An Irishman’s Civil War Diary
By Sean Cronin
August / September 2012
Michael Dougherty, a young Irish soldier in the American Civil War, kept a diary of his experiences, including the horrendous conditions endured in Confederate prison camps.
Michael Dougherty, born in Falcarragh, County Donegal, on May 10, 1844, immigrated to America with his family at the age of 15 and went to work as a “Boots” in a Philadelphia hotel.
On April 12, 1861, the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, a federal arsenal, and the Civil War began. Michael Dougherty was only 21 months in America. He joined the second Irish Dragoons, an all-Irish battalion, which became part of the 13th Pennsylvania cavalry, and fought at Antietam in 1862, and at Cedar Creek, Winchester, Strasburg, Middletown and Fisher’s Hill in 1863.
On February 26, 1863, Dougherty was scouting in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, when a Confederate raiding party appeared, turned about when they saw the Union cavalry, and lured them into an ambush. After a hand-to-hand engagement lasting an hour, in the course of which his horse was shot from under him, Michael Dougherty and 50 of his comrades became prisoners.
They were taken to Richmond and held for three months, after which they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners held by the Union forces. Dougherty, by now a seasoned soldier, returned to his regiment. He distinguished himself as a dispatch rider at the Battle of Winchester in June 1863, riding with dispatches from regimental commander Colonel Michael Kirwan to General Mulroy’s headquarters, for which he was decorated for bravery.
On October 12, 1863, at Jefferson, Virginia, at 4 a.m., Dougherty spotted a Confederate cavalry moving through the Union lines. He didn’t know it, but this was the advance guard of General Robert E. Lee’s army. Dougherty called for volunteers and opened fire. Seven Confederates died.
The citation that accompanied Dougherty’s Medal of Honor reads: “This soldier, at the head of a detachment of his company, dashed across an open field exposed to a deadly fire from the enemy and succeeded in dislodging them from an unoccupied house, which he and his comrades defended for several hours against repeated attacks, thus preventing the enemy from flanking the position of the Union forces.”
Dougherty scribbled in his dispatch rider’s notebook in a clear hand: “At 5 p.m. we were overpowered, cut off from the division and 127 of our regiment, among whom was your humble servant, were compelled to surrender. All the prisoners were dismounted. The enemy proved to be the advance of General Lee’s army. Remained prisoner at Jefferson all night.”
For the next 23 months, as he moved from prison camp to prison camp in the South, Michael Dougherty kept his notebook hidden from his captors. He jotted down scraps of information that interested him until the notebook was full. Of the 127 Union soldiers taken prisoner with him, he was the sole survivor. One hundred and twenty-two of his comrades died in the notorious Andersonville, Georgia prison, whose commander Captain Henry Wirz, was tried and convicted of murder after the war and executed in Washington, D.C., on November 10, 1865.
There are no literary devices or flourishes in Michael Dougherty’s account of life in Southern prison camps during the American Civil War. The style is dispatch-rider functional. He disliked the South and its inhabitants, and occasionally used his limited space to express indignation. He says of one prison: “The very name of Libby has become synonymous with that of terror. It carries tyranny and oppression in its simple sound. . . Fierce hate and revenge range supreme here, and consequently there is wrought out a system of discipline which produces a condition such as we might expect when the discordant elements of beings range unchecked, and we are surprised to find the culmination reached in almost fiendish expression.”
The starving prisoners “would do almost anything to get something to eat.” The nights were so cold “men were obliged to walk the whole night to keep from freezing.” After two months he wrote: “I believe I am 25 pounds lighter. When I came in here I was clean and in good health. Now I am in poor health and I am sorry to say dirty and my rags are full of vermin.”
Andersonville was crowded and filthy. The prisoners had no shoes and slept on straw. They suffered from scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery and gangrene. On February 26, 1864, he recorded: “Prisoners getting sick fast. Four deaths yesterday. A great many can hardly walk to the swamp.” They were in the open. To keep off the rain they stretched old blankets over poles. “Ten died yesterday and last night,” Dougherty wrote. “What a sight. We are pretty-looking soldiers now.”
On August 23, 1864, 127 prisoners died. One-quarter of the 45,613 prisoners who entered Andersonville did not leave it alive.
Prisoners were murdered by their comrades. “Considerable fighting and stealing among prisoners,” Dougherty wrote on April 6, 1864. “It is not safe for one to have a dollar or an overcoat, for you would be waylaid and killed, if necessary, to gain possession of the coveted articles. . . Deaths are on the increase all the time: from 25 to 40 dropping off a day. The sun is quite warm now. God help us if they keep us in filth during this hot weather.”
Between April 9-12, 1864, 300 Andersonville prisoners died. Many were killed by sentries. “Wirz gave orders to the guards that if any prisoner approaches the dead-line, shoot him on the spot. And if a crowd congregates near the entrance for the artillery to open fire on them.”
May 4, 1864: “Six men shot within the last week. A Yankee made believe he was dead last night and allowed himself to be carried out to the dead house on a stretcher, and was laid alongside the dead. I hope the fellow will get inside our lines but very few escape the bloodhounds.”
May 13: “John Moore of my company died today. About 50 prisoners today from Dalton. They say Dalton is in the hands of our army and that Sherman is marching on Atlanta. The average deaths for the last week has been about 50 per day.”
November 13: “All the Irish who could walk were called to the gate this afternoon by a Colonel McNeill of the 10th Tennessee (Rebel) Regiment, to see if any of them would take the oath to join the rebel service. Not an Irishman enlisted but two Yankees did, one from Connecticut and the other from a New York regiment; so you see the Irish are the most loyal.”
A comrade later discussed loyalty with Dougherty. “We had a talk over the excitement caused by the appeal to the Irish; he says McNeill is no true Irishman or he would not try to degrade Ireland and her people by making such a proposition.”
The last entry is dated December 10, 1864: “I feel no better. My diary is full; it is too bad but cannot get any more. Goodbye all; I did not think it would hold out so long when I commenced.
“Yours sufferingly, Michael Dougherty, Co. B, 13th PA. Volunteer Cavalry. Confederate State Military Prison Hospital.”
Dougherty survived. He left Andersonville on April 12, 1865, heard of the assassination of President Lincoln on the 20th – “Our boys furious over the sad news, saying it is a rebel plot” – and on April 22nd with 4,000 other former prisoners, boarded two ships at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River for St. Louis.
Dougherty’s vessel, the Sultana, was heavily overloaded with 2,500 passengers. For four days they moved slowly up the great river. On the night of April 27, there was an explosion (“one of the four boilers burst and the vessel cut in two,” Dougherty calmly recorded). The ship caught fire, the “cabins burned like tinder.” Dougherty jumped into the river and swam ashore – notebook intact. Only 900 passengers survived.
Michael Dougherty was 21 when he returned to Bristol, Pennsylvania, where he lived for another 65 years until his death in February 1930, at the age of 86. He married Rose Magee and together they had nine children – six daughters and three sons. He worked at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and became a city councilman and a distinguished figure in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
On the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg he was asked to tell of his experiences in Andersonville. He declined. Instead, he told of the night attack which ended in his second captivity and a Medal of Honor which, for some unexplained reason, he did not get for more than 33 years after the event, “We fought as long as we had any ammunition,” he said.
Michael Dougherty is buried with his wife, Rose, who died in 1906, in St. Mark’s Catholic Cemetery, Bristol. His Union Army cap and notebook are in the Medal of Honor archives at Valley Forge. His diary, which was published in 1908, reveals a stern, upright man who did his duty for his adopted country and sought no reward for doing it.
Ed. Note: This article was first published in in Irish America in May 1986. At that time, Sean Cronin was the Washington correspondent for the Irish Times. He has since passed on.