“Always Ready for Duty” - The Remarkable Life of John Delaney
John Carroll Delaney’s life might have been unremarkable were it not for the crisis of the Civil War. Born into crushing poverty, the Civil War brought out the courage, resourcefulness, and leadership that not only earned Delaney a Medal of Honor, but helped him rise far above the meager circumstances of his early life.
John Delaney circa 1909, a successful public servant. (Sam Hudson,Pennsylvania and Its Public Men)
Delaney was born in 1848 in County Galway, Ireland. At his birth, the country remained in the grip of the Great Famine, when blight destroyed the potato crop for almost eight years in a row. Like many impoverished tenants facing starvation at home, Delaney’s family decided to seek a better life in the United States. They emigrated in 1853, when Delaney was five years old, and settled in Honesdale, Wayne County, Pennsylvania, at a fortuitous time in the region’s history. Northeast Pennsylvania was beginning to boom thanks to the discovery of anthracite coal, and the area’s mines and coal breakers were hungry for workers.
Like the children of most working-class families, the Delaney children had to work along with their parents to help the family stay alive. John Delaney’s first job, at the age of eight, was in a coal breaker in Scranton. Located in what is today Lackawanna County, Scranton was the hub of the anthracite region, a rising city built first around the production of iron, but soon known for its many coal mines.
An 1850s coal breaker in Northeastern Pennsylvania (Library of Congress)
Young Delaney worked in a breaker, where the coal from the mines was separated from the other rock mixed into the carts during mining. It was dangerous work; the loss of fingers or hands was common. Perhaps that’s why two years later Delaney found new work leading mules along the Delaware Canal. Three years after that, Delaney was working in a tannery when the Civil War began. In spite of his age, he was determined to serve for his adopted country.
Captain Henry Sheafer, the recruiting officer Delaney visited in February 1862, described him as “scarcely fourteen years of age and delicate in appearance,” and rejected the boy’s application for enlistment. Delaney persisted and Sheafer finally relented, mustering Delaney into Company I of the 107th Pennsylvania Infantry on March 5, 1862.
His parents of course disapproved, no doubt worried as much about the loss of income for the family as their son’s safety. In a newspaper interview later in life, Delaney admitted he ran away from home to join the army, though he said his mother had given her tacit blessing.
Commanded by Colonel Thomas A. Zeigle, the 107th was organized at Harrisburg for a term of three years’ service. The regiment was recruited from across the northeast, central, and southern counties of Pennsylvania, including men from Franklin, York, Dauphin, Cumberland, Lebanon, Lancaster, and Luzerne, among others. Delaney and the regiment received its baptism of fire at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia, where the ranks endured a severe shelling by Confederate artillery on the evening of August 9, 1862. This experience was only a taste of what was to come.
A month later, Delaney and the men of the 107th found themselves sweating in the September sun, pushing through a cornfield under heavy fire near Sharpsburg, Maryland. The Battle of Antietam raged, and Delaney’s regiment was right in the thick of it. Ordered to advance through the Miller Cornfield and engage the Confederate brigades on the other side, the 107th went gamely forward and exchanged fire with the Rebels until they were nearly out of ammunition and forced back.
The Cornfield at Antietam, where young Delaney was wounded and rescued. (Author's collection)
As the men retreated, Delaney discovered the regiment’s flags about to be lost on the field. As he later remembered it, “When I got to my feet (we had been kneeling during the fight), I discovered our two flags laying under a pile of dead and wounded men of Company C. At the same moment the Rebel line of battle was advancing on a dog trot with their guns.”
Delaney scooped up the regiment’s colors along with a wounded comrade, Joseph Gruber, of Harrisburg, PA, who was shot through the body and unable to lift himself. Delaney and Gruber almost made it to the safety of the fence line when a bullet smashed into Delaney’s leg. “In an instant a stalwart Irish sergeant leaped the fence, picked me up as he would a child, and passed me over the fence to many willing hands who were waiting to receive me,” remembered Delaney in a newspaper interview years later.
Remnants of the colors of the 107th Pennsylvania Infantry. (Courtesy Capitol Preservation Committee)
Delaney spent the next month recovering in a field hospital in Maryland. It was there he met Abraham Lincoln during the president’s visit to the Army of the Potomac in the first week of October 1862. Delaney recalled that the president’s face “grew apparently sad” when Lincoln heard he was just fourteen. According to Delaney, the president said he would pray for the boy, and asked him to call at the White House at the war’s end. Lincoln’s prayer would be answered; Delaney survived his wound and returned to duty with the 107th, though he never had the chance to call on the president.
One can only imagine the trauma and psychological impact being wounded in battle had on Delaney. Perhaps it was this vivid memory of his rescue by that “stalwart Irish sergeant” that motivated him in the action that ultimately earned him the Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest award for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.
The action occurred during the Battle of Hatcher’s Run on February 6, 1865, as Grant attempted to break the stalemate at Petersburg, Virginia, by seizing the Confederates’ last supply routes into the city. Delaney, now sixteen and a sergeant, found himself in command of his company as the 107th, part of Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps, made four successive frontal assaults against the Confederates entrenched in the dense woods near Dabney’s Saw Mill.
Alfred Waud's sketch of Warren's 5th Corps, which included Delaney and the 107th PA, charging the Confederate breastworks near Dabney's Mill at the Battle of Hatcher's Run. (Library of Congress)
As Delaney’s men fell back, the underbrush began to catch fire from the sparks of their guns. Reaching the safety of their own breastworks, Delaney noticed a number of wounded men left behind in the now-burning no man’s land between the lines. Delaney called for volunteers to help bring in the wounded. None were forthcoming. Delaney did not ask again. Leaping the Union breastworks alone, he ran to the first wounded man, “and lifting him on his back he started on the return amidst a storm of bullets that nipped his clothing and cut the ground from beneath his feet.”
His example served to both shame and inspire his men into action, and soon the rest of the wounded within reach were transported to safety.
Like many Civil War veterans, Delaney’s actions did not receive attention until well after the war. After being promoted and mustered out in 1865 at age seventeen, perhaps one of the youngest lieutenants in the army, Delaney attended school for one year, but soon left to seek work on the railroad with Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley Engineer Corps. From there he obtained a job as a clerk in the governor’s office in Harrisburg in 1873.
His war record, proven leadership ability, and charm helped him rise swiftly in state politics. He became the Senate Librarian in 1880, then Superintendent of Capitol Buildings and Grounds. In 1892 he was nominated by President Benjamin Harrison as a land agent for Oklahoma Territory, serving for a year before returning to Harrisburg and a position as State Inspector of Factories. It was there he finally received his Medal of Honor on August 29, 1894. He had come a long way from picking coal in Scranton.
Stomach cancer eventually did what Rebel bullets couldn’t. John Delaney died on April 4, 1915. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and newspapers in Harrisburg and Scranton mourned the man both claimed as a hometown hero.
Photo Left: Medal of Honor of the design Delaney would have received. Delaney's medal remains in the family of his descendants today. (Courtesy National Park Service)
As America hurtled ahead into the early 20th century, Pennsylvanians, many of them new immigrants themselves, could look back on the remarkable example of John Delaney, the stalwart Irish sergeant who showed just how far it was possible to rise on one’s own courage and grit.
Memorial in front of the Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton, honoring John Delaney and Patrick Delacy, Scranton's two Medal of Honor recipients from the Civil War. (Courtesy Don Morfe)
By Alex Barbolish - He is a writer and history teacher from Nicholson, PA. He blogs about historical topics at www.backroadhistorian.com.
 Rolston, Les. Home of the Brave: In Their Own Words, Selected Short Stories of Immigrant Medal of Honor Recipients of the Civil War. (Revival Waves of Glory Books & Publishing, 2015), 185.  Ibid.  “Captain Delaney Tells How He Met Lincoln,” Harrisburg Telegraph, Feb. 12, 1909.  Bates, Samuel P. History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861 – 65, vol. 3 (B. Singerly, 1869-71), 854-855.  MacThompson, James. Report of the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam, Oct. 7, 1862. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 19. (Government Printing Office, 1880), 261-262. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hwanm5&view=1up&seq=274 (accessed March 28, 2020).  Rolston. Home of the Brave, 186.  “Captain Delaney Tells How He Met Lincoln,” Harrisburg Telegraph, Feb. 12, 1909.  Ibid.  “Lackawanna’s Supremacy,” Scranton Tribune, Aug. 28, 1894.  Senate of Pennsylvania, Virtue, Liberty, Independence: Pennsylvania’s State Senators in the Civil War 1861-1865. (Senate Printing Office, 2008), 11. https://pasenategop.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/CivilWar3.pdf (accessed March 28, 2020).  “Brave Soldier’s Reward: Captain J.C. Delaney Awarded a Medal of Honor by the President,” Scranton Tribune, Aug. 25, 1894.  “Delaney Will Be Buried Beside General Kerwin,” Harrisburg Daily Independent, April 15, 1915.