Making Ends Meet: A Citizen Becomes a Soldier Early-war recruitment poster. https://civilwartalk.com
John Mahoney, alias William Jones, was born in Boston in December 1837. His parents had recently moved to the United States from Ireland, and John’s father died when John was five years old. John and his mother, Margaret, survived on their own for about a year until Margaret remarried. The family was not particularly wealthy, as John had not been able to start a career yet, and his stepfather, Charles Nott, was a tailor. John’s four half-siblings were too young to get good paying jobs, and the family was struggling to make ends meet.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, John Mahoney decided to enlist for reasons that he never specified. Perhaps the steady income from the military would be beneficial to the family. Perhaps John had grown attached to the country that he had grown up in and wanted to fight for the United States. Maybe it was some sense of duty or honor, or of 19th century manhood that compelled him to go fight; after all, society at the time dictated that men who were of age should go prove themselves in battle, and anyone who avoided going to war was labelled a coward. Whatever the reason, John Mahoney did not enlist in Boston. He did not enlist in Massachusetts. He did not even enlist under the name John Mahoney. On August 13th, 1861, William Jones enlisted in Providence, Rhode Island. Much like his decision to enlist, his reasons for using an alias were never outright stated by Mahoney himself. Most likely, however, he adopted the alias in response to the rampant xenophobia he would have experienced throughout his life in Boston. Despite being born in the United States, his parents were Irish. He most likely would have had an Irish accent, and the name “Mahoney” would draw further attention to his heritage. While he could not hide his accent, perhaps he figured that changing his name and joining a unit outside of Boston would spare him from some of the difficulties faced by other Irishmen in the Union army during the Civil War.
William Jones was assigned to Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, where he was assigned to a gun and learned his specific role. On average, six or seven men were assigned to each gun, and each had a specific task to do in order to properly load and fire the piece. Jones was the #1 man, meaning that his task was to ram the ammunition to the back of the barrel when the gun was ready to fire, and after the cannon had been fired he was to swab the barrel to extinguish remaining embers. After drilling, the unit was sent to Virginia. They would receive their first taste of combat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, and shortly afterward Jones was promoted to corporal. After some brief operations in northern Virginia, the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery accompanied the rest of the Union Army of the Potomac on what became known as the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Following the failure of the Union army to capture Richmond, the unit returned to northern Virginia. In September of 1862, for reasons not made clear, Jones was reduced in rank back to private. A week after his demotion, Jones and the rest of Battery B were sent to Antietam, but considered themselves fortunate to be held in reserve. At Fredericksburg, about three months later, Battery B supported the ill-fated Union assaults on Marye’s Heights and the Stone Wall. As the battery moved out of the town and into battle, many men knew it was a suicide mission. As Sergeant John Rhodes noted in the unit history, “[We] passed Battery A in position on our left, at the outskirts of the city, who saluted us with ‘There goes Battery B to hell!’” Despite the hopeless situation and perilous positon, Battery B advanced well ahead of most other Union batteries, and performed so well that even Confederate officers took note. Several months later, during the Chancellorsville campaign, Battery B was once again assigned to shell the Confederate position at Marye’s Heights. By the summer of 1863, William Jones and the men of Battery B were veterans of some of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war to that point, and had developed a reputation as a capable battery. However, no amount of prior battle experience could prepare them for July 2nd and 3rd, 1863.
Savagery and Valor at Gettysburg Pickett's Charge, "Battle of Gettysburg" by Peter Frederick Rothermel, 1870. Brigham Young University Library.
Battery B was attached to Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, and on July 1st received word that Buford’s cavalry had fought a delaying action around the town of Gettysburg; a full engagement was expected to follow. Hancock’s Corps did not arrive until late on July 1st, and did not engage until the 2nd. The Second Corps held the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Battery B was roused at 2:00 am on July 2nd, with orders to take positions, but could not do so until the infantry got into formation. When they were finally able to take position, they did so near the Codori farm, along the Emmitsburg Road. After Daniel Sickles decided to shift his Third Corps out of line and onto different, “better” ground at the Peach Orchard, Battery B began to engage the enemy. Being on the far left side of Hancock’s line, and thus closest to Sickles, Battery B provided necessary support to Sickles’s troops as they came under attack.
However, they could not help Sickles’s Corps for very long; once Confederate officers realized the vulnerability of Sickles’s position, they ordered assaults to focus at the gap between Sickles’s and Hancock’s lines, where they could separate the two Union corps. That gap began at the Codori farm, and heavy fighting erupted between Pennsylvania troops and Confederate troops just in front of Battery B. Sgt. Rhodes recounted the desperate measures the unit resorted to: “By their exposed position the battery received the concentrated fire of the enemy, which was advancing so rapidly that our fuses were cut at three, two, and one second, and then canister at point-blank range, and, finally, double charges were used.” At the end of the fighting on July 2nd, Battery B had suffered twenty-two casualties, including three men killed, and advancing Confederate troops forced Battery B to leave two of their six guns on the field. This had already been the bloodiest battle in the history of the unit, but they had succeeded in repulsing the Confederate advance. William Jones emerged from the fighting unscathed, but had seen death and suffering on a scale he had never before known. Surely, the fighting that the unit had done that day was a traumatic experience for the men. During the night of July 2nd, the battery was moved to the center of Hancock’s line on Cemetery Ridge at a place which would later be known famously as The Angle. For all the horrors Jones and Battery B experienced on July 2nd, July 3rd would be even worse.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, the Confederates opened fire on the center of the Union line with a massive artillery barrage. After ten to fifteen minutes, Union batteries were ordered to fire back. Battery B, bloodied from the day before and only able to use four cannons, dutifully joined in the fight. The artillery bombardment began the climactic fighting of the Battle of Gettysburg. While many men of Battery B and their comrades doubtlessly fought that day for lofty ideals such as the Union and emancipation, in the heat of battle, their thoughts likely turned to their own survival and that of their friends in their units. With this duty to both nation and comrades in mind, William Jones assumed his position at the front of his artillery piece. Jones had just finished swabbing the barrel and was waiting for the #2 man, Alfred Gardner, to place the charge into the cannon, when a Confederate shell hit the barrel of their gun and exploded, immediately decapitating William Jones and killing Gardner as well. As Sgt. Rhodes wrote, “[Jones] was killed instantly by a fragment of the shell, which cut the top of the left side of his head completely off. He fell with his head towards the enemy, while the sponge staff was thrown two or three yards beyond him.” William Jones was a few months away from his 26th birthday, having never married and having no direct family besides his mother. Yet, Jones was still able to have what some have called the “good death”; he died facing the enemy and doing his duty at his cannon. His death was swift and likely painless, and he died on the battlefield. While this was the kind of death that soldiers desired, many did not get a death this “glorious”. In a sense, despite the gruesome nature of his demise, William Jones was fortunate. Still, the true savagery of the Battle of Gettysburg is often masked by the grandeur of the landscape and romantic notions of “the glorious charge”, and Jones’s death refocuses our gaze on the harsh realities of war.
Despite the loss of Jones and Gardner, Battery B stayed in the fight. They repaired the damage done to their cannon, yet the barrel was still hot from the impact of the live shell. When they attempted to reload the cannon, the barrel cooled off and fused to the shell, effectively plugging the gun. One man grabbed an axe, and in a desperate attempt to lodge the shell free, proceeded to beat the shell with the axe to little effect. These men, despite their own fatigue and the loss of their friends and comrades, refused to leave the gun. Even when the cannon was disabled and the enemy continued to fire upon them, Battery B did not yield. These men were bound by duty to stay on the field and fight, and their sense of honor would suffer if they did not follow orders, or had to abandon their charge. After two hours of combat, Battery B was running low on manpower, and the remaining gunners were exhausted. As the battery finally received orders to retire to the rear, some of the men looked back over the field that had been directly in their front, and noticed a massive line of Confederate infantry. Fortunately for the men of Battery B, they were not engaged in the repulse of Pickett’s Charge. Including the deaths of Jones and Gardner, the unit suffered eighteen casualties in a little over two hours’ worth of fighting. Between the fighting at the Codori Farm and The Angle, this single artillery battery lost forty men, two cannons, and a large number of horses in the span of a little more than a day.
Immortalized in Brass "The Gettysburg Gun" of Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. Wikimedia Commons.
William Jones never achieved any sort of fame for his actions during the war, but perhaps it is fitting that his death, and the greatest contributions of Battery B to the Civil War, have been immortalized. The gun that Jones was killed at, referred to today as the “Gettysburg Gun”, resides at the Rhode Island State House in Providence. Inscribed on the barrel is a dedication to the men who lost their lives at that gun at Gettysburg: Alfred Gardner and William Jones. The gun returned to The Angle in 1988 for the 125th anniversary of the battle. The shell that was fused to the barrel remains there to this day, and one can even make out scratch marks where the men hit it with an axe. The fact that the cannon was displayed so prominently in Rhode Island is a testament to the powerful legacy of Battery B. Its return to Gettysburg shows that people even today are fascinated by the simultaneous savagery and valor represented by the “Gettysburg Gun” and want to know more about its service and the men who operated it.
William Jones was hastily buried by the men of Battery B, but was eventually reinterred in what became the National Cemetery. His death marked only the beginning of hardships for his family. After the war, Jones’s stepfather passed away, and not long after, his half-siblings all left to provide for themselves. Jones’s mother, Margaret, was destitute. When the United States government granted pensions to Civil War veterans and their surviving families, it seemed like a God-send for Margaret Nott. As she wrote in her pension application, she had “no property whatever and was wholly dependent on her daily labor for support”. There was just one problem: she was the mother of John Mahoney, and had to convince the United States government that John Mahoney of Boston and William Jones of Providence were the same person. She was able to get the testimonials of a few soldiers who knew him before the war and saw him in camp, which was enough to be awarded his back pay. John Mahoney had supported his mother one last time.
Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and
Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, compiled 1861 –
1934, National Archives, Washington D. C.
Compiled Service Records of Union Soldiers Who Served in Battery B of the 1st Rhode Island
Light Artillery Unit, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Sgt. John H. Rhodes, The History of Battery B, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery, In the War to Preserve the Union, 1861-1865. Providence, RI: Snow and Farnham, 1894.
Steven Howell, Corp. William Jones, Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Jones&GSfn=William&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSst=40&GScnty=2241&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=5903857&df=all&
Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler, The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2013. https://history.army.mil/html/books/075/75-10/CMH_Pub_75-10.pdf
Carol Kozma, “On the Gettysburg anniversary, a cannon in R.I. has a story to tell”, Providence Journal, July 2, 2017. http://www.providencejournal.com/news/20170702/on-gettysburg-anniversary-cannon-in-ri-has-story-to-tell
Narrative and map by Jeffrey Martin, Gettysburg College.