“If I am doomed to fall on the field of battle and we are destined to never meet again on earth, may we be so prepared to meet in heaven.”
These are the final words written on June 15th, 1864 from my great, great grandfather, Florence Burke, to his wife and children back home in West Springfield, Massachusetts. He was writing from a filthy trench deep in the Virginia battlefields. He was one of 200,000 Irish-born immigrants who had volunteered to fight in the bloody American Civil War.
He was 35 years old, a father of three, and married to his Irish love Ellen, whom he had followed to America after she fled the Great Famine in 1849. Their marriage records revealed that they were wed in Schull, Co Cork, a few days before Ellen emigrated with her family. Florence would not reunite with Ellen until a year later.
Florence Burke was only 19 years old when he sailed to New York City, leaving behind his parents, who refused to abandon Ireland. When he arrived in America, he stayed with cousins in the slums of Five Points, in Lower Manhattan.
Burke longed to reunite with Ellen, so he travelled on to West Springfield, in the vast farmlands of Western Massachusetts. They lived together and raised three children in the years leading up the American Civil War.
Working as a tenant farmer as he had done in West Cork, Burke could not earn enough money to raise his family out of poverty. He was desperate. Then came the war. He waited as long as he could, but joined in 1864, three years into the conflict, amid newspaper reports that the war was winding down.
Burke wasn’t drafted or coerced into joining the war. He voluntarily enlisted in the Union Army as a “substitute” for a wealthy banker in his town, in exchange for $300 and an opportunity to use that money to buy a portion of land. It seemed to Burke that he had achieved the American Dream. But would his gamble pay off?
He left his beloved family on January 4th, 1864, in the dead of winter.
After only a few weeks of training in Boston, Burke was sent to the front lines of the Virginia battle fields. The war was halted for the "winter retreat" so he waited in camps and continued training until the Spring Campaign began, led by the newly appointed commander, General Grant.
Burke’s letters home were initially optimistic and light-hearted, but now, as he experienced his first taste of bloodshed, his tone changed to one of fear and disquiet. In March of 1864 he wrote:
“Dear Ellen, I take my pen in hand to let you know I am still living, thank God for it. You commonly hear it talked up North that the Rebels are starving, but you would think they are well fed as they fight and don’t turn back. Keep good courage and do not be fretting as I am doing the same hoping that I will see you and the children once more. Good-bye.”
In April of 1864, Burke received horrific news from home, his baby girl had succumbed to typhoid. He was filled with remorse for leaving them, forcing them to fend for themselves through the brutal winter. His letters reflected his sombre mood.
In May of 1864, he wrote: “Dearest Ellen, I take full responsibility for putting my family in this merciless situation. I should never have signed up and left you with such a burden, but I truly thought the war was to end soon and that our family would be greatly benefited by the land. All I want you to do is keep courage and mind the children and keep them in school. That is the wish of an absent father to his family. My love to you and the boys, goodnight.”
On June 18th, 1864, just weeks after writing that letter, Florence Burke was killed in a trench near Petersburg.
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Ellen Alden, author of Yours Faithfully, Florence Burke: An Irish Immigrant Story. She will speak about her great-great-grandfather's letters and life at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin for Culture Night, Friday 21st September, at 5.30pm. Tickets are free but booking is required via Eventbrite.
Alden will also be speaking at Cork City Library on September 18th at 6.30pm, and the West Cork Arts Centre on September 19th at 5pm.