Letters From A Civil War Marine

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By Paul Kalina - Originally Published November 1981

Military history tends to emphasize leaders, heroes, dramatic events, and decisive actions. But that is far from the whole story. In war there is much that is dull, ordinary, and routine; patience is a virtue. Over the years the Marine Corps has been blessed with strong and selfless men who could meet the challenges, the dull as well as the dangerous, and retain in full measure a sense of responsibility to family, Corps, country, and fellowman. Occasionally we should reflect on this, pause long enough to remember these realities and our debt to those who have served so well. . . .

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the U.S. Marine Corps found itself well below authorized strength. On 1 January 1861, the total force numbered 1,892 men of all ranks. Later the defection of many of its officers to the Southern cause further depleted the Corps. The highest enrollment during the war never exceeded 3,900. Consequently, accounts of personal experiences by Marines of the Civil War period are rare.

On 11 June 1861 Daniel O'Neil of Randolph, Mass., enlisted in Boston as a private of Marines. He was the oldest of four boys of Timothy and Elizabeth O'Neil and had worked as a bootmaker in the shop of John Curran. Because of his father's ill health, Daniel had contributed most of his wages to support the family for several years prior to his enlistment. He continued to help them while in the Marines.

Soon after joining the Marines and receiving his basic training at Portsmouth, N.H., Pvt O'Neil was stationed at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. In October 1861 O'Neil was detached on special duty with the Marine battalion under Maj John George Reynolds which accompanied the naval expedition to capture the harbor at Port Royal, S.C. Naval gunfire defeated the forts guarding the harbor without the need of a landing force. The commitment of the Marines was limited to their usual duties as garrison troops and ship's detachments.

At the end of March 1862 the battalion was recalled to Washington. In May O'Neil was part of a contingent of some 200 Marines sent to garrison the Norfolk Navy Yard which had recently been recaptured from the Confederates. Duty at Norfolk was no doubt boring. The muster roll for July 1862 at Norfolk shows that Daniel O'Neil, his friend Thomas Kennedy, and three other Marines were absent without leave sometime during the month.

On 13 January 1863 O'Neil was transferred to the Marine detachment on board the USS Minnesota, flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Two years later, Pvt O'Neil, still serving on the Minnesota, volunteered to take part in the assault on Fort Fisher.

An immense earthworks, Fort Fisher guarded the approach to Wilmington, N.C., the last port open to Confederate blockade runners. On 15 January 1865 a hastily assembled force of 2,000 sailors and Marines made an assault on the heavily defended sea face of Fort Fisher while Union soldiers attacked the fort by its land approach. The Navy attack, although repulsed with severe losses, did divert the Confederates from properly defending the land side of Fort Fisher. Army troops then gained access there and captured the fort.

Wounded on the beach, Daniel O'Neil was taken aboard the Minnesota. He died later the same day.

In 1867 Elizabeth O'Neil applied for a pension based on the claim that her son had been the chief means of her family's support. At that time the Pension Agency was swamped with applications generated by the war, and it often took several years or more for a pension to be approved or rejected.

Still without a pension by 1873 Mrs. O'Neil reluctantly submitted in support of her claim three of Daniel's letters, cherished mementoes of a son she had lost more than eight years before. The following year she began receiving a pension.

The letters of Daniel O'Neil are now in the National Archives. They are presented here as an interesting addition to the history of Marine Corps participation in the Civil War.

Camp Bay Point
Jan. 12th 1862

Dear Father and Mother and Brothers,

I supose you all are anxiously waiting to hear from me again. I would have wrote to you long ago but I have been awaiting a letter from Washington. I received your letter about a month ago and it was welcome to me particularly as it contained the intelligence that you were all well and in good health as this leaves me at present. Thank God for the many bounties we receive at his hand. In your letter you informed me that you received a letter from John and that you sent it on to Washington for me. I am very sorry to tell you that I did not receive it as I would like to hear from him very well. I wrote to Washington about it and I did not receive an answer yet and that is the reason why I delayed so long in writing to you. I don't know how you can get that letter now unless by writing to Washington to the Dead Letter Office. Before you sent it to me you had a right to copy it off[f] on another piece of paper and then it would not be much loss. I am sorry it did not reach me as I would like to hear from him very well.

Nothing of any account has transpired here since my arrival with the exception of a small battle we had the other day about 20 miles up the river at the junction of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad in which we completly routed the rebels and took possesion of the place thus cutting of[f] all means of communication between Charleston and Savannah.* The climate here at present is like the summer season in the North. I must be awful warm here in summer time and I think very unhealthy. They say we are going home in about six weeks time.

I hope the war will be at an end before that time as I believe the poor folks of the country are suffering from it.

I would send you the money I received a month ago but for the reason that they are robing the mails that leave here as several of our fellows and a great many volunteers that were paid of[f] here sent home their money and never got any account of where it went to.

I have given mine over to the Quartermaster to keep untill I get home and then I will have 60 dollars to give you the first of April. I will keep it safe. You may depend on me now as this short trip soldiering has made me a wiser and better boy.

From your affectionate son
Daniel O'Neill

Write to me as soon as you receive this letter and write often to me. I cannot write to you as there is no paper on this place. You cannot buy the first thing here not even a sheet of paper. So don't fail to write to me as I will be glad to hear from home any time.

Just as I have this letter finished we are getting orders to be ready to leave here the latter part of the week to attack a place near Charleston.

Direct your letters as follows
For Daniel O'Neill
Care of Major Jno. Geo. Reynolds
Commanding Marine Battalion
Port Royal
S. Carolina

Give my best respects to Jim, Barry and the rest of the family not forgeting Mary. Tom Kennedy is here with me and he is a good friend to me.

Camp Bay Point
Jan. 15th 1862

Dear Folks,

After having my first letter mailed an order came from the commanding officer that all those that wanted to leave their half pay could do so. I availed myself of the oppurtunity and glad I was as it is the safest way for you to obtain it. You can draw it the first of every month or every three months to suit yourself. But I think the best way would be to draw it every three months as it would be less expensive. I would let you draw it all but the rules of the service don't allow it. There is now three months half pay due you in Boston at the Navy Agent's who's office is at the head City Wharf Commercial Street. Any one will show you. So when you receive this go to the city and get it. I believe it ammounts to 16 dollars and 50 cents. Tom Kennedy left his to his sister Alice and I suppose Con Clark will draw it. You can go in with him. Let father go as it is in his name I left it.

You can draw it now every three months while I am in the service. The days for you to draw it is the first of Jan., first of April, first on July, first of October. So you see that there is three months half pay due you since the first of January. Tell him you have a son in the Marines at Port Royal and your name and he will hand you the money.

Write me as quick as you receive it so as I will know you got it and be contented.

From your affectionate son
Daniel O'Neil

Tell Tim and Rob to be good boys and attend school and they will find it a benefit herafter.

U.S. Flagship Minnesota
off Hampton Roads, Va.
30th of April 1864

Dear Parents,

I have waited long and patiently for a word from home untill my patience is well nigh exhausted and I have finally to resort to the old mode of begging for an answer.

Sweeney [James Sweeney an ordinary seaman from the Minnesota] left here for home on the 11th of April and I gave him 50 dollars to hand over to father on his arrival. He promised to write to me the moment he fullfilled his mission but from him or from you I have received no answer. From him I expected none, but from you I expected an immediate reply that would releive my mind from all anxiety concerning the safe arrival of the money entrusted to him.

We are now lying in Hampton Roads and we are fortunate to be afloat at all after the blow the torpedo gave us. They meant to do their work but the stout sides of the old ship resisted them.* I was not on board, being in hospital fat Portsmouth, Va.] with rheumatism pains just the same as I was affected last winter only not so bad.

The pains all left me before I was a week in hospital. I reported for duty and was sent to Norfolk Barracks where I had my choice to remain or go back to the ship, being almost certain that the ship would go north I returned but am greatly disappointed.

Our ship is a receiving ship here. Hundreds of soldiers are coming aboard every day being transfered from the Army. They are speedily transfered into sailors by a change of dress and then transfered to vessels in the squadron who need them. The poor fellows are glad to get rid of the Army.

Another year and my time expires. I may get home in a month or two or three, and I may not untill my time expires, at any rate lam contented either way. A year is short when Hook back on three that are past.

Look out for me at the end of that time and untill then & after

I remain your affectionate son
Daniel O'Neill

P.S. Jack, I wrote you a letter about two months ago inquiring of you what you intended to do this summer. I know you answered it from the tone of the note I received from you while in hospital but I never received it. Let me know when you answer this.

Enclosed is a card I received from Father Haskins [Father George F. Haskins] for a dollar I sent him to aid his institution, [the House of the Angel Guardian in Roxbury, Mass.] Most all of the Marine Guard done likewise. You will perceive that I am a charitable man.

Dan O'Neill