FREEHOLD, N.J. – Thomas Fallon had been in the United States barely two years when he signed up to join the Union’s 37th New York Infantry in 1861.
The Irishman fought in more than 20 major Civil War battles, waded through the Savannah canal and once captured 29 Confederates, eventually becoming Freehold Borough’s only Medal of Honor recipient.
Yet somehow his medal spent the last six decades at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, under another war veteran’s name.
“I know that since 1957 that medal has not honored the man that it’s due to honor,” said Muriel Smith, a local historian. “So it’s about time 100 years later that he be honored for what he did during the Civil War.”
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Smith spent three years calling on the college and then on the U.S. Army to return Fallon’s medal. She and Middletown resident Glenn Cashion, a descendant of Fallon, even enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. On Monday night, they finally held the commendation in their hands.
“Thank God for men like Private Thomas Fallon, and thank God the medal is back home,” Cashion, 78, told a packed room in Freehold Borough Hall.
Fallon arrived in New York City in 1859 and settled in Freehold, Cashion said. Barely two years later, he signed up to join Company K of the 37th New York Infantry, also known as the “Irish Rifles.” He fought in Virginia in the First and Second Battles of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredericksburg, among others.
At the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, he was sent to the skirmish line with nine other soldiers. Only four made it back. He was put on a “sick list,” but he insisted on fighting and participated in the Battle of Fair Oaks.
Fallon was discharged after two years of service but re-enlisted four months later as a sergeant in the 35th New Jersey Infantry. At the Battle of Big Shanty in Georgia, he knocked down a Confederate officer with his musket, capturing him and 28 soldiers.
He received the Medal of Honor in 1891 for his feats in Williamsburg and Big Shanty, according to the Medal of Honor website. He was one of more than 1,500 Civil War veterans and one of 146 Irishmen who received the medal.
“Yes, the Irish immediately fell in love with our country. They were willing to participate in battle and fought gallantly,” Cashion said Monday night. “My great-uncle epitomized the inner strength of each and every Medal of Honor recipient.”
Tracing the history
For most of his life, Cashion had no idea he was related to this war hero.
Cashion, who retired from the telecommunications industry in 2001, took an interest in researching his lineage. That research led him down a list of names in Freehold’s St. Rose of Lima Church records, where he came across Fallon years later.
“I looked up every baptism, death and marriage record, going back to the beginning,” he told the Asbury Park Press. “My family was back there in the beginning.”
Cashion’s ancestors fled Ireland during the potato famine in the mid-19th century. They found work in Monmouth County, which was known for potato farming. Among them was his great-grandmother Ann Garrity and her sister, Catherine Garrity.
Cashion eventually learned that Catherine Garrity married Fallon in between his enlistments, and they had a daughter.
Meanwhile, Muriel Smith was researching Medal of Honor recipients with local ties and came across Fallon’s credentials. She learned that he had received the Medal of Honor, but that in 1957 the Army handed it over to Dickinson College’s Archives & Special Collections department for an exhibit honoring Gen. Horatio Collins King, an alumnus of the school who had also received a Medal of Honor in the Civil War.
“It’s sinful, it’s wrong,” Muriel Smith said on Monday.
When asked about the mix-up, college spokeswoman Christine Baksi said the college’s library director wrote to the Army and requested a replica of a Medal of Honor for King’s exhibit.
“The army sent an actual Medal of Honor to us, which we now know belonged to Fallon,” Baksi said.
She started calling officials at Dickinson College in 2016 asking to have the Medal of Honor returned to Cashion’s family and Freehold Borough. Eventually, they stopped responding.
Muriel Smith didn’t take no for an answer. She got the borough’s blessing to continue contacting the college, and by the end of 2017, she learned that Cashion was related to Fallon.
“Things don’t happen by accident,” Muriel Smith said Monday night.
Cashion dug up family records to prove the connection. Muriel Smith drove to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a three-hour drive from the borough, and demanded a meeting with the school president.
The meeting never happened, but she did track down the medal. When she turned it over, she found the name “Fallon” inscribed.
Baksi, the spokeswoman, said Dickinson got in touch with the Army and started working with the agency directly instead of with Muriel Smith.
“We didn’t feel it was within our right to return this medal to Mrs. Smith with a simple request,” Baksi said. “During the process, we were working with the Army going through the correct channels.”
The college sent the medal to Fort Knox in June 2018, Muriel Smith said. She called the Army. No luck.
Muriel Smith and Cashion asked Congressman Smith for help getting a response. Smith’s office sent a letter in October, noting that Cashion is “the last living descendant of Private Fallon.” The Army denied the request a week later.
His office sent another letter in November. That one was denied on the grounds that Cashion wasn’t direct next of kin.
The third and final letter went out shortly after. In a reply dated Dec. 20, Brig. Gen. Robert W. Bennett Jr. said his staff would deliver the medal, though the original ribbon was lost and could not be remade.
“I’ve listened to many Medal of Honor recipients over the years,” said Cashion, a Marine Corps reservist during the Vietnam era and a Freehold Marine Corps League member. “They are the most humble creatures in the world, and they’ve fought the most heroic battles in the world.”
“To get it back,” he added, “I was dumbstruck when it happened.”
Smith’s office also offered to look into the mix-up at Dickinson College. His office confirmed that the Army sent Fallon’s medal to the college in 1957 in response to a letter.
The tiny, brass-colored medal returned to Freehold Borough on Monday night in a soft case. Cashion said he’s discussing with local officials and historians where to display the commendation.
“Outside of Ireland, this is the only place anybody in the world knows where he lived. He raised his family here. He belonged to St. Rose Church. He was a tailor here,” Muriel Smith said. “I can’t think of any other place that it should be.”
Follow Steph Solis on Twitter: @stephmsolis