A Horrible Death

Courtesy of http://www.agapeheritagescrolls.net.
For those who are captivated by cemeteries and all they can tell us about the past, the old St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Providence is a pot of gold. Over 21,000 souls are buried there, most of them first generation Famine Irish and their offspring. The stones tell the story of a people forced by hunger and disease to flee their homes. Some stones list the parishes and town-lands from which they fled and speak to the longing of the home they would never again see. In the case of one Patrick Campbell, his stone reads:
“How strange O God that reigns on High
That I should come so far to die
And leave my friends where I was born
To lay my bones with Strangers.”
St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Providence, R.I.
But it is another stone that haunts my thoughts. A limestone grave, the least expensive kind that one could purchase at the time, yet more than most poor Irish immigrants could afford, suggests the story of a man who isn’t even buried beneath it.
Owen McKenna died on February 25, 1862. The stone identifies him as a native of the parish of Clogher in County Tyrone and that he was fifty-six years old. But it is the words below those of Owen that chill the heart. Owen’s son, John, is listed as having died at Andersonville, Georgia, two and a half years after Owen’s death. The family added his name to his father’s stone, but John was buried in a mass grave (John’s number is 8306) a thousand miles from the home of his family on Federal Street in Providence.
Rhode Island’s Memorial at Andersonville.
There is no greater horror in the history of America’s wars than that of the Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville Prison. The South’s most notorious prison camp opened in
Andersonville, Georgia in February 1864. A few facts set the stage for what happened to our young man from Federal Hill.
But first, let’s look back at how the McKenna family came to live on Federal Hill in Providence. In the first season of the Great Hunger, death filled the homes of the Clogher Valley. Owen’s flight from Ireland brought him through Liverpool to the County Tyrone/County Monaghan neighborhood by 1846. With him came his wife Margaret, and children, eleven-year-old Michael, ten-year-old Jane, eight-year-old Bridget and four-year-old John. In 1846 their daughter, Hannah, was born in Providence, and four years later another child, Margaret, arrived.
The heart of Federal Hill’s Southern Ulster population,
from a map by G.M. Hopkins & Co., 1875.
Federal Hill in the years leading up to the Civil War was a tight cluster of overcrowded houses in which it was common for more than one family to share a room. To make ends meet, Owen was a common laborer, son Michael worked with horses, Jane was a seamstress and Bridget made cigars in a factory. There is no doubt but that John was familiar with factory life, as well.
It was against this background that nineteen-year-old John enlisted in the military.  The war broke out in April 1861, but it was really the carnage at the Battle of Bull Run on the 21st of July that had young men flocking to join the military. On December 4 1861, John enlisted in Company K of the Third Regular Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Company K, like Companies F and I, was made up of Irish men, or as Shot and Shell described the unit, it was “originally largely of Celtic stock.” Irish units were isolated from Yankee units, just as African-Americans were. Federal Hill was certainly well represented in Company K. Names such as Goodwin, Gormley, Connelly, Carrol, Campbell, Farrell, Farley, Hughes, McQuade, McCabe, Moiner, and McGuire filled the ranks.
April1862, Shot and Shell, p. 76.
The Third saw heavy fighting throughout the war, in Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina.
How and where John McKenna was captured is not known. But we know it was at Andersonville that he met his death.
A stockaded compound no larger than twenty-five acres, Andersonville held 45,000 men over a sixteen month period between February 1864 and May 1865. At its height, the prison contained 33,000 soldiers, 13,000 of whom met their deaths there.
Seventy-four Rhode Islanders died at Andersonville. One who survived, George H. Luther of Company A of the Rhode Island Light Battery, later wrote of his experiences. The quotations excerpted here are from Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment, pages 270 to 272.
Luther begins his narrative with his capture on August 17, 1864, at Gainesville, Florida. Luther was one of 170 soldiers captured, twenty of whom were brutally killed after capture. The surviving prisoners were put up in a schoolhouse yard and treated in a way that would foreshadow Luther’s Andersonville experience. Marched twenty miles a days for an indeterminate time, they were eventually put on a Mississippi steamer bound for Andersonville. From the moment of their capture, the prisoners were kept underfed and without shelter to the outside elements.
Andersonville, August 1864.

Luther’s first sight of the Andersonville prison was a horror. “Never can we forget our first view of this infamous place. We could see it from the station over the hill-side. The ground was black with prisoners.”

“Before reaching it we were halted and stripped naked, and everything of value was taken from us, money, tobacco, blankets, and all that might aid or comfort us.”
“As we passed in through the big gate the sight was disheartening. About a hundred lay along on the ground, some dead, some dying, some purging at the mouth.”
“Patrick Connelly and myself were placed together, and we strolled around in the hope of finding a place where we might lay down.” Finding a spot, they slept “under the cover of the stars. Our thoughts may not be told.”
“Little sleep had we that night. Rising in the morning, we found ourselves covered with body-lice, from which we were not rid while we remained in the abominable place. Hundreds around us were dying of scurvy. They were screaming and groaning all night. We passed around to see if any were in the pen that we knew, and found several, among them two who were captured a short time before ourselves. We refer to those captured from our regiment while they were on a foraging tour upon Kiawa Island.”
“Strolling around the pen, we found about half the prisoners lying on their backs, screaming and groaning from scurvy and dysentery, which were the principal diseases. Once in twenty-four hours we received rations, sometimes cooked and sometimes raw; when raw, we had a small piece of bacon or fresh beef, half a spoonful of salt, a spoonful of molasses, half a pint of meal, and a gill of beans.”
Photograph of Andersonville, taken about August 1864.

“Some of the sick prisoners, on account of their extreme thirst, would crawl down in the night to the ditch that ran through the pen, to get water, though it was very vile, and would get stuck in the mud and die.”

During the three months that Luther and Connelly were imprisoned at Andersonville, they experienced some of the worst weather the area had seen within living memory. Exposed in the open pen, when not suffering under the scorching sun, heavy rains completely soaked them. As winter came on, it was “the coldest, the rebels said, that had been known in that region for ten years.”  For cover, prisoners pieced together blankets and small pieces of cloth.
Cruelty by Confederate soldiers on duty has been well documented elsewhere. In Luther’s experience,
“Every guard that shot a prisoner received a dollar and a furlough of sixty days.” There was a “dead-line” beyond which prisoners were not allowed. “I saw one prisoner when he asked the guard for a chew of tobacco. The guard said: ‘Come and get it.’ On his reaching his hand over the dead-line, the guard instantly shot him.”
During the time that Luther and Connelly were interred at Andersonville, Luther estimates that one hundred men a day died. Prisoners would volunteer to carry the corpses to the mass graves so that they might find a bit of firewood to cook their food.
Burying prisoners in mass graves at Andersonville. Courtesy of http://www.agapeheritagescrolls.net.
“The wretchedness of the prisoners, and the barbarities suffered, can never be fully told.”
A survivor

And thus it was with John McKenna who, like so many, died of diarrhea. Having suffered through the first season of the Great Hunger, as well as the two month voyage in a coffin ship, John had much to hope for in his new home. But, in fact, John’s last days were far bleaker than anything he could have imagined.

And what of his poor mother, Margaret, who lost her husband and her son within a two and a half period? The grief that she suffered can only be imagined. Her daughters continued to live with her, as did son, Michael. As many laborers did, Michael changed jobs as occasions arose, becoming a stucco man, marrying and raising a family on Weeden Street near the corner of Atwells Avenue.
After the war Luther returned to live with his parents in North Providence, marrying Rebecca Goldthwait in 1875. They lived on Smith Hill in the city until his death in 1901.
Like every community across the county, the Civil War left Federal Hill with a great sense of loss and sorrow. We return to St. Patrick’s cemetery in Providence for such an expression of grief. James McCabe died of disease in 1863, like so many soldiers. His epitaph reads:
 “Dearest mother think of me that’s gone,
Thy eldest son in wealth,
Thank God I left two more behind,
May God spare them their breath.
Two sisters yet remain to thee,
I loved them next to thee.
And when you all together sit,
Be sure and pray for me.”

Postscript: John McKenna was not the only McKenna at Andersonville. In fact, four other young men named McKenna died at Andersonville, also of diseases that could certainly have been prevented. James McKenna was a member of the Pennsylvania infantry and Neil was in the New York cavalry. Two other John McKennas died at Andersonville, both infantrymen, one from Massachusetts and one from New York.Additionally, four other McKenna men were imprisoned at Andersonville, but survived. Thomas served in the Connecticut Calvary, John and Patrick were infantrymen from New York and Peter was part of the Vermont heavy artillery. Peter later died of disease in Georgia.One thing all these nine McKenna men more than likely had it common was that they were either born in that small piece of Counties Monaghan and Tyrone that was once the Barony of Truagh, or they were the children of natives of greater Truagh. All were victims of the Great Hunger and all sacrificed a great deal to serve their new country.

The twelth century McKenna Cross, Old Donagh Cemetery,
marking the spot where the McKenna chieftains  were sworn in.

Agape Heritage Scrolls.

Ancestry.com. Federal Census Records, 1860 and 1870.Dyer, Elisha. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Rhode Island for the Year 1865.
Providence: Providence Press Company, Printers to the State, 1866.

Denison, Rev. Frederic , A. M. Chaplain.  Shot and Shell: The Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery Regiment 1861-1865., Providence: J. A. & R. Reid, 1879.

McCarron, Edward T. 1997. “Altered States: Tyrone Migration to Providence, Rhode Island, during the Nineteenth Century”. Clogher Record, Vol. 16, No. 1.Providence City Directory, 1847 to 1890. Providence: H.H. Brown and other publishers.

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