My primary area of research relates to wartime letters written home by soldiers and sailors, and which widow’s and dependents parted with in order to provide the Bureau of Pensions with evidence to support their claim. However, letters were not the only personal possessions that families gave up to the Federal Government. Although extremely rare, very occasionally these pension files can contain an actual image of the deceased soldier, revealing to us the face of an Irish American serviceman. This post looks at the story behind one such file and the image you see below- that of James Donohue, whose life was cut cruelly short on the bloody field of Antietam.
The Donohue story begins on 13th April 1833, when Irish emigrant Thomas Donohue married his wife Emeline in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a house of worship in the bustling Vermont town of Windsor. While Thomas was certainly Irish-born, later documents are contradictory as to whether Emeline was born in Ireland or Vermont. What is apparent is that there was likely some urgency with the couple’s ceremony, as by the time their wedding day arrived Emeline was already a number of months pregnant. The couple’s first son- James- arrived on 13th August that year. Almost immediately after his birth the family moved on, and the baby was baptised in the industrial town of Claremont, New Hampshire when he was around three months old. Thomas worked as a laborer, and it may be that he kept his family on the move to exploit new opportunities as they arose. The family spent a few years in New Hampshire, where around 1841 a second son, John, was born. Ultimately the Donohue’s decided to up sticks again, and by the middle of the decade were living in Troy, New York. The couple’s third son Thomas was born there around 1846, and was later joined by a sister, Mary Ann, around 1849. By 1850 the growing family were making their home in the city’s Third Ward. (1)
By 1860 James had become the patriarch of the family. Despite their years together, Thomas had recently abandoned the support of Emeline and the children, departing apparently never to be heard from again. James, who made his living as a teamster, became an even more vital part in the economic lives of his mother and younger siblings. His pursuit of employment took him out of state, and he spent the six years prior to the war in Tennessee and Pennslyvania, all the while remitting money home to West Troy. It seems it was only when conflict seemed imminent that James returned home. He was 28-years-old when he enlisted on 16th June 1861. Described as 5 feet 6 inches tall, with grey eyes, dark hair and a ruddy complexion, James joined other West Troy recruits in Company A of the 34th New York Volunteers, the “Herkimer Regiment”. Among the comrades who joined him in the Company’s ranks during the weeks that followed were his younger brother John. The next year would see the brothers endure plenty of hard marching and campaigning together, most notably at the Battle of Fair Oaks on the Peninsula, where the regiment was particularly heavily engaged. However, nothing could prepare them for what lay on the horizon in Maryland, where James and John would find themselves at the centre of the maelstrom during the bloodiest day of the American Civil War. (2)
When the 34th New York splashed across Antietam Creek on the morning of 17th September 1862 they brought with them 311 men. They entered the field of battle as part of the First Brigade, Second Division of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. The regiment was fed into the fighting via the East Woods, from where they moved across the open field to the south of the Miller Cornfield. From there the 34th crossed the Hagerstown Pike and advanced into the West Woods, immediately to the north of the Dunker Church. In the confused and desperate see-saw struggle that evolved, the New Yorkers quickly found themselves involved in a desperate firefight. Within minutes they were almost overwhelmed by a Confederate counterattack, which threatened to engulf the small and increasingly isolated command. This threat, coupled with the desperately heavy losses they were sustaining, forced the 34th back from whence they had come. Their retreat ultimately brought them back to the field they had first advanced across, where they moved to the support of Woodruff’s battery. Woodruff’s regulars disgorged a savage storm of iron into the oncoming Rebel lines, driving them back. By the time the whole affair was through it was clear the New Yorkers had suffered galling casualties, having lost almost 50 percent of their strength. This included 32 men killed in action, 109 wounded in action, and nine missing in action. In later years, one of the Company E survivors would recall his experience of the day:
Rushed forward at the top of their speed in broken order, one company in rear of the other, out of breath and almost fainting, Company E was brought to the very summit of the ground, to the left of the lane leading to the “Dunkard Church.” From this point could be seen the shining bayonets of the enemy then forming on the east of the pike and south of the church. This was evidently unheeded by the officers in command, as the order, forward run, was still repeated by aid and staff of the commanding general. The enemy was not in large force, protected by a ledge of rocks, west of the pike and in rear of the Dunkard Church. In less than five minutes after the regimental line had been formed, five of Company E lay dead or dying, almost within touch of each other…we had altogether the worst of the position, and were engaged by those in our front at short range, we found ourselves flanked and enfiladed by a vastly superior force. Surrender or death seemed to be the only thing in sight. To secure liberty the “cornfield” must be recrossed, over the bodies of the dead and dying, not in the route we had come, but by a circuitous course, in the face of a destructive fire of musketry at short range. It is a mystery that will never be solved, how it was possible for any one to pass through such a death-trap and live to record the fact. Many of the men fell from exhaustion, and were swept beneath the wave, like the undertow of the ocean beach. The writer of this sketch fell but a rod or two in front of our battery, and within about the same distance from the charging foe. Our artillerymen were waiting, with cannon charged with grape and canister, to uncover the enemy so that they might not slaughter their friends. Shot after shot was fired in quick succession full in the face of the foe, opening wide gaps, at every discharge, and sending fragments of men into the air, in all directions, adding rivers of gore to a field already deeply dyed by the blood of both armies. Probably there was never a time known in the history of modern warfare where so many men were slain as upon the consecrated ground on that 17th day of September, 1862. Surely, the demon of death must have been fully satiated. (3)
One of those sacrificed to the “demon of death” was James Donohue. We can only imagine the horror and desperation his younger brother John must have felt at his fate during the West Woods fighting on 17th September. Given where James was shot down, John would have had only moments to process what had occurred before being forced to leave his body and join the 34th’s retreat from the Rebel assault. In contrast to his brother, John Donohue was destined to come through the war unscathed. He saw out the remainder of his two years service with the 34th and mustered out with them after the Battle of Chancellorsville. In September 1863 he re-enlisted, but had clearly seen enough of the infantryman’s war. Instead he plumped for the 20th New York Cavalry, where he rose to the rank of Quartermaster-Sergeant by the time of his muster out in July 1865. John outlived his brother by 45 years, passing away in 1907. Back in 1862 West Troy, Emeline first learned of her eldest son’s fate through the local newspapers. Eventually she would be given a printed list that recorded the burial places of some of the 34th’s number, a document that informed her James was one of four from the regiment interred just to the north of the Dunker Church, presumably close to where they had fallen. Not long afterwards James Donohue’s remains were moved to the new Antietam National Cemetery, where he rests today. (4)
After James’s death, Emeline sought a pension based on her son’s service. Her claim was accepted in 1863, but in 1864 her payments suddenly stopped. She soon discovered the cause- a rival application received by the Pension Bureau. A woman called Harriet A. Donohue had emerged, stating that she had married James in Ballston Spa, New York in 1858 (some of the unsubmitted documents relating to Harriet’s claim recently came up for sale, see here and here). If Harriet proved herself to be James’s widow, her claim would take precedence over Emeline’s. In combating Harriet’s claim-a woman Emaline said she did not know-the fallen soldier’s mother gave statements to the effect that her son had worked out of state for a number of years prior to the war, and so could not be the same man referred to by Harriet. To prove her son was one and the same with the James Donohue who fell in the ranks of the 34th New York, Emaline decided to copy a cherished image she held of her son in uniform. On submitting it in 1865, she described it as a “true, correct and faithful likeness” of James, “a faithful copy of an original likeness…taken after his enlistment and now in the possession of this deponent [Emaline]”. She reinforced the mounting evidence in her favour in 1866, when she supplied the Bureau with the printed Antietam burial details, or as Emaline described it a “printed list with his name among the number”. On the page James’s entry was highlighted for the Bureau’s attention. Ultimately Emaline’s efforts proved successful. The application of Harriet A. Donohue was rejected, and Emaline’s pension payments were restored. She would continue to receive them for the many decades of life that remained left to her. (5)
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(1) Pension File, 1850 Census; (2) Pension File, Muster Roll Abstracts; (3) Antietam on the Web: 34th New York Infantry, Chapin 1903: 62-65; (4) Pension File, New York Muster Roll Abstracts, New York Adjutant-General Reports, Civil War Pension Index Cards; (5) Pension File;
* None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online. A team of archivists from NARA supported by volunteers have enabled access to this treasure trove of historical information. To learn more about their work you can watch a video by clicking here.
1850 Federal Census
New York Muster Roll Abstracts
New York Adjutant-General’s Reports
Civil War Pension Index Cards
James Donohue Pension File
Louis N. Chapin. A Brief History of the Thirty-Fourth Regiment, N.Y.S.V. Embracing A Complete Roster of All Officers and Men and A Full Account of the Dedication of the Monument on the Battlefield of Antietam September 17, 1902.