At the outbreak of war, twenty-year-old Francis Adams Donaldson enlisted in the 1st California Regiment (later known as the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers) of the famous Philadelphia Brigade of the II Corps, Army of the Potomac. He fought at Ball’s Bluff (where he was captured) and participated in the Peninsula Campaign until he was wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks.
Upon his recovery, Donaldson reluctantly accepted promotion to a captaincy I the Corn Exchange Regiment (also known as the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers), which served throughout its existence in the V Corps. In his new position, Donaldson participated in all the major campaigns and battles in the East through late 1863, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, and Mine Run.
Although Donaldson made no secret of his distaste for writing he consistently sent home some of his letters filled as many as fifty pages of writing paper. Nearly all of his letter were written in camp of while on active campaign, imparting a freshness and immediacy that is rarely seen. His comments on fellow soldiers—be they lowly privates of major generals—were pointed and unvarnished. In addition to writing ably and including his combat experience, Donaldson also revealed much about the seldom-mentioned factors of army life—the internal feuding, the backbiting, and the politicking that coursed through many Civil War regiments.
For more than 125 years, Donaldson’s letters have lain virtually untouched in the Civil War Library and Museum of Philadelphia. J. Gregory Acken has painstakingly edited these remarkable collection, making these never-before-published letters available for the first time. Their detail and honesty will astonish and enthrall anyone who has ever taken an interest in the Civil War.
A graduate of Villanova University, J. Gregory Acken is past president of the Old baldy Civil War Round Table of Philadelphia and currently serves on the board of governors of The Civil War Library and Museum. He resides in Middletown, New Jersey, with his wife, Regina, and son Brian.