‘Hell Personified was Close at Hand': Captain John Donovan’s Account of Fredericksburg

Captain John H. Donovan of the 69th New York went into action at the Battle of Fredericksburg already bearing the scars of war. While serving with the Irish Brigade at Malvern Hill in July 1862 he had suffered the loss of one of his eyes and the mutilation of his right ear. He had then been captured by the Rebels, but had returned to his regiment by October, when he was presented with a Tiffany’s sword by friends from Plattsburgh, New York as a token of appreciation for his sacrifice. At Fredericksburg Donovan and his Company G passed through the vortex of battle once more. Only days after the bloodbath, the Irishman described his experience. (1)

Captain John H. Donovan, 69th New York Infantry (www.69thnewyork.co.uk)

Captain John H. Donovan, 69th New York Infantry (www.69thnewyork.co.uk)

Donovan had been enrolled in the 69th New York as a Lieutenant in Company D on 5th January 1862. Within a year the 21-year-old would be a grizzled veteran. He was destined to be wounded once more at Fredericksburg, his last battle with the Irish Brigade. He was transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps in 1863, where he eventually rose to become a Major in the 19th Regiment. The Irishman was brevetted a Colonel of Volunteers on 13th March, 1865. John Donovan’s extensive account of Fredericksburg is not well-known, but it provides a fascinating insight into the man’s emotions and feelings only days after the carnage of the fight. It was printed in the New York Irish-American on 3rd January 1863, and it is appropriate given the proximity of the 150th anniversary of the battle to reproduce it here in full. (2)

Hon. And most esteemed Sir:- Although the left side and arm are yet powerless, I have still the use of the right arm and hand: and, resting against my pillows, by degrees, I have used that hand in giving you these few details of that terrible engagement fought on the banks of the Rappahannock. The battle of Fredericksburg was the bloodiest and most severe I have yet experienced, while, in the meantime, it has been the most void of good results to the nation. This battle came very unexpectedly on the troops. It has been believed almost to a certainty that the army before Fredericksburg were going- had virtually gone- into winter quarters; and it was not until the very latest order came, they could believe otherwise. For days and weeks the troops had been industriously engaged in erecting log huts and rendering themselves as comfortable as possible against the fast approaching cold weather. When the final order for three days’ cooked rations and sixty extra rounds of ammunition came, an involuntary cessation in the building line took place. A general feeling of disappointment ensued, – Some would fold their arms and look calmly on their handiwork; more walked round in apparent disgust; while others fell to work. In the excitement of the moment, and razed their shanties to the ground “for spite.” A magnificent Hall- erected by the Irish Brigade, in which was to come off the grand banquet on the reception of their new stands of colors- was abandoned. A new train of thought occupied the general mind; and new reflection seemed to pervade all.

At fifteen minutes to five o’clock on the morning of the 11th, the signal guns were fired, and soon afterwards the engagement commenced, which, on the eve of the third day, proved so reckless on the part of our Generals, so unsuccessful to our cause, and so destructive to our fine army. We marched from our encampment at day-break in the direction of the river, and, having gone some distance, halted in a favourable position, out of view of the enemy and reach of his shells- the cannonade on both sides was now terrific- almost equal to that at Malvern Hill, July 1st. The sun was hot and the atmosphere quite hazy. It remained so all day. Several casualties occurred to our troops engaged in laying the pontoon bridges, in which enterprise the most splendid bravery was exhibited under the eye of the General-in-Chief. The sun went down behind the hills, leaving a bright and beautiful red skein along the south-western horizon. This formed a magnificent background to the grand and awful scene before us. A panorama, the grandeur of which has seldom, if ever, been witnessed here, met the gaze. The entire city of Fredericksburg appeared through a the haze and smoke of battle one prolonged sheet of flame, with nothing unconsumed but the spires of its churches, which, in solemn majesty, overlooked a supposed heap of ruin and a scene of desolation. The unabated fury of the cannonade rendered the scene more terrible and grand- the flash of battery after battery could now distinctly be observed through the dusk of evening, before the accompanying sound reached the ear- round shot went whistling and crashing in every direction; shells burst on the ground and in the air- their dark fragments shooting off in every direction from the massive volumes of fire and smoke, while the thunders of the discharges and the explosions rolled along the bosom of the Rappahannock, the reverberations crashing and rambling in prolonged echo for miles through the surrounding hills and valleys. In view of this splendid panorama we received orders to bivouack for the night. The boys felt in excellent spirits. The supposed intended plan for the capture of Richmond and the utter destruction of the Confederate army was circulated freely around, and it appeared so plausible and expedient that a great many believed it. The plan in circulation was, that General Banks and the army of Fortress Monroe were marching on Petersburgh and Richmond; that General Sigel had crossed the Rappahannock further up, with the intention of falling on General Lee’s left flank and rear, with a view to turn it and prevent a retreat of the rebel army to Richmond; that General Franklin was coming up on the left, and that one grand and simultaneous attack of all the Union forces in and around Virginia was intended.

Officers distributing the green boxwood sprigs to the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg (Klem, The National Tribune)

Officers distributing the green boxwood sprigs to the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg from William McCarter’s National Tribune account (Klem, The National Tribune)

Friday morning, Dec. 12th, arrived: the condition of the weather much the same as on the day previous. At an early hour the troops were under arms, prepared to make the passage of the Rappahannock. A clear and level plain stretched away to right and left, and down with gentle slope to the river’s bank. Here on this plain, in the beaming sun of early morning was presented a scene that made the breast of the soldier and the patriot grow big with emotion. The bright banners of innumerable battalions and the dazzling glare of the national ensign came sweeping down towards the river. In this manner column after column came pressing down from every direction, until the whole plain became covered and presented a mass of solid squares. This was Sumner’s grand division, the second and ninth army corps. Whomsoever would say to me at that time that anything else but certain victory awaited this army, I would have looked upon him with scorn and contempt. I was not aware that hell personified was so close at hand and ready for our destruction.

The troops crossed in three columns at a double quick, without opposition by the enemy, and were drawn up in line of battle by brigades on the south bank of the river, where they remained till late in the forenoon of Saturday, resting on their arms. This was decidedly unpleasant as well as uncomfortable to the troops who were obliged to remain so all night in the cold and without bivouack fires. The reason of so lengthy a delay in this awkward and unpleasant position began to grow somewhat mysterious. Some attributed it to the fact that Franklin had not got into position on the left, while others supposed we were only waiting the arrival of the moment for the combined grand and simultaneous attack. The former seemed to be the most correct, as a little before sunset Franklin appeared to be feeling his way up by a brisk cannonade on the left and was welcomed in loud style by the rebel batteries.

Everything was quiet during the night, and until late next morning a fearful calm ensued, but was only that calm that is said generally to precede a storm. The memorable Saturday had at length arrived. Preparations were made and everything got ready for the great work; every man in his place and every officer at his post.

The Irish Brigade was drawn up in line of battle at ordered arms and a parade rest. A green sprig was ordered by General Meagher to be placed in the caps of both officers and men, himself first setting the example. At about halfpast nine o’clock we were marched up to the centre of the city, nearer the enemy, and formed in line of battle on a street running nearly east and west. Here brigade and regimental hospitals were established. – General Meagher, accompanied by General Hancock and the members of his staff, now addressed his “little Brigade,” each regiment separately, briefly in his eloquent style, and in words of real inspiration. Each man was made aware of the great and terrible work before him, and each man measured in his mind the part he had to perform. The General’s remarks were responded to by the men with great spirit and acclamation. Col. Nugent gave instructions to his “boys” in his usual calm and earnest manner, when every man stood in his place, with set lip and flashing eye, awaiting the word to advance.- French’s division was first to attach the enemy, supported by Zooke’s, Meagher’s and Caldwell’s brigades of Richardson’s division in succession. General French made the attack at about twelve o’clock M., when the battle became general. Zooke’s brigade moved up, followed by Meagher’s. The aspect is already terrible. Noonday is turned to dusk by the smoke and storm of battle. A ravine in rear of the town, through the centre of which runs a mill stream, seven or eight feet wide, over which we were obliged to cross on a rude bridge, was swept by a raking fire from the enemy’s batteries. Having crossed this, the Brigade halted in line of battle, the men relieved themselves of their blankets and haversacks, and awaited the order to advance. French’s division fire, fall, lie down, scatter, rally; but in vain- it is already placed hors-de-combat. Zooke’s brigade advance in fine style, but, God! Mark how they fall; see how its ranks are thinned; still on they go. – “Irish Brigade, advance,” is heard in bold, sweet accents above the clamor of battle.’ “Forward; double quick; guide centre;” and on it dashes through the corn field in the face of the most invulnerable point of the enemy’s works. We are greeted by a murderous fire of grape and canister and Minnie balls. Gaps are opened in the ranks, but they close again and move still onward. The first fence is gained and passed. (Here

The Irish Brigade advance on Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg (Klem, The National Tribune)

The Irish Brigade advance on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg from William McCarter’s National Tribune account (Klem, The National Tribune)

Adjutant Young of the 88th, fell on my left, wounded through the body- a brave, cool young officer.) The enemy now fall back from his first behind his second line of breastworks. We gain the second fence, within sixty yards of the enemy’s batteries, and are met by a most disastrous infilade and direct fire from the rebel artillery and infantry. We have not a single piece of artillery to support us, and yet we stand against shot and shell, grape and canister, Minnie and conical balls, to fight a formidable enemy, artillery and infantry posted behind stone walls and fortifications, with buck and ball fired from Harper’s Ferry muskets. It was impossible for human nature to withstand this, and yet were we left here all the afternoon unrelieved. No order to fall back came, and no order to do was [envisaged?]: the Irish Brigade was left to be sacrificed between the fire of the enemy from the front and flanks and the fire of our own troops, afraid to advance from the rear. The 88th joined the 69th on the left, and these regiments fought together like brothers: no brothers could have greater feelings of real brotherly affection. Their ranks are already horribly thinned, and still “leaden rain and iron hail” is streaming upon them; but in all of this, there is no terror for men whose choice is “death before dishonor.” The exasperated felling caused by the fact that we had not in our power the means to inflict ample retaliation on the enemy for the injuries we were receiving, was the most unpleasant feature of all. The 5th New Hampshire, of General Caldwell’s brigade, was the only regiment that came to our assistance during the entire engagement. – The men and officers of this gallant regiment and those of the 69th New York entertain for each other the friendship of brothers. They have been together on every march and almost every battle- and here, on this ever memorable day to those who shall survive it, together

                The fight and fall and bleed-

                And mingle blood with blood;

                A prayer ascends to Heaven, a sigh-

                God, Union, Flag, Liberty and Laws! – They die!

Halt of Wilcox's Troops in Caroline Street previous to going into Battle, 13th December 1862 (Arthur Lumley, Library of Congress)

Halt of Wilcox’s Troops in Caroline Street previous to going into Battle, 13th December 1862 sketched by Dublin born Arthur Lumley (Library of Congress)

Here I take a look along the shattered ranks: – an awful sight. See that number of brave fellows now stretched in their gore, who but an hour ago were the personification of life and strength and manliness: who had marched up with stout hearts to the fray, – a march only from earth to eternity: they will never march again. The clouds grow darker, the storm is unceasing in its fury, the casualties increase- Col. Nugent is struck down wounded, and borne off the field. The command now devolves on Major Cavanagh, acting Lieutenant Colonel. “Blaze away and stand to it, boys,” cries the “little Major.”- Capt. Thomas Leddy, acting Major, who had arrived only the day before the battle from Washington, was wounded severely in the left arm. He had but recovered from the effects of a wound received at Malvern Hill. Lieut. Callaghan, First Lieutenant of my company, who had been detailed to command Co. H, was wounded in four different places. He is an “old veteran;” Fredericksburg, according to his own statement, was his fortieth battle, and nobly did he fight it. Second Lieut. David Burke, of my company, while bravely performing his duty, received a rather severe wound in the left shoulder. First Lieut. Bernard O’Neill, commanding Co. D. on my right, was severely wounded while in the act of discharging a musket at the enemy. One of my men remarked to me- “You are wounded, Captain.” “Where!” “In the head,” was the reply; but I found it to be my hat instead, which had been pierced with two bullets. – The greatest coolness and bravery were displayed by Generals Meagher, Caldwell and Zooke. General Hancock was also on the field, mounted, but only to witness the wholesale slaughter of his fine division in a reckless engagement not of his choice or style of fighting. My own turn, as I supposed, had at last arrived. I was struck with a piece of spent shell on the left breast, rendering me insensible to the scenes that transpired around me for about the space of an hour, and causing symptoms which, for a few days, appeared quite serious. I also received a flesh wound or bruise on the left shoulder from a rifle ball which was stopped in its otherwise serious effects by striking my (metalic) shoulder strap, after perforating the over-coat, and before going through the under-clothing. When sensibility returned, the battle appeared to me like a dream, until a shell bursted close by, tearing up the earth and covering me with mud, fairly awaking me to a sense of reality. I looked up only to see the sun go down behind the rebel breastworks on the hill, upon no pleasing shouts of victory, no flank of the enemy turned by Sigel, no Banks,-nor, from the firing on the left, no ground gained by Franklin- nothing of any good obtained, while night was soon to cast its shadow upon a field of carnage and slaughter, the most frightful and terrible ever experienced, and still the bloody fight goes on. I take another look around me. Who are these lines of men that lie stretched along to my right and left, as if asleep on their arms, with the exception of an occasional shot from their midst? “Is it possible that we have been relieved by a new brigade?” “No!” was the answer that greeted my ears, coming from the lips of my First Sergeant, Joseph Hoban, a brave young soldier who was still by my side. “They are the dead and wounded soldiers and officers of the 69th, 88th and 5th New Hampshire.” Where is Major Cavanagh? “Carried away either dead or wounded from the field.” O God! This is truly awful- our gallant and brave Colonel, Acting Lieutenant Colonel, and Acting Major, are all cut down. Nugent, Cavanagh, Leddy, the heads of the family, gone: and these occasional shots I see fired are from the last remnants of the 69th and 88th. Capt. Toal, Lieuts. Bermingham, Buckley, Brennan of Co. B, Scully, Kearney, Manser, Murphy- these brave young

Bringing in the Wounded at Fredericksburg (Arthur Lumley/Library of Congress)

Bringing in the Wounded at Fredericksburg sketched by Dublin born Arthur Lumley (Library of Congress)

men are all severely wounded; while to my left the same sad story is told of the 88th, 63d, 116th, and 28th Massachusetts. The fire of our friends from the rear is now almost as destructive as that from our foes in front; therefore I considered it certain death at this time to endeavor to get out what remained of the regiment. I gave the order to the men to lie flat till the firing in our rear would somewhat cease. One of my own company turned on his back, his side to the enemy. I inquired why he did so, and he coolly answered that “he did not want to be shot in the back.” At dusk, the fire having slackened, I gave the order to fall back, when about a dozen men rose from amongst the dead and followed, three members of my own company and the first sergeant being a portion of the number. I got about half way between the fences in the corn field, and fell down from exhaustion, and the effect of my injuries, and as I rose again to go, my hat was shot off my head. I got through the first fence, and lay down to rest in rear of the 69th Pennsylvania Volunteers, where I remained until helped across the mill stream. Here I met Capt. P.K. Horgan, of the 88th, wounded in the shoulder and hip, and Capt. Clark, of the same regiment, wounded in the ankle. I now involuntarily did what before at any time I never could do- shed tears of gratitude for my own deliverance from instant death, and of sorrow for the many thousands of brave young fellows and comrades who fell that day, not martyrs to a cause, but victims to a grand blunder, and whom I shall never see again. To say that good generalship was displayed in the whole movement, would be to utter a falsehood, or to deny one’s self of the capacity or judgement to think or see differently; and while I this call it bad generalship, I look upon the whole affair as the result of political strategy, and the pressure of Radicalism on the actions and plans of a Good General. It appears of late to be the sole purpose of a certain class of politicians to sacrifice the army of the Potomac, for the design to kill certain Generals and to make room for others. How long this Infernal Radical conspiracy is to continue, remains for the army and the country to decide. The fires of this bloody conflagration have been fed too long, with the noble youth of the nation. I hope, sir, that I shall survive my wounds and injuries, and be able to fight again; but I trust in heaven, in the spirit of honesty and patriotism of the President, the army and the people; that the next battle will be fought for the Union, and not for the purpose of unmaking and making Generals.

I was delighted beyond expression to learn after the engagement, that Major Cavanagh was not killed, though severely wounded, and that Col. Nugent’s wound was not as serious as was at first reported. Both of these brave and gallant officers had gone through all the former engagements without a scratch, though in the very hottest of the fray, each time guiding and encouraging their men. Major William Horgan, of the 88th, was shot dead on the field. This brave and skilful officer is mourned by the surviving members of the brigade to a man. Captain Hart and Lieutenants Brady, Emmet and Roarty, of Gen. Meagher’s Staff, acquitted themselves with the most remarkable coolness, bravery and daring. Captains Handcock and Mitchell, and Lieut. Parker, of Gen. Handcock’s Staff, were also remarkable for their gallant display of their fine qualities of the true and brave soldier.

Since my arrival in this city I have heard several complaints made, to the effect that the heavy losses the Irish Brigade has sustained can be attributed in a great measure to Gen. Meagher, who has sent them, unnecessarily, into many of the fights in which they have been engaged. I have no doubt this report has spread to other parts of the State and country. The report is an unpardonable falsehood; and the contemptible set of poltroons who circulate it are neither friends of the General, his brigade or the good and glorious cause in which they have fought and suffered. On the contrary, as the General himself expressed it, in words of pathetic eloquence on the morning of the battle of Fredericksburg, within the hearing of every man of his brigade, he never sent them any place where he had not received orders to send them; and that he never had nor never would send them any place where he was not willing and ready to lend them aid and share with them in all their dangers. This, sir, is an indisputable fact; the General is a brave, noble and tender-hearted man, to which every surviving member of his brigade will give testimony if they speak the truth.

Burnside gives Franklin orders to evacuate the battlefield at Fredericksburg (Arthur Lumley/ Library of Congress)

Burnside gives Franklin orders to evacuate the battlefield at Fredericksburg sketched by Dublin born Arthur Lumley (Library of Congress)

What the government intend to do with the remnant of the brigade I know not. I can only say that as an “Irish Brigade” it has “fought its last battle;” and could the spirits of its honoured and immortal dead, whose rude graves spot the soil of Virginia and Maryland, but have the privilege or power to look down upon the future of this Republic they can now tell whether or not the cause for which they have offered up their lives is to perish; and if it is to perish, better by far that the few and disabled fragments that remain of their comrades had perished too on the battle-field, than to have survived as cripples to experience the agony of the awful wreck. If it is not to perish, but, on the contrary, to triumph, these noble souls could not have offered up their lives for a more glorious cause or grander earthly heritage; and their surviving comrades, though deprived of sight and limb, will have ample reason to shed tears of joy and gratitude for having lent their aid and spilled their blood in defence of so great a cause and in the consummation of so grand and noble an object.

In conclusion, I have the honor to remain, sir, your most obedient servant,

J.H.D. (3)

(1) New York Irish-American November 8th 1862; (2)  New York Adjutant General 1901:92, Phisterer 1912: 4236; (3) New York Irish-American January 3rd 1863;

References & Further Reading

New York Irish-American November 8th 1862. Sword Presentation in the Irish Brigade

New York Irish-American January 3rd 1863. Details of the Battle of Fredericksburg. By an Officer of the Irish Brigade

Adjutant-General 1901. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901

Phisterer, Frederick 1912. New York in the War of Rebellion 1861 to 1865, Volume 5

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Civil War Trust Battle of Fredericksburg Page

About these ads

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: 69th New York, Battle of Fredericksburg, Irish Brigade

Author:Damian Shiels

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

Follow Irish in the American Civil War

Follow Irish in the American Civil War via Social Media

5 Comments on “‘Hell Personified was Close at Hand': Captain John Donovan’s Account of Fredericksburg”

  1. December 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

    A brutally honest account of a brutal battle. That anyone who had to charge up that hill was able to come back down alive was a miracle.

  2. Joe Maghe
    July 29, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    Damian, Thanks once again for bringing often overlooked items to the light. I had never read Donovan’s account. The details are invaluable.

  3. Diane buckler
    June 11, 2014 at 3:39 am #

    I read this years ago on the 69th reenactors website. I don’t know if people realize it, that this picture was taken after Fredericksburg when he joined the Veterans Corp. this is a Major’s uniform

    • June 13, 2014 at 9:39 am #

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks for the information on that I appreciate it!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Seven Days « Several, Four, Many - January 9, 2013

    [...] ‘Hell Personified was Close at Hand’: Captain John Donovan’s Account of Fredericks… (irishamericancivilwar.com) [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,243 other followers

%d bloggers like this: