was buried in Pancras and Islington Cemetery.

After many years of research, I knew all about his Civil War endeavours, but I had no idea how many veterans had also followed in his footsteps and returned to the United Kingdom after the conflict. Time has almost wiped the memory of those men and women from the pages of history. But it was time, after I retired, that also enabled me the opportunity to dig deep into available records to discover that more than 500 Civil War veterans crossed the Atlantic to their families and friends—many often dying in poverty and obscurity, often without the honour of a veterans’ burial. In fact, to date, I have discovered at least nine veterans, former patriots who served the United States who are interred in the very same cemetery as my great great grandfather.

One such veteran is James O’Neill (alias James Neal).

Described as an English “Alien” by the Islington Gazette on Monday, June 10, 1907, when he was in court facing deportation to the United States. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the fall of 1909 on September 30, a short walk from the Denham family plot. James was a Londoner by birth, born in Clerkenwell in the early 1830s. In his pension application, he stated he thought he was born in June 1831 but was unable to obtain any baptism records.

As a young man, James made his way to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and thereafter crossed the border into the United States and the state of Massachusetts where he decided to join the Union army at the Provost Marshalls’ office in Hanover Street, Boston. He was 32 years of age and gave his employment as a labourer when he enlisted for one year under the alias of James Neal on January 21, 1865. He joined Company K, 61st Massachusetts Infantry as a Private and received a bounty of $33.33.

There are no pictures of him that we have found. But he was described as having brown eyes, dark hair, dark complexion and stood at 5’3” tall. Initially, he was on provost guard duty at General Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, Virginia, on March 15, 1865.

On March 28, James and his company were then ordered to the front in the last days of the siege of Petersburg and participated in the battle that drove the Confederates out of Fort Mahone. His regiment lost 5 comrades killed and 30 wounded. They held the position until assigned to guard Confederate prisoners of war after the surrender on April 9.  James then undertook guard duty whilst the defeated Confederate army was being dismantled and after which he was then sent to Washington, D.C., to take part in the Grand Review on May 23. James was present for duty throughout Co K’s deployments. He mustered out of the union army at Washington, D.C., on July 16, 1865, at the State House in Boston.

James returned to the place of his birth and lived in Lilly Street, Saffron Hill, in the borough of Camden, which is about 7 miles south of Islington and St. Pancras Cemetery. At the turn of the century, he had relocated to Islington Workhouse, when it was discovered that he was entitled to a pension from the American government. Like many other veterans, he had to prove his service and disabilities to the “Grand Conquistadors” at the Pension Bureau in order to secure some financial support. He was living with rheumatism and heart disease and was incapacitated through paralysis.

In due course, he left for the United States with £42 and went back to Boston. In 1906, he thought he would like to see England again and returned with a good sum of money in his possession, which he lost on arrival, and sought shelter at the workhouse. The Guardians again tried to get the pension but failed because he had lost his papers as well as his money, and he decided that he would eventually have to go back to the United States to get them.

James spent some time as a resident of the workhouse. He was living there on July 23, 1907, when he made continued efforts to secure his pension. However, several months later he did return to the United States, leaving Liverpool docks on the SS Carmania, on October 22, 1907, giving his occupation as “USA Pensioner.” On  November 2, 1907, he was a resident of the Soldiers Home, Chelsea, in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. He had no known family listed on his pension application. In 1908, he returned to England and was living at 12 Gordon Place, Highgate Hill, London.

James did eventually receive his pension but had little time to enjoy its benefits. He died of senile decay at Islington Workhouse, St. Johns Road, on September 27, 1909. He had no family to witness his passing, and the informant concerning his passing was Mr. Jackson, the Deputy Master at the workhouse.

James was buried three days later. We will never know if he was afforded any formal act of remembrance concerning his life and service to the United States. It feels like a travesty that just over a year later, on September 20, 1910, the London Branch of American Civil War Veterans was inaugurated. They sought to help each other in perhaps ways others could not. Had James survived to attend their meetings, he would have experienced comradeship, “Fraternizing, Fellowship, Camp Fire Tales, Lower Deck yarns, Jabbering.” As a collective, they would help destitute peers with financial and emotional support, securing in time at least 6 pensions for their members. And an important outcome of their formation was the ceremonies they engaged in when one of their veteran comrades had passed away.

Like James, those members of the London Branch have long passed away, but in January 2022, Darren Rawlings and I decided to form Monuments for UK Veterans of the American Civil War Association to continue the ethos of the London Branch, by honouring and remembering men who served the United States. Our aim was simple: we would seek, in time, to fund and build one single monument that honours and remembers all American Civil War Veterans and, where able, to obtain from the Department of Veteran Affairs single burial markers for men like James.

On July 23, 2022, our vision was partially realised, and we made our way under the hot summer sun to James’ burial plot. The grave was gently shaded by the trees growing among the many fallen headstones that hinted how old the cemetery was.  We gathered to pay our respects and unveil the marker that had been provided by the Department of Veteran Affairs. We were not alone, there were others there who represented James’ Family for at least one day. It included Sergeant First Class Bryon Davidson and former United States Marine Andrew Keasler from the United States Embassy. Joining us was the Mayor of Islington Marion Spall, living historians in Civil War Uniform from the Southern Skirmish Association, the Local History Society, and other descendants of Civil War Veterans including Ralph Allemano and Lawrence Smith, whose great great grandfather was Ensign John Davis, honorary secretary and founder of the London Branch of American Civil War Veterans. We were from all different walks of life but were united in our act of remembrance.

In remembrance of the London Branch, a “Stars and Stripes” flag with the words, “Gone home” flew at half-mast above James’ grave. The glade in which we gathered became quiet, only briefly interrupted by the sound of London traffic in the distance. Our guests took to their seats, and Mayor Spall and SFC Davidson were invited to unveil the burial Marker and say a few words concerning James, his life, and his service.

SFC Davidson reminded us of the state of disrepair that James’ grave had previously fallen, that it was a sad reminder of the way many of our veterans’ lives memories are cared for after they have answered their last roll call. Bryon spoke of great pride to see the new burial marker in place and his name inscribed as a more permanent reminder of services rendered: “James O’Neil served my country honorably. In his later years, he finally got the pension he earned and now he will have the memorial stone he deserved as well. Thank you all for making this happen, and for being here to remember the life of this warrior for justice.”

Turning towards the marker, he raised his arm gently, and saluted the long departed blue coat, bringing our dedication to an end. And at that moment,  despite more than a hundred years passing it felt it was not too late to honour any fallen from the American Civil War. It can be done, for James, George Denham and all the other patriots who had once served.

Our project to do so may be “monumental” in size, but for our Association we feel it is worth doing. The gathering of people prepared to spend some time remembering a man they never even knew bore testimony there was a belief in our aim. And as we gathered to share a glass of friendship at the dedication’s conclusion, laughing and talking, sharing experiences and stories I was reminded of how much we were imitating the very men we sought to honour through, “Fellowship, Camp Fire Tales, Lower Deck yarns, Jabbering.” The sounds of the past were playing forward in the present; serendipity that implied seeking Monuments for UK Veterans of the American Civil War was almost being endorsed by veterans long since passed. To that end, whilst we know we are at just the beginning, as long as it is humanely possible we will seek to get the headstones those patriots deserved.

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If you would like to support the Association you can donate via Just Giving or PayPal. Or you can email us for more information: civilwarukmonumentalproject@gmail.com

In honour of the following veterans also buried at Pancras and Islington Cemetery:

  • Henry Sissons Blackbourn: Co K 72nd PA Infantry  Co G 9th Veteran Reserve Corps. Died 1905
  • George Denham: London Branch Member #8 Co F 111th Pennsylvania Volunteers & USS Chickasaw Died 1914
  • Charles Dillon: Co E 17th.S Infantry, post Civil war service. Died 1921.
  • John Dingwall: 15th Massachusetts Light Artillery Died 1895.
  • Elijah Franklin: London Branch Member #38 , USS N Carolina, Lancaster, Princeton. Died 1912.
  • Arthur Fisher: United States Marine Corps killed in Vietnam 1970.
  • William Henshall: Co. C, 19th Wisconsin Infantry. Died 1907.
  • James McNab (alias James Dysart): Co M 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. Died 1919
  • James Shrosbree: London Branch member #30 USS Columbus, Augusta and Cambridge served in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Died 1914.

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Bibliography

British Newspaper Archive. 1907. Problem In Nationality – Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard. [online] Available at: <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001955/19070629/065/0006?browse=False

 

British Newspaper Archive. 1907. An English Alien – Islington Gazette. [online] Available at: <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0001982/19070610/035/0002?browse=False>

 

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