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This biography is from HEROES OF ALBANY, by Rufus W. Clark, D. D.

Lieut. James L. Dempsey

There are few histories connected with the late war more touching than those of the Dempsey brothers, the three sons of a widowed mother, Mrs. Anna Dempsey, who resides at No. 106 Hudson street, in this city. These noble youths were early inspired with an ardent spirit of patriotism, and one after another went forth to fight the battles of their country. Two of them offered up their lives upon the altar of their Nation, and the third, after great hardship and agonizing suffering, which he bore with Christian fortitude, was permitted to return to his home, and is now a resident among us. As these careers are somewhat interwoven, one with another, and as they furnish a most remarkable illustration of the lofty patriotism of a whole family, we propose to sketch each of them. We commence with the eldest in age, although John, the second son, was the first to enlist in our army.

James L. Dempsey was the son of Lawrence and Anna Dempsey, and was born in New York city December 16, 1827. His father, a most upright and excellent man, died in the year 1850. The maiden name of his mother was Anna Moore, and her birthplace was the city of Albany. Mr, Moore, her father, served his country in the war of 1812, and at that time the property that the family had, was lost. When Miss Moore was quite young, both of her parents died, and she was left an orphan. She married Lawrence Dempsey, and first resided in New York city, and afterwards in Westchester county. Here the earliest days of James were spent, and here his love of nature, and taste for the beautiful, was constantly gratified.

He was naturally of an ardent temperament and restless disposition, and demanded a wide field for his activity and enterprise. He was genial in his manners and gentle towards all. James was a youth of commanding and attractive appearance, and his society was sought for by many because of his ready wit and his great cheerfulness.

His father wished him to learn a trade, which he did, but it was so uncongenial to his taste that he soon relinquished it, and went into business in the city of Troy, N. Y.

Early in childhood, James became a hopeful Christian, and united with the Methodist church. Subsequently he joined the Second Reformed Dutch Church, of Albany. When the flag of our country that he so much loved, was fired upon, his heart was filled with indignation, and he was ready to defend it at once. But he was held back by the advice of friends; as he had a little family dependent upon him, though it was with great reluctance he declined the First Lieutenancy in one of the first regiments that left for the field of action.

He resided in the city of Troy when the rebellion commenced, and the question of duty which was before him, whether to remain with his little family, or enter the field, made him very restless. In the spring of 1862 he made a change in his business and was just settling in Pittsfield, Mass., when another call was made for troops, and he could hesitate no longer. He said, at that time: "These children (two little boys, the eldest three years) shall not live to say their father took no part in this great struggle for the rights of our beloved country? I shall go for the sake of my boys." He assisted in raising a company to be attached to the Thirty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was elected orderly of Co. B. by every vote of the members. They were greatly disappointed at his not receiving a commission as Lieutenant, and they showed their warm friendship by presenting him with a handsome purse. In the spring of 1863 he was promoted to a Second Lieutenancy. The regiment did garrison duty around and near Washington, and rendered valuable services in the building of fortifications at Fort Lyon. But the movements and experiences of Lieut. Dempsey may perhaps be best learnt from his letters, which were written to his mother and sisters, and to his wife. In the winter of 1864 his own family joined him, and remained at Harper's Ferry until his death. After several short letters, expressive of his love for the dear ones at home, and his interest in the sacred cause to which he had devoted himself, he writes thus:

Upton Hill, Va., May 22, 1863.
My dear Sister Mary—one and all—Your ever welcome letter of the 7th inst. arrived here yesterday; also the paper containing the glad tidings of the regiment which our noble brother has been with for the past two years, through so many trials and dangers. You may well say, rejoice with you, upon his safe return to his dear home, which I know he loves so well. I wish it could have been so ordered that Henry and myself could have been there to welcome him.

But so it is. We must remain to help finish the great work which could not be completed during his time of service; and it is the sincere desire of my heart that we may be able to do as much, and act as nobly, in trying to crush this wicked rebellion, as he, our brother, has done.

You say you dare not ask him whether it is his intention to return to the field. I think he has done his share. Yet, as regards the matter, I leave it with him. Should he enter the service again, nothing would please me better than to get a transfer, that we might come in the same regiment. I received a letter from Libbie of the same date as yours. Her health is not very good. The little boys are quite well. I wish you or mother, with brother John, could make her a visit. She likes her new home very much.

I do not hear from brother Henry. It is strange that he does not write. His camp is about fourteen miles from here. If I could get a pass, I would make him a visit.

I like this camp better than the old one, for many reasons. I think it is more healthy, and, for my own part, I feel much better. Our list of sick is much less than formerly. The 29th of this month will make it one year since I entered the service of the United States, and I should not feel sorry to be discharged before another year rolls round. But we can not finish this big job in that time. One thing I am confident of: we shall finish it, if it takes five times two years.

My love to sisters, mother and brother, as well as little Emmie. I send her some flowers, picked from the garden of a rebel, now in the Southern army. God bless you all.

From your aftectionate bother,

Harper's Ferry, July 20, 1863.
My dear Mother, Brother and Sisters—You no doubt wonder at my long silence; but you will understand it, when I tell you of the changes of the regiment. On the ninth of this month we received marching orders. So sudden and rapid was the movement, that I lost all my clothing, except what I had on, together with my blankets. I had not even a change of under clothing. What I have on, I have worn two weeks. But I am wasting time talking of my poverty.

We left Washington on the ninth, at eleven o'clock at night, and rode all night, and next day till night. We arrived at Sandy Hook, which is a mile below Harper's Ferry. On our way, we had one man killed by falling from the cars. We were then ordered to march through the roughest country I have ever seen. Afterwards we camped on the Heights for a few days, our regiment doing picket duty at the river, and the rebels being on the other side. They often asked us, why we didn't take the place. Well, on Tuesday we were ordered to march to Harper's Ferry, pontoons being used to ferry us over. Our men were all anxious to reach the opposite shore, and not a man flinched. The rebels had everything prepared to give us a warm reception, but their firing was silenced by our sharpshooters, and they fled, leaving their guns loaded, which we captured. Our cavalry lost several, killed and wounded, while they captured a number of prisoners. The next day they had an engagement eight miles from here.

But I will leave this subject and tell you something to interest you more. I have seen our brother Henry and he is here with me at Harper's Ferry. Do not be frightened, for he is not wounded nor dangerously sick, yet is completely worn out with fighting and marching. It would melt a heart of stone to hear him relate what he has gone through. How thankful I feel to my Heavenly Father for sparing him. I am thankful to you, my mother and sisters, for your prayers in behalf of my brother and myself, since our departure from our dear old home. Truly they have been answered, and Providence has now kindly directed this meeting, when a brother needs so much kindly care.

I wall tell you how I found him. On Thursday I learned the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment was some two miles from here. It was night, and I could not get a furlough then, but I learned they were to pass our camp the next day. I was up bright and early, that I might not miss seeing him, providing he was not one of that number of noble fellows who fell on that awful battlefield. I soon learned they were to take another direction, and turning my steps to gain some tidings, I met one of the regiment, who had been allowed to go ahead. He told me, on my inquiring for Henry, that he was Corporal in Company F, and was safe. This was cause for thankfulness, and I hastened back to the camp, on a run, my time being so short. The next day I tried, in eveiy way, to get permission to visit the regiment, it having camped two miles from here for rest. But we were expecting marching orders, and no passes could be given. I started without permission (something I never had done before), and went as near as in sight of the camp. But I was so constantly reminded of doing wrong, that I turned back and gave up all hope of seeing him. The next day our company was ordered to do provost guard duty, and, at about twelve o'clock, my attention was called towards the ferry, when who should I see but my brother, trying to hobble along. I ran to meet him, and he was so overjoyed that tears flowed down his cheeks. I took his gun, and we started for my quarters. My first duty was to procure medical aid for him. Our surgeon prescribed for him, and advised a place of quiet rest.

I procured board for him in a private family: but the walk being so long for Dr. Clark, he has got permission for him to enter the General Hospital. The surgeon will send a statement to his regiment. He says he will get along if nothing unfavorable sets in while he is so weak. You must not worry about him. I shall see him when I can, and do for him all I can. We are both so very grateful for this providential care. He had been granted a place in an ambulance, but he gave way for others whom he thought worse than himself. May God spare us both to meet you all once more, and may he bless you all.

With love from us both,

Harpers Ferry, July 31st, 1863.
My dear Sister—Many thanks for your very kind and interesting letter of the 27th, just received. I wish it had been a day sooner. Our brother left yesterday for Washington, with six others. They were sent away because the room is needed for the wounded, a flag of truce having gone for those left in the rebel lines. Henry is stronger, and the Doctor thinks he will get along now, and soon be able to join his regiment. I wish he could have had the money you enclosed, for the poor fellow needs it. I did for him all I could, but my means were low, not having been paid for some time.

I shall write and send Henry the money as soon as I learn where to direct to him.

With love to all, your affectionate brother,


Strasburgh, May 19, 1864.
My Dear Wife—This is the first opportunity I have had to write you. No doubt you have heard of the severe battle we have been engaged in. I have great reason to thank our Heavenly Father that I went through it unharmed. Many of my comrades have been called, to give an account of the deeds done in the body. Our regiment suffered greatly. We had in all — killed, wounded and missing, two hundred and thirty. As near as we can learn thirty were killed. The enemy outnumbred us two to one. We were obliged to leave our dead and wounded in their hands.

Col. Lincoln was wounded and is a prisoner. Capt. Baker was killed, and also Lieut. R. W. Waken. Capt. Channy and Lieut. Amerdam are taken prisoners. Capt. Willard, wounded and in our hands. Lieut. Munercent, wounded. My company have lost seventeen men, and I am the only officer in command. We have only one officer left to each company. I have just returned from picket duty, and am most worn out. May God bless you and our little ones, and spare me to return to you.


The following is Lieut. Dempsey's last letter that has been furnished me. Like the others, it reveals his warm affection, his cool bravery, and his ardent patriotism.

Harrisonburg, September 26, 1864.
My Dear Mother and Sisters—As I have an opportunity of sending a letter, I improve it, knowing you must be anxious to hear from me. You have doubtless seen by the papers, that we have been engaged in some severe battles this past week. I have been in both of them—that at Winchester and the other at Fisher's Hill. Our loss is great, but small compared to that of the enemy. We completely demolished the whole of Early's army, and have driven them like a whirlwind before us. In the first battle, our regiment lost one hundred and nine men. Capt. Thompson was killed and our Adjutant was wounded. I had thirteen in my company wounded.

I am sorry to inform you, that in the last battle, our little Major, one of my warmest friends was severely wounded, and I had three of my best men wounded. We are now encamped (for a few days or so) about one hundred miles from Harper's Ferry. Perhaps we shall get orders to march in the morning, if so, I shall not be surprised if we tried Lynchburg again. I think we shall take it, and if my brother John is there I am bound to bring him back with me. I do wish you would write me oftener, for I do like to hear from home. As regards my writing I have but little time, being in command of the company. Much love to you all.

Yours in affection,

Thus our hero passed through hardship after hardship, and battle after battle, without a murmur; always hopeful, always courageous, and always at his post of duty. But his last hour was approaching. He who had so often and so miraculously escaped the showers of shot and shell upon the battle field, is doomed at last, to receive the one missile out of the thousand, upon which his death sentence was written.

With his usual buoyancy and invincible courage, he went forth on the morning of October 14, 1864, to engage in the terrible battle of Cedar Creek. While leading his company against the foe he was severely wounded in the forehead by a bursting shell. Several others were killed by the same shell, and among them Col. Wells, acting Brigade Commander, a most ardent friend of the Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Dempsey was borne from the field, and died October 17, 1864. Of his last days, and of the estimation in which he was held we have an account in the following letters, both addressed to his afflicted widow:

Smith Hospital, Winchester, Virginia,
October 17, 1864, Monday Evening.
My dear Mrs. Dempsey—I wrote you last Friday and gave you, as correctly as possible, the detail of all I knew relative to your husband and my friend. Saturday he remained much the same, sleeping most of the time. I could not carry on any conversation with him as he only answered my questions by "yes" or "no." I asked him if he knew me, he replied "yes." I then asked him to call my name, but he did not answer. I told him that I was Dr. Smith, and asked him if he knew me. He replied "yes." Once he asked for water, and, occasionally, he said something, evidently in delirium, about the battle, such as orders to "advance," "halt," "steady, there," "close up," &c. I tried to converse with him about you and his children, but he did not seem to understand me. I asked him if I should send for you, he quickly replied "yes." This was the only time when he evinced any emotion. I asked him if I should write to his mother and sisters, he said, "yes." I think he did not have full possession of his intellect at any time after he was wounded. Sunday he remained much the same. I kept my best nurses, from our regiment, by his bed-side, constantly, when I was not with him. He would eat but little. I had his food carefully prepared for him by a union lady who lives near here, and visits my hospital daily. To-day he appeared much the same (evidently much weaker) until five o'clock in the afternoon, when he died, so quietly that we hardly knew he was dying. He was wholly without pain and seemed like one sleeping.

During the whole time he has been with me, I believe he has suffered no pain. I gave him no medicine, as he did not require it. His head was kept cool and the room still and quiet. He and Captain Soley had my room; large, clean and with good air.

Enclosed you will lind his Masonic pin and a ring I took from his finger. His old clothing I have thrown away, as it was much soiled and torn by pieces of shell, etc. His knapsack was in the regimental wagon, and I sent for it while the wagon was passing this place on its way front.

I have carefully embalmed the body; dressed it, and covered the wound. I think you will have no trouble in keeping it several days after it reaches your home. Of course, you will send word to his lodge, that his old friends and brothers may meet and do honor to their companion.

I wish I could be near you at this time, and take part of this great grief from you, and use my strong and willing hands for your benelit. Should you, at any time, require a friend or need friendship exhibited in any manner, call upon the friend of your husband through all things, and your friend,


Opesum Crossing, Virginia, December 7, 1864.
My dear Friend—Until yesterday, I knew nothing of your whereabouts. I should have written you immediately after the loss of your husband, but we were in the field and I had no opportunity. That field of "Stickney's Farm," was a terrible one to us all. Not the least among its sorrowful memories is that of the loss of your brave, noble, genial husband. Brave and courageous as ever a man was in the field; the life of the social circle about the camp fire; beloved and respected by every man and officers in the regiment; he has gone to return no more. None knew how much he was estimated until his memory and brave deeds alone were left us.

You were not left alone in your grief. The warmest sympathies of us all, mingle with your tears. As no one can supply his place in your heart, at your table, and around your fireside; so in our hearts, and around our bivouac fire, there is a place forever vacant.

He has left behind a reputation of which you may be proud, and to which his children can point without one regret, or shadow of blush. Scarcely a day passes that I don't hear an exclamation, "poor Dempsey, 'twas too bad." Though near him when he was struck, I didn't know of it till Sergeant Houghton came to me and said, Captain, Dempsey is hit, shall I go to him?'' I looked round and saw him staggering about, apparantly unconscious. I at once sent Houghton to him, directing him to lead the Lieutenant into a small ravine, where he would be out of the way of the shells which the rebels were raining down on us. That was the last I ever saw of your husband.

The country can never repay the sacrifice you have been called upon to make. No truer soldier, no braver or more cheerful comrade, has been offered upon liberty's altar than your own brave husband. I learned your address of Dr. Smith. Accept for yourself and family the earnest sympathy of

Your friend,
Lieut. Col. Com'd'g, 34th Mass. Inftry.
Mrs. James L. Dempsey

When the telegraphic wires bore to his home the sad news that he was wounded, a sister started immediately to go to him. But before she reached Harper's Ferry, she heard that the beloved brother was no more. With a sorrowing heart she returned home, with his widow and the two fatherless boys. His funeral took place from the residence of his mother, October 28th, 1864, and was attended by a detachment from the "Veteran Reserves."

His body was borne, with military honors, to the Albany Rural Cemetery, where, side by side, the brave brothers sleep. The bereaved relatives are sustained under their great sorrow by the hope that the parted will meet again.

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