The Donaldson Brothers

With the holidays underway and people reflecting on family and loved ones, I think it’s fitting to tell one of the smaller, more personal stories from the Civil War. It’s the story of two brothers–Francis (Frank) Adams Donaldson and John Donaldson from Philadelphia.

If I’ve learned anything in the nine months that I’ve been writing this column, it’s that for every major action or battle there are thousands of little stories and individual dramas that, if you’re lucky, you can still piece together 150 years later. As we close the chapter on 1861 and move into the next year of the war, I hope to find a balance between the major events and the little stories that unfolded here in our city.

With the holidays underway and people reflecting on family and loved ones, I think it’s fitting to tell one of these little stories. It’s the story of two brothers–Francis (Frank) Adams Donaldson and John Donaldson from Philadelphia. In April of 1861, each brother found himself on a different side of the conflict. Frank, seeking the adventure of a military career, left his job as a clerk when the war broke out and enlisted in the Union army. His brother John, a member of the local militia who was living in western Virginia at the time, joined the rest of his friends to fight for the Confederacy.

Frank Donaldson spent the first several months of the war drilling, training, and holding defensive positions outside Washington. In late October, he saw his first major action outside Leesburg, Virginia at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Donaldson’s brigade was tasked with crossing the Potomac to engage Confederate forces and pressure them to withdraw from the vicinity of the capital. The Union forces misjudged the size of the numerically-superior Confederate force and the minor skirmish they expected turned into a rout. 714 soldiers were captured or missing, including Donaldson who found himself a captive on a southbound train to Richmond.

After arriving in Richmond, Donaldson and the other captured soldiers were marched down Broad Street until they arrived at a warehouse converted into a prison near 25th & Main Streets. As soon as possible, Donaldson made attempts to reach his brother John who was stationed at a Confederate camp not too far away. For several months he received no word. He wrote home to his family on December 20th:

Tomorrow will be exactly two months that I have been a prisoner, and is that all? Why it seems to me that I have been here six months at least. How many more weary months am I to remain a captive? The monotony of my everyday life was somewhat agreeably interrupted last Friday by a visit from Mr. John Goshorn and two of brother John’s friends…I had quite lengthy talk with them all and received most flattering accounts of John, who they say will shortly be promoted to the rank of Major…They told me that John would come on here immediately on receipt of a letter from them which they intended to write that same evening, and as a matter of course he would call at once to see me. You can imagine with what joy I looked forward to a meeting with a brother I love so well, and one who has gone so far astray as he has done, even to lifting his hand against a government that has protected him from his youth up. Unfortunately after anticipating with much pleasure his arrival I saw, two days after, a notice of the removal of his regiment far, far away from my direct communication with this city. Oh, how hard it was for me thus to have my hopes and wishes dashed at once to the earth, and now he has gone, and I may never see our dear brother in life again. Inside The Army of the Potomac, Francis Adams Donaldson, J. Gregory Acken

Frank’s fears were unfounded. Eventually, his brother heard of his plight and traveled to Richmond from Lewisburg, VA (now West Virginia) accompanied by his friend Noyes Rand with the intent of getting his brother paroled. Rand had an existing friendship with Virginia’s governor John Letcher, so he appealed to him directly for a personal favor. After some difficulty, the men obtained an order from the War Department to parole Frank Donaldson.

On January 1st, 1862, the men arrived at the prison and arranged for Frank’s release. Once paroled, he left with them and headed back to their room at the Spotswood Hotel. Donaldson’s parole meant he was no longer imprisoned, but he was required to stay in the city of Richmond until he was exchanged. Over the next several days, the Donaldson brothers walked the streets of Richmond, Frank fully enjoying no his new-found freedom. However, as his only clothes were the ones he was captured in, his Union army coat raised the ire of several passersby on the street. Kindly, Rand offered to trade his Confederate army coat so that he could pass unmolested in the city streets. During their stay in Richmond, Donaldson and Rand had their daguerreotypes taken and gave it to Frank as a memento of the successful trip to parole him.

Once the business of freeing his brother was complete, the time came for John to return to the fight. Frank accompanied John to the train depot and was overcome with emotion, weeping openly and begging his brother not to leave. Despite his pleas, John boarded the train and left Frank in Richmond, freed from prison, but still far from home and family. He wrote to family back in Philadelphia:

My good dear brother. My splendid hero brother. Oh! God! I may have parted from him forever. He goes to battle against his people, his kinsfolk and the flag that has watched over him since his infancy. To think of it, brother against brother. As I write my eyes are blinded with the tears that refuse to be stayed…Inside The Army of the Potomac, Francis Adams Donaldson, J. Gregory Acken

Frank Donaldson didn’t stay in Richmond much longer. He was exchanged, along with many other prisoners from the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, on February 19th. He would eventually return to his regiment and continue fighting for the Union. Both he and his brother John would survive the war and, from their correspondence, appear to have had no lasting animosity as a result of the war.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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