Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Gettysburg Casualty’s First Memorial Day

This post is about something topical. A Union soldier who was killed at Gettysburg is finally getting Memorial Day recognition by his hometown. His name is John Dolson and his hometown is Richfield, Minnesota.
First of all, how was he killed?
At 4 P.M., July 2, 1863, Brig. General Jerome Robertson’s Texas Brigade surged across the Slyder and Bushman farm fields south of Gettysburg. As the Confederate soldiers trampled down the crops, they came under fire from the expert riflemen belonging to the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters. Under heavy pressure from the Texans, several companies of U.S. Sharpshooters gave way, but not before losing a few men killed or captured when the Texans closed the distance.
Specifically, the Texans mortally wounded two soldiers from Company A, Corporal Benjamin O. Hamblet and Private John O. Dolson. One man who witnessed it was Second Lieutenant Dyer Burgess Pettijohn. He remembered, “While we were paying some attention, and not without effect, to the enemy troops in our immediate front and our left, another regiment of ‘Johnnies’ came up through a grove of timber on our right until they were within easy pistol range before we discovered their presence.” A Confederate officer commanding the Texas skirmish line called out to Pettijohn, Hamblet, and Dolson, demanding their surrender. Pettijohn threw up his hands, but Hamblet and Dolson decided to make a break for it. The Confederate officer ordered his men to fire, and according to Pettijohn, “a rattle of musketry was the response.” The musket balls hit both men as they tried to flee. Hamblet was struck in the left thigh and Dolson was struck in the left leg and lung. The Confederates made no effort to recover the men they had just shot. They shoved Pettijohn to the rear, and he became a prisoner of war, one of the unlucky officers sent to Libby Prison.
Hamblet and Dolson remained on the field overnight, still suffering from their wounds, but not subsequently touched by either side. On the morning of July 3, soldiers from Colonel William McCandless’s Pennsylvania Reserve Brigade reoccupied the ground, recovering Hamblet and Dolson. Both men lingered from the effects of their wounds for weeks. Surgeons amputated Hamblet’s leg, but he died on July 30. Dolson, meanwhile, succumbed to the effects of his wounds at Camp Letterman Hospital on September 3.
In one of the great mysteries of the Battle of Gettysburg, Private Dolson’s remains were terribly misidentified. Although Dolson lingered in a hospital tent for two months, when he died, the attendants seemed not to have remembered that he belonged to a Union regiment. When he was buried on the field, Samuel Weaver labeled his remains as: “John O. Dobson, 2nd North Carolina Infantry.” Exactly how Weaver failed to correctly identify Dolson’s remains is the mystery. It seems utterly incomprehensible for a wounded man, who clearly told the surgeons and nurses that he was a northerner, to be buried in a Confederate’s grave, but that is what happened. Certainly, there is more to the story that has not yet come to light.
In any event, grave diggers committed Dolson’s corpse to a temporary graveyard near Camp Letterman, even though Dolson—as a U.S. soldier—was entitled to be buried in the Soldiers' National Cemetery, which was then seventy-seven days short of being dedicated by Abraham Lincoln. (Incidentally, Dolson’s comrade, Hamblet, was correctly identified and buried in the Soldiers' National Cemetery when he died. His remains are there today.) Meanwhile, Dolson’s corpse lay outside the cemetery, waiting for someone to come and claim it.
In 1871, eight years after his death, Dolson’s corpse made a long journey to North Carolina. Confederate remembrance organizations had recently erected a new cemetery called Oakwood in Raleigh and they paid for the transportation of 137 Tar Heels from the Gettysburg battlefield to be laid to rest there. Believing Dolson’s remains to be those of a Confederate, the North Carolinians exhumed his casket and sent it down south.
In reality, Dolson was a nineteen-year-old farmer from Richfield, Minnesota, when he was killed at Gettysburg. This truth was not uncovered until 2006, when a Civil War researcher in Pleasantville, New York, contacted the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who looked after the graves in Oakwood, telling them that the Confederate cemetery contained a Union sharpshooter. In 2007, the Sons replaced the grave marker, putting in a new one with the correct information. Meanwhile, they sent the incorrect stone—with the Confederate unit and the name “Dobson” on it—to Richfield, Dolson’s hometown.
On this Memorial Day, May 30, the residents of Richfield, Minnesota, will attend a ceremony at the town’s Honoring All Veterans Memorial on Portland Avenue. The memorial will feature a new plaque in honor of Dolson, who gave his life at Gettysburg.
As some of you know, for eight years I worked as a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg. Every Memorial Day, the graves were  beautifully decorated with American and state flags. Dolson’s grave ought to have been included in this commemoration, but due to the mistake made in 1863, his earthly remains were denied that honor. Since 2007, Dolson’s grave has been honored at Oakwood, and now, his hometown in Minnesota joins in honoring him. It gives me a sense of satisfaction that this long forgotten Union soldier has finally been recognized.
Here is John Dolson's grave in Oakwood Cemetery.

Friday, May 13, 2016

All Except These Fellows Who Foolishly Signed Three-Year Papers.

Thanks to a certain movie, it’s kind of a well-known event among us Civil War nerds, that on May 23, 1863, 120 veterans from the from the defunct 2nd Maine—a two-year regiment that mustered-out on May 19—had to join unwillingly the ranks of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. These 120 unfortunate soldiers had to undergo their unpleasant transfer because, back in 1861, they had foolishly signed on for a three-year tour-of-duty instead of a two-year tour-of-duty, unlike everyone else in their regiment. Understandably, this merger put the 20th Maine’s commander, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, in an unenviable position. His corps commander, Major General George Meade, had told him to force the 2nd Maine men to join the 20th Maine or to execute them; or as Meade wrote, “make them do duty, or shoot them down.” Famously, Chamberlain handled the dyspeptic 2nd Maine veterans in a generous way, telling them that it was their choice to fight or not. He would not execute a single soldier for the crime of wanting to return home with his former unit. Amazingly, of those 120 “mutineers” from the 2nd Maine, all but six elected to honor their enlistment contract, choosing to fight alongside the soldiers of the 20th Maine for an additional year.

I prefer to remind people that the 20th Maine was not the only regiment attached to the Army of the Potomac that received an influx of disgruntled soldiers in May 1863, men who formerly belonged to disbanded two-year regiments. In today’s tale, I’d like to profile a lesser-known group of “foolish” three-year soldiers who had to be transferred when their two-year regiments went home, the men of the 37th and 38th New York.

Here’s how their tale began.

When New York mobilized for war, Governor Edwin Morgan called up thirty-eight regiments to be officered, organized, and equipped at the state’s expense. (He numbered these units the 1st through 38th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments.) As regiments go, they were not terribly unusual. They followed the standard protocols and regulations that governed regiments in federal service; however, unusually, Morgan decreed that all men who enlisted into these thirty-eight regiments would serve only two years in the army, instead of three. (At this point in the war, Union infantrymen typically enlisted for a three-year tour-of-duty.) Eventually, in late-May 1861, the War Department—which had grown desperate for more regiments to come to the defense of Washington—accepted Morgan’s two-year men into federal service, even promising to uphold the important stipulation that they would not serve no longer than two years. However, Secretary of War Simon Cameron insisted that Morgan must cease recruiting two-year men immediately. Thereafter, all soldiers from New York had to be enlisted for three years’ duty, the same as in other states.

The next unit raised in New York, the 39th New York Volunteers (which mustered-in on June 6), became the state’s first three-year regiment. However, Cameron’s order created a problem for two of the two-year regiments, those that were still in the process of mobilizing. Neither the 37th nor 38th New York had filled their ranks by the time Cameron issued the order to cease recruiting two-year men. It took each regiment another week to fill, which meant that both units had to complete their organization by recruiting a sizable portion of men who were signed on for three years, even though the bulk of both regiments had signed on for only two years. (The 37th New York mustered-in on June 6 and 7, and the 38th New York mustered-in on June 3 and June 8.) After serving for several weeks in the defenses of Washington, both regiments joined the Army of the Potomac in the autumn, and by the spring of 1862, they were assigned to the same division in the 3rd Corps. For the next year, the two New York regiments witnessed heavy action, fighting on the Peninsula, at Second Bull Run, at Chantilly, at Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville. By the end of May 1863, the 37th New York counted up eighty-one killed-in-action and fifty-eight dead by other causes, while the 38th New York tallied seventy-five killed-in-action and forty-six dead by other causes. During their short time in federal service, the two-year recruits from these two regiments had fought and bled copiously. It is no exaggeration to say that the volunteers of the 37th and 38th New York had made incredible sacrifices for their country.

When the Army of Potomac licked its wounds at Falmouth after the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville, high command had to decide what to do about the three-year men who served in those two regiments. During the first week of June, the two-year men expected to return to New York City, 170 from the 37th Regiment and fifty-seven from the 38th. But what should be done about those who still had an additional year of service? Those contingents were not small in number. The 37th New York contained 238, while the 38th New York contained 387. Should they be sent home to muster-out with their regiments, or should the army find another way to use them? The New Yorkers’ divisional commander, Major General David Birney, decided to send the two-year men home as planned, while transferring the three-year men to another regiment, the 40th New York. Under Birney’s order, the veterans from the 37th New York joined their new regiment on May 29, while the veterans from the 38th New York joined on June 3. “They were a valuable addition,” remembered the regimental historian of the 40th (although was not present to witness the merger), “and they gave tone and vitality to our weakened ranks.”

In truth, the fusion of these three regiments was not at all cordial. Most of the three-year recruits from the 37th and 38th New York wanted to go home alongside their two-year brethren and they felt betrayed when the army denied their request. In fact, they became increasingly stubborn about it because Brig. Gen. Hobart Ward (the brigade commander and the former colonel of the 38th New York) informed his men that they would go home on June 3, no matter what. Private William L. Hauptman, a twenty-three-year-old Bronx native who belonged to Company E, 38th New York, recalled how he underwent a change of emotions thanks to Ward’s influence: “Before Genl. Ward told me that I was going home I had made up my mind to stay three years, but when he announced Publicly that the recruits of the 38th N.Y. would go home, why I then made up my mind to go.”

What exactly happened during the discussion about what to do with the 37th and 38th New York is still a bit unclear, but it appears that a disagreement occurred between several high-ranking officers. General Ward insisted that all the members of his old regiment should be discharged on June 3, regardless of their enlistment contract, while General Birney believed that all the three-year men should serve out their time in the 40th New York. Unable to come to an agreement, the two generals decided to consult the 38th New York’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Allason. Unable to speak strongly or register any sort of convincing opinion on behalf of his men, Allason demurred to Birney’s wishes, refusing to ask for the three-year recruits’ early discharge. Private Hauptman described the complexity of this arrangement and the prejudice he believed actuated the decision:

Col. Allason is to blame for not taking the recruits home, he would not take the responsibility. I might say that Genl. Dead Beat Birney had a hand in the Pie, he never was a very great favorite of the 38th or of Ward. Birney used to be the law partner to Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton, its all in the family. Genl. Ward when he left [regimental command] made everything all right so there would be no difficulty about our going [home], but as soon as he left, Birney was Boss. . . . No doubt he dreams every night of the great Victory he gained over the 38th[.] the boys all swear Vengeance against Allason, poor man, I would not [want to] be in his shoes for any amount.

With the decision thus rendered by Allason and Birney, the 565 three-year men of the 37th and 38th New York had to join the ranks of the 40th New York, like it or not. Private Hauptman made it clear that this verdict cast a pall over the two regiments. He wrote to a friend: “my expectations, as well as others, ran very high, so high that it made the fall all the worse. . . . A great many were wounded (in the feelings) [when the news came].” Although he professed to have prepared himself for the possibility of staying on additional year, Hauptman admitted to homesickness. He wrote, “I would have given $100 to go home with the Regiment, even if I had to go back the next day. For the past twenty one months all I have been thinking about was going home with the Regiment but to be humbugged in this manner, makes the little I have done for the Union go for nothing, in my estimation.”

Unwillingly, Hauptman joined Company F, 40th New York, but as he admitted to a friend, the word “mutiny” rumbled from lip to lip among the other three-year men. Hauptman believed, “Stack Arms will be the word.” The other 38th New York soldiers “swear they will never go into a fight with the 40th.” As for Hauptman, dark, perilous thoughts filled his mind as he contemplated his next move. He wrote, “If I was alone in the world and had no friends, why french leave [desertion] would be the [way to] go, but as I have a few friends that think a little of me, I will stay in the Army for their sake if not my own.”

Near as I can tell, the 40th New York’s commander, Colonel Thomas Egan, did not have an inspirational speech to motivate his reluctant three-year men, quite unlike the situation involving Chamberlain and the 2nd Maine. Egan demanded that all of his new soldiers respect his authority, and with that, he took his regiment north to fight at Gettysburg, where 150 of his soldiers fell killed or wounded. I wonder if those feelings of betrayal crept into the minds of the 37th and 38th New York soldiers as they battled their way across the “Valley of Death.”

Maybe those thoughts escaped Hauptman, at least. Despite all his grousing, he re-enlisted on January 18, 1864, and served with the 40th New York for the rest of the war.

There aren't many photographs of the soldiers from the 37th and 38th New York Volunteers, but there is this one. This depicts the officers of the 37th New York (known as the "Irish Rifles"). The officer in the middle is Colonel Samuel B. Hayman.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation: My Tribute to Dusty Kleiss


Tales from the Army of the Potomac is a blog dedicated to the valiant Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War, but occasionally I feel the need to let my interest in the Pacific War intrude in my Civil War affairs. Let this be one of those times.

For those of you who pay attention to the goings-on in my life, recently, I had to say farewell to a friend of mine, Captain Dusty Kleiss. He died on Friday, April 22, 2016. He was 100 years old.

Dusty was a dive bomber pilot who served in World War 2. During the opening days of the Pacific War, he belonged to Scouting Squadron Six, a carrier-based squadron attached to USS Enterprise (CV-6). He fought in several important engagements: The Battle of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), the Battle of the Marshall Islands (February 1, 1942), the Battle of Wake Island (February 24, 1942), the Battle of Marcus Island (March 4, 1942), and the Battle of Midway (June 4-6, 1942). At Midway, on June 4, Dusty piloted a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber labelled 6-S-7. Together with his squadron and his trusty gunner, RM 3/c John W. Snowden, Dusty participated in two missions that led to the sinking of four Japanese carriers. Dusty’s bombs scored direct hits on two of those carriers, the Kaga and the Hiryu. On June 6, Dusty participated in another mission. During this one, he made another direct hit, this time on a Japanese cruiser, the Mikuma. He was the only American pilot during the Battle of Midway to score three direct hits. As far as I’m concerned, he was the most indispensable American aviator at the battle because he caused the most physical damage of any U.S. pilot in the air during those three decisive days. During the war, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross. After the Battle of Midway, Dusty spent another twenty years in the Navy, retiring as a captain in 1962.

I first met Dusty back in January 2012. Together with my wife, I traveled to his apartment at the Air Force Village (now Blue Skies of Texas), a retirement community in San Antonio located just outside of Lackland Air Force Base. Originally, Laura and I wanted to interview him for a short article we were writing for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s historical journal, the Daybook. Our visit became a bit more involved than we thought. Soon, we came back a second time, and then a third, and we made many phone calls. In the end, we conducted hours upon hours of interviews, as Dusty shared his life story, his intimate tales, opinions, and confessions. He was a veteran with an interesting story to tell, and he wanted someone to remember it.

What struck me the most about Dusty was the fact that he hated to be called a hero. It bothered him greatly. He encountered the term often. Whenever he did public presentations on the Battle of Midway—and he did a great many for the nearby Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas—visitors came up to him and called him a hero. This is no surprise. As is our custom nowadays, we tend to revere the World War 2 generation, calling them heroes whenever the opportunity presents itself. This was a tradition set in place by historians and politicians. For instance, in his 1997 book about World War 2 GIs, Stephen Ambrose wrote, “So they fought and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be profoundly grateful.” In 2004, President George W. Bush said: “They saved our country, and thereby saved the liberty of mankind.” I could go on. It’s fairly easy to find similar expressions of gratitude.

Dusty hated that kind of attention. “I’m anything but a hero,” he once told a reporter. “I was only doing what at the time was the proper thing to do.” During one of our conversations, he recollected an incident where the USAA invited him to be the guest of honor at their 2011 Memorial Day Commemoration. The whole event made him uncomfortable. He grumbled, “They just wanted to make me into some kind of hero. Just garbage!”

I watched the video of the event in question. The USAA showed a 12-minute clip that profiled Dusty and his actions at the Battle of Midway. At one point, Hugh Ambrose (son of Stephen Ambrose) asked Dusty to stand up and be recognized. Timidly, he arose from his seat in the corner, and the spotlight came on him. Without prompting, the audience surged from their seats and gave him a standing ovation. For two minutes the audience applauded loudly. My friend, Dusty, clutched a USS Enterprise ball cap nervously. Then, when the clapping subsided, he said, “I don’t deserve it, but I sure thank you.”

Dusty’s modesty only made me love him more. I rarely use the word, “hero.” After spending years in academia, I gained a healthy suspicion of the expression. Perhaps it is jaded of me to think this way, but whenever I hear the word, my eyebrows tilt in doubt. In my lifetime, I’ve only ever told one living person that he was my hero; that man was Dusty.

After one of our trips to San Antonio, my wife and I bid Dusty goodbye in the lobby of Air Force Village. After giving him a hug, I said: “Now, Dusty, I know you hate to be called a hero, but I want to let you know that you’re mine.” I expected him to grumble some self-effacing retort, but he didn’t. He giggled happily and stood there smiling. My wife Laura and I walked down a long hallway, bound for our rental car and a trip to the airport. When we looked back, we could see Dusty there, still in the hallway, still smiling happily.

I don’t know how to explain it. Dusty shrugged off every compliment he ever received about his service in World War 2, but for some reason, when I gave him the same effuse praise, he let it slide.

I prefer to think that my estimation of him is accurate. Back in 1941, the U.S. Navy asked a great deal from him. Effectively, the country said: “You will kill our foe. You will do this by dropping out of the sky like a meteor. You will plummet to earth and release your bomb at the last minute. Most likely, you will be killed in attempting this. You may be shot down. You may be hit by your own bomb blast. You might not pull out of your 240-knot dive. You might run out of gas on your trip back to your carrier. . . . But you will do this for us. We need to win and you must make the sacrifice.”

Dusty attempted to make the sacrifice. There were nineteen pilots in Dusty’s squadron at the Battle of Midway. Seven died in the battle. Two more died later in the war. As Dusty explained it, he just happened to be in the lucky half that lived. Even more luckily, he outlived the other nine who survived the war. In fact, Dusty was the last dive bomber veteran alive to have served at Midway, and I suspect, he was the last American pilot to have served at that battle. Four years ago, he wrote this for my wife’s museum’s publication: “At age ninety-six, I wonder why the Good Lord has spared me, perhaps the last dive bomber pilot that bombed a ship in the Battle of Midway? . . . The only thing I can presume is that He has not yet found me worthy to reach all those other Saints above us.”

On April 29, 2016, Dusty’s friends and family placed his earthly remains to rest in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. I had to honor to be there to witness it. As happens at military funerals, a Navy officer handed Dusty’s son, Jack, Jr., the flag that draped his father’s coffin and thanked him “on behalf of a grateful nation.” Lacking the talent to describe the emotion that impregnated those proceedings, I will say simply that I was truly moved by seeing it.

Dusty was my hero because he always knew that a living hero would be too proud. He didn’t die at Midway, and for that I am grateful; he lived long enough to become my cherished friend.

Now that I am back in Norfolk, I plan to have chicken wings and beer in his honor. (This was Dusty’s favorite meal, and incidentally, it’s also mine.) I respect the word “hero” too much not to keep his memory fresh in my mind.

Tally Ho! Dusty! You’re the bravest man I ever met.
This photograph depicts LTJG N. Jack "Dusty" Kleiss (1916-2016) in the summer of 1942. He is arm-in-arm with his wife, Jean Mochon.
This image depicts USS Enterprise (CV-6) in April 1942. That plane in the foreground is 6-S-7 with Dusty at the controls. 

That's Dusty in the middle. My wife and I are on either side.
April 29, 2016.