McCafferty Family Papers, 1861-ca.1900

Administrative Information

Biographical Sketch


Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing

1 document box
0.25 cubic feet
Processor: Christopher J. Lenney
Date: October 2004

Acquisition: The McCafferty Family Papers were originally donated to the Stoneham (Mass.) Historical Society on 10 April 1995 by a descendant, Mr. Joseph McCafferty, of 19 Myopia Road, Stoneham, Mass. As the collection appears to have been largely created by John H. McCafferty, a resident of Cambridge (ca. 1861-1877), the Stoneham Historical Society in turn offered it as a gift to the Cambridge Historical Society as a more appropriate repository. It was transferred to the Cambridge Historical Society in 2002.

Access: There are no restrictions to items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be made from the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.

Biographical Sketches:

What little is known of the McCafferty family in the mid-nineteenth century is largely derived from the papers themselves, and has not been fully substantiated. As stated in written testimony (Series II Folder 2), the family emigrated to America ca. 1830 from Cherrymount (“Cherrimont”), near Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland. Irish census and other records show McCaffertys living in Cherrymount in 1850 and 1901, and in the vicinity of Ballyshannon from at least 1846 until 2004. Intriguingly, Cambridge Vital Records for 1847 and 1849 refer to the deaths of two McCaffertys, one of them specifically identified by birthplace: Thomas McCafferty, age 26 years, of Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland.

The father of the family was James McCafferty [, Sr.], believed to have been living at 4 Gardner Place, South Boston, in 1866. He may have been involved in a military pension claim submitted after his son James’s death in 1862. The mother’s name is not known.

While the letters refer by name to several other family members (or possibly friends), only two are of note, the recipient of the bulk of the Civil War letters that make up the heart of the collection, John H. McCafferty, and the author of those letters, Captain James E. McCafferty, Jr.

John H. McCafferty was born in Ireland in 1827, and emigrated to America with his family at three years of age. He married fellow Irish immigrant Ann Kunahan (sp?) 1 May 1854. Letters refer to “little Mary,” probably their daughter. John was employed as a brass founder ca. 1861-1877, at least initially with H. N. Cooper Co. of Boston. During this period he lived at 4 (later 3) State Street in Cambridge. Documents in the collection indicate business ties ca. 1878-1881 with Shreve, Crump, and Low, of Boston, for whom he acted as salaried manager of a gas fixture factory and brass foundry. More particularly, he is said to have been engaged in the design and installation of gas-fired chandeliers.

During 1861-1862, John received and preserved nearly three dozen letters sent to him by his younger brother, James, who was serving in the Union army. James and John were fairly close: John was James’s only reliable correspondent (although his side of the correspondence does not survive). John was entrusted to deposit James’s savings from his pay. (A portion also was sent to their father.)

James E. McCafferty, Jr. (3 February 1836? – 27 June 1862), was a gas engineer by trade, and resident of Boston. He was mustered at age 25 into the 9th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on 11 June 1861 for a term of three years. He held the rank of Captain, an honor for which he came well-prepared. As a boy, he had carried the guidon in the Pulaski Guards of South Boston, serving as “marker” or pivot man in drill maneuvers. In the armory, he schooled himself in the manual of arms before a mirror, and in the words of the regimental historian, “he grew to manhood with a musket in his hand.” This same source describes him as “an expert drill-master without an equal,” and details how he outperformed a challenger on the regimental parade-ground. This independent testimony to McCafferty’s discipline and perfectionism gives credibility to the favorable self-portrait painted by the letters. For example, McCafferty by his own account twice received ‘badges of honor’ for bravery, and earned the nickname the “Invisible Captain” for his success in collecting information behind enemy lines.

James was married while stationed at Arlington Heights, Va., to Julia Hill, an Ohio-born woman “of Scotch descent but Irish to the backbone,” in a Catholic service in Washington. James was ambitious of promotion to the rank of Major, and felt betrayed when his commanding officer passed him over (again, to credit his own account) in favor of a family connection.

A capsule history of the 9th Massachusetts Volunteers, as compiled by the National Park Service, provides useful background for the twelve months covered by James E. McCafferty’s correspondence. “Organized at Boston June 11, 1861. Left State for Washington, D. C., June 27…Duty at Arlington Heights and Munson’s Hill. Defenses of Washington, D. C., till March 10, 1862. Moved to the Peninsula, Virginia, March 16. Skirmish at Howard’s Bridge April 4. Warwick Road April 5. Siege of Yorktown April 5-May 4. Battle of Hanover C. H. May 27. Operations about Hanover C. H. May 27-29. Seven days before Richmond June 25-July 1. Battle of Mechanicsville June 26. Gaines’ Mill June 27.”

The circumstances of McCafferty’s death were outlined by the regimental historian. About noon on 27 June 1862, Company I under McCafferty was ordered to hold the bridge at Gaines’ Mill and stall the South Carolinian advance, which they did until overwhelmed by superior numbers and ordered to fall back. In the course of this skirmish, McCafferty and his two lieutenants were killed, and, overall, Company I suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any company in the field that day. McCafferty’s body lay in enemy-held ground and could not be recovered. Word of his death did not reach his family for a month because the regimental chaplain, Thomas Scully (later rector of St. Mary’s of the Annunciation Church, Cambridgeport), was taken prisoner in this same engagement, and only returned to duty on 20 July 1862.


Adams, George, The Cambridge Almanac and Business Directory. Boston: James French, 1847-

Cambridge, Mass., Vital Records of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the year 1850. Boston, Mass.: Wright & Potter, 1914-15.

Macnamara, Daniel George. The History of the Ninth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, June, 1861-June, 1864. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000 (originally published 1899).

National Park Service Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System

Scope and Content Note:

The bulk of the McCafferty Family Papers consists of 40 letters sent and/or received by family members during, or shortly after, the Civil War. All but four were written by Captain James E. McCafferty, Jr., mostly to his elder brother, John H. McCafferty, with a few to his father, or to another correspondent, known only as “Dick.” The James McCafferty letters run from 1 July 1861 to 20 June 1862 (two undated letters were placed after that of 29 November 1861 to agree with the order of the transcription). These letters contain details of military duties and camp life as experienced by a largely Irish Catholic Massachusetts regiment, and also express the political attitudes, ambitions, and motivations of an Irish American officer eager “to make the name of McCafferty glorious in the annals of history” (letter of 11 July 1861).

A Pension Office backstamp and endorsement (letter of 18 October 1861) as well as red underlining and annotations (letter of 28 July 1861) indicate the correspondence figured as evidence in a pension claim.

Four letters not by James McCafferty to be found in Series I include the brief note (20 July 1862) by the regimental chaplain, the Reverend Thomas Scully, apprising the family of James’s death. Another, untranscribed, letter (7 February 1862) was written, while drunk, by one of James McCafferty’s fellows officers, Lieutenant John H. Rafferty of Cambridge. It provides an interesting counterpoint to the Temperance views of McCafferty, as well as making jocular references to the “Cambridge(port) Literary Institute,” probably an informal literary circle. The series concludes with two untranscribed letters (1866) from a McCafferty cousin living in Mobile, Ala., which offer comments on post-war economic conditions, the trial of Jefferson Davis, and the Fenian raid on Canada.

Series II, Miscellaneous Papers, contains an offer of sale for a house (1862), a few family business records, John H. McCafferty’s brief biographical statement, and ephemera.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

  • McCafferty family.
  • McCafferty, James E., Jr., 1836?-1862—Correspondence.
  • McCafferty, John H., 1827-.
  • United States—Army—Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, 9th (1861-1864)
  • Irish Americans —Massachusetts—Boston—Correspondence.
  • United States —History —Civil War, 1861-1865 —Personal narratives.
  • United States —History —Civil War, 1861-1865 —Participation, Irish American.
  • Boston (Mass.) —History —Civil War, 1861-1865.

McCafferty Family Papers Papers 1861- ca. 1900
[table colwidth=”5%|5%|90%”]
Box|Folder|Series I. Letters (1861-1866)

1|1|Transcriptions and Biographical Materials (a few letters are untranscribed)

1 |2|1 July – 3 September 1861

1|3|7 September – 24 October 1861

1|4|30 October -11 December 1861

1|5|23 December 1861 – 7 February 1862

1|6|17 February – 20 July 1862

1|7|Post-Civil War Letters (1866)

1|8|Unmatched Envelopes

||Series II. Miscellaneous Papers (1862- ca. 1900)

1|9|Business records

1|10|John H. McCafferty’s biographical statement (n.d.) and ephemera