Saturday, June 30, 2018

Letters to Mrs. Donley: 'They told me that he was no more'

65th Illinois Corporal James Elliot Donley may be buried with other unknowns
at Nashville National Cemetery. (Find A Grave | Click on images to enlarge.)

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On the day wave after wave of Confederates crashed into Union earthworks at Franklin, Tenn., 65th Illinois Sergeant George Haywood wrote a letter with terrifying news to the mother of a soldier in his regiment. Four days earlier, as John Schofield's Army of the Ohio aimed to head north toward Nashville, Corporal James Elliot Donley was among 55 casualties in the 65th Illinois, the "Scotch Regiment," at the Battle of Columbia (Tenn.).

"Whilst under heavy fire of shot & shell on the 26th," Haywood informed Eliza Donley in the letter dated Nov. 30, 1864,  "James was shot in the leg by a shell cutting it off between the foot & knee. He bore it bravely like a good soldier as he is." (See transcript below.)

Maddeningly for Eliza Donley, the orderly sergeant had no news of her son's ultimate fate. Was the wound mortal? Was James alive in a hospital? Or could he be in enemy hands? A mother of three other children, Eliza had already endured trying times. In 1861, she was granted a divorce from her husband, James Sr., who was "guilty of habitual drunkenness for a space of two years."

Sgt. George Haywood wrote a short letter to Eliza Donley while he was in a battle line at Franklin 
on Nov. 30. 1864. (CLICK TO ENLARGE | Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com)

In agonizing limbo, perhaps for weeks, Eliza received a heartbreaking note after Christmas 1864. After a resounding victory at Nashville on Dec. 15-16, the Union army chased John Bell Hood's depleted Army of Tennessee south toward Alabama. In a letter to Eliza from Columbia on Dec. 27, Haywood wrote:
"I found three of our company who were left here when your son was. I asked them about your son & they told me that he was no more, I was surprised and sorry to hear it. I did not expect that he would die but he did."
After the war, 65th Illinois Private Alexander Henderson claimed Donley died "almost immediately" after both his legs were severed by enemy artillery. As the Union army headed north toward Nashville, he noted, James' body was left behind enemy lines.

Struggling to support her family on $1.50-a-week wages she earned as a seamstress, Eliza filed for a dependent's pension. As required, Mrs. Donley provided evidence she relied financially on James, who before he enlisted gave her money he earned working for a local farmer. A "frugal, careful, industrious woman," Mrs. Donley also provided in her pension claim James' war-time letters in which he noted sending his mother his army wages. Eliza's claim was approved at the standard $8 a month.

In a massive effort shortly after the war, the federal government disinterred remains of Union soldiers from battlefields, hospital sites, church graveyards and elsewhere for re-burial in newly created national cemeteries. If James' remains were recovered, he may have been buried in an unknown grave at Nashville National Cemetery.

LETTERS TO MRS. DONLEY: "He bore it bravely like a good soldier"


(National Archives via fold3.com)
In line of battle near Franklin, Tenn., Nov. 30, 1864

Mrs. E. Donley

Madam

I take this first opportunity of informing you of the fate of your son James. Whilst under heavy fire of shot & shell on the 26th James was shot in the leg by a shell cutting it off between the foot & knee. He bore it bravely like a good soldier as he is. We were driven from the field and out of 19 men in the company 7 were wounded & one killed. It left us so small that we could not bring them off. Besides were we exposed to a murderous fire of shot, shell & musketry. This was near to ...

(National Archives via fold3.com)
... Columbia, Tenn. We have been driven from there to here since and expect to fall back to Nashville, Tenn. I have his pocket book and (indecipherable) in money. The money I send enclosed. It was his wish that it should be sent home. One of our sergeants has got his watch. He does not know yet what is best for him to do with it. Should like to know your wishes in regards to the pocket book & watch.

I am madam your most respectful & obedient servant

George W. Haywood
O.S. Company G, 65th Reg. Vol. Inf.

Charles Liber
204 S. 5th St.
14 Cedar & Mulberry, St. Louis, Mo.

(National Archives via fold3.com)

Columbia, Tenn.
Dec. 27, 1864

Dear madam,

Your letter to me and also one from your pastor were received some time ago. We were on the march then toward this place and I have not had the opportunity to write before. I went to the hospital as soon as I got here. I found three of our company who were left here when your son was. I asked them about your son & they told me that he was no more, I was surprised and sorry to hear it. I did not expect that he would die but he did. He died that night about midnight. ...

(National Archives via fold3.com)
... I have not yet learned yet where (he) is buried but when we get settled here I will try. I know none of the particulars of his death. I have his watch and pocket book which I will send as soon as I can. I shall have to wait until I get to Nashville I think as there are no Express office here.

I remain with much sympathy for your loss. Yours respectfully

George W. Heywood
First Sergt. Co. G 65. Ills Infty.

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SOURCE:

-- James Donley pension file (WC83877), National Archives & Records Service, Washington, D.C. via fold3.com.

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