The Murder of Lt. Daniel Smith Donelson, C.S.A.

Too frequently, historians stumble across mysteries that they lack the evidence to solve. Most of the time, those mysteries are relegated to a folder, where they sit and nag at the mind.

While writing the Donelson biography, I came across one such mystery: the murder of Andrew Jackson Donelson’s son, Daniel Smith Donelson (1842-1864). The only evidence I had were letters in which AJD mentioned his son’s murder and retrieving the body from the side of the road three months after the fact. He also attempted to prosecute those responsible, but without any apparent success.

I always doubted the three-month timeline between death and retrieval, but I appear to have been wrong. A collection of DSD’s correspondence has surfaced and is for sale via an online auction site. They give a fairly comprehensive view of DSD’s movements during the war and provide better insight into his murder.

DSD was the first child born to AJD and his second wife, Elizabeth Martin Randolph. He attended the Western Military Institute in Nashville in the late 1850s. During the Civil War, he was part of Company E, 154th Tennessee Senior Infantry Regiment. From the new correspondence, his steps throughout the war can be traced:

23 August 1861: Fort Pillow, TN

30 January 1862: Bowling Green, KY

21 February 1862: Murfreesboro, TN

7 March 1862: Fayetteville, TN

7 October 1862: Corinth, MS

11 December 1862: Grenada, MS

Early July 1863: Vicksburg, MS

20 September 1863: Rose Hill, MS

24 September 1863: Okolona, MS

His letters are fascinating, both for their description of DSD’s participation in various engagements, as well as for their expression of his personal thoughts. For example, DSD expressed concern several times about the fate of his family’s slaves. He took with him a male slave named Joe, who served as his personal body servant. Following the battle of Shiloh, DSD mentioned that Joe was wearing a Union uniform, presumably taken from a dead Union soldier. In 1862, DSD told his father to send several of the unmarried male slaves to him to avoid losing them. The following year, he sent word that his family’s slaves were with him at Vicksburg.

DSD also conveys his thoughts on the death of relatives fighting for the Confederacy. For example, his uncle, Capt. John Donelson Martin, was killed at Shiloh. (Martin was part of Co. E’s officer corps.) DSD’s brother, John Samuel Donelson (1832-1863), was killed at the battle of Chattanooga, and DSD gives a vivid description of the encounter that led to his death.

How exactly DSD winds up in the position to be murdered is a bit murky. He was paroled from Vicksburg, went home, then was arrested for being AWOL in September 1863. In early January 1864, however, he was informed that he had been exchanged and should report for duty. It seems that DSD was captured by Union forces after his arrest and release, but maybe not. Regardless, later that month, he was murdered “Three Miles North of Pleasant Hill, De Soto County Miss.” His assassin shot him in the head from behind. The date of his murder appears to have been January 25. His body was discovered in late April, and AJD and Elizabeth recovered the body on May 8. (Part of the collection includes a lock of DSD’s hair enclosed in a note, probably written by his parents.

The account of DSD’s wartime service and death are a fascinating story. I hope that the collection winds up in a state archive or other publicly accessible space.

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