A lengthy and active military career

I recently finished processing the Robert M. O’Reilly papers (MC 34) which document a good portion of O’Reilly’s career as a surgeon for the U.S. Army.

Portrait photograph of Robert M. O'Reilly, circa 1870

circa 1870

O’Reilly’s appointment as surgeon general of the army, a position he held from 1902 until  his retirement in 1909, was the last in a long line of assignments that came during his almost 50 years of service. O’Reilly certainly did not experience many dull moments during his career as it coincided with several national and international wars and conflicts.

O’Reilly’s career began in 1862 when he interrupted his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania to enlist as a medical cadet during the Civil War. A good deal of correspondence in the collection is O’Reilly’s letters to his mother that he wrote while stationed in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Order for O’Reilly to report to the General Field Hospital near Chattanooga Creek, Chattanooga, Tennessee, March 12, 1864

In 1867, O’Reilly was sent to several army posts in the southwest and was then stationed in Wyoming Territory ending up at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. While there, he was involved in clashes between the U.S. military and the Sioux Nation in 1874  and 1880.

For a time, O’Reilly was stationed at Red Cloud Agency, one of the first reservations established by the U.S. government, located in the northwestern corner of present-day Nebraska. This agency served as one of the centers of activity during the Sioux Wars of 1876-77.

The government assigned troops to Red Cloud Agency in March 1874 after the killing of an agency clerk. The military encampment was named Camp Robinson (Fort Robinson). One of the letters from O’Reilly to his mother discusses the troop’s arrival to the camp.

In the letter, O’Reilly writes

The Indians looked pretty blue when we arrived and well they might. A command of over 600 cavalry men with 40 wagons takes up a tremendous length of road when on the march…

March 5, 1874 letter to his mother, page 1

March 5, 1874 letter to his mother, pages 2-3

During the Spanish- American War, O’Reilly served as chief surgeon of the First Independent Division, the 4th Army Corps, and later chief surgeon on the staff of Major General James F. Wade in Havana.

One of the reasons Spanish troops stationed in Cuba were at a disadvantage during the war was that they were suffering severely from yellow fever. In a letter O’Reilly wrote to his sister Mary while he was stationed in Florida, he notes the concern over the yellow fever outbreak and discusses the movement of troops in the area, as well as how he had been treating members of women’s religious orders.

O’Reilly writes:

There hasn’t been any fever- yellow fever I mean- in Tampa. There is or was a good deal of typhoid as this is pretty ?? to be in camps of green troops.

My associations since the General and staff went to Huntsville has been largely sick holy people. On Saturday I sent seven Sisters of Charity from New Orleans off on a ship to Santiago…They are yellow fever nurses.

O’Reilly to his sister, August 16, 1898, page 1

He continues on the second page:

We are moving the troops out of here as fast as possible and by the end of  week they should all have gone. I suppose then I shall go to Huntsville but I don’t know.

O’Reilly to his sister, August 16, 1898, page 2

O’Reilly’s letter also seems to indicate that his son, Philip, who he refers to as “Jack” was also involved in the war. Philip, a cadet in the U.S. Navy, died in 1901 at age 22. On page one, he notes:

In that now the blockade is over Jack’s ship is ordered back to League Island, so no doubt you will see him soon…

The finding aid for the Robert M. O’Reilly papers is now available online.

Recently Processed Collection: John Gilmary Shea Correspondence

As an intern for PAHRC, I was tasked with processing the collection titled, John Gilmary Shea Correspondence, 1836-1891 (MC 51). John Gilmary Shea was not only a writer, editor, and lawyer, Shea was considered the leading American Catholic historian of his time.

Shea was only 14 years old when he published his first article, a short essay on Cardinal Albornoz in the Children’s Catholic Magazine. It wasn’t until the 1850s when Shea really began his work in American Catholic history. Between 1852 and 1855, Shea published several scholarly works that were critically acclaimed: Discovery and Exploration of Mississippi Valley (1852), History of the Catholic Missions Among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529-1854 (1854), An Elementary History of the United States (1855), and A School History of the United States (1855).

Shea was very passionate about his life as a scholar; so much so that over the next four decades, he published two hundred and fifty articles and books. His magnum opus was a four volume series titled, The History of the Catholic Church in the United States, published between 1886 and 1892. With all of Shea’s publications over the decades, it is reasonable to assume he relied on his expansive network of personal and professional relationships to obtain the pertinent information required for his extensive scholarly works. The Shea correspondence collection I processed in late fall 2012 provides a unique perspective and reveals Shea’s activities as a writer, researching scholar, historian, and friend.

During my initial review of the collection, I found that most of the correspondence was overstuffed in worn out archival folders and boxes—a preservation nightmare. I was fortunate enough to find one positive quality about the collection; it was previously processed at the item-level which may prove useful to researchers.

After discussing an appropriate processing plan with Faith Charlton, PAHRC’s then Reference and Technical Services Archivist, we devised a plan that included: keeping the item-level correspondence intact while updating correspondents’ names to Library of Congress Name Authority File (NAF) as well as their religious order (where applicable); performing basic preservation such as re-housing and removing rubber bands/staples/paperclips; and creating a finding aid in Archivists’ Toolkit. The most challenging aspect of processing the collection came from the fact that Shea had a substantial amount of personal correspondence; the collection is housed in approximately seven boxes.

The bulk of the collection is comprised of incoming correspondence. Some of the larger files with twenty or more letters are from notable figures who helped Shea during his scholarly years.

For instance, the collection contains a large file of correspondence between Oscar Wilkes Collet, a writer, scholar, and member of the Missouri Historical Society. Here is a postcard received by Shea requesting help locating research materials. 

February 2, 1885 postcard sent by Oscar W. Collet
regarding unpublished research materials.

Another notable correspondent was John Wesley Powell. Powell was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, and director of the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology.

Letter written by John Wesley Powell, Geologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, on October 27, 1876 requesting Shea’s scholarly assistance.

Another large correspondence file comes from Michael Augustine Corrigan, Archbishop of New York.

Typed letter composed in 1891 by Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan asking Shea for clarification of sources to the assertion that there were large defections in the Catholic Church in America.

Other large correspondence files contain letters from Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley, James Cardinal Gibbons, Peter DeSmet, John Ward Dean, Edmond Mallet, and Eugene Vetromile. 

The collection is open to researchers. The PDF finding aid can be found here. PAHRC also has the original finding aid with item-level information which includes specific dates. If you would like to take a look at the original finding aid or any of our other collections, you can schedule an appointment to visit PAHRC or email us at pahrc89@gmail.com.

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References:

The American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. (1897). Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia Vol. VIII No. 1. Philadelphia: The Society.