Friday, March 5, 2021

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem MY Bones

  by Patti Sherry-Crews

Battle Flag of the Irish Legion

My great, great grandfather immigrated from Co. Tyrone, Ireland, fought in the Civil War, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery in my hometown, Evanston, Illinois.

Nothing in the above statement was known to me until a few months ago. Calvary Cemetery is a long walk or a short march from my front door, by the way.

Now, why I, who grew up with generations of Evanstonians on both sides of my family, living cheek by jowl within a few blocks radius, all fond of whom were fond of telling family tales, did not know such an important fact, is somewhat of a mystery. But, we’ll talk about that later. 

I would first like to give a shout out to Find A Grave for making this post possible. If you don’t know the site, it’s a good free resource to find the graves of people, whether they are famous or not. Find A Grave is a virtual graveyard created and maintained by community volunteers. I often use this site when doing research on historical figures (e.g., dead gunslingers). Usually, there are just a few basic facts about the deceased such as dates and places of birth and death and links to their family members and a photograph of their grave. I’ve never used it to find my own dead relations, because I thought I knew everything there was to know.

Then one cold day in October I got a notification from that I had a possible hint. The hint was to a link from Find A Grave. It was the grave of my great, great grandmother, Catherine McCabe, also an Irish immigrant, who I was also clueless about. There were few scant facts about her children and where and when she was born. 

But, then I clicked on the link for her husband, Patrick H. Sherry, and wow, doing so opened a world of information. The passage about him is pretty chatty for Find A Grave—right down to his nickname, Patsie. 

 Patrick was recruited into the army in December 1862 and was assigned to Company E of the 90th Illinois Infantry. He was later transferred to Company B of the 48th Illinois Infantry still as a private. At the end of the war Patrick had attained the rank of corporal in Company F of the 65th Illinois Infantry. (Note: though his pension slip includes his service in Company of the 65th Illinois Infantry, the roster for the company notes that Corporal Patrick Sherry was a deserter in 1863. This is inconsistent with the National Park Service database as well as the fact he received a pension and was discharged in 1865.)

Patrick and his wife Catherine McCabe had four children: Patrick H. Jr, Mary Ellen Churchill, James, Francis Henry, and Margaret Catherine. Catherine and all but one of their children are interred in the lot in Section S; Patrick Jr is interred with his father in Section J. Their daughter Margaret died in 1891 at the age of seven and has a small marker to the left of the one for her father.

Regarding the location of the grave and the headstone:

When Patrick died in 1888 his family did not yet own a lot at Calvary, so he was interred in a single grave in Section J. Several years later in June 1891 Patrick's widow, Catherine, purchased a lot for the family in Section S (Block 35, Lot S12). At that time the family did not disinter Patrick and move him to the new lot, but instead ordered the veteran headstone on 5 September 1891 and placed it with the family as opposed to on his actual grave. A conjecture is that this was done to keep the family together in some form without having to disturb Patrick's final rest.

Additional note regarding locating Patrick in the Illinois Secretary of State Deaths Database: Patrick is listed as "Patsie" who died in Cook County on 24 December 1888 at age 60.

Corp P.H. Sherry Headstone, Sans Body, in the Family Plot 

That’s a lot to say about someone buried in an unmarked grave at church expense. And in my experience, much more information than the usual Find A Grave entry. Some volunteer dug deep on this one, and I am very grateful for their efforts.

I asked my husband, Bob, who is generally game for anything, if he felt like taking a ride to the cemetery. He said—and this will be significant— “Why don’t we wait a few days when it will be warmer?”  I suggested we not put it off and leave right at that moment. 

If you’re not from the Chicago area, let me describe Calvary Cemetery. It's a Catholic cemetery and relatively small for an urban cemetery, situated across Sheridan Road on the shore of Lake Michigan and sitting on the border of Evanston and Chicago. It’s a beautiful spot to go walking or biking, or to be buried, depending on what stage of life you’re in. If you’re from Chicago, you will know this cemetery as the place where the ghost of Seaweed Charlie, an aviator whose plane went down within sight of observers on the shore, but out of reach of help. Seaweed Charlie, drenched and dripping lake crud, crawls over the boulders lining the lakefront at that point, scaring drivers on Sheridan Road, before entering the iron gates of Calvary Cemetery.

Calvary Cemetery Entrance

So anyway back to my story. After a short drive, we arrived at the office of Calvary Cemetery and printed out the maps to both the family plot and the unmarked grave. Then, printouts in hand, we stepped outside. A man approached us and said he was the groundskeeper and this day was his last as he was retiring after 43 years. He offered to help us find the graves as his final act on the job. He was just getting in his truck to go home for the day when he spotted us. Had we been even a few minutes later we would’ve missed him. 

I don’t remember his name, but I’m going to call him Angel. Here was the man who literally knew where all the bodies were buried (and hopefully I will never have to use that phrase in a literal sense again). He quickly led us to the family plot, where at least there I saw some familiar names from family stories. I remembered hearing talk of the “Churchill cousins” who were right there in the family plot.

Then we followed “Angel” across the cemetery to the plot containing unmarked church burials. He called the office, and using known graves, was able to pace out and show us the very spot where my great, great grandfather and his son are buried. We never would’ve found that on our own even with a map.

Armed with the information from Find A Grave, I went on to go down many rabbit holes once I got home. I found that the National Park Service keeps a database of all the Civil War soldiers from both sides of the conflict. From here I was able to track Patrick through the Civil War, which read like a march through Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, with many recognizable battle names. I even found a description of Patrick Sherry in the enlistment records. He is described as being 5’5” and having fair hair, grey eyes, and a “sandy complexion". Patrick first enlisted with the 90th, Illinois Infantry, known as the Irish Legion. He was 34 years old at the time.

"Irish Legion," was a special Civil War outfit, distinguished from other Illinois regiments by its formation, composition, and behavior. As Chicago's second Irish regiment, it existed directly as a result of the efforts of the Reverend Denis Dunne, pastor of Chicago's St. Patrick's Church. Father Dunne promoted the regiment's formation not only out of patriotism but also out of the desire to refute criticism that Irish Catholics were not supportive of the Union's war effort. Enlisted primarily in August and September of 1862, the regiment's members were mainly foreign-born and somewhat older than most Illinois soldiers. They marched more than 2,600 miles, mostly as members of Major General William T. Sherman's XV Army Corps, and in the process traversed seven Southern states, participating in major battles at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Resaca and Dallas, Georgia, and in three major battles around Atlanta. They were instrumental in the capture of Fort McAllister at Savannah, Georgia, following the march to the sea. After the grueling march through the Carolinas, they took part in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. Although 356 soldiers reportedly deserted, mostly before the regiment left Chicago, the 626 remaining troops suffered in excess of 400 casualties and disabilities on behalf of the Union.

From: Swan, J.B.. (2009). Chicago's Irish legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the civil war. 1-306. 

Later, fighting with the 48th and 65th (known as the Scotch Regiment) he saw action at battles including Vicksburg and Shiloh, where half the unit was lost.

I disagree with Find A Grave on the question of whether Patrick deserted or not. I did find in the records that he deserted, but then joined his company again, forfeiting his pay, and then going on to fight to the conclusion of the war. But going through the various rosters of the companies he fought with, desertion was not uncommon. Desertion was a problem on both sides. The tedium of camp life with its poor rations and rampant disease, combined with the horrors of war and worrying about loved back home caused many to desert. How to punish deserters amid waning manpower and growing anti-war sentiment was debated. Finally, amnesty was granted to those who found their way back to the battlefield.

Reading detailed accounts of his companies action, sometimes marching for miles without shoes and little food, once wading chest deep across a cold marsh, on top of seeing some of the heaviest actions in that conflict, it’s amazing to me that he survived—that anyone survived.

Patrick Sherry on Company Roster, "Deserted"

Incidentally, my maternal great great grandfather who was also from Evanston, fought in a cavalry division of an Illinois company. Using the National Park Civil War Database, I was able to learn which conflicts he was likely involved in, including Gettysburg. He is featured in Burn’s Civil War where a letter home to Evanston from him is read.

Placing my hand on that unmarked grave that day with cold winds whipping off of Lake Michigan, I felt a profound sense of connection. I’ve been back there since, once with my sister, because I think we should never again forget where he and his first born son rest. I'll do my best to pass this knowledge on to my cousins and my children.

Finding the unmarked grave of my great great grandfather Patrick H. Sherry and his son Patrick H. Sherry Jr.

About a month later I called my 95 year old aunt to wish her a happy Thanksgiving, and I asked her if she knew her great grandfather was buried in an unmarked grave in Calvary and that he fought throughout most of the Civil War. She was as surprised to learn this as I was. We speculated on why this information was not passed down, and she said “Those Sherrys were always a fractious bunch.” Indeed, they were. In what is otherwise tightly knit branches of our family fabric, the Sherrys were the unraveled thread. Someone was always not talking to someone else, or depositing their mother in an apartment and driving off to California as fast as they could to start a new life. People hard to pin down. And now maybe we have an idea of why they were the way they were.

We now know much about PTSD in war veterans, so I wonder how his war years shaped Patsie Sherry. He died at the relatively young age of 60 years old, and his family couldn’t even afford to bury him, so one can only imagine how the family of six were scraping by. He left behind a 43 year old widow with three young children to care for. Not only did Catherine lose her husband and son, she went on to suffer the loss of her 7 year old daughter a few years after burying her husband. Clearly the family suffered more than its share of tragedy, and that was just their history after landing on American soil. Patrick and Catherine did not leave 19th century Ireland because life was kind to them there either.

It's interesting that within a few years, Catherine's fortune changed enough that she was able to afford a family plot. I'd love to know what changed. Maybe it had something to do with the Churchill cousins.

In 2016 I published my first historical western with Prairie Rose Publications, Margarita and the Hired Gun. This was a story that had been rolling around in my head decades before I sat down to write it down, and at the time it was the only historical western in my head. Sometimes as a writer, there are stories I feel there is an outside presence directing me. Margarita and the Hired Gun is one such story. While I was working on it, it was if the character of Michael AKA “Rafferty” spoke his own dialogue lines directly into my ear. 

As my great great grandfather’s life unfolded before me, I began to realize how much his life paralleled fictional Michael’s. Both men left behind a potential grim future in Ireland at the same time and found themselves in the urban jungle (New York city in one case, Chicago in the other), and both men enlisted in the Union army, and then both of them deserted! Though Patrick reenlisted to see the conclusion of the war, Michael went on to join an outlaw gang and later, became a hired gun. Both men married much younger women, and both lost a child in their lifetime.

This may have been a common path for a man immigrating from Ireland at that time in the 19th century. Joining the army during a time of anti-Irish sentiment was one viable option. But, I’d also like to think Patrick H. Sherry, a man I share DNA with, was guiding my storytelling. 

In Margarita and the Hired Gun, Michael/Rafferty is a man who has experienced all the worst that could happen to a man in both 19th century Ireland and America. He is jaded and weary of the life he's leading. But one last job promises to pay him enough that he can hang up his guns. The job is to escort a spoiled, naïve young woman, Margarita, from her home in Arizona to the safety of relatives in Colorado when her father gets caught up in shady dealings and has to flee for his life. As they travel on horseback they have many adventures, and Margarita discovers her own inner strength, while Michael remembers the man he used to be. It's a journey story. Of course, they find true love on the trail.

Free sites to find your own roots:

Find A Grave:

National Park Service Civil War Database:

Excerpt from Margarita and the Hired Gun, where Michael tells Margarita about enlisting and then deserting from the army (with mention of his desire to not end up in an unmarked grave!!!):

“You got out though. What finally happened?” asked Margarita.

“Remember I told you about the guy who coughed all night long? Jimmy was his name. One night he stopped coughing. In the morning we found him dead.” 

“That’s so sad.” 

“It was. Nobody knew his last name or anything about him. In the end he was carted off to Potter’s Field to be put in the ground in an unmarked grave. That was the day I decided I’d had enough. My mother didn’t give birth to me so I could die amid squalor and end up in an unmarked grave. I joined up with the army that day to get away.”  

“So joining the army was a good choice after all?” 

“It was a choice. I don’t know if I’d say it was a good choice. I had to leave that city. That’s all I knew. Plus, I was always looking over my shoulder in New York because I was afraid I’d run into someone who knew me.” 

“Because of what you did in Ireland?” 

“Yes, which I’m still not going to talk about. So, I signed up to fight in your war. It wasn’t long before it was discovered that I’m a crack shot.” 

“Why are you such a crack shot?” 

“That’s a story for another night. I’m discussing my war stories now. Anyway, I became a sharpshooter. There was a test you had to pass in order to become one. You had to be able to hit a ten inch circle ten times from 200 yards. Hitting the target was easy for me. Dead easy.”

“You wanted to be a sharpshooter?” 

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wouldn’t be involved in hand-to-hand combat like a regular solider. I got to shoot specific men from a long distance. Men who didn’t stand a chance to defend themselves. Men who had a reason to be fighting in that war, unlike me.”

 “You didn’t feel good about that, then?” 

“No. Also the sharpshooters wore different uniforms. We wore green, so we’d blend into the scenery was the reasoning. But what happened was the guys on the other side knew by our green uniform who we were. What our job was. So we were targets. That was the first time people started shooting at me. Been going on ever since.” 

“Did you ever get shot?” 

“No,” he said, sounding surprised. “Probably would’ve if I didn’t get out when I did. It wasn’t my war. I had my own war back home. I didn’t need a new war. Sleeping in the mud, killing people with no end in sight to the carnage. I deserted and made my way out west. My father didn’t raise me to die on a foreign battlefield.” 

“Is that when you became Rafferty?” 

“Not right away. There were a couple of stops in between Flynn and  Rafferty.” 

“You’ve lived a very interesting life. I can’t wait to hear more.”

 “I have lived an unfortunate life, and I’m done talking tonight. We need to sleep.” 

Margarita and the Hired Gun is available as a single title

available on Amazon

And in the collection Under a Western Sky


Julie Lence said...

Fascinating family history, Patti. Glad you were able to connect the dots regarding your great-great grandfather.

Andrea Downing said...

Glad to see this again Patti. It still makes for a fascinating tale and I hope you're able to incorporate your family history into a book one day.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thank you, Julie and Andrea! This was an important moment for me and my family so I'm happy to have a platform to share with others. A book? hmmm. I would like to know more about how my great great grandparents met. I am intrigued with that: man returns from the Civil War and marries a younger woman who is also an immigrant. I hope they found happiness!