The Greatest Trials I Ever Had: The Civil War Letters of Margaret and Thomas Cahill

Courier Review by Katy Berman

Professor Ryan W. Keating, of California State University, San Bernardino, has produced a complementary volume to his 2016 work, Irish Regiments, American Soldiers, and Local Communities in the Civil War Era (Fordham University Press, 2017). The Greatest Trials I Ever Had: The Civil War Letters of Margaret and Thomas Cahill is an intimate look at Colonel Thomas J. Cahill of the 9th Connecticut Regiment, analyzed in Keating’s prior study. Thomas, his wife Margaret, and their two children lived in New Haven when the war commenced.

Thomas’ letters depict a Civil War soldier’s experience that is quite different from anything in war-torn Virginia. The 9th comes quickly under the command of General Benjamin Butler who sends them south to “seize and fortify” Ship Island, off the Mississippi coast. The Confederate Army had vacated the island and was unlikely to return. Holding the territory was, as Thomas wrote Margaret in late November, “not a verry (sic) glorious occupation but reasonably safe.” By February, 15,00 more troops had arrived, more than the island could comfortably hold. “I cannot understand what the War Department intends to do with us all down here on these barren sand banks,” Thomas complains. He is further disgusted by “the infernal Quartermasters of Connecticut” who failed to outfit his regiment properly. He laments its appearance, especially compared with the “splendidly arrayed 26th Massachusetts.”

In April, the 9th engages the enemy for the first time at Pass Christian, Mississippi. According to Marty Brazil of the Hancock County Historical Society, the battle was ignominious from start to finish; however, The Hartford Daily Courant reported proudly on the “high conduct” of the 9th Regiment. For Connecticut soldiers, it is a chance to get off the island and view stately southern homes. Thomas writes with delight of the lush gardens, full of “Tropical Plants such beautiful Cactus in flower, such sweet flowering trees. . .” He is, nevertheless, happy to return to his peaceful, although barren, island.

A month later, Union forces occupy New Orleans, and Thomas exults in the magnolia trees which perfume the air, banana trees, and “Orange trees with their dark green beautiful leaves and fruit. There are also swarms of mosquitoes, as Thomas vividly describes: “I must Conclude this letter as the mosquitoes are bothering the life out of me. I can scarsely see the paper with them.”

Thomas and his regiment perform garrison duty in New Orleans until the summer of 1864. June, 1862 finds them briefly in Baton Rouge where Thomas writes confusedly, “I do not at the present see what we were tumbled up here in such a hurry for and Can see nothing in particular to be done.” Several weeks later, the 9th sails up the Mississippi in order to dig a channel across the peninsula, south of Vicksburg. Thomas confesses, presciently, “I have not much faith in the scheme.” His men fall ill, working in the hot, July weather, and all succumb to a great homesickness. Thomas contemplates how he could honorably resign and worries that there would be little work for him back home if he did.

Throughout his letters, Thomas reflects uncertainly upon the fierce fighting in Virginia; news from that region is scarce and incomplete. After Chancellorsville, one available newspaper reported that General Hooker had been badly defeated; another claimed Stonewall Jackson’s troops had been either killed or captured. Thomas hears rumors that the Democrats will carry the next Presidential election, and, surprisingly, does not believe soldiers ought to vote. Most importantly, Thomas writes affectionate and reassuring letters to Margaret who is caring for the children (and giving birth to two more during her husband’s absence), as well as managing household affairs on her own.

Margaret writes cheerful, loving letters in return, despite her longing for Thomas to return home. She is solicitous for her husband’s comfort, and goes to much trouble to send him what he needs. Both she and Thomas are frustrated by the postal system and the tardy mails give rise to one amusing miscommunication. Before Margaret’s letter has a chance to reach him, Thomas hears from the wife of the regimental surgeon that “I am to have another little stranger welcoming me home . . . Lord save us why don’t you tell me so yourself.” Eventually, Thomas regains his good humor and concludes, “Kiss the babies for me whether 2 or 3 or more or less.”

Almost as frequently as she writes of the children, Margaret has news to tell of the priests in New Haven. The Cahill’s were strongly committed to their Catholic faith, and Margaret mentions several priests that are a support to her. In a letter dated May 30, 1862, she thanks Father Mullen (chaplain to the 9th) for his letter, explains that Father Hart will be coming home soon, describes a friendly visit made by Father Smith (who enjoyed reading Thomas’ letters), and laughs at remarks made to her by Father Sheridan. Thomas, in turn, makes sure to call upon the Archbishop of New Orleans when he arrives in that city and exchanges letters with Father Hart upon resumption of his parish duties in New Haven. The ties that bound the Irish-Catholic community together are a remarkable and moving feature of Keating’s book.

Thomas was granted a long furlough in January of 1864, (a baby girl was born several months later), and his service from July of that year to October was the most intense period of his enlistment. The 9th moved into the heart of the Eastern Theatre, and after disembarking at Bermuda Hundred, were, “Either under arms or marching the whole time.” In August, the regiment came under the command of Philip Sheridan as the Union General pursued Jubal Early through the Shenandoah Valley. By October, Thomas is ready to return home for good, and he writes his last letter to Margaret from a camp near Cedar Creek, Virginia.

Margaret’s and Thomas’ likeability is so well-established through their letters that it is with great sadness we learn of their early deaths. Thomas achieved success in his construction business after the war, but died in 1869 at the age of forty-two; Margaret died a year later. Thomas’ sister Ellen, we are told, took charge of the younger children; however, the two oldest couldn’t have been past their teens. Tommy, whose arrival was such a surprise to Thomas, kept his father’s memory alive by assisting with the History of the Ninth Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers. His older brother, Edward, Edward’s son and great-grandson preserved the letter collection. Professor Keating realized their merit, and now we have the ability to read them. Anyone who does so will be enriched by the experience.

Title: The Greatest Trials I Ever Had: The Civil War Letters of Margaret and Thomas Cahill

Editor: Ryan W. Keating

Publisher: The University of Georgia Press

Pages: 230

Price: $26.95