Posts Tagged ‘Rufus Dawes’

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Capt Rufus R Dawes, CO K, 6th Wisconsin Volunteers

Mr. Dawes is quite a remarkable man. Forever cemented in the histories of the Iron Brigade, the affections of Mauston, WI natives, the leadership of the 6th Wisconsin, and the spirit of the “Lemonweir Minutemen,” Dawes wasn’t even a Badger by birth.

Like everyone else in early 1861, Dawes got swept up in the excitement of Lincoln’s call for Volunteers. Dawes, who happened to be in Mauston, Wisconsin with his father on extended business at the time of the firing on Fort Sumter, chose to raise a company of volunteers right there, rather than return to his home town of Marietta, Ohio to do so.

In a letter to his sister dated May 4, 1861, Dawes writes: “I have been so wholly engrossed with my work for the last week or I should have responded sooner to your question: ‘Are you going?’ If a kind Providence and President Lincoln will permit I am. I am Captain of as good, and true a band of patriots as ever rallied under the star-spangled banner.”

He’d get to lead them under that banner, too. At 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, and while covering the retreat of the Army after Chancellorsville. All the while, he lead from the front while enjoying an uncanny ability to come through battles unscathed, bringing to mind suggestions of the fortunes of Wyatt Earp and Captain Richard Winters, who had both had plenty of opportunities to die in fire fights but had escaped all of them unharmed.

“My Dear Mother,” he wrote home after Antietam, “I have come safely through two more terrible engagements with the enemy, that at South Mountain and the great battle of yesterday. Our splendid regiment is almost destroyed. We have had nearly four hundred men killed and wounded in the battles. Seven of our officers were shot and three killed in yesterday’s battle and nearly one hundred and fifty men killed and wounded.”

By Gettysburg, Dawes was a Lt. Colonel, leading the 6th Wisconsin in the absence of Colonel Edward Bragg, who was convalescing in Washington after being kicked in the foot by a horse. Here, he’d lead the regiment in the famed railroad cut charge, escaping unharmed while leading the 6th in capturing the entire 2nd Mississippi Regiment.

On July fourth, the day after the third day of Gettysburg, Dawes wrote to his fiance’, “The Sixth hast lost so far one hundred and sixty men. Since the first day we have lost only six. O, Mary, it is sad to look now at our shattered band of devoted men. Only four field officers in the brigade have escaped and I am one of them.”

Examining this last statement, there are typically three officers per company: a Captain, a 1st Lt, and a 2nd Lt. There are ten companies. 30 officers, ranked Captain or lower, plus the Colonel, Lt. Colonel, Major, and the Adjutant of each regiment. Since there were four regiments in the brigade, we’ll multiply the numbers by four and come up with 136.

Out of 136 field officers, the Iron Brigade had only four that were fit for duty on July 4, 1863. It would be most interesting to see what was going on in Lt. Colonel Dawes mind while he was drinking his coffee and writing his report in the rain on that day… which happened to be his 25th birthday, by the way.

Whether or not Dawes believed that he was being spared for higher purpose or not is not chronicled, but he certainly gave Providence credit for his survival. He’d lead the regiment again and again and again, at The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor.

To his wife, June 8, 1864, he wrote: “We came down here today, and are located on the left flank of our army, and we are at last out from under the fire of the enemy… it is impossible for one who has not undergone it, to fully understand the depression of spirits caused by such long, continued, and bloody fighting and work. Colonel (Edward) Bragg said yesterday: ‘Of all I have gone through, I cannot now write an intelligent account. I can only tell my wife that I am alive and well. I am too stupid for any use.'”

Dawes’ three year enlistment came up soon after. He would indeed go on to big things… including a stint in congress representing the 15th Ohio District.

In August of 1865 Dawes’ son, Charles G Dawes was born. He’d serve as Vice-President of the United States during the Coolidge administration


Source: 

“Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers,” by Rufus Dawes, 1890

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THE IRON BRIGADE WAITED MORE THAN A YEAR TO PROVE ITS METTLE

 

The Iron Brigade is widely renowned for its discipline, performance, valor, and for having suffered the highest percentage of casualties of any brigade in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.  Few major battles in the eastern theater of the war can be mentioned without the inclusion of the brigade, which was initially composed of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin regiments and the 19th Indiana Regiment.  The 24th Michigan Regiment was added in December of 1862, after the brigade had suffered heavy losses in the campaigns of that season.

But fame, glory, and even the occurrence of battle were a long time coming for the brigade, as one competent officer can surely attest.

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Rufus R Dawes, Captain

Rufus Dawes was a 22-year-old graduate of Marietta College when Fort Sumter was fired upon.  A native of Marietta, Ohio, Dawes found himself in Juneau County, Wisconsin at the time of Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers.

“With the proclamation of the President came the announcement that the quota of the State of Wisconsin would only be one small infantry regiment of seven hundred and eighty men.  It seemed quite evident that only by prompt action I might secure what was then termed the ‘glorious privilege’ of aiding in crushing the rebellion.”

Dawes went about the business of forming a company in Mauston, Wisconsin, drawing up a pledge and gathering volunteers on the 25th of April, 1861.

“Forty-eight signers were secured as the result of my first day’s work.”

On April 30th, one hundred men met in Mauston’s Langworthy’s Hall to organize the company.  Dawes was elected “Captain,” which was no surprise, and the company adopted the name “The Lemonweir Minute men,” after a local sleepy river, and spirits were high and the excitement level through the roof.

In early May, Dawes wrote his sister in Ohio:  “I have been so wholly engrossed with my work for the last week or I should have responded sooner to your question: ‘Are you going?’  If a kind Providence and President Lincoln will permit, I am.  I am Captain of as good, and true a band of patriots as ever rallied under the star-spangled banner.”

The question of being mustered into the active service now filled the minds of all, and by the second week of May, having received no word from the government as to such, Dawes sent an influential friend to Madison to advocate on behalf of the company.

Shortly, word came that the company was to be mustered into the seventh regiment, but no solid date for such an event to occur was given.

“The first six regiments are now accepted by the General Government,” Dawes wrote in a letter dated June 10th, “and I expect to be ordered into quarters.”

Dawes waited patiently, yet anxiously.  In the meantime, his recruits went about their daily lives, scattered throughout the whole of Juneau County, causing concern in the captain.

To his sister, Dawes wrote, “…I fear they will order us into camp without giving me time to collect my men or recruit for vacancies.”

To ensure he’d have the eighty-three men required to report, Dawes initiated another recruitment drive.

“RALLY!

BOYS, RALLY!  RALLY!

ENLISTMENTS WANTED FOR THE LEMONWEIR MINUTE MEN!

HEADQUARTERS L. M. M., MAUSTON, JUNE 17th, 1861

On June 29th, a very welcome telegram came from W.H. Watson, Military Secretary of the State of Wisconsin:

“Captain R. R. Dawes:  You can board your company at expense of the State at not more than two dollars and a half a week, until further orders.  It is possible that you may be wanted for the sixth regiment.”

More than two months after organizing at Langworthy’s Hall, the company, in compliance with orders, took the cars for Madison and joined the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  They were able to do so because several companies that had registered higher on the list had failed to report.  The Lemonweir Minute Men were mustered in as Company K of the Sixth Wisconsin, to serve for three years or the duration of the war, should it end sooner.

Even now, as the green troops of McDowell’s army moved south to confront the green troops of Beauregard’s, near a creek known as “Bull Run,” the Wisconsin boys were more than a year away from seeing their first real battlefield.

Instead, they settled into camp at Washington City, where they’d be placed under General Irvin McDowell, who had just recently been trounced at Bull Run.  There, they’d be charged with protecting the capital and spend their time becoming soldiers of a real sort, drilling, drilling, drilling.

The men were becoming restless and agitated.  Some feared they’d never see combat.  When McClellan led the Army of the Potomac out of Washington in the spring of 1862, in what would become known as the “Peninsular Campaign,” the Wisconsin boys were left behind, protecting Washington.

“Somebody’s got it in their skull that we western men are ta sit out the whole scrap,” Private Hugh Talty had said.  “If I ever find out who that is, I’ma gonna show the bugger up close that we kin fight better ‘an most, be gob!”

The army had been reorganized, and the Sixth Wisconsin had been reassigned to a brigade with the Second Wisconsin, who had been at Bull Run, as well as the Seventh Wisconsin and 19th Indiana, both of which had yet to see combat.  This grouping would remain for the duration of the war.

While McClellan and his army floundered to the south, the brigade, under General John Gibbon, marched, drilled, trained, and molded themselves into one of the finest brigades in all of the world.  On the parade ground, others took notice.

From General Irvin McDowell:  “Many times I have shown them to officers of distinction, as specimens of American Volunteer Soldiers, and asked them if they had ever anywhere seen even among the picked soldiers of royal and imperial guards, a more splendid body of men, and I have never had an affirmative answer.”

McClellan’s campaign would prove to be a disaster, ending with the Army of the Potomac scampering back toward Washington and the General himself being replaced by General John Pope.

Now, Gibbon’s brigade got their chance.

At Brawner’s Farm, in the 2nd Bull Run Campaign, the brigade would stand toe to toe with the Stonewall Brigade, slugging it out with the veterans for more than an hour.  At the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, they’d hold their ground as the rest of the army collapsed around them.  The brigade would help cover the retreat of Pope’s battered army.

A few weeks later, they’d earn their famous moniker while ascending the battlefield at South Mountain, moving General McClellan enough to exclaim “they must be made of iron.”

They’d see action at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Weldon Railroad, and Five Forks.

Dawes finest moment would come on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, where his Sixth Regiment would charge alone and unsupported on a Rebel line that was hidden in an unfinished railroad cut.  He and his men would capture nearly the entire 2nd Mississippi Regiment, including its officers and colors.  The victory came at a very high price, however.

“The Sixth has lost so far one hundred and sixty men,” Dawes wrote to his wife on July 4th, his 25th birthday.  “Since the first day we have lost only six.  Oh, Mary, it is sad to look now at our shattered band of devoted men.  Only four field officers in the brigade have escaped and I am one of them…”

In every engagement, the Iron Brigade would hold their own, proving that their nickname was more than a label. They earned their name through the expenditure of flesh and blood, and in giving the enemy worse than they received.  Outnumbered in nearly every engagement, the brigade seldom, if ever, turned their backs to the enemy.

Dawes, having turned down a promotion to Colonel in late July of 1864, mustered out of the service on August 10 of that year.  He would settle into civilian life with his wife, Mary, in Marietta, Ohio, operating a lumber business.  Dawes would be promoted to a rank of Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers to rank from March 13, 1865 by President Johnson.  The Senate would confirm the promotion on April 10, 1866.  In August of that year Mary would give birth to a son, Charles, who would later serve as Vice-President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge.  Together, Rufus and Mary would raise six children.

Dawes would serve on the Board of Trustees for his alma mater, Marietta College, from 1871 until his death.  He also served for a time as a trustee for the Ohio Institute for the Deaf and Dumb.  He spent one term in congress, elected as a Republican in 1881.  He lost his bid for reelection due to his resistance to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Rufus R. Dawes died at his home in Marietta, Ohio on August 1, 1899.  He was 61.  He is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta.

SOURCES:

“Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers,” by Rufus R. Dawes, 1890

“In the Bloody Railroad Cut at Gettysburg,” by Lance J. Herdegen, 1990

“The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory,” by Lance J. Herdegen, 2012

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.  It is public domain.

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Henry Matrau, CO G, 6th Wisconsin Regiment

“We had an awful hot time at Gettysburg but it does seem that I was the luckiest fellow in existence. There were men falling in every direction around me & the best-hearted fellow in our company was killed right close to me, so near that he nearly fell on me.”

Matrau’s description is in line with most other accounts of the 1st day of Gettysburg. Nearly all literate survivors of the battle would write to someone about their experience, but few would go into gory detail.

Only a veteran can describe the real horror of combat, and every veteran needs only one shot fired at them to understand that civilians will never understand, never empathize, never see how war really is. This effect was multiplied in the days before mass media, when a propaganda song was all that was needed to convince a town that war brought all those involved in it absolute glory.

How does one sit down and compose a letter, and themselves, after spending nearly an entire day killing the enemy and watching those around them die or become maimed?

“My dear Mother,” wrote Major Rufus R Dawes to his mother on September 5, 1862. “I have tried in several ways to send you word of my safety. We have had a terrible ordeal. We were in battle or skirmish almost every day from August 21st to 31st. Our brigade has lost eight hundred men; our regiment, one hundred and twenty-five. The country knows how nobly our men have borne themselves. I have been at my post in every battle…”

Dawes, even in mentioning the losses in terms of numbers, keeps the horror of war masked behind cold figures and the gallantry of the regiment.

Many, including Dawes, would credit a higher power with their survival. Some would skim right over the details of battles, especially after having seen a lot of it, begging excuse for the omission. After the battle of Weldon Railroad, Matrau would write his parents, “… I take this opportunity to tell you that we had another battle, or, rather, a series of battles, scince (sic) I wrote to you and that your unworthy son, by the watchful guidance of Providence, is still left alive and well. I will not go into a regular detailed acct of the battles for I hav’nt (sic) the room or time…”

Although it is possible, probable even, that Matrau hadn’t the room or time, it is even more likely that he hadn’t the words to describe what he’d seen and done that day.

Sources:

Letters Home, Henry Matrau of the Iron Brigade, Edited by Marcia Reid-Green;

Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Rufus R Dawes