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Rhoads Memorial Archives: Bernie McNeil

Bernie McNiell

Assistant Surgeon Bernie McNeil

of the Pennsylvania 69th 

by 

Rebecca Fitzgerald, CA

2001

Photograph courtesy of Peter Romeika, C1973, Cathedral Cemetery of Our Mother of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, Philadelphia, November 11, 2000.
 

On Veterans Day, November 11, 2000, the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment honored its deceased members who fought during the Civil War with a rededication ceremony. Funded by the Veterans Administration marker program, new stones were laid during the year on the graves of fourteen honored dead in the Cathedral Cemetery of Our Mother of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, located at 49th and Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. Among those so honored was one of the Mount’s own, Dr. Bernard A. McNeil, Assistant Surgeon.

Bernie McNeil was born around 1828 or 1830 to Dr. Bernard and Mary McCaffrey McNeil, the sister of Reverend John McCaffrey, who was president of Mount Saint Mary’s from 1838 to 1872. Bernie attended the Mount’s prep school and college from 1841 to 1847 under the auspices of his uncle, as did his surviving brothers Frank and John, although all apparently left without obtaining a degree. According to existing class records, he had his ups and downs, doing "very well" in 6th Greek while his disapproving Latin instructor noted that he "translates very poorly, knows grammar poorly" in 1843. The next year the situation regarding languages was reversed, but he took a premium in vocal music.

The McNeils were not wealthy; Dr. McNeil’s health was poor and his practice was not prosperous. In an April 9, 1844, letter, Mary McNeil wrote to her brother that

the Respectable Catholics never encouraged him they all speak well of him and if they want anything or any great object of charity they very kindly call on him but if it is anything to be made they all prefer a Presbyterian or Quaker.

She attributed his lack of success as well to young doctors from wealthy families who could afford to charge minimal or no fees to attract patients. Anti-Catholic sentiment was also running high in the country with the Know-Nothing party in ascendancy, as the family’s correspondence reveals. Mrs. McNeil also complained (fondly, one hopes) that Bernard "is a lazy little fellow" who had not written home in four months. Not much has changed during the last 160 years in that regard.

Bernie presumably left the Mount to make way for his younger brother. In 1853 Bernie wrote to his uncle for advice on his career. He considered seeking public employment, but was tempted by an offer from his father to make him a full partner in the store he owned. This may have been the apothecary shop which Mrs. McNeil hoped her husband would acquire. By 1855, however, Bernie was studying for his medical exam, which he passed with honor in 1856. In February 1858, his aunt Susan McCaffrey reported to her brother that Bernie took over the store from his father, who died later that year.

During these difficult years, neither Frank, who was an alcoholic, nor John were able to secure steady employment, and Bernie became the sole support of his mother. The household on Broad Street in Philadelphia consisted of Mrs. McNeil, Susan McCaffrey, Bernie’s sister Regina and brother-in-law Joe Devitt, their growing family, and brothers Frank and John from time to time. In addition, Joe Devitt, whom Bernie addressed as "brother," was occasionally out of work. Although Mrs. McNeil and Susan McCaffrey doted on Regina’s children and never made any complaint against each other, the stresses of ill health, unemployment, and lack of money occasionally made life uncomfortable in what must have been crowded conditions.

Bernie probably continued to practice medicine. In 1859 he was summoned to his niece’s sick bed when what appeared to be a slight illness developed into convulsions and paralysis. He called in other physicians, who confirmed his course of treatment, but there was nothing any of them could do for her. The pretty little girl, named after her grandmother Mary, was much doted on by all the females of the household, and her mother and grandmother were inconsolable in their grief. Mrs. McNeil herself had lost two young children, a son and daughter.
  Bernie McNeil, letter to Rev. John McCaffrey, May 31, 1859, from the Manuscripts Collection, Mount Saint Mary's Archives & Department of Special Collections, Mount Saint Mary's College & Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD.

 

In their letters, the family demonstrated a keen interest in politics, especially in the activities of the Know-Nothings, who were influential in Emmitsburg and who caused anti-Catholic riots and attacks in Philadelphia. Later, Bernie was fervently pro-Union, which led him to exchange intemperate words with his uncle John. After the Civil War began, Bernie joined the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers in August 1861 for three years’ service as assistant surgeon.

The regiment was recruited in Philadelphia primarily from the Irish-Catholic community. "The Irish brigade" encountered much prejudice even from its home town. As the newly-recruited troops marched off to war through Philadelphia, they were pelted with bricks and stones.1  However, their courage, tenacity, and discipline in the face of the enemy overcame this rampant prejudice and later won them the respect of their fellows in arms.2

Bernie soon made friends among the officers, and was reported to be popular with all the men. Many of the officers at that time had been promoted from the ranks and would have commanded through demonstrated ability and earned respect. Among those frequently mentioned by Bernie in his letters, Col. Dennis O’Kane worked in the restaurant and tavern business; Lt. Col. Patrick Tinen had been a machinist, paperhanger, and bartender; Capt. George H. Thompson came from the coal business; and Maj. James Duffy owned a hotel. Lt. Col. Martin Tschudy, a prominent lawyer, was one of the few professionals.3
From A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers from Its Formation Until Final Muster out of the United States Service by Anthony W. McDermott, published in Philadelphia by D.J. Gallagher & Co. in 1889, p. 6.  

 

On August 19, 1861, Bernie wrote from Camp Advance in Virginia. Along with most of his contemporaries, he believed that the war would be over soon and was healthy and in good spirits, although eager to obtain promotion to the rank of surgeon and be granted leave. In the fall and winter of 1861/1862, the regiment built fortifications, drilled, and skirmished. The discipline instilled in them at that time, and the expectations of their officers that they would be steady and fearless in battle, stood them in good stead throughout the rest of the war. Their winter camp was located in Poolesville, and in February they boarded the train in Adamstown in Frederick County, disembarking at Point of Rocks to cross the Potomac on pontoons. After passing through Harper’s Ferry, they bivouacked in Berryville, and were posted to the Peninsula at the end of March as part of the Army of the Potomac. Bernie was able to get leave in March, and did not return to the regiment until the end of April, so he most likely missed most or all of the siege of Yorktown. After the Confederate troops withdrew up the Peninsula, the regiment was moved up the York River to West Point.

By this time Bernie had more than a taste of war, and discovered that it was not as glorious and inspiring as he had believed, nor would it be over as quickly as he thought. A visitor to his unit reported to his mother that he was fat and dark, and his life was hard with only one meal a day. In his letters to his family, he continued to make light of the deprivations and suffering he had seen and the conditions under which he was living, but a note of hopelessness and desperation often creeps in under his attempts at gallantry. Susan McCaffrey described his return to the regiment after his leave in the spring of 1862, when he clung desperately to his mother. He could not seem to leave of his own accord, and had to be forced away. Although he had become a tough, weathered veteran, this veneer hid the horror of the sufferings and deprivations he had witnessed and endured himself.

His brother-in-law Joe Devitt started a business, contracting to collect the soldiers’ pay and deliver it to them in the field and distribute it to their families, for a fee. After one harrowing visit to Bernie’s camp, he fled home and took to his bed in nervous terror. The priest assigned as chaplain to the regiment, Father Michael M. Martin, a kind and gentle man, also could not bear the horrors of war and received a medical discharge in 1862.

The 69th fought its first pitched battle at Fair Oaks on May 31, then on June 25th at Seven Oaks, and on June 30th it conducted itself commendably in the Battle of Glendale, earning accolades from General Hooker. Bernie volunteered to stay with the wounded when the army withdrew, and was captured and held for three weeks in Richmond. There are no accounts of his imprisonment, although he mentioned that he saw Henry Scott, another Mount alumnus, who was a Confederate surgeon, while he was in Richmond. Bernie was paroled on July 25, 1862, but his incarceration, although relatively brief, would also cost him a chance for promotion, because he missed the surgeon’s exam. It would also later cost him his life.

After giving support to the Ninth Corps at the Battle of South Mountain in Frederick County, the 69th fought at Antietam along the sunken road near the "Dunkard’s Church." Afterward Bernie wrote to his uncle John:

I have just received your kind letter—and feel very grateful for your good wishes and prayers—It would be useless to attempt a description of the scenes thru’ which we have passed—I am thankful for having escaped the dangers of the field. Nothing but the prayers of my family and kind friends could have preserved me—I thought the battles before Richmond were terrible but that of the "Antietam" is beyond description. Our Regiment lost about 100—The Col. And Lt. Col. escaped, but Major Devereux was severely hurt. We lost several fine officers—The work after the battle was the most distressing to the feelings. During the excitement of action one has not time to think of the suffering of the wounded—but at night when everything is quiet—the groaning of the wounded, their piteous appeals for water, help and some even begging for death to end their misery—then our duties are most harassing to mind and body.

I was busy night and day until Sunday…I agree with you in feeling so much repugnance to visiting the battle field. Nothing but morbid curiosity can induce any one, but those whose duty calls them, to look upon so horrible a sight as disfigured, bloated and in a few hours blackened bodies.

Letter, Bernie McNeil to Rev. John McCaffrey, September 26, 1862, from the Manuscripts Collection, Mount Saint Mary's Archives & Department of Special Collections, Mount Saint Mary's College & Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD.

Bernie stated that he had been blessed with good health until this battle; immediately afterwards he wrote that began to suffer from the chronic diarrhea which would kill him. Later, when submitting a request for a pension, he would trace his disease to his confinement in Libby Prison in Richmond, where the prisoners were given only foul water and food and endured severe hardship. This onslaught of the disease may have been a recurrence of an earlier bout in Richmond.

In December, the regiment participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the next May they fought again at Chancellorsville. Bernie grew deeply discouraged. In November 1862, when he was finally able to present himself to the Medical Board of the State of Pennsylvania, he was informed that it had been disbanded and that the Pennsylvania Surgeon General’s Office had no record of his service with the Pennsylvania 69th. Embittered by the series of miscues and bad luck that prevented his promotion to surgeon, and dismayed by the cost of a long, drawn-out war, Bernie tried to resign in December, but his resignation was refused with orders that the impediments to his promotion be removed. By January, he was writing to his brother-in-law Joe Devitt that he was ready to give up and let the South secede.

He was not alone. Fellow 69th Adjutant Anthony W. McDermott later wrote:

The citizen at home could not, we believe, realize the demoralized condition of the army at this time; it was little better than an armed disagreeable mob; all confidence in the leaders was destroyed, and murmurings were loud and frequent against everyone in authority, and our highest commanders were treated with contempt. Our grand old corps commander, Gen. Sumner, resigned his position, returned to his home and died almost immediately after, broken-hearted over the demoralized condition of the army.4

Bernie was granted leave in March to take the exam for surgeon in Philadelphia, which he passed. He was no doubt anxious to secure a larger salary to support his family, and was resentful when surgeons with fewer skills and less experience were put in charge over him. He was never to achieve this ambition.

In July the 69th fought gallantly at Gettysburg, and, in hand-to-hand combat, held their line on Cemetery Ridge and beat back Pickett’s charge.5  However, the cost was shattering to the regiment and to Bernie in particular; he lost his greatest friends Lt. Col. Tschudy and Col. O’Kane. Of the 258 men and officers who marched to Gettysburg, 143 were killed, wounded, or captured.6

After Gettysburg, the 69th fought in northern Virginia throughout the fall and winter of 1863/1864. In May it was sent to the Wilderness, where it fought, and marched, and built trenches at places like Petersburg, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor. Anthony W. McDermott described the soldiers preparing for a suicidal attack which was ordered but never carried out:

The men were intelligent enough to take in the situation; they knew that when the next roll would be called there would be few to answer. Each one, however, with a grim cheerfulness, determined to make this charge a success or surrender his life. Few there were in the brigade line that morning who felt they had even a chance of returning in safety from the attack. Watches and trinkets, to be sent to the loved ones at home, were given to chaplains, surgeons and the other non-combatants always attached to regiments. Most of the officers and men wrote their names on paper and pinned them to their coat collars or vests, that they could be identified in the event of their death. It is also wonderful the dread that men have in going into battle with a pack of playing cards about them. On this occasion enough such cards were thrown away that one would think would fill a small wagon.7

What was a soldier’s life like as the war continued unabated? Bernie’s early bivouacs were well organized and maintained, and he wrote home cheerfully that he needed nothing, although he would have liked a little "Red Eye." By 1863, the situation had altered drastically, as he wrote to his mother on November 14:

lately our Government has become so exceedingly stringent that officers pay—considering how expensive everything is—is hardly sufficient. We have to pay cash for everything we buy at the Commissaries, sugar, coffee, pork, hard bread, fresh bread, hams, fresh beef, potatoes, etc etc. then again every officer is obliged to have a servant—if an enlisted man it knocks $52 every 2 months out of the salary besides we have other expenses, such as tobacco, whiskey—the latter we don’t get much of—but like everything else its (sic) high. I will be compelled to buy a new overcoat out of the 100 I kept, as mine was entirely cut to pieces at Gettysburg. I shall buy a Cavalry blue, the same as I had, all our officers wear them. If there was any chance of promotion it would give me much pleasure to hear of it. Sometimes I become despondent and think it will never take place. If not, I shall stick it out until next August—when my 3 years will be up. If you send me any goods—don’t go to any expense, 2 red shirts & 2 pair of drawers—3 or 4 pair of stockings, 2 outside shirts dark & heavy, 1 black cravat or neck-chief—1 pair of warm gloves. Some needles & thread…a little darning cotton. A cake or two of soap. 1 toothbrush. I believe that’s about all I require for the Winter Campaign.

On June 28, 1864, Bernie wrote his mother from near Petersburg, exhausted and worrying about funds:

I got a letter from Joe [Devitt] yesterday with pay roll for June. How much have you got from him for June. According to the account there is only $35 due me for this month—tho’ there is a stoppage of $25 which is not correct—I will write to the pay master about it.—The weather has been intensely hot, almost suffocating—today it is pleasanter—How are you getting along?—Is Frank doing anything to help—or John? My time will be out on the 19th of August—I have not determined whether to remain or not, but think not. Our Brigade has been broken up—we have lost so many that the whole Brigade aint as large as a Regiment…Joe in his letter says,--he thinks it would be more satisfactory if I would draw my pay from the Paymaster—I judge from what he says that he thinks you think he does not give you sufficient--our officers & men have not been paid for 4 months, & every one is out of money & we will not be paid until the Campaign is over…Write me immediately how you are fixed in regard to money matters, rent etc. etc. I wish the boys could earn something to assist you…

We are all pretty well used up.—I have not slept with my pants off for 2 months—I carry on my horse, an extra shirt, pair of drawers & stockings, towel, toothbrush, 1 blanket & overcoat, this comprises my wardrobe—I generally manage to change & wash once a week—tho’ once we had’nt (sic) a a (sic) chance to do so for 19 days.—I have only caught so far 2 soldier bugs on me—

Write as often as possible…

Goodbye and pray for your affect son, Bernie.

Bernie was discharged honorably at the end of his three years’ service and went home to his family in Philadelphia. Ill on and off since July 1862, he was beset by a recurrence of diarrhea and the aches and fever which accompanied it. He put in a claim for a pension because of his chronic illness, and gave his brother-in-law power of attorney to press his case and receive the funds. The Army surgeon who examined Bernie on January 3, 1865, reported that he was "very much emaciated and completely prostrated by the disease—He may not recover and if he does his convalescence will be slow."

On December 13 Bernie’s aunt Sue wrote to John McCaffrey describing Bernie’s condition:

Poor Bernie has been very sick. The last ten days he has not been able to leave his bed. Indeed since he has come home he seems perfectly broken down. He is now so reduced that you would not know him. He is a perfect skeleton. Yesterday & today he seems better and I am in hopes that by closely following the Drs regulations he will get well.

Bernie’s pension, for $17 a month, was awarded on January 25, 1865. On that same day, Reverend McCaffrey received a telegram from Bernie’s brother John in Philadelphia: "Bryne (sic) is sinking fast Come on if possible." Bernie died two days later, and was buried in the Cathedral Cemetery of Our Mother of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church.
  Telegram to Rev. John McCaffrey, January 25, 1865, from the Manuscripts Collection, Mount Saint Mary's Archives & Department of Special Collections, Mount Saint Mary's College & Seminary, Emmitsburg, MD.

 

His commanding officer, Lt. Col. William Davis, wrote the Pension Board that Bernie was a "brave soldier a gallant gentleman and an accomplished physician." Bernie was probably 34 years old.

Is this Bernie McNeil?  This photograph from Mount Saint Mary's Archives tentatively identifies this Lance Surgeon as Bernie.  However, Bernie was always designated "Assistant Surgeon."  It is known that he, along with the rest of his family, had a photograph taken during the war, but no firm identification of this photograph has been made.

During the November rededication ceremony, the regiment gathered at each grave, and the soldier’s discharge was read by a descendant or other representative. Father Michael Heim blessed each marker and grave with Holy Water and prayer, and the regiment presented the colors, fired volleys, and gave a salute. A lone bagpipe provided suitable tribute to the brave who sacrificed so much for their country. Peter Romeika, C’73, represented the Mount and read Bernie’s discharge.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Romeika, C1973, Cathedral Cemetery of Our Mother of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, Philadelphia, November 11, 2000.

 

Footnotes

1 D. Scott Hartwig, "It Struck Horror to Us All," Gettysburg Magazine 4 (January 1991), p. 89.

2 Ibid., pp. 89-90.

3 Ibid., p. 89.

4 Anthony W. McDermott, A Brief History of the 69th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, 1889, p. 25.

5 For a more complete account of the 69th's participation at Gettysburg, see Hartwig, "It Struck Horror to Us All," pp. 89-100; and McDermott, A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers, pp. 27-34.

6 Samuel P. Bates, History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, p. 703.

7 McDermott, pp. 36-37.

Bibliography

Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-1865. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot, 1993, pp. 697-740.

Hartwig, D. Scott. "It Struck Horror to Us All." Gettysburg Magazine 4 (January 1991), pp. 89-100.

McDermott, Anthony W. A Brief History of the 69th Regiment Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers from Its Formation Until Final Muster out of the United States Service. Philadelphia: D.J. Gallagher & Company, 1889.

Photograph courtesy of Peter Romeika, C1973, Cathedral Cemetery of Our Mother of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, Philadelphia, November 11, 2000.

 

Special thanks to Peter Romeika C1973, who represented the Mount at the rededication ceremony; to Frank Miele C1987, who generously donated the cost of the cemetery fee for the marker of an fellow alumnus in order to honor him, their Alma Mater, and all those who fought in the Civil War; and to the 69th Pennsylvania reenactors, who keep alive the memory of those who sacrificed so much to preserve their country, free and strong.

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