Many of the pension files I explore contain one or two particularly interesting documents or pieces of evidence. These tend to be historically eye-catching in their own right, but also always served a very specific purpose in the case being built by a prospective pensioner. Such documents were usually included to provide proof on a particular aspect of a claim, be it evidence of marriage, the age of children, the use of an alias, or provision of financial support. I want to highlight some of these documents in future posts on the site, as part of a series which I am calling Document Focus. The first of these relates to the efforts of Irish emigrant Catharine Donovan to prove both the service– and the fate– of her youngest child.
On 25 September 1915 a document was added to the dependent mother’s pension file of Catharine Donovan. It was one of a large number of like papers sent to the Pension Bureau by Erskine H. Potter of Toledo, Ohio, who had found it while settling the estate of a former pension agent. The document is fascinating in its own right. It was created at Bermuda Hundred, Virginia on 21 July 1864, at the camp of the 67th Ohio Infantry, a regiment in the Army of the James. Signed by Colonel Alvin Coe Voris, it marked the promotion of 21 year-old Irish-American Joseph Donovan to the rank of Corporal in the unit. Joseph’s mother Catharine had provided it to her pension agent to prove that her son had served at that rank and in that regiment. Her rationale in establishing this was to lend to weight to the testimony of a number of veterans of the 67th, who had a story to tell about what had befallen her son. (1)
Michael and Catharine Donovan had emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1840s, following a well-worn path through Canada to the United States. They and their three boys ultimately settled in Toledo, Ohio. The two eldest, Matthew (born c. 1838) and Daniel (born c. 1840) were both born in Ireland, with their younger brother Joseph coming along around 1843, after they had arrived in Canada. Michael Donovan died in 1855, leaving it to the boys to support their ageing mother Catharine. In 1860 the eldest, Matthew, who worked as a blacksmith, married and started a family of his own. As a result Catharine relied most heavily on her younger sons for support. Daniel, a laborer in 1860, didn’t wait to long to enlist in the army with the coming of war. In August 1861 he became a private in the 1st Ohio Cavalry– he would serve through the conflict, mustering out as a First Sergeant in September 1865. Joseph, who was an apprentice to a carpenter in Toledo when his brother went to war, was likely eager to don a uniform himself. He eventually did so in August 1862, when he became a private in Company F of the 67th Ohio Infantry. (2)
Joseph spent much of 1863 on operations in South Carolina, being involved in actions such as those against Fort Wagner. He was always good at sending money back to Catharine, but went the extra mile for her when he got home on furlough to Toledo in early 1864, following the regiment’s re-enlistment. That February he paid out to buy all the necessary materials so that his mother could have a new house. In addition to his own savings, Joseph borrowed additional finances to make the dream a reality. He employed local craftsmen to help him, men like carpenter and joiner Andrew Tuohy, who was one of a number of to work on the building. Mary Murphy, another Irish emigrant and Catharine’s neigbour in Toledo’s First Ward, also remembered Joseph’s efforts in this regard. Joseph didn’t stop there– on his return to his regiment, he sent back more money so that Catharine could hire mechanics to help complete the construction. (3)
Shortly after his return to the 67th Ohio in the Spring of 1864 Joseph and his comrades became part of the Army of the James. His steadfastness would be rewarded later during the summer, when on 21 July he was promoted to Corporal at Bermuda Hundred, the advancement that resulted in the creation of the warrant. As the year progressed, the 67th and the Army of the James continued, along with the Army of the Potomac, to battle Confederate forces around Petersburg and Richmond. It was events there in mid-October 1864 that ultimately led to the creation of the pension file for Catharine Donovan, the particulars of which also necessitated her need to establish her son’s service and fate. It was then that the 67th Ohio had the misfortune to be involved in a movement which, according to leading Petersburg historian Bryce Suderow, everyone “down to the lowliest private, knew …would accomplish nothing except sacrifice several hundred men.” (4)
In the early afternoon of the 13 October the 67th Ohio, part of Colonel Francis Pond’s First Brigade, First Division, Tenth Corps, moved forward towards the enemy in double column at half-distance. Although the soldiers stepped off towards their objective with a cheer, they knew their prospects of success were dim. Their aim was to attack some newly constructed Confederate earthworks that had been thrown up near the Darbytown Road, part of a new intermediate line in the Richmond defences. The brigade, joined by men of the 10th Connecticut Infantry, numbered some 570 men. They hoped to drive off the Rebels before they could consolidate their position, but that proved wishful thinking. One officer who participated in the attack recalled the action:
The circumstances surrounding us at the time were very discouraging indeed. We were compelled to charge their works at a point where they had a heavy flank fire upon us, and through thick underbrush and small timber, and then over heavy slashing where their artillery could rake us. The men all knew before going in the difficulties ahead; all the officers of the brigade were opposed to the charge, and reported so to the General commanding the corps; but it made no difference. Charge we must, and charge we did, and death reaped a rich harvest as a result. (5)
The carnage that the soldiers faced in seeking to drive home this attack were further described by brigade’s commander, Francis Pond:
After charging about 300 yards the column was assailed by a murderous fire of musketry from the front and left flank, the enemy appearing in a heavy force on the right, front, and left. The command struggled manfully forward, moving up to the edge of a slashing and cheveaux-de-frise, attacking a substantial breast-work. Many of the command crossed this and fell on the enemy’s works, in the breast-work…Human endurance could stand up no longer against this terrific of musketry and artillery, and the command was retired and re-formed… (6)
When the 67th Ohio Infantry re-formed, there was no sign of Corporal Joseph Donovan. Not only was he missing, but his commander in Company F, Captain Thomas Ward, was wounded. Struck in the left ankle, Ward’s foot had to be amputated the same day. He was taken to hospital in Fortress Monroe, where he died 13 days later (leaving behind a widowed wife in Toledo– the couple had only married a few months previously). The loss of Ward meant that the normal paperwork usually filed with respect to casualties in his command was incomplete. Joseph was never heard from again after 13 October, and it is likely that some of his comrades wrote to tell Catharine he had been killed. Before long his distraught mother began the process of filing for a dependent mother’s pension. However, she was informed that “the records…furnish no evidence of death in the case of Joseph Donovan…” There was no body, and no senior officer from his company to confirm his fate. Catharine therefore had to take a different tack. Having established through the Corporal’s Warrant that Joseph was her son, she sought affidavits from soldiers who had gone into action with her son that day, and who had seen what had happened to him. (7)
Corporal Thomas Quinn was another Irishman in the 67th Ohio. He had emigrated to the United States in 1852, and was with Joseph at Darbytown Road. He remembered that:
the 67th Regt were engaged in battle with the enemy on the south east side of Richmond…on the 13th day of October 1864…the said Joseph Donovan was directly in front of him…when he was struck by a musket ball…he saw Donovan fall immediately after which said Regiment fell back… (8)
In a second statement Quinn elaborated, suggesting that Joseph had been one of those to make it all the way to the Rebel works:
he saw…Joseph Donovan fall forward upon his face…he fell within a few feet of the enemys breastworks, that he [Quinn] was…Joseph Donovans rear rank man and was within ten feet of him when he saw…Donovan fall that he made an attempt to reach him and that he failed in consequence of the fire of the enemy being so brisk (9)
Private Patrick Fee, who was likely also Irish-American, was another who witnessed Joseph’s end:
…he [Fee] was within two files to the left of the said Joseph Donovan when he was shot that he saw him…fall and that he has not seen nor heard of him since. (10)
First Lieutenant William H. Kief, an officer in Company F, added his voice in evidence:
…he was First Lieutenant and in command of Co. F of the 67th Regiment Ohio Volunteers at the battle of Darbytown Roads in front of Richmond Virginia on the 13th day of October A.D. 1865 [sic.]…he was well acquainted with Joseph Donovan…and knew from his own personal knowledge that he…was killed in said battle… (11)
In addition to Quinn, Fee and Kief, First Sergeant Orville Eddy and Second Sergeant George Tappin also confirmed Joseph’s death, while the regimental surgeon James Westfall gave a statement to say he was “missing and supposed killed in action before Richmond Va. October 13th 1864”. Against such weight of evidence it was clear beyond any doubt that Joseph Donovan lost his life at the Battle of Darbytown Road. Catharine’s pension was duly approved. The warrant promoting her young son to Corporal in 1864 survives to tell part of the story of not only his life and death, but of her efforts to prove his fate (12).
* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3. A team from NARA supported by volunteers are consistently adding to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
(1) Joseph Donovan Widow’s Certificate; (2) Ibid., 1860 Census, Curry: 1898; (3) 67th Ohio Infantry: 1922, Joseph Donovan Widow’s Certificate; (4) Widow’s Certificate, Suderow 2012; (5) Suderow 2012, OR: 690, Clark 1889: 225-6; (6) OR: 690; (7) Joseph Donovan Widow’s Certificate, Thomas Ward Widow’s Certificate; (8) 1890s Veteran’s Schedule, 1900 Census, Joseph Donovan Widow’s Certificate; (9) Joseph Donovan Widow’s Certificate; (10) Ibid.; (11) Ibid.; (12) Ibid.:
References & Further Reading
WC66868. Widow’s Certificate of Catharine Donovan, Dependent Mother of Joseph Donovan, 67th Ohio Infantry.
WC41006. Widow’s Certificate of Mary Ward, Widow of Thomas Ward, 67th Ohio Infantry.
1860 Federal Census. Toledo, Lucas, Ohio.
1890 Veterans Schedules.
1900 Federal Census. Center, Wood, Ohio.
67th Ohio Infantry, 1922. The Sixty-Seventh Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry: A Brief Record of its Four Year Service in the Civil War 1861-1865.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series 1, Volume 42, Part 1. Reports of Col. Francis B. Pond, Sixty-second Ohio Infantry, commanding First Brigade, of operations August 13-16 and October 13.
Clark, Charles M. 1889. The History of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry (Yates Phalanx) in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865.
Curry, W.L. 1898. Four Years in the Saddle: History of the First Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Suderow, Bryce 2012. “An Ugly Looking Chance for a Charge”: The Battle of Darbytown Road, October 13, 1864. Available at The Siege of Petersburg Online.