THE LIFE AND DEATH OF C.S.A. LT. DANIEL S. DONELSON - AND HIS "GIFT OF THE DEAD"
An extraordinary grouping surrounding the life and death of Lieut. D. S. Donelson of Co. E, 154th Tenn. Senior Regt. The sequence of events of Lt. Donelson's military life begins on August 23, 1861 when he first writes home from Fort Pillow, and ends a little over two and one half years later when he was robbed and murdered while returning to Parole Camp in Desoto County, Mississippi is described in a superb collection of 44 letters loaded with content. Also included is his obituary, published in a Union occupation newspaper, a handwritten note folded and containing a large lock of his hair recovered by his father and mother from the place of his murder, and a hand-written map of the death scene. According to a manuscript document found in Donelson's archive of letters, he entered the service on May 13, 1861 as a Corporal of Co. E (Hickory Rifles), Capt. J.D. Martin's company of Col. Preston Smith's 154th TN. Senior Infantry Regiment, which was actually a prewar unit. However, this statement is contradicted in his first letter dated Aug. 23, 1861 from Ft. Pillow in which he states "...I know I will have a great deal of trouble getting a transfer to the Hickory Rifles for it would be a precedent...". A letter written by Donelson from Bowling Green on Jan. 30, 1862 informs his father of the disastrous defeat of Crittenden and Zollicoffer eleven days earlier at Mills Spring (Zollicoffer was actually killed and Crittenden was believed to be drunk). He also requests that his slave Joe be sent up to his camp. Two weeks later on Feb. 16, 1862, Donelson pens another letter to his father that paints a dismal picture. "...We have just passed through Nashville - Bowling Green has been evacuated - we burned a great many stores before we left and the enemy captured a great many - Fort Donelson was surrendered today and it is reported that Floyd & Buckner with their Brigades have been taken prisoners and Pillow retreating rapidly to this place - Gen. Crittenden is at Carthage and you may say our whole army is retreating rapidly - where a stand will be made I am not able to say...". The sad news continues as he writes his mother five days later from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "...We are now encamped here having made, as I consider it, a precipitate retreat from Bowling Green...Crittenden is here also with his division - we have now about 25,000 effective men but I fear they are sadly demoralized - where we will go no one seems to know...we lost the largest part of our army stores and where we will get meat and bread for this summer the Lord only knows...baggage belonging to our regiment was burned at Bowling Green - and one or two hundred guns - all of my bed clothes except a pair of blankets and two pair of boots were destroyed...The Stars and stripes now float over the capitol of Tennessee and the Tennessee troops are justly indignant that not a single blow has been struck in defense of their native state...Gen. Johnston had called on the citizens he could have raised 15,000 men to assist us in defense of Nashville...we lost 2,000 killed and 8,000 prisoners at Fort Donelson...". Donelson's distraught attitude continues in a downward spiral as he writes his father from camp near Fayetteville on Mar. 7, 1862 while heading to Corinth: "...We have halted here today to rest... the Yankees have been through the old neighborhoods but have, as yet, committed no outrages...I hope that all of those who remained quietly at home...will feel with full effect the rule of a triumphant enemy - troops cannot see why Nashville was surrendered and so much ground evacuated...". Five weeks later Donelson's spirits lift: on Apr. 15,1862 he writes his mother on the battle of Shiloh: "...I have had no rest since the Battle - nearly all of the officers have gone away either wounded or sick I have been acting Brigade and Regt. Adjutant both which has kept me busy all day...the army is being organized again as rapidly as possible - it need not be denied we were terribly crippled by the late fight - we will be in a condition to fight again in about one week - Sunday morning we won a glorious but dearly bought victory and Sunday evening Genl. Johnston's determination to press his columns forward to capture their whole army cost him his life as well as many other gallant soldiers - the incessant and terrific fire of the gunboats, however as well as the wearied condition of our troops and the approach of night, prevented it Remember that Genl. Breckenridge's division...had been marched 40 miles through mud and rain in 2 days and were carried into action at 10am - thus, you see the entire army was actively engaged... Monday morning at sunrise we continued fighting against fresh troops and continued so until late in the evening - Sunday evening and Monday I shot at the enemy with one of his own guns and his own ammunition swapped off their old flintlocks...I picked up several very fine swords... none of them having scabbards - I brought no trophy from the field except an Enfield rifle...Joe [my slave] is now dressed in a fine blue Yankee uniform...". The fall of 1862, Donelson finds himself back in the northeast corner of Mississippi at Corinth, facing the battle of Corinth and further sadness which come about from the death of his colonel, John D. Martin on Oct. 3rd, and particularly the death of his Uncle John. On Oct. 7, 1862 he writes his mother: "...With feelings of the most sad, I communicate to you the death of Uncle John...gallantly leading his brigade. He died Friday evening at 5 o'clock, 2 or 3 hours after he was wounded. He told me before the action commenced that he would be killed in that battle but said he would do his whole duty if he was shot into shoestrings I was in hopes that after having past unharmed at Shiloh and Iuka he might still be spared for further usefulness but an all wise God has seen proper to direct otherwise - we must quietly submit - I would willingly have died to save him but I could not...I have left all my friends to follow Uncle John and now that he is killed, cut off from you all indeed - I feel almost as though I was deserted - the Federals seemed more determined than ever when I think of giving up the contest - the ghost of thousands appear before me all mangled and bloody...". From near Grenada, Miss. on Dec. 11, 1862 Donelson writes his father saying that Gen. Maury has recommended that he be placed in the Signal Corps and expects to be ordered to do so in a few days. He adds: "...If you think you will lose your Negroes, send three or four of the boys who are not married to me". A large gap appears in the correspondence, and we do not hear from him again for about four months. On Apr. 4, 1863 he writes Gen. Samuel Cooper and in a very straightforward manner states: "...Lt. Genl. Pemberton considered the validity of my commission doubtful and has declined to recognize me as an officer. I respectfully desire to know if I am legally a Lieutenant in the service...". Obviously Cooper cleared the matter up as evidenced by the next letter in his archive, from Lt. Gen. JOHN C. PEMBERTON (1814-1881) Confederate lieutenant general who commanded the Department of Mississippi and surrendered Vicksburg to Grant. Pemberton, addressing Donelson as "Lieut.", on July 1, 1863 orders him to proceed with a guard to a Mr. Clives' house (near Vicksburg) and search for corn and bacon. Adversity comes knocking at the front door of his life once again as to his surprise Vicksburg is surrendered on July 3, 1863. Following are a few excerpts from letters to his father dated July 4th and July 6th 1863 that express his concerns, confusion and delusions. In part: "...To the surprise of everyone it was announced this morning that this place was surrendered - Maj. G. gave me no notice of it - I should have tried to have escaped last night, which, however is a serious undertaking now if the enemy does not station guard on the river I will leave tonight - I do not know at what time I will leave here if I stay with the company - either this evening or tomorrow. I have given all the boys [slaves] passes to Jackson or Bolivar- I trust they may reach one or the other - a Federal Genl. has passed the door since writing the above... Come to this place as soon as you can all your negroes have been taken here - they are all anxious to go with me but the Federal authorities say they cannot grant permission for them to go for several days yet - all of them are faithful - I have been paroled but do not know what privilege will be granted to me - we have 30,000 prisoners...". Sometime between July 6th and Sept. 12th Donelson is paroled from Vicksburg and allowed to go home awaiting the exchange process. A text written Sept. 12, 1863 opens: "...In considering the question 'Shall I continue to fight for the Confederate States...'". Donelson continues with a six page synopsis weighing the pros and cons, strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument. Although he feels that the supply of men and money for the North are inexhaustible, he believes that the Union's extravagance could foreshadow a coming reversal. In judging his perception of the facts as defined by his writings, it seems almost self-evident to Donelson that the cause of the Union would be successful and the downfall of the Confederacy a certainty. Having traveled approximately 230 miles in eighty days, Lt. Donelson takes time on Sept. 20, 1863 to write to his beloved mother from Rose Hill, Mississippi: "...I am not yet willing to acknowledge our defeat, at the same time, I see no prospect of success - under these circumstances I have decided that I will leave the army on account of my health and for other reasons...". Four days brings about a total change in his attitude and thought process as evidenced by his next letter on Sept. 24, 1863 from Okolona, Mississippi. He is now ready to join Bragg at Chickamauga: "...After a fatiguing trip of four days, being arrested and imprisoned as a deserter and every possible indignity being heaped on me - I have at length arrived here - and obtained personal liberty - on my arrival at Tippah River 40 miles from Memphis. I was arrested and carried to Brig. Genl. Ferguson's Hd. Qrs. at New Albany on the charge of being absent without...I was absent without leave and on that ground would be sent to the camp of paroled prisoners under guard...extended me furlough for thirty days - if I can obtain the release of the box I will go at once to Bragg's army as a terrible Battle has just been fought...a new spirit seems to have taken hold of the people here and all seem confident of success, Bragg has driven Rosecrans across the river and holds the fields - our loss is estimated at 5,000 - the enemy at 25,000 - I am fearful of the results, however as the fight is not yet ended. If Bragg cannot succeed in driving the enemy back to Nashville I cannot see that any good has been accomplished - I do not think I will be able to resign at present - as the law now is very strange - I regret very much that I did not stay a month...". One day later on Sept. 25, Donelson receives the sad news that his brother John was killed at the battle of Chattanooga. Another letter is penned to his mother with the sorrowful information stating that Genl. Smith (Preston), Brother John and Mr. Richmond were the only Memphians killed and their regiment was in the thickest of the fight and suffered terribly. Oct. 10, 1863 brings a letter to his father and another to his mother with vivid details of his brother's death and where his body and possessions will remain. In part: "...I am now at this place having just returned from Bragg's Army near Chattanooga, Brother John was killed on the 10th a little after dark...John was riding in front with Col. Vaughan when but a few steps before a man raised from behind a bush Col. V. asked to what command he belonged, he replied 77th Pennsylvania and fired, his ball taking effect on Brother John. He fell dead the ball having entered the left breast and pierced the heart. His company which was just behind him fired at and killed the Yankee and the larger portion of the Reg't was captured - Gen'l Smith was also killed about the same time on another part of the field...". The next seven letters in the archive are all written to Brigadier General Mackall and General Samuel Cooper, Adj. and Inspector General by various officers with whom Donelson has served in which they recommend him for having a good moral character, intelligence, efficience, bravery and with fine business qualifications. Senders include: Capt. L.B. Pardue, Comdg. 7th Miss. Battn. (later captured at Vicksburg and KIA on June 19, 1864, to Brig. Gen. Mackall; Col. O.S. Holland Comy. 37th Miss. Infy. (captured at Vicksburg and fought through the Carolinas); (similar to previous); Col. W.W. Witherspoon, 36th Miss. Infy. (captured at Vicksburg and killed at Franklin), to Gen. Mackall; Capt. L.B. Pardue to Gen. Samuel Cooper; Col. W. W. Witherspoon to Cooper; and Lt. Col. Edward Brown, 36th Miss. (captured twice, Vicksburg and Blakely, Alabama), to Cooper. Lt. Donelson's last living voice that speaks to history occurs on Nov. 20, 1863 in the form of a 4pp. letter to his mother. Once again he is in a melancholy mood, concerned about the country being bankrupt, citizens without scruples, property scarcely worth the labor to preserve it, the moral condition of the country is becoming truly alarming, security is lacking and if the war happens to last much longer, "...the bowie knife and pistol will be the order of the day...". He continues: "...I have not yet been exchanged and it seems to be indefinitely postponed...all of my desires point one way and my idea of duty another - my recent troubles came at a very unpredictable time - but I am happy to know that I did not allow my anger to move me in opposition...I have to say, in consequence, that my opinion of mankind has been very much diminished...". Donelson's love of the South wins out and forces him to trudge on for the cause of his beloved motherland. This last known letter written to Lt. Donelson comes on Jan. 5, 1864 from Col. W.W. Witherspoon, believed to be back in command of the 36th Miss. Infantry, Headquartered at Enterprise, informing Donelson that he has been exchanged if he will report to the parole camp by Nov. 6, 1863. He advises: "...I would think it best for you not to be absent without leave, as the books are kept rather strict against absent officers and a few days absent without leave might do you a very great harm in the future". Witherspoon also tells Lt. Donelson that the 36th was exchanged, and is well-armed and ready for service. The next item in the archive is an open letter marked: "T.M. Sloan To the friends of D.X. Donelson" and signed by three civilians, 1p. 4to., "Three Miles North of Pleasant Hill, DeSoto County Miss.", Apr. 27, 1864. In part: "...A dead man found today on Camp Creek in DeSoto County, Miss. - Near the road...from Olive Branch to Pleasant Hill - from the appearance of the body we think that it has been several weeks since he was killed - there is a name on the hat we could not tell what it was - the remains will be uninterrupted until we can make further inquiries about his relatives or friends' whereabouts...If any of his friends should be so fortunate as to get this letter - and come out in the neighborhood - his hat with the name in it will be produced...". The following day, Donelson's mother is sent a letter from a local acquaintance: "...I have just learned the sad fate of your dear boy and hasten to forward the notes of Mr. John H. Taylor with whom you are well acquainted... his body was found about 6 miles from my house by Mr. Wilroy's little son_________ the bearer to bear the awful tidings to you. If you have any need of my kind offices please advise me...". An accompanying document, signed by ten civilian and military witnesses and soldiers, is a medical report, 2pp. 4to., Apr. 29, 1864 bearing a crude map with the location of Donelson's body, and a description of the cause of death: "...He was killed by a gunshot wound - the ball from which struck him in the back of the head - above the occipital, and near the forehead in front, shattering the skull...". The last two letters are summaries, in different hands, of Donelson's service, one placing his departure from home for parole camp as Jan. 25, 1864 - making his death about three months before his body would be discovered. Also present is the most descriptive obituary that you could ever hope to see, especially when considering the fact that it more than likely was published in the Memphis newspaper while the city was under Federal occupation. It is obvious that the item was written with a considerable amount of input from his parents, with particulars concerning his personal possessions, a vivid description of his horse and saddle and a history of his military career. The final article is the most chilling: a massive lock of hair folded in a thick piece of paper with the following inscription: "Daniel. S. Donelson hair 3 months after death, taken from the spot where he was assassinated on the 25th ,January his father and mother picked it up 8th of May 1864. Gift of the Dead". Almost every item is accompanied by a full printed transcript, all housed in two archival albums. This is a stirring archive, vastly different and more thoughtful and provocative than any assemblage of letters we've seen. Overall very good to fine condition. EBAY 5000