Once upon a time, I married an Irish fella. We visit Ireland a lot to see his family and our friends. Having an Irish maiden name – Higgins – I was asked quite often about which part of Ireland my family came from. I had no idea. Nobody in my family ever knew. Recently, I decided to find out.
After a couple of months of relentless searching, I discovered that my 2nd great grandparents, James and Annie Higgins, came over to Philadelphia from Ireland (separately), but there was still no sign of which part of Ireland. I did find something saying that James had been in the Civil War, and that he was in the 69th PA Irish Volunteers, which mainly consisted of Irish men living in Philadelphia. I googled his regiment and found a website created by a Michael Higgins who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The website was all about the 69th regiment. I found a little blurb about James Higgins and that he was from County Mayo, Ireland. How did he know this? Michael says on his website that he would be happy to hear from any ancestors of any of the men of the 69th, so I wrote him and asked.
He replied straight away and was so nice! He said that James had come to Philadelphia during the Irish famine, which I knew was a terrible time. He also said that he does research with a man from the Philadelphia area called Don Ernsberger, and that Don was very interested in speaking with me, so I wrote to Don too.
Turns out, Don lives about a mile away from my house! Within a couple of days of my writing to him, he met me with a folder full of documents about my great, great grandfather James. Not only did he give me the folder, he told me so many things that I did not know. Don is the author of a few books about the PA 69th Volunteers, and he is part of a Civil War reenactment group that honors the 69th.
He explained all of the documents to me, and I learned that James fought in every battle and was one of about fifty-six men of his regiment to survive, but not unscathed. James lost two fingers from two separate battles, and there was another time that a horse fell on him while he was on the picket line.
Before meeting Don, my husband and I had gone to the cemetery where my great-great-grandparents were buried, but we could not find the grave. Don explained that the government would oftentimes buy a plot for the soldier, but not the stone, and that many families couldn’t afford to get a gravestone. However! One of the projects that Don’s reenactment group does is to locate missing grave markers for the men of the 69th, and put one there. They then do a public ceremony when placing the grave stone. He wanted to get a stone for James. He asked me if I would be willing to sign the papers, as they were not allowed to place a grave marker without an ancestor to sign. So I did, and soon James will have a stone, as well as a ceremony from the PA 69th reenactment group!
I am a found-object artist, and a member of the found-object artist group The Philadelphia Dumpster Divers, who told me about this project. I wanted to create an object that would honor James Higgins and his bravery, and also to thank Michael Higgins and Don Ernsberger for their information, knowledge and enthusiasm, as well as their generosity in sharing all three!
My object includes:
– A small piece of marble from Connemara, Ireland beneath the brass numbers 69. When I went to see Don’s reenactment group, they had larger versions of these numbers on their hats.
– My 2nd great grandfather’s muster roll which is the proof that he was from County Mayo.
– A “nipple pin,” which was used to clean out the nipple of the gun’s percussion cap that would sometimes get clogged with burnt gunpowder. Don says that pins were issued to the soldiers, but some would put a special pin in their hat from their wives or girlfriends.
– A very tiny union army hat on top of (artificial) boxwood. The boxwood, as explained by Don Ernsberger: “In December 1862, the Union army was about to attack Fredericksburg, VA and the Irish Regiments had lost their green battle flag back in September at Antietam. Their commander told the men to place a piece of boxwood in their hats so the rebels would see that the Irish were attacking. All the soldiers did so and, as they attacked, the Confederate battle line saw the green boxwood and recognized that they were being attacked by Irish troops. From that time onward, boxwood was worn by the Irish regiments.”
– The green battle flag mentioned above.
– An Irish 20p coin, for the horse that fell on James.
– Claddagh pendant, traditionally a ring that represents love, loyalty and friendship (Irish).
– Old Irish postal stamp.