Putting the Pieces Together – John Donovan, “Deaf-Mute” of the Massachusetts Volunteers

One of the toughest and also one of the most gratifying things about this project as been discovering the stories of some amazing men with disabilities who served this country. Often, the disability is not mentioned in one biography but may be mentioned in another. A photo may show a disability but nothing in their obituary mentions it. Disability is just not a part of the information that is preserved; and sometimes it is even purposely hidden. There is nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a piece of information in once place and then connecting it to another and finding that “disability was there.”

I was searching for images of Fort Stevens, Washington DC, and the Brightwood area and came across this image in the Library of Congress. It is listed as: Camp Brightwood. Col. Henry S. Briggs. 10th Regt. Mass. Volunteers and was put out by Sarony, Major & Knapp, 449 Broadway N.Y.

amp Brightwood. Col. Henry S. Briggs. 10th Regt. Mass. Volunteers
Image of Camp Brightwood. Col. Henry S. Briggs. 10th Regt. Mass. Volunteers. Black and White drawing with soldiers marching in a drill formation. Tents of the camp edge the scene. A man is seated by a wagon in the lower right with an easel.

It is a lovely lithograph with a lot of things going on in it. And while I loved it, it isn’t quite right for the film. HOWEVER, in the lower left below the image it says, “John Donovan, Deaf Mute, DEL Oct 17th 1861”. Much to my frustration though, the Library of Congress didn’t have any additional information.

Here is where the digging came in. From “Rebellion Record: a Diary of American Events: Poetry and Incidents” (New York: Putnam, 1861/1862,” Volume 4):

“Tenth regiment Massachusetts volunteers, stationed at Camp Brightwood, Virginia, is a deaf mute, named John Donovan, who is regularly enlisted as a soldier and detailed as the regimental tailor … An accurate draft of Camp Brightwood, made by him, is in the hands of lithographers, and will shortly be issued. John was always spoken of in the highest terms of praise by the officers of his regiment, and, notwithstanding his infirmity, was fully equal, bodily and mentally, to the rank and file of the grand army of the Union…”

And do you what is REALLY cool? He actually drew himself into the picture. In the lower right, you can see him seated next to the wagon sketching the soldiers drilling – THIS VERY SCENE.

So no, Private John Donovan was never in the Invalid Corps, however, he was a member of Company A of the 10th Regiment of the Massachussetts Volunteers and worked, for a time, quite successfully as an enlisted soldier in the Union Army.  I say “for a time” because when I looked up the regimental history, “Ours”. Annals of 10th regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers in the Rebellion, I found this:

“John Donovan, of Lee, (a deaf mute,) was enlisted July 24, 1861, and followed the Regiment to Brightwood, where he, being a tailor by trade, repaired clothing for officers and men; was enlisted unlawfully, and appears to have been dropped from the rolls; had a fine taste for drawing, and made a good view of the camp at Brightwood, which was lithographed, and had an extensive sale. He came home to Massachusetts, where he died about 1864.”

Posted on: January 27, 2018