While little is known about the life of Dennis Coughlin, he deserves to be remembered for a singularly impressive accomplishment: he is the only major leaguer who is known to have been a combat-wounded Civil War veteran.
Dennis Coughlin’s parents, James and Neonora, immigrated to the United States from Ireland in the early 1840s with their daughter Betsy. They settled in Rochester, New York, where, despite the fact that both were in the forties, they added two more children: Dennis and Joana. Dennis was the middle child, most likely born in January of 1844.
By the late 1850s Rochester was a baseball hotbed, boasting a sizable number of clubs. (Astifan, 5-8) No doubt Dennis Coughlin belonged to one, and no doubt his allegiance to the game puzzled his immigrant parents, but the details of his involvement are lost to history.
The advent of the Civil War in 1861 forced many young men to put baseball out of their minds, and Dennis Coughlin was one of them. On August 27, 1862, he enlisted as a Private in the Union Army and on September 13 he joined Company E of New York’s 140th Infantry. This regiment became known as the Rochester Race Horses and had a distinguished career, being stationed almost exclusively in Virginia and taking part in famed battles at Gettysburg, The Wilderness and Petersburg. Coughlin earned promotion to full Corporal on December 10, 1863, and to full Sergeant on March 1, 1865. He was wounded on June 26, 1864, during the Petersburg campaign. He was mustered out on June 3, 1865, in Alexandria and returned to Rochester, where he filed for a disability pension the next year.
His injuries were not severe enough to prevent him from continuing to play baseball for the Excelsiors of Rochester. In 1868, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he accepted a job as a clerk in the Treasury department and joined the famed National Base Ball Club of Washington.
It was no coincidence that he joined both at the same time. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch was a baseball fan, and he and Nationals officer Arthur Pue Gorman actively used the department’s clerkships to recruit baseball players from New York state to play for the Nationals. (Fox, 184-191) In 1890 Gorman, by then a U.S. Senator, acknowledged having used departmental jobs to improve the ball club, explaining that “in those days there was no such thing as civil-service reform, and the majority of our members were men who held official positions and wielded a great deal of influence.” (Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1890) Coughlin was probably recommended by Harry Berthrong, who had served in the same regiment and gone on to achieve a reputation as a star in the baseball firmament.
Coughlin doesn’t seem to have struck his contemporaries as a star, but he became a regular for the Nationals and showed his versatility by playing the outfield and several infield positions. By 1869, open professionalism had come to baseball and the support of the Treasury department was no longer enough to keep the Nationals competitive. The club continued to play, but it ceased to be a national powerhouse and Treasury clerkships ceased to be used as recruiting tools.
Dennis Coughlin, however, remained in his position as a treasury clerk and also experienced a brief stint in the first major league, the National Association. In 1872, the Nationals paid the $10 entry fee to join the league. The experiment mainly served to show how far the Nationals had fallen from their previous status as a national power, as the club lost all of its 11 games. But it did gain Dennis Coughlin a place in the baseball encyclopedias and he batted an impressive .297 while making starts at center field, first base, second base and shortstop.
Little is known about Coughlin’s subsequent life. On the 1870 and 1880 censuses he was listed with a wife named Mary, but on later censuses his marital status is given as “single.” He continued to work as a treasury clerk until 1913, giving him a tenure with the department of nearly forty-five years. On May 17, 1913, Dennis Coughlin died suddenly. Three days later the Washington Post published a brief notice that referred to him as a Sergeant in Company E of New York’s 140th Regiment but mentioned no family members or other details about his life. Appropriately, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Priscilla Astifan, “Baseball in the Nineteenth Century,” Rochester History LII, No. 3; Stephen Fox, Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football, and Basketball in National Memory (New York, 1994); contemporary newspapers; military and census records and city directories.