If you had met John Donohoe in early 1861, it would have meant you were a visitor to one of the remotest locations in Europe. Thats because you would have been on Inisheer (Innis Oírr), a Gaelic speaking island off Ireland’s west coast. At only 2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, it is the smallest of the Aran Islands. That was where John Donohoe lived, eeking out a living with his brothers and parents on a small four acre farm. But, if you encountered him only a year later, you would have found him inhabiting a different world. By then he was in the midst of what must have seemed to him like hell on earth. By 1862 John Donohoe had become one of the c. 200,000 Irish emigrants fighting in the American Civil War. His fate would reverberate all the way back to Inisheer, where years later, you could still encounter what the U.S. administration referred to as ‘the widow Donohoe of the South Island of Arran.’ (1)
The tiny island of Inisheer, where John Donohoe grew up and farmed.
Traces of the Donohoe family’s life on Inisheer survive in the documentary record. The Griffith’s Valuation for the island, recorded in the 1850s, lists John’s father, ‘Peter Donohoe’. He was renting 4 acres valued at £4 and buildings valued at 15 shillings from Miss Elizabeth F. Digby. Although Peter’s name was on the lease, he was burdened by ill heath. What was variously described as ‘consumption’, ‘asthma’, ‘heart disease’ and ‘dropsy’ kept him from manual labour, meaning that he and his wife Bridget were reliant on the work of their sons John, Thomas, Peter and Morgan to manage their farm and the crops, which were valued around £10 per year. John worked full-time on the farm from at least the age of 13, and grew up knowing little other than island life. (2)
Either through choice or necessity (likely a bit of both), the future of three of the Donohoe boys lay away from Inisheer. For John, Thomas and Peter that future was in America. John was supposedly between 18 and 19 years old when he left Inisheer forever in June 1861. It is impossible to imagine what it must have been like for the young islander when he arrived on the other side of the Atlantic a few weeks later, suddenly immersed in the sights and sounds of the metropolis of Boston. Whatever his impressions, he didn’t tarry long. On the 17th September 1861 the 5 foot 8 3/4 inch boy, with grey eyes, light hair and a sallow complexion, presented himself at an army recruiting station. He had managed to age considerably in the few months since he had left Inisheer- he was now recorded as 21. John Donohoe, the Aran Islander, had now become Private John Donohoe of Company H, 1st United States Artillery. (3)
By 5th May 1862, John had been in the United States for a little over 10 months. That morning he and his comrades of Company H found themselves bouncing along a road with their guns and limbers, just outside the Virginia town of Williamsburg. They were part of a force of some 41,000 Federals who were about to engage 31,000 Confederates in what would become the first battle of the Peninsula Campaign. It was an engagement for which John was in the van. Having never seen serious action before, nervous energy must have coursed through his veins as he realised he would soon face battle. Perhaps he took a moment to think of his tiny island home, a setting that could not be further removed from the sea of military activity that surrounded him. It was early in the fight when his guns were ordered to the front, where they took up position to engage the enemy. Two of Company H’s pieces unlimbered right in the roadway, while four more moved into an adjacent field. Almost immediately they started to take fire from Confederate infantry and artillery, including guns firing from nearby Rebel Fort Magruder. Within seconds two officers and two privates went down in a hail of fire, terrifying the other men who abandoned the guns to seek cover. Only about 18 men of Company H could be persuaded to return to help fire their pieces; the remainder had to be manned by volunteers. As the rain poured down the artillerists worked the guns, exchanging salvoes with the Confederates only 700 yards away. For seven hours the sporadic struggle continued. In the end it was events on the left flank that sealed the gunners fate. There the Union infantry was forced back, and when they retreated they exposed the cannoneers to attack from this direction. As the buoyant Rebels poured forward they reached the artillery, capturing four of Battery H’s guns. The survivors had to endure fire from Confederate sharpshooters concealed in fallen timber for the remainder of the day. When daylight ended the fighting, the Battery had lost two men killed and eight wounded in what would become known as the Battle of Willliamsburg. One of those men who had given their life was John Donohoe of Inisheer. (4)
Aran Islander John Donohoe lost his life in this area on 5th May 1862, most probably somewhere to the east of the area marked ‘Government Road.’
John was reportedly not the only member of the Donohoe family to serve in the army- his mother Bridget would later claim that Thomas also donned Union blue, only to contract a disease which led to his discharge, and ultimately his death. As the 1860s continued back on Inisheer, the family circumstances were not improving. The 1st U.S. Artillery sent the money John had been owed prior to his death to the Aran Islands, but it provided only a temporary respite. Peter Donohoe’s debilitating illness, which had incapacitated him for ten years, eventually claimed his life. After a final two month personal battle he died on 23rd May 1868. Bridget could now no longer rely on the assistance of either her husband or her sons. She had to give up the farm in May 1870, and became reliant on the charity of her fellow islanders. Now 60 years of age, she decided to approach the United States Government in search of a pension, based on her son’s service in the U.S. Artillery. (5)
Bridget’s road to receiving a U.S. Government pension was not an easy one. It was exacerbated by the fact that the Physician who had treated her husband, Dr. James Johnston Stoney, had himself died on 25th June 1869, a result of an ‘overdraught of laudanum’. Without another medical man on Inisheer who had known her husband, she struggled to prove that Peter had been physically incapable. She eventually employed the services of attorney James Shannon of Ballingaddy, Ennistymon, Co. Clare to assist her in gathering the evidence she needed. She secured death certificates for both her husband and Dr. Stoney, before seeking affidavits from her friends and neigbours on Inisheer to vouch for her story. These included Simon Maher, who had taken over her farm in 1870, Inisheer farmers Coleman Conneely, Pat Griffin, Martin Griffin and Martin O’Donnell, and Martin Hernon of the ‘North Island’. Bridget told the U.S. officials that she would ‘have to got to a workhouse to end her days unless a pension be granted to her’. Her pension was finally granted, dated to 15th March 1871. She gave her Post Office address as ‘South Island of Arran, County Galway Ireland‘, from where she claimed her monthly payment for the remainder of her life. (6)
Bridget Donhoe never knew where her son had died. She knew only that he had been ‘shot in the American War’, while serving in the Union Army. The story of the ‘Widow Donohoe of the South Island of Arran’ and her family demonstrate to us just how real the experience of the American Civil War was for tens of thousands of Irish people- even those in remote parts of Ireland, such as the Aran Islands. It is a memory that we have lost in Ireland, condemning men like John Donohoe of Inisheer to fill the ranks of what still remain the Forgotten Irish. (7)
*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. This piece would not have been possible without the assistance and support of my good friend Jackie Budell.
(1) John Donohoe Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (2) Griffith’s Valuation; (3) John Donohoe Dependent Mother’s Pension File, U.S. Army Register of Enlistments; (4) OR: 450, 470-2; (5) John Donohoe Dependent Mother’s Pension File; (6) Ibid.; (7) Ibid.;
John Donohoe Dependent Mother Widow’s Pension File.
U.S. Army Register of Enlistments.
Official Records of The War of The Rebellion Series 1, Volume 11, Part 1. Report of Maj. Charles S. Wainright, Chief of Artillery.
Official Records of The War of The Rebellion Series 1, Volume 11, Part 1. Return of Casualties in the Union Forces at the Battle of Williamsburg.