Joseph Mason was born in 1820 in Ireland, probably the son of Irish natives the Rev. Joseph (1778-1871) and Jane (1784-1867) .
Joseph (younger) married Jane Radcliff (d. 1854) in Ireland on November 9, 1842, and they had at least two children: Elizabeth Frances (b. 1848) and George Andrew Armstrong (b. 1850 ).
Joseph and his extended family left Ireland sometime between 1848 and 1850. By 1850 Joseph was working as a and living with his wife and children in Greenfield, Wayne County, Michigan; also living with them were his parents and probably his sister Elizabeth Mason (b. 1829) and Elizabeth Conway (b. 1834). Jane died in August of 1854, presumably in Michigan. (Elizabeth Frances is also reportedly living with Thomas Radcliff in 1850 in Greenfield.)
By 1860 Joseph was a day laborer working for and/or living with James Magers, a farmer in Dewitt, Clinton County. That same year his daughter (?) Elizabeth Frances was living with the John Mason family in Chicago’s 7th Ward. Soon after the war broke out Joseph joined a Lansing militia company called the “Williams’ Rifles,” whose members would serve as the nucleus of Company G.
He was 41 years old and probably living in Clinton County (or perhaps in Lansing) when he enlisted as First Sergeant in Company G on May 10, 1861.
Joseph was taken sick soon after arriving at Cantonment Anderson in Grand Rapids. According to Corporal Joseph Stevens of Company G, Joseph was apparently sick, presumably in his quarters, in late May. “It is a wonder there are no more,” noted Stevens, “when we consider the cold and rainy weather for the past week.” And Frank Siverd, also of Company G, wrote home shortly before the regiment left Grand Rapids on June 13, 1861, that Joseph was “on the sick list, but is taken care of in our own quarters, and is not subject to hospital discipline.”
Joseph soon recovered, however, and was promoted to and commissioned Second Lieutenant on August 1, 1861, replacing Jerome Ten Eyck who had resigned, and on August 14, the Grand Rapids Enquirer wrote that his promotion “will be gratifying intelligence to his numerous friends in this state.” On September 30, Frank Siverd of Company G wrote from Fort Richardson, Virginia, where the Regiment was in garrison, that
The National fast day was generally observed in the army of Potomac; that is, there was no fatigue parties or drills, and all except those on outpost duty had a day of rest. Our company, under command of Lieutenant Masson [Mason], were on picket or outpost duty, and hence did not know of such a thing as fast day, except so far as the practical part is concerned. This picket duty is not the most agreeable imaginable. That portion of the lines which we occupied extended through a thick wood, heavily set with underbrush and traversed by deep ravines. The path was marked by cutting out a low brush, and blazing the trees. Along this path, our men were placed in squads of three or four, at intervals of from ten to twenty rods, with instructions to be continually watchful and on the alert, and to shoot any person approaching from the direction of the enemies lines, which were supposed to be from forty to sixty rods in advance of us. Both of these orders seemed to be superfluous, as our boys were too anxious to get a shot at a secesh not to improve every opportunity, and knew too well the character of a wily foe to relax vigilance whenever the nature of the country would enable an enemy to creep almost within reach of our bayonets without being observed.
In early February of 1862 Frank Siverd wrote to Lansing relating a story which indicated Joseph’s genuine feeling of concern for his men. Private Amasy Johnson of Company G had a leg shot off in a recent engagement and he “has received an honorable discharge and is on his way to Michigan.” Siverd went on to say that “He will carry with him through life a reminder of the sport we used to enjoy at the celebrated Munson Hill. He stops on his way to get an artificial leg, the funds for the purchase of which were contributed by the company. Each enlisted man gave one dollar, Lieutenant Mason ten dollars and twenty dollars were appropriated from the company fund, making a total of one hundred and one dollars.”
Joseph was himself wounded severely in the thigh on May 31, 1862, at Fair Oaks, Virginia, subsequently promoted and commissioned First Lieutenant on June 9, replacing Lieutenant Abram Whitney.
As a consequence of his wounds, by mid-June Mason had returned to Michigan on a furlough. On the morning of June 16 Mason, along with Colonel Stephen Champlin, Captain Stephen Lowing and Lieutenants Simon Brennan and George Dodge, all of the Third Michigan, arrived in Detroit where they spent the night at the Exchange Hotel. “All of these officers,” wrote the Detroit Free Press, “were seriously, but it is hoped not dangerously, wounded, in the late terrible battle. . . . Lieutenant Mason, of company G, was wounded, probably by a buckshot, in the thigh, the shot passing through the limb. The wounded officers, although suffering much pain, bore themselves with that fortitude which is characteristic of the brave Michigan Third, and each one is looking forward anxiously to the time when he shall be permitted again to take his place in the Regiment. . . . During their stay here they were called upon by several of our citizens and their wounds were carefully dressed by Dr. Clark. Messers Lyon and Barstow were also assiduous in their attendance upon them.”
In August Joseph was reported to be recruiting for the Regiment. Shortly after beginning his recruiting duties, Mason wrote to Colonel R. H. Smith in Detroit on August 5, 1862, that he had “been round the different towns adjacent to Lansing and find that the feeling among the people is, that they will go when ‘obliged to’.” Mason informed Colonel Smith, who was in charge of recruiting in the state as well as military commander in Detroit, that “I have found two of my company here who have been wounded at Fair Oaks. They are not in condition to return to their company, as their wounds are not yet healed. They are men who could exert considerable influence here were they detailed. The names are John Broad and William Clark. I have had 50 posters struck off also a notice in the weekly [Lansing] State Republican.”
Indeed, by the following day the Republican reported that “Lieutenant Joseph Mason, of the Michigan Third Regiment, will be at the Eagle Hotel, in this city, for a few days for the purpose of obtaining men to up company G, in said Regiment. This was the first company which left this city for the seat of war, and it has been an honor to our County. An opportunity is now offered to such as feel disposed to enlist under tried and experienced officers, and in a Regiment which has reaped glorious honors on the field of battle. For particulars enquire of Lieutenant Mason, at the Eagle Hotel.”
Joseph remained in Lansing recruiting until October 14 when he left the city to rejoin the Regiment.
Although he was still troubled by his old wound, by the 23rd he had returned to Company G. “The boys of the 3d,” Orderly Sergeant Homer Thayer wrote on October 24, “as usual, are in good spirits, and Co. ‘G’ especially, were much pleased yesterday by the return of Lieutenant Mason.” On October 26 Edgar Clark of Company G wrote to his wife that Mason had just returned to the regiment on Thursday, October 23. “how long he will stay with us is impossible to tell,” Clark added. “The talk is that he will be superseded by a captain from one of the other companies where it rightfully belongs to him. If they do, he will resign, and I would if I was in his place.” And three days later Charles Church of Company G wrote to his parents that Mason “is now with his company and I think who will soon be a capt. of Co. G. ”
Reflecting the widespread sentiment in the company, the Republican prematurely promoted Joseph to Captain of Company G. “Lieutenant Joseph Mason,” wrote the paper, “has been promoted to the rank of Captain of that company, and left this city yesterday morning for his Regiment. We congratulate both the Captain and the company on his promotion. He is every inch a good military officer, if we are any judge of what constitutes such. Captain Mason leaves in his place here Lieutenant Stevens, to recruit for Co. G. We advise all who will enlist in this vicinity, to offer themselves at once for service in this crack company in the crack Regiment of the army.”
Joseph was officially promoted to Captain on January 8, 1863, commissioned January 1, a fact also noted by Charles Church in a letter home on February 24, 1863.
Joseph was killed in action on May 3, 1863, at Chancellorsville, Virginia.
Homer Thayer wrote that Mason “was killed on Sunday, by a piece of shell while the Regiment were in line supporting a Battery. He was one of the best officers in the Regiment and his loss is felt deeply, especially by our Company to which he has belonged since its organization.” And Charles Church wrote soon afterwards that the wounded “laid on the battlefield until they were nearly dead and fly blown and maggoty. A great many of the poor wounded were burnt to death on the field. The woods caught fire from the bursting of shell. Captain Mason of my company was killed by a piece of shell and a few wounds.”
Two days after the battle Edgar Clark wrote that “a piece of solid shot struck [Mason] in the breast and killed him instantly.” And Dan Crotty of Company F, wrote some years after the war that he recalled “Falling behind a line in front of the Chancellorsville House, we get the order to lie down, which is done gladly for a few minutes rest. The rebels pour shot and shell into our midst, and many a poor fellow rolls over without a groan. Captain Mason is killed lying down by my side; a piece of shell takes him in the bowels and kills him instantly.”
In his official report on the participation of the Third Michigan at Chancellorsville, Colonel Byron R. Pierce of the Third Michigan wrote that he could not “speak in too high terms” of Mason’s actions during the battle, “for, while still suffering from a wound in the leg, received at Fair Oaks, which rendered him unfit for rapid marches, I always found him with his company, cheering on his men and setting an example worthy of a true soldier. We shall mourn his loss as one of the brave who have fallen in the defense of their country.” He added that Captain Mason along with several other officers killed and wounded at Chancellorsville, “were constantly with their companies, and distinguished themselves for bravery and coolness under fire.”
Joseph was presumably buried among the unknown soldiers interred on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. Edgar Clark wrote home on May 28, 1863, that the regiment was driven “two miles from where he died and none of us know what became of his body, where it is buried or not.”
The G.A.R. Joseph Mason Post No. 248 in Wacousta was named in his honor and a G.A.R. statue of Mason was erected, possibly in 1904, in Wacousta cemetery.
In 1863 Edward Mason and Thomas Radcliffe, guardians of Joseph’s children, and living in Detroit, Michigan, filed an application on their behalf for a minor child’s pension, which was granted (no. 52160).