As rare as it is to find identified images of Irish immigrant soldiers of the American Civil in the field, it is rarer still to discover examples that include their families. The National Archives’ collection of Civil War images includes a fascinating series of images of members of the 170th New York Volunteer Infantry, of General Michael Corcoran’s Irish Legion. In several, the familiar face of Captain Thomas David Norris appears alongside his wife Ann and children Mary Ann, Ann Eliza and John, presumably visiting from New York City.

The first image- click to enlarge (National Archives)
The second image- click to enlarge (National Archives)

These two images were likely taken in front of Thomas Norris’s headquarters tent at the regiment’s winter quarters outside Washington D.C. in the winter of 1863-1864. Note the prominent “H” (for Company H) made of pine branches affixed over the tent opening at center left. The 170th New York’s national and regimental colors are also on display, as well as a mysterious third flag. Like the first, the second image also includes Norris’s wife and children (at center); this time Norris is seated with them and accompanied by fellow officers.

A detail of the first image, focusing on Ann Norris and her three children (National Archives)
A detail of the second image. At left Mary Ann Norris holds a doll on her lap; young John stands between his father’s legs, and Ann Eliza holds her mother’s hand (National Archives)

Norris, whom Damian previously wrote about in this article, was born in Killarney, County Kerry, in 1827. He emigrated in 1851, near the end of the Great Famine, sailing from Cork to New York City aboard the Swedish brig Sirius. Thomas Norris’s wife, Ann (née Hannon), was a native of County Limerick. She likewise left Ireland for New York in 1851, sailing on the ship Constellation out of the port of Liverpool. By the 1855 New York State Census, she and Thomas were married and living in New York City’s 9th Ward, where Thomas found work as a tailor. By 1860, the family had moved down to the 1st Ward, located at the tip of Manhattan and the site of the Battery, Castle Garden, the Custom House, and other prominent landmarks. They owned no real estate, and had a total personal estate value of just $200. Thomas served with the 69th New York State Militia at First Bull Run (see his letter to Ann describing the battle at Bull Runnings here). He subsequently enrolled in the 170th New York in January 1862, beginning his service as a first lieutenant of Co. H, and was promoted to captain of the same company the following year. Thomas was wounded at Petersburg on 16th June 1864, and spent months recovering in the hospital before being discharged from the service in May 1865. (1)

Captain Thomas David Norris, 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran's Irish Legion, and veteran of the 69th New York State Militia at the First Battle of Bull Run. Perhaps the most major advocate of the Irish language to serve during the American Civil War (New York State Military Museum).
CDV portrait of Captain Thomas David Norris, 170th New York Infantry, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, and 69th New York State Militia (New York State Military Museum).
The brig Sirius, on which Thomas Norris emigrated from Ireland in 1851 (Sjöhistoriska museet).

Thomas and Ann Norris had three children prior to the Civil War, all of whom are with them in these images. The oldest, Mary Ann, would have been about 10 years old at the time, Ann Eliza, 7, and John D., 5. While we don’t know any details of the Norris’s marriage, they were a rare example of 19th century Roman Catholics getting divorced. One of the few clues we have comes from an 1879 newspaper article about Thomas, which says simply, “Returning from the war, he found that his wife had deserted him…” Indeed, the 1870 US Census shows Thomas living with his then four children, but Ann is not present with them. (2)

The Norris household in the 1860 US Federal Census.

Thomas Norris went on to be a prominent advocate for the Irish language, which Damian wrote about extensively here. He died in Greenwich, Connecticut in January 1900, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. His son, John D. Norris (the little boy in these photos) was perhaps inspired by his father’s military service when he made the decision to enlist in the Utah Light Artillery Battalion at the start of the Spanish American War. (3)


(1) Shiels, Damian, “‘A Few Spoke Nothing But Gaelic’: In Search of the Irish Language in the American Civil War,” Irish in the American Civil War; New York Emigrant Savings Bank Records; New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists; 1855 New York State Census; 1860 US Federal Census. (2) 1860 US Federal Census; “An Old Soldier’s Troubles,” New York Daily Herald, 16 July, 1879 (3) Shiels, Damian, “‘A Few Spoke Nothing But Gaelic’: In Search of the Irish Language in the American Civil War;” United States, Veterans Administration Master Index.

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