|Major Donovan's monument,|
St. Patrick Cemetery
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
When the Battle is Over
What happens when the flags are furled after the last battle? When the victor returns home to the cheers of family and friends? When the last four years have been filled with blood and battle and you’re expected to return to the life you knew before? What happens?
When the news that soldiers from the 6th Mass Regiment had been attacked and killed by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore in April of 1861 the citizens of Lowell rallied to the cause of the North. The first to do so were a band of Irishmen who formed the 16th Mass. Before marching off to war, the soldiers attended Mass at St. Patrick church. When the host was elevated at the time of consecration the officers withdrew their swords from their scabbards to salute the sacrament. The men were then marched to the train depot where they would meet their fate. Of those who served in the Sixteenth, 150 officers and men would be mortally wounded, along with 93 who would die of disease. A few would have their remains returned and interred in the consecrated ground of St. Patrick cemetery, most would not. This was the story of one who served and returned.
Matthew Donovan would eventually achieve the rank of major, but not before enduring bloodshed, imprisonment, and disease. Born in Ireland in 1830 he appears in Lowell about 1850 as a housepainter. Father Timothy O’Brien witnessed his marriage to Ellen Rowe in 1852. Soon there were 5 little Donovans, including a set of twins. The growing family moved from place to place along Broadway and Lowell Streets. Perhaps it was to accommodate the growing family or the financial need, but the movement was almost yearly.
When the call for soldiers to defend the North was made just after Baltimore, Matthew was among the first to enlist. His Civil War career included battles at Fair Oaks, Second Bull Run, and Spotsylvania. He spent months in a hospital in Annapolis, probably from wounds he received at Fair Oaks or from one of the camp diseases that spread so quickly. His account of the 16th’s engagement at Gettysburg tells much about the man. He told of hours of doing nothing, looking for a place to let his men bathe, and waiting for the inevitable as more and more troops filled the town. The 16th was in charge of protecting the Emmetsburg Road. They dug trenches and at times hid in the woods as they were often shot at from different sides. Eighty-one men of the 16th were lost at Gettysburg. On the 4th of July he reported that the enemy went “skedaddling.” On another occasion Donovan had to write home to the family of a Lowell soldier, Private Barry, who died in Donovan’s arms with his last words being, “Tell my mother I die a brave Union soldier.” Newspapers reported that Donovan spent an extended period in the hospital after the Spotsylvania campaign. He’s mustered out in 1864, before the war ended.
Upon his return to Lowell he attempted to reopen his house painting business and met with limited success. He turned to a trade that had shown success for many of his fellow countrymen- liquor. Just after the war he opened a restaurant and referred to himself as a “restorator,” using the vernacular of the day. He also became involved in local Republican Party politics and started accepting small city appointments, such as surveyor of highways. He became well-known at political conventions and became a “chief officer” for the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican group with hopes of freedom for Ireland.
If he wasn’t busy enough he maintained a position in the Sergeant Light Guards, a local militia group. He was present at every muster and parade the group has and was named commander. He took a prolonged trip back to Ireland, accompanied by a friend, the purpose being started as “business.” What kind of business was not mentioned and the trip was extended to the point where the Light Guards was disbanded due to its “officer” not being present and uniforms and arms not being maintained.
But Donovan’s story does not end here. While he was keeping this small place for serving meals on Merrimack Street, he also started serving and then selling liquor. The liquor laws in Massachusetts vary over the years, but there were strict rules as to when and how much alcohol could be kept or sold. Donovan was arrested at least 10 times between 1865 and 1873. He was fined hundreds of dollars, which would be a great amount at the time, but he reopened and continued his sales. He was even put in jail several times for days and even weeks, but still he persisted. One wonders what his family would do during this period. Interestingly his name appeared more than any other in the arrest records of constables seizing or fining him on the spot. He was not alone, and a few other names were mentioned again and again. Just before his death an investigation was put together questioning why the same names appear and asked if all the money that was given as a fine was returned to the city. This does not stop Donovan and he was once again fined and imprisoned. As soon as he was released he was marching in the GAR parade, toasting at the St. Patrick’s Day banquet, and most amazingly, the city continued to grant him his yearly liquor license.
In December of 1873, while speaking to a friend, he offhandedly said he felt he would die quickly, and he did. At age 47 he was found dead in his bed. Cause- heart disease. He was carried to his grave by his fellow GAR members, the Knights of St Patrick, and the Lowell Coronet Band, whom he sponsored. His marker bears the kepi and insignia of the 16th Mass. with the epitaph, “Life’s battle is o’er.”