Edward Kennedy: Civil War Pontonnier!

(This is the  first in a series of Letters To My Ancestors that will be appearing from time to time on the GeneaJourneys blog.)

Oh, Edward–the things I have learned about you in just the last few months!

Eventually, I know more will come out, and then I can tell your full story.  For now though, this is what I can share about you–my mother’s grandfather and my own great-grandfather–whom I wish I’d had the privilege of knowing.

You were born in Ireland around 1845, blessed with blue eyes, brown hair and a light complexion. You emigrated from Ireland a year later at the height of the Great Potato Famine when you were just a baby, to settle with your family in Albany, New York. You and the rest of the Kennedy clan were among the lucky ones though, traveling in steerage across the Atlantic to survive that horrific scourge.

What life was like for you and your family in America during the years that followed, I have  yet to discover. But I do know that on February 25, 1865, twenty years after your arrival in New York,  you enlisted as a Private in  the Union Army during the great American Civil War. I can picture you now, a 21-year-old fresh-faced recruit, standing proud at 5 foot 8 inches tall, being handed your bounty of $100 for the honor of serving in Lincoln’s army.

You were assigned to Company “L”, 1st Regiment, New York Volunteer Engineers. You signed on with the army for a three year stint and were quickly promoted to “artificer” (an archaic term meaning “skilled craftsman” or “inventor” in the armed forces.) That makes sense I suppose, for you Edward,  were a  stone cutter who signed on to practice your craft  with the Boys in Blue as they battled the Rebels.

According to a detailed regimental history produced by Jackie Budell, a descendant (like me) of  one of your comrades, your regiment was responsible for surveying, planning, constructing and repairing fortifications and defensive works. It performed military reconnaissance and formed an advance guard to remove obstructions from the battlefield and facilitate the passage of the army. Unit members who remained in the rear erected obstacles and destroyed roads and bridges to halt the Confederates’ pursuit. Which of these services did you provide?

You engineers were also known as “sappers”, “miners” and “pontonniers.”  The sappers dug trenches, the miners excavated areas to set explosives for the enemy, and the pontonniers built floating bridges across waterways to enable army and supply trains to get across.  That was your assignment, Edward. According to your military file you were a pontonnier!

Temporary, collapsible bridges like this one were erected during the Civil War by pontonniers like Edward Kennedy of the 1st NY Volunteer Engineers. Kennedy served in the Union Army in the final days of the war.

By the end of March of 1865 though, the war was winding down.  Even so, in those final days, it was your regiment, the 1st NY Engineers, that built and repaired roads and bridges during the army’s march that culminated in Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox courthouse.  According to historical records, with the fall of Petersburg and Richmond on April 2nd and 3rd, it was a detachment of engineers from your unit that marched into Richmond to help snuff out a fire that was swallowing everything in its path. Were you in one of those detachments of road builders or firefighters, Edward? I’d like to think so. It sounds heroic to me.

Despite your three-year commitment, you were mustered out with the rest of your company on June 30th, 1865, in Richmond, Virginia since the war was officially over. The nation, and soldiers like you were ready to start life anew.

I have yet to confirm it, but I suspect at the end of this brutal war you must have returned home to your native New York. That’s because records indicate that six years later, on May 4, 1871, that’s where you married my great-grandmother, Ellen Genoy, another Irish immigrant from the old sod.

The 1871 marriage certificate of Edward Kennedy and Ellen Genoy

When I scrutinized your marriage record I hit the jackpot, Edward!  Not only did it give expected details (ages, date, church, and location),  it actually served up the full names of both your two parents (Patrick Kennedy and  Mary Reilly) and your bride’s parents (Michael Genoy and Mary Kelly), all originally from the Emerald Isle.  A gift, Edward!  Another generation for me to pursue! Perhaps more of your story to tell!

Immediately, I sought to determine if  the site of your marriage, (The Church of St. Michael, 403 W. 31st St., New York City) is still standing today,  140 years after you and your beloved were married beneath its soaring rafters.

It is! It’s still there!

I even came upon a sketch of the church made in 1868, just three years prior to your marriage. It’s a beautiful church, Edward, and massive! Perhaps someday I will have the opportunity to visit it and imagine your union there with my great-grandmother, Ellen Genoy.

But alas, yours was a marriage that would last but 10 short years, though it did produce four children: my grandmother, Mary Agnes born in 1872, and her brothers John (b. 1873), Edward Jr. (b. 1875), and Philipp (b. 1877). It seems that despite surviving the War of the Rebellion, you just weren’t meant to live a long life–in fact, you had only 36 years on this earth from beginning to end.

What did you in at such a young age?  Nothing as romantic or dramatic as a mortal combat wound.  No, no, according to your death certificate it was “phthisis”, an archaic word for tuberculosis which you’d been suffering with for 3 years–all too common in an era when so many of your contemporaries succumbed to diseases and illnesses so easily cured today.

When you passed from this life on July 13, 1881, your widow Ellen, was left with no means of support, no property of her own, and four children to raise, ages 3, 5, 7 and 8.  The 8 year old was my grandmother.  How did she do it? How did your Ellen manage to raise four young children in New York City in the late 1800s? I know from your military pension records that she never remarried. Clearly, she was on her own to carry this heavy burden.

But that is another mystery to unravel and a question for another day.

In the meantime, I’ll be researching more about the 1st NY Volunteer Engineers and I’ll be starting with its website. It’s already led me to a book written by a comrade of yours entitled “Diary of a Yankee Engineer: A Civil War Diary of John H. Westervelt.” That may be as close as I  get to learning what daily life was like for you during the Civil War as an engineer in the Union Army.

So, I’ll sign off now, Edward.  I have a book to order and so much more to learn before we chat again.


Copyright © 2011 Patricia Desmond Biallas

This entry was posted in Biographies, Letters to my Ancestors and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Edward Kennedy: Civil War Pontonnier!

  1. Jacqi says:

    What a great find of the fully-completed marriage document and the diary of a fellow soldier’s war diary. Here’s hoping there will be some mention of your own great grandfather in that journal!

    • Hi Jacqi ~

      Yes, indeed. Beginner’s luck I am sure! The marriage certificate came through my local Family History Center. I’d always been a bit intimidated about doing research there but it turned out not to be as overwhelming as I’d imagined. And the payoff–well–I couldn’t have asked for more!

      As for that diary: I placed the order last night via Amazon and cannot wait to open that package! Believe me–if there’s anything in there related to Great Grandpa Edward Kennedy there WILL be a post forthcoming! Thank you so much for your comments. It’s gratifying to know there are readers out there taking an interest in what we write, don’t you agree?!

  2. Jennifer Holik-Urban, Professional Genealogist says:

    Wow I wish I could write like this! So descriptive and heartfelt. Love it! See you in a few for coffee!

  3. Diane Desmond says:

    This is fascinating information. Thanks for your steadfastness in pursuing the leads you pick up as you go along in your search of our family. Diane

  4. Thanks, Di. Who would have thought such information could have been obtained about our own mother’s grandpa? (Two years ago I wouldn’t even have been able to name our 8 great-grandparents!) Yes, it does takes some dogged determination at times to track down the facts about our ancestors and there are many dead ends and brick walls in the process. It’s so rewarding though, when that persistence and determination result in provable facts about about our kin we might never have known if we hadn’t bothered to investigate them. Here’s to the next family mystery to unravel!

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  6. Queen Bee says:

    What an interesting and well written article. The pictures added a lot to the story. I visited the church website – such a beautiful building and how special that it is still in operation today. When I read about your grandfather’s early death, I wanted to ask if you have you checked the newspapers from around the time of his death? If not, you may find an obituary or a mention of his death in the paper. Have you checked to see if your grandmother received any financial assistance from the court? One of my grandmother’s was a civil war widow with five children and she did. Don’t know if this would apply in your ancestor’s situation. but it’s worth checking into. Best of luck with your research.

  7. Thanks so much for your kinds words! If I lived on the East Coast I’d be taking a road trip just so I could walk inside that beautiful church! Actually, most of the details about Edward were derived from pension records I obtained last fall on a trip to the National Archives in Washington. It never occurred to me to try to look up his obituary in New York City newspapers of the day. Thanks for the tip. I’ll put it on my “To Do” list! I’ll have to see if there are court records as well to see if my great-grandma received any government benefits. I sure hope so!

    Pat B.

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