“Honest Mike” Cahill

One of the more interesting stories of the 17th Connecticut surrounds Elias Howe, Jr. – he of sewing machine fame, whose service in the regiment was told in this blog in July 2015 (Elias Howe, Jr. and the 17th).

In September and October 1867 several newspapers across the country printed a story telling of Howe’s enlistment in the regiment. A highlight of the story is the subsequent enrollment of his coachman, one Michael Cahill. According to these accounts, Cahill was so moved by his employer’s enlistment that he put his name down as well:

The next incident that occurred was one in which the comic and pathetic were blended. The coachman who had driven Mr. Howe’s carriage that evening, attracted by the continual cheers within the hall, had hired a boy to hold his horses, and had entered the building to witness the proceedings. He was a warm hearted Irishman, named Michael Cahill, past the age of military service as defined by law. Upon hearing his employer’s speech, he rushed forward, and clambering upon platform, cried out: “Put down my name, too! I can’t bear to have the old man go alone.”

So down went the name of Michael Cahill, coachman, next to that of Elias Howe. Laughter and cheers, mingled in about equal proportions, followed the announcement of “Mike’s” intentions. – Other names came in with great rapidity.

Later in the account, it is said that after completing his term of service in the 17th, “’Honest ‘Mike’…went to his old home and has advanced from driving Mr. Howe’s carriage to driving his own horse and cart, which he is still doing.”

This is such an interesting story that it begs the question – who was “Honest” Mike Cahill?

A search of the original muster rolls of the 17th finds only one Michael Cahill, age 45, and occupation listed as farmer, who enlisted in Company K on August 9, 1862. The service with the regiment for this Michael Cahill ended when he was discharged due to disability a year later in August 1863.

A search of the US Census Records finds several Michael Cahill’s. While no Michael Cahill can be found residing in Fairfield or Bridgeport in the 1860 census, there is only one who lived in the Bridgeport area in later census years (namely the 1870 and 1880 census). Let’s assume for the purposes of this exercise that “Honest Mike,” working as he did for Elias Howe, resided in Bridgeport, with that city also being a good guess since Company K was made up primarily from residents of Bridgeport and Fairfield.

A check of the 1870 census finds a Michael Cahill, born about 1822, living in Bridgeport and listing his occupation as “drives team.” In 1880 he is still in Bridgeport and is now occupied as a “cartman,” which among other things is someone who hauls goods. In 1884 this same Michael Cahill applied for an Invalid Pension, and one of the contributors to the 17th CVI monument on Barlow’s Knoll was Michael Cahill of Bridgeport. Those census records show his wife’s name as Bridget, and both Michael and Bridget are buried in St. Augustine Cemetery in Bridgeport, CT (this cemetery has an interesting story as well, click here to read about the restoration of this forgotten and neglected cemetery). His gravestone (put up by his grandchildren according to the inscription on the stone) offers no clue to his Civil War service.

Is this, then, the “Honest” Mike of the story? Or is this just a good story put forth in the style of the 19th century press to enliven the story of Elias Howe, Jr.? A look at Cahill’s pension file would offer some clues here.  Perhaps someone knows more about the Michael Cahill/Elias Howe/17th CVI connection but for now the story of old “Honest Mike” Cahill remains something of a mystery.

An incomplete story – the late war recruits of the 17th Connecticut

One of the blogs that this one offers a link to is Emerging Civil War, which generally offers some interesting articles on a variety of topics.

Earlier today I read a guest post by Nathan Marzoli, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. about the late war recruits of the Union Army. Lukewarm Patriots: Examining the Pension Files of Late-War Recruits in One Union Regiment gives some insight, based on examination of some of the pension files of the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, into the circumstances of the men who enlisted after the initial waves of recruits into the Union Army at a time when the country was becoming increasingly tired of the war. Marzoli concludes that

The story of the Union soldier – carved out by the likes of Wiley, McPherson, Mitchell, and Robertson – may not yet be complete. In the final year of the war, the remaining volunteers of 1861 in the East were joined by thousands of Union recruits, substitutes, and draftees in their final fight against the Army of Northern Virginia. The stories of these men, no matter their motivations or the circumstances surrounding their enlistment, deserve to be told.

It’s an interesting read – I found myself wanting to know more. Most of the accounts that exist from soldiers of the 17th Connecticut also come from those soldiers who entered service with the regiment in 1862. What about those who came later? For some, their story is clear. For example, Anthony Comstock, served with Company H, for which he is not remembered much at all. He is much better known for his morality crusades following the war, culminating in the Comstock Act of 1873. He enlisted in December 1863 following the wounding and subsequent death of his brother, Samuel following Gettysburg. For others, why did they enlist?

It’s something that would be worth looking at. A quick glance at the roster of Company E shows a few enlistees from 1863 on. Horace E. Banks was mustered into the regiment (along with his 18-year-old brother Wesley) on December 30, 1863, 4 months after his 20th birthday. He served the rest of the war and mustered out with the regiment in 1865, applying for an invalid pension in 1891. In 1917, while living at Fitch’s Home for Soldiers at Noroton Heights in Connecticut, he dutifully completed the Military Census form for the state, where he listed his war service with the 17th CVI. Horace Banks died in 1932…and 21 years later a veterans grave marker was ordered for his grave.

Lewis Roche, listed as a resident of Roxbury, CT, also mustered in with the other recruits in December 1863. Roche dies in the regimental hospital in St. Augustine, Florida in January 1865. There isn’t much more in the easily accessible records on Private Roche.

It’s an interesting topic that I don’t think many people have looked at, and hopefully we’ll see more about these soldiers of the late war period.

A reflection on Barlow’s Knoll

Sunset on Barlow’s Knoll

Yesterday I arrived in Gettysburg ahead of the rededication later today of the flagpole on Barlow’s Knoll – the flagpole erected by the veterans of the 17th CVI to mark the spot where Lt. Colonel Fowler was killed on the first day at Gettysburg. I spent a little time driving around the fields, relatively amazed at how busy it was on Steinwehr Avenue – the restaurants, the ice cream shops, the souvenir shops. I don’t usually come here at this time of year because it is so busy.

Watching the crowds, it reminded me of this passage that Richard Rubin wrote in his excellent book Back Over There: One American Time-Traveler, 100 Years Since the Great War, 500 Miles of Battle-Scarred French Countryside, and Too Many Trenches, Shells, Legends and Ghosts to Count. This is a World War I book, a companion piece to his earlier (and also excellent) The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. What Rubin wrote about France seemed to be appropriate here as well.

“I cannot deny it: War tourism can be a strange pursuit. No: By definition, it is a strange pursuit. If you can dash through trenches, poke in and out of bunkers, swing down to blockhouses on a vine, you must as a matter of course possess the ability to momentarily blot from your mind the knowledge that men died and killed in those places—horribly, gruesomely and far too young. That ability enables you to delight in the discovery of a shell that could have once—could still—blow you to pieces; or a bullet, even though it may have passed through someone else’s body before coming to rest in the dirt; or a button, even though it may have fallen off the tunic of a 28-year-old father of three who breathed his last on that very spot. Or it enables you to feel blasé about spotting a bottle that some teenager may have swigged from five minutes before a red-hot piece of shrapnel tore through his heart, because it’s the seventeenth bottle you’ve seen that day. It’s not your fault. You are alive; these things happened a hundred years ago.

But you are a human being. At some point, that ability will probably desert you, even momentarily, and you will experience a sense of—well, maybe not guilt; but obligation. You may walk slowly through cemeteries, peruse each marker you pass. You may scrutinize memorials—village, individual—and read the names out loud. You may make connections: between naval guns and deported families, pigs’ feet and the destruction of a continent. And you will, just as certainly, be unable to. Sooner or later, you will come to that understanding. All you can do, for certain, is look at things.”

Sunset found me at my favorite spot on the field – Barlow’s Knoll. Usually there are only a few people there at any time of the day, doing the 25 MPH drive-by, brake hard, read the tablet, drive off to the next one. Usually no one is there at this time of the day. Standing in the approaching darkness, then, quite alone except for thousands of rising fireflies, contemplating the maelstrom that occurred at this spot 155 years earlier, I had plenty of time to reflect on that passage by Rubin. We can look at things, for certain. We can look at the monuments, look at the tablets, look at the cannon, and sure, even look at the fireflies. But there is that overwhelming sense of obligation as well – if nothing else, an obligation to remember.

17th CVI Flagpole Rededication Ceremony

The rededication of the 17th CVI flagpole on Barlow’s Knoll is on track for July 1, 1863 – the 155th anniversary of the first day of the battle. The schedule of events is attached. The ceremony begins at 12 noon, with Living History on site from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m..

On 7:30 p.m. on June 30th Carolyn Ivanoff, a long-time friend of the 17th CVI website, will present “We Fought At Gettysburg: 17th Connecticut, Barlow’s Knoll & Beyond” at the Gettysburg Heritage Center. which follows the 17th Connecticut Infantry Regiment from Barlow’s Knoll to the Spangler Farm and beyond during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. For more information on this talk and tickets, click here.

Rededication Brochure