Saturday, December 09, 2017

A private's death in 'desperate' Fredericksburg street fighting

On Jan. 3, 1863, an illustration by Alfred Waud of Union soldiers engaged in street fighting
in Fredericksburg appeared in Harper's Weekly. (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.)
Present-day view of the 20th Massachusetts' route of advance up 
Hawke Street. Heavy fighting took place at this intersection on Dec. 11, 1862.

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After a Union artillery bombardment of Fredericksburg, the 20th Massachusetts crossed the Rappahannock River in pontoons, joining other Federal regiments in the beleaguered Virginia town. The date was Dec. 11, 1862, a day that began with the temperature in the 20s but warmed to the low 50s by afternoon. This late-fall day would prove especially deadly for the 20th Massachusetts — the Harvard Regiment — a mix of bluebloods and commoners from the Boston area.

"He was killed instantly by a musket ball,"
20th Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Ropes
(above) wrote of Private John Donnelly.
In the vicious street fighting that ensued, the 20th Massachusetts suffered more than 100 casualties in the 335-man regiment. Among them was Irish-born Private John Donnelly of Company K, who was shot through the head and "instantly killed," according to one of his commanding officers. Leaving County Tipperary in Ireland, John had immigrated to America with his parents James and Ellen aboard the Ocean Monarch in 1847.

Nine days after Donnelly's death, 20th Massachusetts Lieutenant Henry Ropes wrote a short condolence note to the 28-year-old private's father. (See below.) In a "desperate fight in the streets of Fredericksburg," John died "a true soldier's death," noted Ropes, who added Donnelly was buried near where he fell by his friends in the regiment.

For reasons unclear, Ellen Donnelly apparently did not begin the process of obtaining a mother's pension until after the war. A "common laborer" in his mid-60s at the time of his son's death, James Donnelly was "infirm and feeble" and unable to financially support his family.  To buttress Mrs. Donnelly's claim for a pension, local residents provided testimony of her dependence on John, an unmarried laborer.

"I was with [John] once in the later part of the year 1860," one of them recalled, "and saw him buy a barrel of flour at the store of Mr. Seaver in Roxbury, pay for it and heard him direct for it to be sent to his mother's house." Another local resident noted: "I have also at various times seen him give his mother money to buy clothing and provisions."

Ellen Donnelly's claim was eventually approved at the standard rate of $8 a month. The final resting place of her son is unknown.


-- John Donnelly pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., via

(National Archives via
Camp 20th Mass. V
Near Falmouth, Va.
Dec. 20th 1862

My dear sir,

It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son John Donnelly, a private in my company.

He was instantly killed by a musket ball which passed through his head during the desperate fight in the streets of Fredericksburg, Va., on the afternoon of the 11th inst.

He must have instantly died without suffering. His body was buried near the spot where he fell by his friends ...

(National Archives via
... and the place marked by a headboard bearing his name, company & regt.

Your son was a brave and faithful soldier and fell bravely fighting with his regt. A true soldier's death. Please accept my dear sir my sincere sympathy for you & for your family in this deep affliction and believe me.

Your obt. servt.

Henry Ropes
Lt. Comdg Co. K
20th Mass. Vols

Mr. James Donnelly

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Read more Civil War condolence notes on my blog here.

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