I have come across many extraordinary stories during my time researching the Irish in the American Civil War. None surpass that of Sergeant Peter Donnelly of Company C, 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery. Almost uniquely, the historical record has combined to provide us with details of this ordinary Irish-American’s death from the perspectives of both friend and foe. I am extremely grateful to Peter Patten for initially alerting me to this remarkable account.* 

A soldier of the 11th Vermont (1st Vermont Heavy Artillery) poses with soldiers from three other regiments (Library of Congress)

A soldier of the 11th Vermont (1st Vermont Heavy Artillery) poses with soldiers from three other regiments (Library of Congress)

John Donnelly and his wife Rose emigrated to the United States from the parish of Drumlane, Co. Cavan sometime before the mid-1840s. By the time of the 1850 Census they were living in Castleton, Rutland County, Vermont. John was then 43-years-old and working as a laborer, his wife Rose was 36. 80-year-old Molly Hoy Donnelly (probably John’s mother) also lived with the family, which at that point included nine living children: James (14), Mary (11), John (10), Peter (8), Francis (6), Patrick (4), Rosanna (3), Sarah (1) and Catharine (0). All the couple’s children had been born in Vermont, where the family had put down roots and where they clearly intended to stay. (1)

During the 1850s John became a naturalised citizen, but he did not long enjoy his time as an American. By the time of the 1860 Census he was dead, and Rose had remarried to another Irishman, farmer Edward Burns. Although the elder children no longer lived with the family, Francis, Patrick, Rosanna and Sarah were all still with their mother and step-father in Castleton (and were recorded under the surname Burns). Catharine, the baby on the 1850 Census, does not appear in 1860. Peter was the Donnelly’s third-son and was 18-years-old in 1860. He had moved out of home to become an apprentice blacksmith in Castleton, under the tutelage of Carlos Gorham. Peter was now part of a household that included Gorham, his wife Lucy and 16-year-old servant Harriet Harkins. (2)

The outbreak of the American Civil War did not lead to Peter’s immediate enlistment. It was the summer of 1862 before he decided to don Union blue. Peter enlisted in Company C of the 11th Vermont Infantry (later designated the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery) on 17th July that year. His older brother John enlisted as a Private in the same company just four days later; both mustered into United States service with the regiment on 1st September 1862. Their younger brother Patrick clearly looked on with admiration and envy at Peter and John’s service- as soon as he was old enough he dashed off to join his brothers, enlisting in Company C on 18th November 1863. (3)

When Peter Donnelly enlisted in 1862 another friend from Castleton was not far behind him. George Oscar French- Oscar to his friends- had enlisted on 6th August 1862, and like Peter became a Sergeant in Company C. Oscar was a prolific writer and penned many letters home, describing life in Company C and making frequent mention of the Donnellys. Oscar and Peter tented together; Oscar was also a friend of Peter’s sister Mary to whom he had written during the war. The two men were not without their rivalries; on 12th August 1863 Oscar wrote home that ‘Sherman [Lieutenant, Company C] is sick & I have been running the co for a few days & find it quite pleasant, in fact easy enough & very much to the chagrin of Peter D. [Donnelly] who acts quite mum.’ In December 1863 Oscar recorded the arrival of the younger Donnelly, ‘Pat’, to the regiment. Patrick had joined his older brothers just in time to see the war service of the regiment change fundamentally. (4)

A patriotic envelope from Vermont during the American Civil War (Library of Congress)

A patriotic envelope from Vermont during the American Civil War (Library of Congress)

For the first eighteen months of their service the Vermonters had been stationed in the Washington D.C. defences, seeing little in the way of action. All this changed in the Spring of 1864. Ulysses S. Grant had decided to call his large Heavy Artillery regiments to the front, to provide much needed reinforcements for the meat-grinder that was the Overland Campaign. On 12th May 1864 the Vermonters made their way to the 6th Corps of the Army of the Potomac and engaged in their first action at Spotsylvania Court House. The regiment would have little respite for the remainder of the war. Just over a month later, on 24th June 1864, the 6th Corps was engaged in heavy fighting around Petersburg, Oscar French grabbed a few moments to write a brief letter home:

‘I am well- and alive- thank Providence. We have had an awful time. Lieut Sherman and Sergt Peter Donnelly are killed. Co. C has 6 wounded- three missing among them Bill [Barber, a friend of Oscar- he would die a prisoner at Andersonville] send me $50- $10. When you get this & $10 once in five days &- till it all comes- I am going to get a commission, Expect it in a week- it is dark, & and I must close Mark. Russel- Tim & all the 6 boys are well. Direct yours to 2nd Brig 2nd Div 6th A.C.,

Love to all,

Oscar.’ (5)

The 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery had suffered severe casualties as part of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road. Sergeant Peter Donnelly had gone out on a scouting mission as part of this offensive and had never returned. On 26th June 1864 Oscar wrote to the ‘folks at home’ describing the intense fighting and their discovery of Peter’s body the following morning (24th June): ‘…Next morning we found the body of poor Peter in the woods and buried him by the side of a gigantic pine tree.’ (6)

Oscar also took it upon himself to let Peter’s family know his fate, writing to Peter’s stepfather Ed Burns to give him the news. He also wrote to his own father on 24th July to give him more particulars of Peter’s death:

‘…And now about Peter- He was shot with a minie ball, which entered his abdomen about 1 inch to the left of his navel- & came out- just to the right side of the spinal column & just below the right hip. He evidently did not suffer much but bled to death quickly. His gun was loaded & capped all ready to meet the foe.’ (7)

Headquarters of General Meade during the fighting at Jerusalem Plank Road, June 1864 by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

Headquarters of General Meade during the fighting at Jerusalem Plank Road, June 1864 by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

The Vermont men would find themselves fighting across similar ground for months to come, as the seemingly endless battle for Petersburg continued. On 14th December 1864, nearly six months after Peter’s death, Oscar remarked that the regiment went into camp ‘not 20 rods from poor Peter’s grave.‘ By that stage Ed Burns had decided to travel to Virginia and find his stepson’s body. On 31st December Oscar wrote to his father that ‘Ed Burns has come and gone with good success. If he only gets home alright, will have a good job done.’ He did get home, and Ed laid Peter to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Fair Haven, Vermont. (8)

The war moved on and had many more victims to claim. Among them was Oscar French. As he had hoped he was commissioned, becoming a Second Lieutenant in Company C, only to be killed in action on 2nd April 1865. Peter’s brothers were more fortunate- both reached the rank of Sergeant and survived to be mustered out at the war’s conclusion. Despite the fact that the conflict was now over, there was still a final act to be played in the story of Peter Donnelly’s death. In the autumn of 1865, somewhere in the former Confederacy, an ex-Rebel sat down to write a letter to Donnelly’s family. He had encountered the Vermonter on the battlefields of Petersburg in June 1864, and had been the man who killed him. The intimacy of their encounter had clearly had a deep impact on the former soldier. He seems to have been eager to seek forgiveness and do the right thing by Donnelly’s family. He also probably sought to gain some closure on what must have been a very traumatic event in his life. His extraordinary correspondence was reprinted in the Burlington Free Press on 13th October 1865:

A COURTEOUS REBEL- The sister of Sergeant Peter Donnelly, of the 11th Vt., of Castleton, who fell in front of Petersburgh, has recently received a letter from the rebel soldier who met and slew her brother a year ago. He had, it seems, taken possession of his effects, and he forwarded to her a letter Donnelly had but a few hours before his death written her. He also stated that he had his porte-monniae [wallet] and several other things belonging to him, which he would cheerfully return if desired, and would furnish particulars of his death. He expressed regret for the deed, but considered it one of the results inseparable from the fratricidal struggle they had been engaged in, and hoped the people in the North and South would soon be one in every thought and feeling. According to her request, he not long since forwarded every article belonging to Donnelly, even to a copy of Casey’s tactic he had in his pocket. A correspondent of the Rutland Herald narrates these facts, and gives the following extract from the rebel’s letter:

“According to request I will now state how I came to kill your brother. We met on the evening of 23d of June on the farm of Dr. Gurley, some 5 or 6 miles from Petersburg. I supposed him to be a scout sent out to make a reconnaissance, and as that was my business also, I ordered him to halt. He defiantly refused the second time and turned to leave when I fired and he fell. I went to the poor fellow and found him past speaking and nearly dead. He made signs for water which I got him and he soon died. He was a good looking young soldier, in an artillery dress, well clothed and equipped. I deeply regretted that I had no time to bury him; but in the passing the same spot the next day, I saw a new made grave which I supposed to be his [the grave had been dug that morning by Oscar French and other comrades]. I am glad you have his body and can forgive me the deed, as you well know it might, under the same circumstances, have been my lot to be slain by him.” (9)

The breakthrough at Petersburg on 2nd April 1865, where Lieutenant Oscar French lost his life (Currier & Ives)

The breakthrough at Petersburg on 2nd April 1865, where Lieutenant Oscar French lost his life (Currier & Ives)

* This post was only possible as a result of Peter Patten’s initial research. A friend of the site, he alerted me to the article in the Burlington Free Press and also provided links to the naturalisation records and Find-A-Grave information. Peter is carrying out some stalwart and fascinating work looking into Irish connections in Vermont.

(1) 1850 US Federal Census, Rutland County Naturalizations; (2) Rutland County Naturalizations, 1860 US Federal Census; (3) Peck 1892:421-422; (4) Roster 421, George Oscar French Letter 1st September 1862, George Oscar French Letter 13th October 1862, George Oscar French Letter 12th August 1863, George Oscar French Letter 9th December 1863; (5) George Oscar French Letter 24th June 1864; (6) George Oscar French Letter 26th June 1864; (7) George Oscar French Letter 6th July 1864, George Oscar French Letter 24th July 1864; (8) George Oscar French Letter 14th December 1864, George Oscar French Letter 31st December 1864, Find A Grave Memorial Sgt. Peter Donnelly; (9) Peck 1892: 421-422, Burlington Free Press 13th October 1865.

References & Further Reading

1850 US Federal Census

1860 US Federal Census

Burlington Free Press 13th October 1865. A Courteous Rebel

Peck, Theodore S. 1892. Revised Roster of Vermont Volunteers and Lists of Vermonters who Served in the Army and Navy of the United States during the War of the Rebellion 1861-66

Hance Dawn, NIchols Joan and Zeller Paul. Vermont Historical Society. George Oscar French Civil War Letters: 1862, 1863 (Part 2), 1864 (Part 1), 1864 (Part 2)

Find A Grave Memorial for Sergeant Peter Donnelly

Index to Some Rutland County (Vermont) Naturalizations, 1836-1906

Vermont Historical Society George Oscar French Letters

1st Regiment Vermont Heavy Artillery Descendants Association