28 January 2012

Larger Than Life Frontier Character, Colonel John J. Donnelly

Remembering Our Civil War Heritage and Heroes:

Larger Than Life Frontier Character, Colonel John J. Donnelly

By Ken Robison
For The River Press
January 25, 2012

This continues a monthly series commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War.

Frontier Fort Benton was a town of colorful characters, but they broke the mold with John J. Donnelly. In the span of six decades, Colonel Donnelly fought with distinction through the Civil War, led Irish Fenian Army invasions of Canada, led a civilian army in the Nez Perce War, served as Fenian agitator, Louis Riel advisor, attorney, county clerk and recorder, and probate judge, and was elected Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives. After this extraordinary career, even in the end, he died a uniquely spectacular death.

Who was this man of triumph and tragedy in frontier Montana? John J. Donnelly was born November 15, 1838 at Providence, Rhode Island of Irish immigrant parents. He was educated in schools of Providence and the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. Moving west to Michigan, he studied law in the office of Sylvester Larned, of Detroit, Michigan, and was admitted to practice in November 1860 on the eve of the Civil War.

On November 18, 1861 at the age of 23, John J. Donnelly enlisted in the service of the United States and raised an infantry company. As Captain of Company G, his regiment, the Fourteenth Michigan Infantry, with 925 officers and men, was mustered into service February 13, 1862 at Ypsilanti, Michigan under Colonel Robert P. Sinclair.

The Fourteenth left Michigan on the 17th of April 1862 for St. Louis, Mo., and joined General Grant's army at Pittsburg Landing. It participated in the siege of Corinth, Miss., and when the enemy evacuated, the Fourteenth formed a part of
General Buell's army in the famous race with the Confederate army under General Bragg, to Louisville, Ky.

At Nashville, Tenn., the Fourteenth Michigan Infantry Regiment was assigned to the First Brigade, Second Division, Fourteenth Corps of the Army of the Cumberland, and served in that corps for the rest of the war. In November the regiment had a sharp encounter with Alabama troops at Lavergne, Tenn., when it captured a fort and took a large number of prisoners. After a series of marches and victories the regiment was at Stone River, Tenn., in January 1863 when it took part in that engagement.

Captain Donnelly led Company G until he was appointed engineer officer on the staff of Major General George H. Thomas, Commander of the Fourteenth Corps. Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Donnelly served with General Thomas during 1863-64, while Thomas was gaining fame with his stout defense at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, saved the Union Army from being completely routed, earning him his most famous nickname, the "Rock of Chickamauga." General Thomas followed soon after with a dramatic breakthrough on Missionary Ridge in the Battle of Chattanooga. In the Franklin-Nashville Campaign of 1864, he achieved one of the most decisive victories of the war, destroying the army of Confederate General John Bell Hood, at the Battle of Nashville.
By 1864, Major General John M. Palmer had taken command of the Fourteenth Corps, and on August 5th, Lieutenant Colonel Donnelly was promoted to Full Aide-de-Camp on General Palmer’s staff. In the Civil War an Aide-de-Camp was a confidential officer appointed by general officers to their staffs. An aide-de-camp reported directly to his commander and took orders only from him. In a position of great responsibility, an aide was required to write orders, deliver them personally if necessary, and be thoroughly knowledgeable about troop positions, maneuvers, columns, orders of corps, routes, and the locations of officers’ quarters.

General Palmer effectively commanded the 14th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland in the Atlanta Campaign. Palmer's corps was a part of General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea and the actions to capture Savannah, Georgia, late 1864. During the March to the Sea, Colonel Donnelly was appointed assistant general superintendent of the military railway service in General Sherman’s department.
Throughout the war until his discharge March 14, 1865 Colonel Donnelly took part in many of the principal engagements of that great conflict, and was twice wounded, at Corinth and Resaca. One of his obituaries reads, “A braver soldier never drew his sword in any cause, and such is the testimonial of his superior officers and of the men who served under him.”
As the Civil War drew to an end, Treasury Secretary Chase appointed Colonel Donnelly as special agent of the Treasury department. During reconstruction days he settled all war claims against the United States government in the Carolinas and part of Georgia and handled enormous sums of money without any suspicion of malfeasance.

Little is known of this period in Donnelly’s life, except that Colonel Donnelly engaged in the wholesale grocery and commission business at Savannah, Georgia. In 1866 Colonel Donnelly closed out his business and came north to Michigan on account of the death of his wife, to whom he was married but a few days before entering the service in 1861.

Entering a new phase of his life, Colonel Donnelly plunged headlong into the Fenian movement, which was then at its highest, becoming one of the most prominent figures in the subsequent “invasions” of Canada. The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish republican organization founded in the United States in 1858 by John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny. Members were commonly known as "Fenians". O'Mahony, who was a Celtic scholar, named his organization after the Fianna, the legendary band of Irish warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill.

In 1866 together with many other Irish Civil War veterans Colonel Donnelly joined the Fenian movement to invade Canada to punish the English for their occupation of Ireland. The Fenians dreamed of capturing Canada, forcing the English to free Ireland in exchange for return of Canada. A thousand strong force of Fenian troops took the field in June, 1866, crossed the Niagara River into Ontario, defeated a company of Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto, and captured Fort Erie. Shortly afterward the Battle of Pigeon Hill practically ended this outbreak. In this battle Col. Donnelly had 200 men in his command, and was able to hold his position from 9 o’clock a. m. until sundown, with 2,300 men opposing him. He had twelve men killed and seventeen wounded, with Donnelly among the wounded. He was captured, but escaped, and a large reward was offered for him.

We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,
And we're going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore,
Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue,
And we'll go and capture Canada, for we've nothing else to do.
— "Fenian soldier's song"

After the defeat at Pigeon Hill, Col. Donnelly drifted west and had a role in the Red River Rebellion of 1870, in which Louis Riel was the leader of the Metis and Cree. This collapsed as did another Fenian raid at Pembina, N. D. the next year. Donnelly came to Montana from Pembina, at the time of the boundary line survey, traveling with the survey party but not part of it. He settled in Fort Benton in 1872 to resume his practice of law.

In Fort Benton Colonel John J. Donnelly became a spokesman for the many Irish Democats of the town that included among others the Healy brothers, Matthew Carroll, John Tattan, and John Evans. Donnelly played a prominent part in the aftermath of the Cypress Hill massacre of 1873, when in 1875 Bentonites were arrested by federal officials and troops for an extradition hearing in Helena. The so-called “Extradition Prisoners” were released, and upon their triumphant return to Fort Benton, were welcomed by Colonel Donnelly with an eloquent speech, condemning governmental actions to surround the town and patrol the streets with armed soldiers, “while five of its most respected citizens were seized, chained together, and thrown into a military prison.”

In 1877 as Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce turned north from the Musselshell in their flight toward Canada, trader James Wells from Fort Claggett raised the alarm in Fort Benton. Col. Donnelly, warrior and leader of men, raised a company of 50 civilian mounted volunteers to hasten down the Missouri to the Cow Island. The men of Donnelly’s Company were tough men, experienced in the hard and dangerous life of frontier Montana. At least four, and likely more, of Donnelly’s men had extensive Civil War service, and three had recent service in the Seventh Infantry. At least three were Army scouts.

Donnelly’s Company arrived at Cow Island just after the Nez Perce had crossed the Missouri and were moving up Cow Creek. On September 27, 1877, Donnelly’s men engaged elements of the Nez Perce in a three-hour battle, with one man, African American Edmund Bradley killed. Fortunately for Donnelly’s Company the main Nez Perce camp was moving northward toward their fate at Snake Creek.

Popular and capable, Col Donnelly served Choteau County as Clerk and Recorder and Probate Judge, and was elected a member of the Twelfth Montana Territorial Legislative Assembly in 1881, being chosen Speaker of the House of Representatives. Throughout his time in Montana, Donnelly engaged in the practice of the law, and his last law partner in the 1890s became the talented young Charles N. Pray.

By 1885, Fort Benton was home for many Civil War veterans, and in early August of that year, Union veterans signed a petition to form a Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) post. Among those signing this list was “J. J. Donnelly, Lieut. Colonel, 14th Michigan.”
Although not well documented, during 1883-84 when Louis Riel, leader of the Canadian Metis, was in exile in Montana, he spent time with Col. Donnelly. According to writer Joseph Kinsey Howard, Donnelly offered his support and advice, and the two met several times in Fort Benton. Donnelly advised him on the wording of petitions and military strategy and told Riel that he considered Riel’s dream of Metis freedom in western Canada a splendid dream. Riel’s 1885 invasion, defeat, and hanging must have been very hard on the old Fenian Donnelly.

Donnelly never remarried, and as he advanced in age his memories of battles lost and won in the Civil War, loss of his young wife, defeats in his glorious Fenian cause, loss of many of his Fort Benton Irish friends, the defeat of the Metis and loss of Riel, all must have weighed heavily on his mind. In November 1897, Donnelly was found lying in his bedroom with his throat badly cut and unconscious from loss of blood. Although he eventually recovered, the end was nearing for the old warrior. Yet, his drinking increased.

Two years later, in September 1899, friends became concerned over his strange absence from his usual haunts for several days. A search began, and Finlay Tower discovered footprints leading down to the water’s edge at the wing-dam at the end of Whalen bottom, and could find no place where anyone had come out. When last seen Donnelly had been drunk, and friends became concerned that the Colonel had met with some mishap. For weeks the search continued, but it was about a month later that remains were found on a sandbar on the south side of the Missouri river at the upper end of the Lansing ranch, having floated some 60 miles from the place where the tragedy occurred. Although badly decomposed, the remains were recognized as Donnelly. The remains indicated a determined case of suicide. He had filled his pockets with about 14 pounds of rocks, cut his throat from ear to ear, and completed his work of self-destruction by drowning. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death by drowning and self-inflicted injuries.

After a special requiem mass, the remains of the late Col. John J. Donnelly were interred in Riverside cemetery by pallbearers Judges DuBose and Tattan, Jere Sullivan, H. J. O’Hanlon, and G. A. R. veterans T. A. Cummings and R. S. Culbertson. A large number of his old friends attended the simple ceremonies at the graveside.

Joseph Kinsey Howard, in Strange Empire, eulogized Civil War veteran and Fenian leader Colonel Donnelly, “In September, 1899, the last of the Pembina plotters, last of the irreconcilables, perhaps last of the Fenian fighting men, joined his comrades. General Donnelly walked down to the Fort Benton levee, filled his pockets with fourteen pounds of rocks, slit his throat from ear to ear, and marched unfalteringly into the Missouri river.” And we might add, Colonel John J. Donnelly, Civil War hero, marched into history.

Note: If you have Civil War veterans in your family who settled in this area, we would be pleased to hear from you with copies of stories and photographs that we can share with our readers. Send your Civil War stories to mtcivilwar@yahoo.com or to the Overholser Historical Research Center, Box 262, Fort Benton, MT 59442.

1. The goal of the Fenian Brotherhood is reflected in this patriotic lithograph, "Freedom to Ireland," by Currier & Ives, New York, ca 1866.
2. The Battle of Eccles Hill was part of a Fenian raid into Canada in May 1870. This scene is located near the site of the Battle of Pigeon Hill where Colonel Donnelly was wounded in the 1866 Fenian invasion.
3. This portrait of John J. Donnelly is the only image of the famed Irishman in the Overholser Historical Research Center.
4. Civil War Gravestone of Captain John J. Donnelly at Highland Cemetery.