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

Lieut. John M. Dempsey

John M. Dempsey was the second son of Lawrence and Anna Dempsey, and was born in Westchester county, October 6th,1836. He was a child of a quiet and thoughtful turn of mind; obedient to his parents, and full of kindness towards his sisters. Very early he manifested a thirst for knowledge, and desired to receive a liberal education. But the pecuniary circumstances of his parents only enabled them to give him the advantages of a common school. When he was fourteen years of age, his father died, and he felt at once the responsibility of making exertions to aid in support of the family. He served as clerk in several establishments in Albany; but most of the time he was in the clothing store of Messrs. Davis, Craft & Wilson. Mr. Craft was one of his warmest friends, and took a deep interest in his welfare.

To his widowed mother and fond sisters, John was everything that could be desired. He seemed to combine the qualities and services of father, brother and son. He was ever ready to sacrifice his own interests for the happiness of those around him; and he seemed to live for the consolation and welfare of the dear ones, over whom a great shadow of sorrow had fallen.

But while thus devoted to those who were bound to him by the tenderest ties, he was not indifferent to the agitating questions relative to our National affairs. Upon the plottings of the traitors to the Republic, in 1860 and 1861, he looked with the greatest solicitude. Being sensitive by nature, he was keenly alive to the honor and prosperity of his country, and, at the first call for troops to sustain the Government, he resolved to enlist. In connection with Mr. M. H. Donovan. (afterwards Captain,) he made every exertion to raise a company to be attached to the Eighteenth N. Y. Vol. Infantry, expecting to hold a commission as First Lieutenant. Owing, however, to the rapidity with which regiments were formed at that time, a change was made in the number assigned for each company, and companies were consolidated, leaving a surplus of those who expected offices. As his was a spirit of pure love for his country, he lost no time in controversy for office, but enrolled his name at once as a private in Company F, Eighteenth New York State Volunteers. He was, however, immediately promoted to the position of Orderly. To buckle on the armor for the ranks required but little effort, compared with that which it cost him to reconcile his mother and sisters to this step. Yet such were his convictions of duty that he could only answer to their entreaties and tears, "I shall not fall before God's appointed time." His sister remarked: "There are those that can be better spared than you; those who are of little use at home." He replied calmly, though his eye flashed with emotion: "Our army must not be made up of worthless men!"

During the stay of the regiment at the barracks in this city, an incident occurred worthy of note. He was presented with a pack of playing cards. These he sent home, with the message: "I shall have no use for these in the army;" and to the spirit of this resolution he firmly adhered, never once using a card during his time of service.

On the 17th of June, 1861, he bid adieu to those whom he so dearly loved, and received the parting blessing of his mother. His leaving home at that time was made more sorrowful from the fact, on that day the eldest child, and only son, of his widowed sister—a beautiful boy of eight years—had been carried to the grave; the sister having been made a widow but six months previously by the death of her estimable husband, Major A. R. Ten Broeck, formerly of U. S. Army.

The regiment started for Washington on the 18th of June, and was encamped near Washington and Alexandria till the first Bull Run battle, in which it took a part. Through this he passed safely. In the autumn the regiment became a part of the "Grand Army of the Potomac," under Gen. McClellan.

Mr. Dempsey, by his kind manners and great efficiency, won the esteem of all his comrades, and, on the 2d of December,1861, he was promoted to the office of Second Lieutenant in Co. F. His promotion was received with great enthusiasm by his numerous friends.

He was also the recipient of a sword, sash and belt, presented to him by his company. For these marks of favor he expressed his profound gratitude, in his letters to his friends.

Mr. Dempsey, like his brother, was very faithful in writing home, and from his letters, we can best present the details of his military career.

After the disastrous battle of Bull Run, he thus writes to his sister:

Alexandria, Va., July 24, 1861.
My dear Sister— * * * * The battle of Bull Run was as hard fought as it was discouraging. You ask, how I stood it; I will tell you. When we started from here, we had our haversack (which was soon emptied), blanket, canteen and a rifle. Most of the boys threw away their blankets, and some their canteens; but I thought the blanket came very good at night, and the canteen when I was thirsty, so I brought them all home with me—this camp, I mean, for it is the best home I have had since I left old Albany. Don't think that I complain, for I do not intend to complain of anything necessary to a soldier's life. My greatest desire is to do my duty. I did not expect, before me, a path strewn with roses, so I meet with no disappointments.

Tell mother she must not worry, nor have any anxiety about me. I shall endeavor to take the best care of myself I possibly can. Tell her to be of good cheer, for I am here in a good cause.

"We live in hope, though clouds appear,
They linger but a day;
The sun, to us, a gift so dear,
Will scatter them away.

Thus life is but an April shower,
And troubles are but rain;
And hope, the sun that in an hour,
Will bring us joy again."

With very much love for you all,

Your aftectionate brother,

The regiment with which Lieut. Dempsey was connected, took part in all the engagements under Generals McDowell, McClellan, Burnside and Hooker. They were in the seven days' battle before Richmond, where hundreds fell at his side, and he escaped with only a bullet denting his left shoulder strap.

The battle of South Mountain was one that shed great glory upon his regiment. With bayonet charge, they drove the enemy up and over the mountain, an ascent which it seemed almost impossible to climb. Of three officers who reached the summit, Lieut. Dempsey was one. Through all these battles, he was ever the same brave soldier, faithful officer, and kind, sympathizing friend.

His letters refer to some of these battles, and describe, with considerable minuteness, others. He wrote to his mother and sister as follows:

Near Berkley's Landing, Va., on James River,
Off City Point, July 5, 1862.
My dear Sister—To-day I received three letters from your dear self, and was glad to learn that you had received the package of money.

I will now try and give you a short account of what we have been through the past week.

On Friday morning, the 27th ult., our brigade was called on to cross the Chickahominy, to reinforce Gen. Porter, who had been fighting the day previous. On the night of the 26th ult., the troops all around our neighborhood were in great glee, having heard that Porter had driven the enemy and scattered them in all directions. Cheer after cheer was heard, and the bands struck up the National airs. The merriment was kept up till after midnight, but the morning was saddened by the enemy shelling our camp.

After crossing the Chickahominy, we found our services were not needed, and were ordered back to camp again. We had not been in camp but a short time, when we heard a great tumult in front of our lines. We were ordered in line again. Our regiment had no more than got in line, directly in front of our camp, when the enemy commenced throwing shell in and over our camp ground, killing one and wounding three others of Company I in our regiment. As the men stood in line, Company I's place was next to ours (Company F), on our right, and the range of cannon was directly over the two companies, the shell falling in front, over and around us. After a while, with great hesitation, we were ordered out of the range of the enemy's guns. Shortly after, the guns were silenced, and we were dismissed.

We went in the camp once more, it being dinner time; we partook of our meal, and had just finished, when we were ordered out again, and again marched across the Chickahominy—over another bridge, lower down than where we crossed in the morning. We had a long, quick and tiresome march. Arrived at our destination about five p. m. We were ordered in battle shortly after, directly where the enemy was getting the advantage of our forces engaged. We were marched to the front, through a shower of shell and bullets, and held the enemy in check till nearly dark. Our brave men fell on all sides, as the enemy's forces far exceeded ours in numbers. We held our ground till, unfortunately, the regiments, both on our right and left, gave way. The enemy was turning our right flank before we received orders to fall back, or to march by the left flank. We had no sooner turned to the left, when we saw the enemy turning our left. We were completely surrounded, and were obliged to fall back under a cross fire of both the enemy, infantry and cannon—the balls and shells whizzing and bursting all around our brave fellows.

The closest call I had, was a bullet just grazing my shoulder strap on my right shoulder. How wonderful that so many of us escaped the terrific fire. Soon after, we were again reinforced, and the enemy driven back to the old point, and held in check for the night. All our forces that were the other side of the river, recrossed during the night, and then destroyed the bridges. Our brigade went into Camp that night, but was ordered out again the next morning at three o'clock. Our division partly covered the retreat, and was at one time very nearly cut off; but thank God, we have been spared through it all. We were the last forces in here, and started on our last march at midnight, after a great battle, with severe loss on both sides.

This is not half that I might mention, but enough, as I have not the time to write more, neither do I care to write of it. It is sad enough to think of. * * * *

Your affectionate brother.

On the 10th of October, 1862, Mr. Dempsey, for his gallantry and bravery, was promoted to the First Lieutenancy in Company F, Eighteenth Regiment. His eminent qualities and unselfish devotion to the welfare and honor of his country, entitled him to even a higher rank; but while others less worthy were struggling for promotion, he was bending all his energies to faithfully discharge the duties of his position, whether as a soldier, as orderly, as Second or as First Lieutenant. The cause in which he was engaged absorbed his whole being. He lived for the union of the United States and for the freedom of mankind, and to maintain these he was willing to die.

All his letters breathe the same spirit of ardent patriotism; deep affection for the friends at home; a high sense of personal honor and integrity, and profound gratitude to God for his great goodness.

Lieutenant Dempsey's term of service having expired, he returned to his home, where as we may naturally suppose, he was cordially welcomed. Before he reached home, his sister asked him whether he intended entering the service again? He replied: "I make no promises. A man cannot tell in these times what he will do. One thing is certain. If God spares my life and blesses all with health, I shall have a pleasant long furlough at home, when my time expires. So the furlough proved to be, though shadowed by clouds of fear in time of battle; for there were two dear brothers still in the field.

To show the love of his men, after they were mustered out, three of them called at his home and presented him with a silver watch. Speaking of it, he said, "I could not refuse to take this; yet it seems wrong to take what was so hardly earned. Many of the men have repeatedly offered me money, which, while appreciating their kindness, I have refused, and persuaded them to keep; but these three got ahead of me."

Though our hero entered again upon the duties of civil life, his thoughts seemed all turned to the great work of the nation; and it was only the tender home ties that held him back. But these at last he felt must be broken, as his place of greatest usefulness was in the field. He seemed to feel a higher Spirit working upon his own, and calling him to that post of duty.

Accordingly he resolved to again buckle his armor; and he enlisted March 29, 1864, as a private in Company G, Forty-third Regiment New York State Volunteers. Again he received the blessing of his mother and sisters; but it was mingled with bitter tears, as they knew from experience the fearful dangers to which he would be exposed. Reaching the regiment, then at Brandy Station, Va., he was most warmly welcomed by his friend. Col. John Wilson and Capt. James D. Visscher, and was appointed Orderly in Company G. On the 3d of May, 1864, he was commissioned First Lieutenant.

As the army advanced, our brave Lieutenant passed safely through the first day of the battle of the Wilderness. But the second day, May 6th, 1864, he was wounded and taken prisoner.

The following is his first letter from the enemy's country. It came through the lines by a flag of truce, for General Wadsworth's remains.

Near Mine Run, Va., May 13, 1864.
Dear Mother—I was wounded and taken prisoner on the night of the 6th inst. You must not be alarmed. Much love to all from your affectionate son.

On the l3th of September, 1864, Lieut. Dempsey was released from prison, and writes as follows:

On Board Truce Boat New York,
Off City Point, Septetnber 13, 1864.
My Dear Mother and Sisters—How do you all do? I do so want to know. We are bound for Annapolis, Md. We shall probably stop at Fortress Monroe. I left the hospital at Lynchburg, Va., on the 8th inst.,—stopped in Provost guard-house till the next morning; then was sent to Richmond and arrived there at 9 p. m., and was taken to Libby Prison, and remained there till 2 p. m. the next day, when the doctors came in, and sent thirteen of us (myself among the number) to the hospital. On the 10th and 11th, the doctors went through the hospital, picking out men to be paroled, and as I was one of the fortunate ones; I am out of rebeldom and homeward bound. There are about three hundred sick and wounded on board.

I have tried to learn of brother Henry's whereabouts, and, as near as I can find out, he is at Andersonville, Georgia. I have heard of brother James several times. There are a number of his regiment on this boat, having been captured during the summer. He was safe up to the 18th of June. His regiment has been engaged in a number of battles in the valley. His Captain was at the hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia.

My wound is nearly healed, and, although, I am not feeling very strong now, I think after I have a few weeks of good "Yankee" living, I shall be as good as new, and none the worse for battle; and able to give the "rebs" another turn. I cannot express my delight on seeing our dear old flag once more. Will try and write again on arrival at Annapolis.

Remember me to all kind friends. Hoping soon to hear that you are all alive and enjoying the blessing of health, I remain with much love, Your affectionate son and brother,


General Hospital, Camp Parol, Section A,
Ward 3, near Annapolis,
Maryland, October 12, 1864.
My dear Sister—Yours of the 7th is received. I was pleased to learn you had heard from brother James so lately. I have not been able to write home for several days, but thought I must write a few words this morning, knowing my silence would cause some anxiousness.

My wound has been growing worse since the third day after my arrival at section D, and, the last five days, I have been unable to leave my bunk. Yesterday the surgeon looked at my wound and had me removed to this hospital, which has every appearance of being a much better place for either the sick or wounded. I think, had I been sent here in the first place, my suffering would not have been so great. The treatment at section D, did more harm than good.

A month has passed since my parol, yet I have no furlough. Should I now receive one, I fear I shall be unable to travel, and think it doubtful whether the doctor would allow me to try it. Had I obtained a furlough two weeks ago, I could have endured the journey home quite comfortably. Now I am obliged to keep perfectly quiet, confined closely to my bed. How long this will last I cannot say. Perhaps I have not suffered quite enough with it. I may have another such time as I had at Lynchburg.

I do not know whether you understand the nature of wounds or not, but will tell you how mine has troubled me. While at Lynchburg it huffed. It now has gangrene and will probably huff again, which causes it to pain me most intensely, I had but little rest last night, and some nights can scarcely close my eyes. But, doubtless, the treatment here will enable me to get well much sooner than when in "rebeldom."

I may not be able to write every day. Please write me often, and send papers. Direct as heading of this. Excuse pencil scribbling, as I am obliged to write while Iying in bed. Remember me to kind friends. With much love,


As John was so feeble, a beloved sister hastened to him to bestow upon him a sister's kind attention. During her absence from home the eldest brother, James L. was wounded, and another sister was called from home, but to return with the lifeless form of that brother.

The funeral took place, yet the absent sister and suffering brother were not told of it, for fear of the result. Thus, while the eldest son was being carried to the grave, the second was in a hospital anxiously watched by a sister, and the third a prisoner in the hands of a cruel enemy; the agonized friends not knowing whether he was living or dead. A kind Providence spares the second son, and the brother and sister reach their sorrowful home, November 4, 1864. Again his wound grows worse, but kind surgical care rendered by Dr. J. H. Armsby, and the goodness of God restores him. But he has not the activity and vigor of former days. * * * *

After enjoying the pleasures of his fond home for a few short weeks, John left the cherished spot never to return. The dutiful and affectionate son, the kind brother, the noble, heroic patriot went forth to give his little remaining strength, and his shattered body to his country. On the 25th of March, 1865, his regiment was ordered to aid in retaking Forts Steadman and Fisher. While leading on his men, as the advance picket, he fell, mortally wounded. His left thigh bone was broken, yet his coolness did not forsake him. Feeling he was losing blood rapidly, he tied a silk handkerchief above the wound, and rallied his men to hold the position, which they had won at such a fearful cost. Owing to the terrible exposure to the fire of the enemy, he was not taken to the hospital in the rear till evening; then he was most tenderly cared for by the Hospital Steward, David Norwood, a member of the Forty-third Regiment. After receiving surgical treatment he was sent to City Point Hospital; there he suffered six weeks with the most uncomplaining fortitude. He was as brave in his sufferings as he had been as a soldier in health.

While there, he wrote the following letter to his afflicted mother, which was the last of his series of interesting letters sent to his fond home:

Sixth Corps Hospital, City Point, Va.,
April 4, 1865.
My dear Mother—Here I am once more, flat on my back. I presume that you have heard from strangers all about my misfortune, as I was obliged to get them to write for me. But as I feel much better to-day than I have since I was wounded, I thought it would be much more satisftictory for you to receive a line from my own hand. I was wounded on the 6th inst., and I assure you it is a severe one. But the surgeon says I shall get along, as I have good health, and good courage. There was only one other officer of the regiment wounded, the Second Lieutenant of my company. He occupies the next bed to mine. His wound is in his left arm. He received it on the 1st inst.

My wound is a compound fracture of the thigh bone (left leg), but I am perfectly willing to put up with what suffering I am about to go through, if the war is only closed, as they tell us it is now. I presume you have heard all the good news, therefore I will not be troubled to write any more, as it is a terrible task for me to write lying on my back, and in such severe pain as I am. Remembrance to all inquiring friends, and abundance of love to one and all. May God bless us all.

From your affectionate son,

As soon as permission was given, two of his sisters went to him, which was two weeks before his death. His sufferings were intense, yet so tender was he of his sisters' feelings that they were told only in low murmurs. When he was almost fainting from agony, he would ask his sisters to sing. "Sing something soft and plaintive," he would say. Endeavoring to suppress their deep emotion, they would sing such hymns as he loved. The following sweet hymn was one of his favorites:

"Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the billows near me roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me; Oh, my Saviour hide
Till the storm of life be past,
Safe unto the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last."

As the sisters paused, he would say: "Oh, that is so sweet." His wonderful fortitude astonished the medical attendants, while his patience and courage won the love of all who were near him. One remarked: "His patience is an example to us all."

We rejoice to know that our hero received every attention from the surgeons and nurses in the hospital. Fond sisters, too, did all that their loving hearts and tender sympathies could suggest. But the wound was beyond the reach of surgical skill, though his strength of constitution, and power of endurance, encouraged the surgeons to make every possible exertion to save him.

He was well aware of the nature of his wound from the first, yet was anxious that every means should be used for his restoration. He desired to live for his mother's and sisters' sake, though he was fully prepared to yield to the will of his Heavenly Father. He was too weak to talk much, and said but little of life or death. His prayers were whispered, and his thoughts were between his Maker and himself. He had no fears of death. He said to a friend: "I have always thought a man should so live that he may be ready to die." He was sensible almost to the last breath, returning the kisses of those so dear to him. As the last moment approached, the surgeons and friends in the hospital gathered near his dying bed. Prayer was offered, and as the shades of evening drew near, his noble spirit was freed from its sufferings. He died on the 6th of May, 1865.

The sisters, with sorrowing hearts, returned to their homes with their sacred charge, the remains of their dear brother John. This was the second time that one of the sisters had returned with the cold form of a hero brother.

The Albany Burgesses Corps claimed the privilege and the honor of conducting the funeral services, thus relieving the heartstricken mother and sisters. Everything was done by them with the most tender and brotherly care. The committee of arrangements consisted of Capt. M. H. Donovan and Mr. H. C. Haskell, who proved themselves to be the true friends of the departed and his afflicted family. The remains sleep in the Albany Rural Cemetery by the side of those of the eldest brother, that only seven months before were borne to this city of the dead.

Although we have devoted so much space to the Dempsey brothers, yet we cannot leave them without speaking of Henry, who has survived the hardships and dangers of the war.

Henry L. Dempsey, third and youngest son, entered the volunteer service August, 1862, in the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Regiment, Company F. His decision to enlist, almost crushed his mother, as he had never scarcely spoken of taking such a step. After he had taken it, he said: "I have thought of it much, and feel more at rest now that I have enlisted. Should I live through it, and we all return, I shall not be ashamed to meet my brothers."

After various experiences, and the faithful discharge of his duty, he was promoted to the position of Corporal. He passed through several battles, in which his regiment was engaged, unharmed, except at Gettysburg, where a ball bruised his hip.

On the 2d of December, 1863, he was taken prisoner, while on picket duty. About two hundred were taken at that time. The Lieutenant of his company wrote thus, December 10, 1863, to Mrs. Anna Dempsey: "It becomes my painful duty to inform you that your son, Corp. H. L. Dempsey, was taken prisoner on the night of the 2d instant, while on brigade picket, I regret it exceedingly. Corp. H. L. Dempsey was one of the best men in my company. In camp, he was always ready to perform all duties imposed upon him. In action he was brave, almost to rashness."

Col. Crandall also wrote as follows: "The capture of Henry L. Dempsey I regret exceedingly, and should feel very much chagrined had it occurred by any fault of mine. The brigade picket was sent out to cover our retreat, and the officers of the day failed to notify them when to come in."

His suflferings, as a prisoner, were terrible, beyond all description. Of forty of his regiment who were taken prisoners, only seven survived the barbarities inflicted upon them. He was four months at Andersonville, one of the southern hells, and no imagination can picture the horrible suflferings that he there endured.

At one time his left limb was drawn up, and the flesh was cracking and almost ready to fall off. With his penknife he cut away the diseased parts.

Notwithstanding the agonies that he endured, he still clung to the hope that he would one day escape out of the hands of the fiends, into which he had fallen. While others yielded to despair, he kept moving, having noticed that those who remained still, and gave up, were sure to die. Day after day he hobbled about with his emaciated body, supported by a stick or a cane.

For thirty-one days the rain fell upon him, and his clothes, as well as the Bible that his mother had given him, were perfectly saturated with water. This Bible he had read through in that awful stockade; it was his constant companion, and with the photographs of his brothers and sisters, was his only comfort. These he would not part with, even if he was starving.

During the whole time of his imprisonment, one year and three days, he never once heard from his home; nor did the anxious ones at home, for ten months, know anything of his fate.

What then was their joy to have the lost one again restored to the family circle. It was as a beam of light through the deep darkness that had so long enveloped them.

As a prisoner at the south, he was dragged through the following places, in many of which there was simply a variation of the horrors that awaited him:

He was captured at Mine Run, Virginia, December 2, 1863. He arrived at Belle Isle December 6th, and left March 15, 1864. He was thrust with the Andersonville prisoners March 2d, and left September 9th. He arrived at Charleston, S. C, September 11th, and left October 8th. He reached Florence, S. C, October 8th, and remained until November 28th. He was taken to Savannah, Georgia, November 29th, and left November 30th. Being released, he arrived at Annapolis, Md., December 5, 1864. He left Annapolis December 15th, and reached home on a furlough December 16, 1864. His furlough expired in one month when he reported at the hospital in Annapolis. But before the order came for him to join his regiment, the final victory was won over the enemy, yet such is the severity of war, that, although he was at Annapolis when his brother John M. was buried, he could not be permitted to attend the funeral. It was intimated to him that nothing would be done if he took leave; but he said, "I had done nothing dishonorable through all my time of service as a soldier, I cannot do it now." He submitted to the restriction, though it was painful to endure. He was mustered out of service June, 1865.

May his life long be spared, and may the richest of Heaven's blessings rest upon him! May the mother and sisters be also cared for by divine Providence, and may all the surviving members of this noble family receive that to which they are entitled; the gratitude, the affection, and the admiration of all loyal hearts throughout the American Republic.

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