John Donovan

By Graham Warder, Ph.D., Keene State College

Camp Brightwood, 10th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, Library of Congress,

Early in the Civil War, defending Washington, D.C., was an urgent priority of the Lincoln Administration.  (Manning such defenses would later become a primary mission of the Invalid Corps.)  To defend the nation’s capital, several forts were constructed around the city, including Fort Massachusetts, built during the first winter of the war by the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers, seen drilling in the lithograph of Camp Brightwood.  The lithograph was the creation of the man seated in the lower right corner of the print.  That man was John Donovan of Lee, Massachusetts, and he was deaf.

Donovan, a tailor by trade, had enlisted with the 10th Massachusetts in Springfield on July 24, 1861. As a “deaf-mute,” Donovan appears to have enlisted illegally.  Enlistees had to be examined by a physician, and men with disabilities, including deafness, were kept out of the Union Army.  Nevertheless, Donovan joined the 10th and worked repairing clothing for the men of the regiment.  He was also an accomplished artist, and his sketch of Camp Brightwood earned accolades from Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which praised “his natural gift for drawing.”  The newspaper went on, “An accurate draft of Camp Brightwood, made by him, is now in the hands of lithographers, and will shortly be issued.  He is spoken of in the highest terms of praise by the officers of his regiment.”

Close-up of the artist, John Donovan, sketching the scene at Camp Brightwood.

The praise of his superiors, however, did not keep him in uniform.  Apparently because of his unlawful enlistment, he was discharged and returned to his family in Massachusetts.  He died sometime about 1864.


“Putting the Pieces Together – John Donovan, ‘Deaf-Mutes’ of the Massachusetts Volunteers,” Invalid Corps, .

Roe, Alfred S., The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, a Western Massachusetts Regiment (Springfield, Mass.: Tenth Regiment Veteran Association, 1909).

Valley Gleaner, February 20, 1862.

A Seminar at Keene State College