Who Are You?: The Mystery of John Little

John Little was born 23 October 1834 somewhere in Ireland to yet to be found parents. Vague, frustrating, and disappointing to me as a researcher and most assuredly not the way I wanted to begin this post. But I guess that’s the lot to be expected with Irish research.

Sometime in the 1850s, John made his way to America. I’m almost sure, without knowing many details, that John came to America for the same reasons nearly every Irish immigrant did. They came to escape the overpowering poverty, the seemingly never ending famine, outbreaks of disease, and an unsympathetic government back home.

There wasn’t much different awaiting them here. There was just as much poverty and disease in the slums of the cities immigrants first settled. Jobs were incredibly hard to come by, mostly because of the outright discrimination in hiring as found in the “No Irish Need Apply” signs around town, courtesy of the nativists. The nativist movement was epitomized in the rise of the American Party, also called the Know Nothings, in American politics during the late 1840s. They were anti-immigration, forgetting that they themselves were descended from immigrants not all that long ago. The first genealogy snobs, I suppose. They were also anti-Catholic, which made them opposed to nearly everything the immigrant Irish stood for. If you’ve ever seen Gangs of New York, the Daniel Day-Lewis character is a Know Nothing politician. If you haven’t seen it, watch it.

Common Nativist Flag
Common Nativist Flag

Looking back, it can be rather difficult to figure out why so many Irish took the risk to come to America.

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Example of anti-Irish discrimination in hiring, playing upon the belief that all Irish were alcoholics.

But come they did, braving the unknown and treacherous seas. Because here was, if not prosperity, at least a second chance. Here was at least food to eat that didn’t belong to your landowner. It may not be much, but it was yours. Among the most successful famine immigrants were the ancestors of John F. Kennedy. It would be hard, but it could be done.

So John Little boarded ship and left everything he knew behind to try again. He settled in Perry, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie and about 35 miles from Cleveland. On 3 September 1857, he married fellow Irish immigrant Margaret McVitty.

John filed this intent to marry the very same day he married Margaret McVitty.
John filed this intent to marry the very same day he married Margaret McVitty.

My theory, such as it is, is that John Little was from the same Irish county, Monaghan, as Margaret McVitty. I have no special reason to believe he was and no special reason to believe he wasn’t. He seems to have married soon after his arrival, which makes me think he and Margaret already knew each other or at least their families did.

Marriage license for newlyweds John and Margaret Little
Marriage license for newlyweds John and Margaret Little

The outbreak of war in 1861 found John still in Perry with his wife, two year old son, Robert, and newborn daughter Emma. John didn’t answer Lincoln’s call to arms right away. He probably preferred to stay home with his pregnant wife and children and grow onions for his brother-in-law James McVitty.

But by the summer of 1862, John had joined the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Captain James McIlrath’s Company A. In the same regiment were William Rosecrans, later Union general in the Western Theatre; Eliakim Scammon, later consul to Prince Edward Island; James Comly, minister to Hawaii; Stanley Matthews, US Senator; and Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley, later US Presidents.

Colonel Eliakim P Scammon
Colonel Eliakim P Scammon
Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes
Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes

John was immediately shipped off by train to join the regiment in the outskirts of Washington, D.C..

John Little's Enlistment Papers
John Little’s Enlistment Papers

From D.C. John and his regiment joined the rest of the Army of the Potomac for the Maryland Campaign in September 1862 under George McClellan. South Mountain and Antietam were John’s baptism by fire, his initiation into real combat.

23rd Ohio Monument at Antietam
23rd Ohio Monument at Antietam

On the morning of September 17, the 23rd found itself just east of Antietam Creek. They could hear McClellan’s attack on Lee’s left flank. Burnside took his troops, including the 23rd, towards Lee’s right. It was their immediate job to ford the creek south of the Lower Bridge. They finally did so at Snavely’s Ford where they spotted A.P. Hill’s Confederates on their left — clad in blue and waving an American flag — before the Confederates opened fire. John’s commanders Major James Comly and Colonel Hugh Ewing, critical of Scammon’s hesitant manner, described the incident in their official report:

We crossed the ford of the Antietam under a shower of grape, and after being held under a trying fire from the enemy’s batteries for some time, made, under order of Colonel Scammon, commanding division, a charge upon his advancing columns, and checked and held his largely superior force at bay until the battle ceased on the ensuing day, and he was driven from the field….Soon after all doubt vanished, upon the furious attack which was made by them, almost at a feeling distance, upon the Thirtieth Regiment and our left. Almost immediately a heavy enfilading fire was opened upon our whole line, and Colonel Ewing gave the order to me in person to change front perpendicularly to the rear, which was done. From some cause (probably from the death of the aide bearing the order) we did not receive the order to fall back with the remainder of the brigade, and we consequently held our position until relieved by our division commander (O.R., Vol. 19, Part 1, 463, 468).

In the heat of the battle, the regimental colors were lost. They were later discovered near a stack of wheat. The battle was a costly one with approximately 20% casualties.

23rd Ohio regimental colors, 1861.
23rd Ohio regimental colors, 1861.

Michael Deady, also a private in Company A, kept a diary, which can be found here. His entry for 3 October reads, “Pass in review Gen’s Burnside & McClellan an President Abe all here Great time Dress Pirade in Evening.” I suppose the Union army was ready to celebrate any victory that could be found. Four days later, Deady reports that orders were given to ready for marching and cook three days rations.  The army was getting ready to move after Confederate forces under Jeb Stuart. The next day, two men dropped dead from fatigue on the seventeen mile march to Hagerstown, Maryland.

On October 8, Jeb Stuart raided Chambersburg, Pennsylvania with 9000 men. McClellan was as hesitant as ever to pursue General Lee’s army. Once Stuart made it back to Maryland, he met Federal troops, including the 23rd, now commanded by Colonel Hugh Ewing, a more aggressive commander. They chased him back toward Virginia.

Two weeks after that, the 23rd returned to what is now West Virginia. John had not been a part of the regiment at that time. He marched an average of 12-15 miles a day. In November 1862, the regiment went into winter quarters in the Great Kanawha valley and there they stayed until 15 March 1863. For the most part, the 23rd was on guard duty in the Kanawha River valley. The western part of Virginia was pro-Union territory and ironically, its secession from Virginia and the Confederacy was encouraged by the Lincoln administration. The Kanawha flowed into the Ohio River and Federal control of the valley would prohibit Confederate forces from streaming into the heart of Union territory. Federal troops were also there to protect the Union sympathizers in the region. The fighting they encountered at Antietam devolved into skirmishes with relatively small bands of troops. Duty was tedious but important.

Federal pickets at Kanawha, much like what John Little would have done. 1862. Courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.
Federal pickets at Kanawha, much like what John Little would have done. 1862. Courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

They remained at that place until July performing little or no duty with the exception of a few scouts and its participation in the movements against two Confederate guerrilla raiders, John Hunt Morgan and William Loring.   The regiment headed off Morgan’s band on the line of the Ohio river at Buffington island and near Hockingport, capturing 700 guerrillas as they attempted to cross the river, including John Hunt Morgan himself. Morgan had crossed the Ohio river to raid southern Ohio and Indiana, which was the farthest Confederate troops ever reached into Union territory.

Illustration of Morgan's Raid
Illustration of Morgan’s Raid

The regiment then returned to Charleston and lay there in camp until the spring of 1864. In May, John and his regiment found themselves at Cloyd’s Mountain in western Virginia. The Confederate forces under General Albert Jenkins held the superior ground and General Crook decided to send the Union forces through the nearby forest to attack the Confederate right instead of a direct charge.  Leaves covered the forest floor and the sparks from the muskets firing ignited them, burning several wounded men alive. Most of the combat was fierce hand to hand fighting but ended in a Union victory and the destruction of the Virginia and Tennessee railroad, a vital supply link.

The regiment found itself immersed in the Shenandoah Valley campaigns of General Philip Sheridan. By June, the 23rd attempted to capture Lynchburg, Virginia and cut off Confederate supplies in the area. Unsupported as expected by General Sheridan, the battle was a Confederate victory with the Union retreat. That must have been a devastating loss to John and the 23rd.

It was not the last defeat John suffered. At Kernstown, outside Winchester, Virginia, Jubal Early delivered a devastating blow to General Crook and drove the Union forces out of the Shenandoah Valley and back into Maryland. Most of the Union troops had gone to support Grant’s efforts at Petersburg and that severely undermined the Union effort. That must have been more demoralizing than Lynchburg because the Confederate war effort was seriously in trouble at this time.

Confederate general Jubal Early
Confederate general Jubal Early
Union cavalry leader Philip Sheridan in the field

The Valley Campaigns soon took off later in the summer and fall of 1864 with a bright spot on October 19, the battle of Cedar Creek was a defeat turned into victory by the timely arrival of General Sheridan, unlike Lynchburg four months prior. Sheridan ended the threat Jubal Early caused in the valley at battles such as the third battle at Winchester and then joined Grant at Petersburg.

Map of the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, August to October 1864. Courtesy Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com
Map of the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, August to October 1864. Courtesy Hal Jespersen, http://www.cwmaps.com

John and the 23rd stayed behind. The winter of 1864-1865 was again spent in West Virginia on guard duty. It was during this time John was brought up on court martial. The details are unknown, much like many things in John’s life. It seems he escaped the ultimate penalty but that is about all I know.

John's service record telling of his confinement and subsequent court martial
John’s service record telling of his confinement and subsequent court martial

The Confederate collapse in the spring of 1865 ended the war and John and his fellows mustered out on 26 July 1865.

23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry prior to mustering out, 1865.

If this post has started to seem like a Civil War history lesson, it was sort of supposed to do so. I tried to make it interesting but included it because John Little was a small force in all these events. He wasn’t a general, so there aren’t books written describing his exploits. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t important, just not well known. Our lives make no sense outside the context of history. Events don’t happen around us; they happen to us. John Little fought here, worried here, and suffered here. He saw those two men drop dead of fatigue in the aftermath of Antietam. He fussed over proper dress when parading in front of his superiors, including the president. He smelled those bodies burning in the forest, helpless to help them while fighting for his life. He was not unaffected. Most of his time was spent marching and guarding. He spent lots of time on his feet in boots that probably weren’t the best after a lot of marching. No one comes back from war the same as they left.

After the war, John returned home to his family. A daughter, Adeline, had been born in his absence. Four more children would follow. He tried to adjust to civilian life and keep growing onions for his brother-in-law. He worshiped at the Methodist Episcopal Church in nearby Painesville. He tried. He honestly tried.

Methodist Episcopal Church of Painesville, built in 1873. Now on the National Register of Historic Places. Also known as Painesville United Methodist Church after denominational mergers.
Methodist Episcopal Church of Painesville, built in 1873. Now on the National Register of Historic Places. Also known as Painesville United Methodist Church after denominational mergers.

The marching caused problems with his feet and legs, a common complaint in Civil War veterans. John tried to do an honest day’s work for the pay to care for his growing family but increasingly found it difficult. A relatively young man still in his thirties, John developed varicose veins which culminated in a deep running sore on his leg. His friends reported that he had trouble breathing as well as having his leg heavily bandaged. In the months before his death, it seemed he might be getting better. The spot on his leg seemed to have gone away. Alas, it was not to be and John Little died 8 August 1879 at his home in Perry, Ohio.

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John Little’s obituary published in the Painesville Telegraph.

In 1885, his widow Margaret filed for a pension on the belief that John would not have died at 44 if not for serving in the military. Her initial claim was rejected, but she persisted, enlisting doctors and friends to plead her case. She was granted $8 a month for her trouble. In the pension file, it is discovered that John left her a small house and four acres that the auditor valued at $310. That’s not much. It also describes the post mortem that was done. The diseased condition the obituary talks about? Lungs, heart, and liver filled with pus and infection. No wonder he could barely breathe. The pension calls his cause of death blood poisoning, or sepsis. The spot on his leg grew skin over it, but it never healed. The infection went from skin to blood stream and, left untreated, set up in his major organs, killing him at far too young an age.

In my research, I discovered a lot of information about Memorial Day, about Ohio, and the Civil War. However, I never expected Google to lead me to this:

It’s a film of the 1929 Painesville, Ohio Memorial Day parade. Margaret Little had died two months earlier, after being a widow for fifty years.

I hope John knows how proud his home was of him. I hope he knows how proud I was for his family to give me the opportunity to learn about him.

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