Friday, April 26, 2013

One Soldier's Story

My vacations often turn into destination points.  This time a liitle note brought me to the story of a fallen Irish soldier from Lowell who did not come home.  So off to Sharpsburg, MD.
He was one of the 23,000 that died that day in Sharpsburg.  His family would never even have the privilege of having his earthly remains interred with other family members in Saint Patrick Cemetery.    He was not the only Lowellian to die at Antietam on that September day in 1862.  Few facts surround his brief life.  And his simple marble marker at the National Cemetery is all that is left to tell his story.

Maybe it was the lure of the glories of the battlefield that drew him to join the 19th Mass Infantry in August of 1861.  There were other Lowell boys signing up that day; perhaps that was the catalyst, or maybe it was the lack of work in the city and the need to help the family earn enough to feed themselves.  Maybe it was his way of showing his patriotism to his new homeland.  Records show a Cassidy family immigrating from Ireland living in the Acre at this time.  There is also a slate stone in the Catholic Burial ground with the names of a number of young children bearing the Cassidy name.  If this was the family we were looking for, Francis would have been about 18 at the time of his signing.
Within a few months, the 19th Mass found themselves in Virginia, part of the Peninsula Campaign.  Conditions could not have been worse.  The extreme heat, unsanitary conditions, diseases from wading through swamp water, and lack of food took its toll.  Private Cassidy is marked “missing.”  Eyewitness accounts state that many soldiers lay along the trails collapsed with dysentery and extreme fatigue.  Some soldiers resort to eating raw flour that was finally rationed to them, hunger overcoming common sense.  What happens to Pvt. Cassidy is not noted but he does return to his unit before the march to Antietam Creek.  He may have thought himself fortunate to have survived the Peninsula, but his final destiny awaited him.
Dunker's Church, Antietam
At 2 a.m. on Wednesday September 17th, 1862 Pvt. Cassidy is awakened to the sound of revelry.  The Confederates were on the move.  By dawn the sound of gunfire drew closer.  The men of the 19th became anxious.  Their Captain had them go through the manual of arms to relieve the building tension.  They were ordered to form 3 lines.  The rolling cornfields of the Maryland town became the site of the greatest loss of American lives in a single day.  Inept leadership then ordered the 19th to march forward through the cornfields.  The long single lines made perfect targets for the Rebel forces as they cleared the fields.  They did not stand a chance.  The bodies piled up on top of each other.  Those who did make it through found they were attacked on their flank.  The order was to charge, adding more numbers to the slaughter.  Less than 50% of the 19th survived the day.  It is most probable this is where Pvt. Francis Cassidy met his end.
The day after the battle, horse drawn carriages brought photographers to the battlefield.  This new technology documented what Americans had only read about previously.  Soldiers bent bayonets into hooks to drag bodies to shallow graves.  Pvt. Cassidy was fortunate that someone did so for him and marked a rough hewn board with his name and regiment.  He was lucky.  Many visitors weeks,

Grave of Pvt. Francis Cassidy
months, and even years later report limbs and skulls poking out of the ground from unburied dead.  More than likely his family could not afford to have his remains transferred back to Lowell.  Local papers often recorded when bodies arrived and when services would be held.  No such privilege for Pvt. Cassidy.  Several months later his remains were reinterred in the Cemetery just a mile from where he fell. 

There is a sad beauty to the Cemetery.  Thousands of marble headstones with simple inscriptions of name and regiment line up like soldiers standing at attention.  The white markers on a field of green give a sense of peace, countering the tragedy of young lives lost.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


Google image
Any readers who are familiar with Saint Patrick's Church, the Acre, or O'Donnell's Funeral Home will certainly know the Corcoran family.  Dick and Mae Corcoran were well known and respected life-long members of St. Pat's, and many will remember their home on Wilder Street.  They and their crew of kids were involved in every aspect of parish life, and many remain so today.  This past St. Patrick's Day the Corcoran Clan was a major part of the musical program, "Everything Irish."

Two members of their family were severely injured in Monday's tragedy.  Follow the link to keep updated or to contribute to their medical bills.

Friday, April 12, 2013


Google Image
I'm uncomfortable with the term "historian" when it is applied to me. Those are very dedicated individuals who spend much time researching and seeking how and why things happened. Me, I'm a collector of other people's stories- the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the true, and the....... what we wished really happened. For a number of years I did oral histories with members of the community. It all started because of my Dad. As a kid we'd drive around and he'd tell me the story of the Acre Shamrocks and swimming in the canals, stuff that would make a great oral history. Unfortunately I never gave him the time to do a history with me. I've lost that chance.  I recall one story he shared with me.

When he was a kid living on Waugh Street in the Acre, a neighbor passed away. This must have been about 1925 when he was 7 or 8. His mother took him by the hand to attend the deceased woman's wake. He remembered seeing a wreath hanging on the door with a black crepe ribbon to announce to passers-by that the family was in mourning. He had never been to a wake before and had no idea what to expect. They walked into what would be called today the family room. The deceased was laid out in a casket, of course provided by O'Donnell's. The house was mobbed with family and friends. He remembered the gnarled hands of the deceased neighbor with the rosary beads intertwined. Candles burned at both ends of the coffin. His mother and he took a seat. There was no hope of escaping. The table before him had glasses stuffed with cigarettes and a bowl with clay pipes and tobacco. These were meant as tokens of remembrance from the family. The room where the deceased was laid out was quiet and reverent with mostly women whispering and nodding and holding lace handkerchiefs in their hands.

Google Image
The kitchen was another story. People who came to the house brought plates of sandwiches or cakes. It overflowed with offerings. Of course there was the whiskey. Jugs of the "water of life" bought at local watering holes covered what empty space there was in the kitchen. This was the male's domain. Smoke filled the room. and the glasses were being passed around again and again. My Dad loaded his plate with food, and his mom quickly escorted him out of this part of the house. He sat in the back of the viewing room while his mother made the rounds with the other ladies. As he was eating off his plate he almost jumped out of his chair. In back of him was a row of old ladies, really old ladies. They were like a chorus from some Greek tragedy. In unison they started high pitch wailing that went on and on. A few other old ladies joined in. "She's gone. She's gone" Then there were a series of lamentations not in any words he could recognize. Followed by, "We'll never see her again." There were intercessions to Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints. Then the wailing would begin again. Much later he asked his mother who they were and she said they were the keeners. Some were family members, but other were paid professionals whose job was to set the mood and recount the actions of the soul who had passed. It was a practice that had pretty much died away by that time, and maybe he wasn't aware that he was witnessing one of the last grand Irish wakes in Lowell. He told the story a number of times over his life, and said the sound of the keeners was something he always would remember.

Back at the wake, the mourners carried on until the priest arrived and then all the women got on their
knees for the rosary. The sound from the kitchen of the glasses being filled and refilled mixed in with the Hail Marys. This same routine would be carried on for 2 more nights. His mother walked him back home only to turn around and return to the wake. It was her job to "keep watch" the whole night with a few of the other women. They would spend the entire night with the deceased telling stories of her life and struggles and then begin the rosary again. "...... now and at the hour of our death. Amen"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Making Their Mark on the City

City Documents, 1894

The Seal of the City is familiar to most Lowellians.  The river.  The mills.  The bales of cotton.  They have all been well-known symbols of Lowell as the City of Industry.  A careful look through city documents shows that the Seal has gone through several changes over the decades; each one emphasizing a certain phase of the city’s evolution.  Often a cornucopia, a horn of plenty, can be seen in the sky, advertising the profits created by the mills.  In the 1880s and into the 1890s a new image is seen in the skyline, a church tower.  The steeple of Saint Patrick Church can be seen amongst the outline of the mills.  The 13th century gothic-style church had been completed in 1854.  Early visitors commented on the grandiose size of the church compared to the shanties, shops, and dwellings of the Acre.  The gold cross that adorned the top of the steeple could be seen from many points across the city marking the Irish presence in the City.  While the church was built in the middle of the Anti-Catholic panic of the 1850s, by the 1880s the Irish had assumed political power.  It was sending a message to the old guard.  Now it was the turn of the Irish to add their brand onto the City’s official seal for all to see.
The idea for this post came from Anam Cara honoree, Dick Howe Jr., who shared this finding during Dr. Mitchell’s presentation.