Himself: A Civil War Veteran's Struggles with Rebels, Brits and Devils. By William J. Donohue 319 pp., 2014 Buffalo Heritage Press www.BuffaloHeritage.com, softcover $19.99
Mid-19th century life in Buffalo's teeming First Ward, where working-class cottages and saloons co-mingled with massive grain elevators, iron works and rail yards, meant abject uncertainty for the largely illiterate and unskilled laborers, mostly Irish, who dwelled there, isolated from the rest of the burgeoning and diverse city at the terminus of the Erie Canal.
Dominated by priests and saloon bosses, who often were at odds over working conditions, life in “The Ward” was synonymous with backbreaking work for long hours at low pay, a nomadic existence for families in rented housing and hardscrabble times. Still, it was a place for new beginnings, especially for those escaping desperation in the old country.
Such is the backdrop to the coming of age story of Patrick Donohue Jr., who arrived with his older brother in Buffalo in 1850 as orphans to be reared by their destitute grandmother and other relatives in Himself: A Civil War Veteran's Struggles with Rebels, Brits and Devils, a new work of historical fiction by first-time novelist William J. Donohue.
Pat, the protagonist of the story, who is based on the author's great grandfather, is a wild, adventuresome sort who repeatedly finds himself the victim of his own bad decisions and weaknesses, from the gangs he joins in his youth to his recklessness on the battlefield to his maddening addiction to alcohol -- and he remained unreformed to the very end of his life. Despite the best efforts of the bishop of Buffalo himself, Pat’s life, with one major exception, becomes a litany of largely bad choices and disappointing outcomes.
John, the older brother and key character throughout Pat's life, is Pat's foil. While both came from the same environs, John was harder-working, more responsible and dedicated to faith, fortune and duty, qualities Pat found only on the battlefield.
Typical of the time, the boys found themselves graduating from 6th grade to the First Ward labor pool, working – and, in Pat’s case, shirking jobs at the foundries and wharves around them. Thanks to his rambunctious lifestyle, Pat found himself often without work, bouncing from job to job, spending a good deal of his income at Kennedy's saloon, where the proprietor pulled strings to get him work.
When Bishop Timon, Buffalo's spiritual leader, called on all Catholics to defend the Union at the start of the Civil War, Pat, 18, and his brother joined Company I of the 155th New York Volunteer Infantry as part of the newly formed Irish Legion, under General Michael Corcoran. The author, here, is at his finest, describing in vivid detail the battle experiences of the brothers and Pat's capture and escape from a Confederate prison camp. Of particular note are the descriptions of the fighting at Sangster's Station and Spotsylvania Court House. The author’s command of the details of not only the battles, but the accoutrements, maneuvers and tactics, down to an infantryman’s level, is most impressive, veracious, suspenseful and intense.
After the war, Pat joins the Fenian movement in Buffalo, which consists of Irish veterans from both sides of the late war, determined to free Ireland from British rule with military force. Pat’s assignment was to spy across the Niagara River in southern Ontario to report on British army and Canadian militia movements in advance of the failed crossing of the Niagara River by the new Fenian army at Buffalo, billeted primarily within Buffalo's First Ward. The June 1866 expedition failed and Pat, with the rest of his life before him returned to his listless past, struggling to keep a steady job -- blaming his war injuries. Here, the demons brought on by his addiction to alcohol return, ruining his marriage to Mary Nagle and his relationships with his children. Ultimately, Pat only finds a level of predictability and comfort in a Soldier's Home in Bath, New York, but not without a new set of challenges driven, again, by his addiction to the bottle.
The end is poignant for Pat, whose life was defined by a constant struggle with failure and the implications of bad judgment, yet the reader develops real empathy for Pat along the way. With every hopeful step forward, there is a setback of equal or worse impact on Pat, his friends and his family. His was not a life well-lived.
As the title suggests, while the book is about one man’s struggles, the book itself is riveting and fast-paced. The author is a first-rate wordsmith who captures the personalities and key moments beautifully. Of particular note is the moment Pat and his brother John see a naked woman for the very first time.
While Pat, and to a somewhat lesser extent, John, are the prime characters in this Buffalo story, there are many important characters who shape the story and who made their own history there, including Timon, Sergeant George Tipping of the 155th, whose letters home have become valuable resources for historians and Lt. Hugh Mooney, also of the 155th, who helped plan and lead the failed Fenian invasion of Canada. And it is the First Ward itself -- particularly its unique ethos -- that the author captures exceptionally well, including in the story nearly every key street, neighborhood, mill, saloon and workplace of which every First Ward aficionado knows well.
Through Pat’s experiences, the author also sheds light on a neglected aspect of our history -- the life of veterans after the war, their chronic health issues, dependency on a broken, listless and skeptical bureaucracy and issues of addiction, which for some outside Pat’s story included opium. Also of note is the author’s compelling relation of life in a Soldier's Home, a mostly unexplored aspect of the war that stayed with us well into the 20th century.
About the Author
Born and raised in South Buffalo, New York, William J. Donohue became a Catholic priest in 1964 after attending St. Bonaventure University and the University of Louvain, Belgium. He left the priesthood and married in 1974, later becoming New York State Commerce Commissioner under Governor Mario Cuomo and also serving as a community- change agent in Flint, Michigan. He retired in 2006 and has returned to Buffalo.
On why he wrote the book . . .
"I wrote the book for several reasons. First of all, I hoped it would further my own maturation. I had been studying Family Systems Theory over the past five years and had become acutely aware of still vibrant childhood habit patterns that weighed negatively on my most prized relationships. Secondly,I wanted to preserve for my family the sacrifices of our ancestors and awaken in readers an appreciation of what we all owe them. I also wanted to say something to my family without preaching about alcohol abuse and its devastating effects on individual and family life. Alcohol abuse is deeply imbedded right down to teenage nephews. Lastly, I wanted to engage myself with a broad audience on historical issues that live on in the present, e.g., the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
On crafting historical fiction from the lives of real people . . .
“I took great liberties in crafting episodes for which I had only scant historical outlines, but I believe I stayed close to the personality of the protagonist I discovered in military and census records and in stories recounted by an octogenarian cousin who lived with Patrick's daughter Annie.”
On Buffalo's Old First Ward today . . .
“The First Ward is in the midst of an exciting resurrection from its decrepit industrial past. It has become the waterfront recreational center of the community, colored with a heavy dose of historicity, and people are flocking to it. Grain boats have been replaced by hundreds of kayaks and small cruise-ships. Pat would be right in his element partying with the best of the new crowd that has discovered the Ward and no doubt would have his own stool at Gene McCarthy's Tavern.”
Buffalo's First Ward Documentary Trailer
155th New York Volunteer Infantry, Co I (Reenacted)
About the Reviewer: Kevin P. Gorman is a fifth-generation Irish-American with Famine-era roots in Buffalo’s First Ward. A marketing executive based in Rochester, New York, he graduated in 1986 from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a bachelor of arts in history and political science.