Voluntary Corps of Engineers in the Civil War: Service of Martin Fahey
By Melinda Luna PE, Chair, History & Heritage Committee
William Allan Hayes PE, ASCE Texas Section volunteer and fellow History & Heritage Committee member, discovered early civil engineer and relative, Martin J. Fahey, in his Texas family history. Hayes wondered what role Fahey played in United States history during his time and discovered connections all the way to the Corps of Engineers in the Civil War.
During the Civil War, more civil engineers were needed to help build facilities such as roads, fortifications, and bridges for move military forces to move across. To meet this need, Congress authorized three companies of engineers on August 3, 1861. Engineer resources available before the authorization consisted of 43 officers and a single company of troops which were stationed in the United State Military Academy at West Point. The officers were known as the Corps of Engineers, and they provided training for the cadets.
One of the three companies authorized in August 1861 was the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteer Engineers. The leadership of this volunteer engineering corps looked for “superior men” who were educated or were outstanding mechanics. They put out flyers in New York advertising the opportunity as a “rare chance for recruits”. Duties of the men would include planning, construction, and repair of all fortifications along with work on bridges, surveying and recons for the military.
Colonel Edward W. Serrell, an immigrant from England and an experienced civil engineer, led some of the New York company’s recruiting. Serrell’s experience before 1861 was very impressive, with project highlights including the 1848 Panama Survey, Northern Railroad of New Hampshire, Central Railroad of New Jersey, plans for the suspension bridge over Niagara River in Lewiston, New York, managing building issues with the Houssen Tunnel, and the Bristol Bridge over the Avon River in England (one of the longest spans in England at that time).
The company of men led by Serrell took on several projects. They built Artillery batteries at Port Royal Sound in South Carolina and Fort Pulaski in Georgia. The engineers also built watch towers for the Battle of Fort Sumter and stabilized slopes for the Marsh Battery in North Carolina, in addition to other projects that likely went undocumented.
The lives of these men were not easy because, for example, most of the barracks did not have any heat and were not the best accommodations. Some letters in other regiments indicate that the companies struggled to get enough to eat at times. The salary of most of these men was $13 dollars a month, which equates to about $400 dollars a month in 2019 dollars. Some of this money was withheld because not all of the pay masters would immediately honor the fact that the engineering corps men were being paid more than the standard wage of infantry men. The 1st Regiment of New York Volunteer Engineers consisted of 287 men, often referred to as Serrell’s Engineers. Although Serrell’s Engineers were expected primarily to build and not fight, they did have to join in the fighting in some instances. Company rosters called out around 116 men in this regiment who died, showing that on top of hard conditions, the company was exposed to battle.
The volunteer process for the New York Volunteer Engineers typically worked with engineers signing up for 3 years at a time. Engineers who were a part of the 1st Regiment proudly wore a navy blue square badge with gold frill and the text that read “N.Y.S.V.” One of these men was Martin Joseph Fahey, who eventually moved to Texas and lived in Navasota.
Martin J. Fahey, part of a large Irish farming family, was born on October 1, 1837 to parents Patrick and Honora Fahey in Galway Ireland. Martin immigrated to New York to escape the potato famine in 1861. He was 24 years old when he signed up for the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteer Engineers, joining as a means of getting a job rather than out of any feelings against the South. Not much is known about Fahey’s earlier life, but he had to have some potential to pass Edward Serrell’s standards. Fahey served from August 28, 1861 to October 10, 1864. As a successful farmer, he then moved to Texas, as many others were doing at the time, in search of owning land.
Family history shared by Allan Hayes describes Martin J. Fahey as standing about 5’-7.5” and having brown hair and blue eyes. He married Annie Cordelia Calhoun in 1872 and had 13 children. He worked to educate his children, which included sending some to Texas A&M University. One of his sons, Martin Joseph Fahey, Jr. also joined the Corps of Engineers. Hayes worked to get Fahey’s service recognized as that of an early engineer with the placement of a grave marker giving the dates of his service.
How many other civil engineers have similar stories of discovering early engineers in your family history? Perhaps you have yet to discover them. If you would like to investigate early engineers, whether a part of your family or not, please feel free to email me.