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.

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