John McGraw was born in Ontario, Canada in 1835 to Irish parents. His family then moved to Western New York to work on the Erie Canal. He worked as a stonecutter and lived on Reynolds Street in the 8th Ward of Rochester, NY. He was a private in the Union Army during the US Civil War, serving in Company E of the 140th NY Volunteer Infantry. Though newspaper clippings refer to McGraw as a "conscript who volunteered", later writings refer to him as being drafted. John and his wife Mary had six children, two of whom died while he was serving in the Civil War. He was discharged from the Army with a paralyzed arm in 1865, and returned home to his wife and daughter, dying ten years later in 1875. Most of what we know about John McGraw comes from this collection of letters he wrote to Mary from the battlefields of Virginia to hospitals in Philadelphia and Maryland.