I am part of a team that manages the Department of Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War archives. The archives have been neglected for the last decade or so, and we have been spending time sorting through old documents and papers. It is an honor to be entrusted with caring for such essential parts of history.
Occasionally we come across something that we are unsure of; maybe it is a photograph that does not seem to fit with the rest of the archives or a document. Recently, we came across a photo of a man, looking to be in his mid to late ’30s in an army uniform, wearing the rank of Major. On the collar of the uniform is the number 9. The photo was with a card announcing the death of another individual and listing the military unit as the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. That was all of the information we had to go on.
Armed with this information, I sent the photo to a friend who operates the archives for the Massachusetts National Guard. He initially identified the person as perhaps a relative for the former Mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh. The man in the photo did sort of look like Marty. The next day, he sent me an email revealing the person’s actual name in the picture and that his portrait hangs on one of the walls at Massachusetts National Guard Headquarters.
It turns out that the mystery man in the photo is Major Michael J. O’Connor of the 9th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Major O’Connor was born in Boston on June 3oth, 1861, to Patrick and Catherine Buckley O’Connor. He attended Boston Public Schools and the Boston Dental College. He had a practice in South Boston when he joined the 9th Massachusetts as a private. He was soon elected 1st lieutenant and made the Adjutant and then elected Major in 1892.
Major O’Connor shipped out with the Regiment for Cuba as part of the force at the start of the Spanish American War. Major O’Connor participated in the Siege of Santiago in July of 1898 and was sick in hospital shortly after that. Major O’Connor died of Pernicious Malarial Fever in Santiago, Cuba, on August 6, 1898.
His remains were returned to the United States, and his funeral was held at Holy Cross Cathedral in the South End of Boston on August 31, 1898. He is laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery in the family plot. Major O’Connor’s remains were escorted to the Cathedral and cemetery by elements of the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery and Major O’Connor’s horse led by Private Edward Murphy of Company D 9th Massachusetts.
The Chaplain delivered the Eulogy of the 9th Massachusetts and childhood friend of Major O’Connor, The Rev. James Lee. Major O’Connor’s brother was also a priest and was present for the funeral Mass at the Cathedral.
The Boston Globe of August 31, 1898, printed the eulogy given by Fr. Lee, and I have reprinted it, in part below.
“Once more I am called upon to say a last farewell to one of our nation’s noble band of heroes. Never in all my experience as a minister of the most high have I had a sadder duty to perform then to pronounce this eulogy, for Michael J. O’Connor was more to me than a companion, a fellow officer, a friend. From Childhood we have known one another, and the ties that existing between us have been the closest and most intimate.”
“When war was declared his love of country, found on and purified and strengthened by his sincere love of God, brought to the upholding of her glory and he honor the sacrifice of man holds dear in life, one that was crowned later by the sacrifice of his own life. “
“Maj O’Connor feared not death. Impregnated with the teachings of his holy faith, he knew that to lay down his life for others was to merit for himself a blessed immortality.”
“His motto was the motto of his regiment ‘Always ready.’ Before his departure for Cuba, he said to his reverend brother, ‘Don’t worry about it. If God sees fit to call me during this hour of duty there is one thing certain, I will do everything on my power to be ready for the summons, as far as it is possible for me. I will keep my soul pure and undefiled.’”
“May his memory every be held sacred, may future generations imbibe from him the spirit of true patriotism and loyalty to our beloved country. May an all wise and merciful providence watch over the dear ones he has left behind, giving them the grace and strength they need in their hour of sorrow.”
I do not think we are used to hearing such words in a eulogy. Yet, these words came not just from a comrade in arms but the deep recesses of the soul of a friend.
Part of the mission of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War is to “keep green in our memories” the lives of those who have gone before us. I join Rev. Lee in his hope that Major O’Connor’s story allows “future generations imbibe the spirit of true patriotism and loyalty to our beloved country.” I am glad I found Major O’Connor, and I can tell a little of his story in the hopes that I have kept his memory alive.