The Irishman They Couldn’t Kill: Wounded Six Times at First Bull Run

Irishman John Donovan served with the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry in the first major battle of the American Civil War, at Bull Run, Virginia. His unit fought side by side with the 69th New York State Militia, as part of the brigade commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman. For Donovan, this first day of fighting on 21st July 1861 would also prove to be his last. He recounted the incredible story of his survival against the odds to the Irish-American newspaper, who published it on 9th September 1862.

First Battle of Bull Run (Kurz & Allison 1889)

First Battle of Bull Run (Kurz & Allison 1889)

John Donovan described his day as follows:

Went into an engagement at Bull Run, Sunday, July 21, 1861, at 10 o’clock, a.m., or thereabouts. Marched up the hill after getting over a fence, and on reaching nearly to the brow I was struck by a rifle ball in the calf of my right leg, outside, passing through to the skin on the other side. In the cars on the way to Richmond the next evening, a young man, looking among the wounded prisoners, wanted me to let him take it out and keep the ball, to which I consented, and he cut it out. 

After being hit as above I stepped back to the fence, sat down and bound up my leg to keep it from bleeding. I then got up and loaded and fired from where I stood. After firing three times, another ball hit me in the left heel, glancing up along near my ankle joint. This ball remained in about eight weeks, when my leg, being badly festered, the prison hospital surgeon lanced it one evening, and in the night the ball worked down, so I got it out the next morning.

After being hit the second time I still kept loading and firing as fast as I could. In about ten minutes, as near as I can judge, a third ball struck me in the right side, which still remains somewhere within me. This disabled me somewhat for a short time, but I again loaded and fired two or three times as well as I could, when I was struck in the right arm (while in the act of firing) about midway between my elbow and shoulder joints, the ball running up towards my neck. The ball was taken out about nine weeks afterwards by the hospital surgeon at Richmond, about half away from my shoulder joint to my neck bone. I fired my musket but once after this, as the recoil of it hurt my shoulder so, I was unable to bear it.

I then left the fence to get behind a tree standing some two hundred and fifty yards off, and picked up a revolver which lay on the ground, just after I left the fence, at which time a bullet struck on my right wrist glancing off from the bone. I went a little further towards the tree, when some twelve or fifteen Confederate soldiers came out of the woods directly towards me.

I fired the revolver at them three times, and just as I fired the third barrel, a bullet fired by one of this company struck me just below my left eye, going into my head. I knew nothing more until about noon the next day (Monday). When I came to I found myself lying right where I fell the day before. I tried to get up, but could not. After this I made several ineffectual attempts to crawl away to the shade of a tree, the sun shining very hot. About four p.m., a couple of soldiers came along, picked me up, and carried me to the cars, and I was sent to Richmond, afterwards sent to Alabama, and finally released on parole. The bullet still remains in my head; the hospital surgeon says it lies somewhere near my right ear (the sense of hearing being entirely lost in that ear), the drum, or typanum having been injured by it. The slightest touch on my chin, or near it, causes a sever pain in my right temple and over the ear. I cannot see at all with my left eye. I cannot bear to be out in the sun; it makes me dizzy and my head pains me severely; so also does more than ordinary exercise. Ordinarily, when sitting quiet, my head only occasionally troubles me- a little dizziness and heaviness is about all- except when out in the sun or heated, as before stated; and also when I attempt to lift anything, it puts me in severe pain in my head, and my eyes pain me exceedingly, as well then as when heated or out in the sun. I am obliged to keep out of the sun as much as possible on account of this excruciating pain in my head and eyes, and when I read my eyes fill with water, and I have to rest. I cannot write a letter of ordinary length. I have to stop several times for this and from dizziness. There is occasionally a dimness comes over my right eye even when quiet, but not very often. The surgeon said the bone around my left temple was shattered, and that pieces thereof would work out; none has to my knowledge. The bullet which entered my right side has not yet given me any great trouble. (1)

Records confirm that John Donovan enlisted as a Private in Company B, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, on 22nd May 1861. At that time he resided in Houston, Minnesota. The Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers states that he was wounded five times at Bull Run, made a prisoner, and discharged due to disability on his release. His survival despite receiving so many wounds is remarkable; despite this, the severe impact these injuries had on his life highlight the legacy of suffering that many American Civil War veterans had to endure long after the guns fell silent. (2)

(1) Irish American; (2) Roster 1886: 351;

References

Irish American, 9th September 1862: ‘A Man Wounded Six Times in One Battle’

Wisconsin Adjutant General’s Office 1886. Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861- 1865, Volume 1

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Categories: Battle of Bull Run, Wisconsin

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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5 Comments on “The Irishman They Couldn’t Kill: Wounded Six Times at First Bull Run”

  1. Joseph Maghe
    January 24, 2012 at 3:30 am #

    An excellent account… thanks for bringing it to light.

    • January 25, 2012 at 8:42 am #

      Hi Joe,

      No problem, glad you enjoyed it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  2. emeralds82
    January 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    Wow Damian, was he the John McClane of his day ? ;) Really enjoyed reading this post!!

    • January 26, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

      Thanks! That is a good comparison! How he kept getting up for more is incredible, it almost defies belief

  3. emeralds82
    January 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    Reblogged this on Emeralds82 and commented:
    For those interested in reading about the Irish involvement in the American Civil War.. I can’t speak highly enough of this blog!!

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