|Rufus Dawes. Library of Congress.|
Today, I finished reading Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Rufus Dawes's personal memoir of his experiences as an officer in the Iron Brigade. This book has been high on my reading list ever since the Sesquicentennial of Gettysburg last July, when Scott Hartwig called it his favorite Civil War book during his interpretive program on the Iron Brigade. Hartwig's recommendation didn't disappoint.
Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers is part memoir, part diary, and mostly large selections of Dawes's own letters written to his wife during the war. While he weaves together his wartime writings with postwar analysis, Dawes lets his primary sources speak for themselves for the most part, interjecting only to provide needed context or explanation. I have sometimes found the writing style of many postwar memoirs and regimental histories somewhat dry, but Dawes clearly had a talent for writing that shines throughout this book and makes it a pleasure to read.
Dawes fought in the best-known brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He somehow managed to avoid getting wounded during his service despite his participation in more than twenty battles, including some of the bloodiest and most well-known struggles of the war. His narrative includes detailed accounts of the fighting in the Bloody Cornfield at Antietam, and of the 6th Wisconsin's charge on the Railroad Cut at Gettysburg. Yet it is not necessarily the battle accounts that sets this book apart. When Walt Whitman wrote that "the real war will never get in the books," I imagine he had in mind just the type of story that Dawes manages to tell. While so many Civil War books--primary and secondary--focus on battles and campaigns, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers powerfully reveals the experiences of the war from a deeply personal perspective.
Through Dawes's letters, the reader is able to experience life in the Sixth Wisconsin in camp, on campaign, and in battle. We learn how close brotherly ties between comrades developed over time through shared experiences. It is through these close ties and shared experiences that regiments like the 6th Wisconsin became so fierce and dependable in combat. If you've ever wondered at the unflinching bravery referenced in so many Civil War accounts, Dawes gives perhaps the best explanation I've ever read:
The 'Iron Brigade' has a record beyond reproach, and a record it will always maintain, but the 'Iron Brigade' does not crave a battle. A battle to veterans is an awful experience. There is not with our men the headlong recklessness of new men, who start in, acting as though they would rather be shot than not, and then lose their organization and scatter like sheep, but there is a conviction from much experience in fighting, that safety is best had by steadiness, persistence in firing, and most of all by holding together. So, with the inducement of pride, duty, patriotism and personal preservation, they will stand together till the last.We also learn of the psychological traumas of war. No other account I have ever read has allowed me to understand more fully the horror of the Overland Campaign of 1864 for both soldiers and loved ones at home. In this chapter, Dawes places his collection of letters up front and without comment in the order that they were received by his wife (they had married during the winter of 1864). This, he explains, is designed to give his readers "the most graphic as well as the most accurate manner of restoring the experiences of that time." We learn simultaneously not only of the army's progress and of the great slaughter daily occurring, but also of the fear that takes hold of Dawes's loved ones. Upon hearing of the start of the campaign, Dawes's new father-in-law drops everything to proceed to Washington, and then all the way to the front to find any news that he can of the safety of his daughter's husband. "You cannot conceive of the suffering here," Dawes's father-in-law writes from Fredericksburg on May 16th, "Every house, barn and shed is a hospital.... It is impossible to get reliable information from the front.... We know almost nothing, except that on every hand are thousands of brave men suffering and dying." Dawes himself is falsely reported dead in a newspaper account that finds its way all the way to his father.
As the Overland Campaign progresses, the reader can readily sense that the psychological horrors of combat begin to take their toll on Dawes as he commands the Sixth Wisconsin. On May 20th the Lieutenant Colonel writes to his wife: "Your letters came to me truly when I was 'sick with the horrors of war.'" On June 8th, just after Cold Harbor he writes that "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." Dawes also explains to his readers that:
During this unexampled campaign of sixty continuous days, the excitement, exhaustion, hard work and loss of sleep broke down great numbers of men who had received no wounds in battle. Some who began the campaign with zealous and eager bravery, ended it with nervous and feverish apprehension of danger in the ascendancy. Brave men were shielded if their records on other occasions justified another trial, which ordinarily resulted well, but cowards met no mercy. They were dismissed and their names published throughout the land, a fate more terrible than death to a proud spirited soldier.Modern readers can easily begin to recognize in such a description the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As for Dawes himself, as more of his comrades die, his letters and accounts begin to reflect on his own strange luck. He wonders aloud why so many have died or been disfigured while his own life has been spared. Eventually, Dawes is offered a promotion to full Colonel with the stipulation that he would need to reenlist for three more years. Instead, he turns the promotion down and resigns from the army in July of 1864.
He concludes his memoir with a very powerful letter written to his wife in December of 1881. By this point, Dawes had become a congressman. He writes:
My dear wife:--I have today worshiped at the shrine of the dead. I went over to the Arlington Cemetery. It was a beautiful morning and the familiar scenes so strongly impressed upon me during my young manhood, were pleasant. Many times that I went over that road, admiring the beautiful city and great white capital, with its then unfinished dome, going to hear the great men of that day in Congress. An ambitious imagination then builded castles of the time when I might take my place there. Now at middle age, with enthusiasm sobered by hard fights and hard facts, I ride, not run with elastic step over the same road, with this ambition at least realized, and with warmth enough left in my heart to enjoy it. My friends and comrades, poor fellows, who followed my enthusiastic leadership in those days, and followed it to the death which by a merciful Providence I escaped, lie here, twenty-four of them, on the very spot where our winter camp of 1861-1862, was located. I found every grave and stood beside it with uncovered head. I looked over nearly the full 16,000 head-boards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of today, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of Company A, who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty, and protection to the humblest.There are a lot of first-person accounts of the Civil War out there. But if you are looking for just one to read, you won't go wrong in selecting Rufus Dawes's Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers.