October is a big month for the ghost industry in Gettysburg. Capitalizing on people’s fascination with the paranormal is a thriving business here and at other historical sites across the country. But this week’s post is about a different type of ghost. Not the commercial ghost invented to amuse and thrill, but rather those that live in the memory of soldiers whose duty is to kill and endure the killing and wounding of their friends and comrades. The survivors of war often experience feelings of guilt – why did they survive when others they knew did not? I have never forgotten one of our volunteers who served at Anzio. It was 1984, the fortieth anniversary of the Second World War and there were many documentaries on television about major battles during the conflict. Our volunteer started to tell me he had been watching one about Anzio. Then he started to cry. I asked him what was the matter and he replied he did not know why he had survived and others he had served with had not. He felt guilt that he had lived. Forty years later the pain was still palpable.
Civil War veterans wrestled with the same ghosts. One of them was Rufus R. Dawes. Dawes was the lieutenant colonel of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry. In the successful charge against the Railroad Cut on July 1 his regiment suffered nearly 160 men killed and
wounded. One of them, that Dawes never forgot, was Corporal James Kelly, who staggered up to Dawes, opened his shirt to show a ghastly wound in the breast and said, “Colonel, won’t you write to my folks that I died a soldier.”
On August 10, 1864, after fighting from the Wilderness to Petersburg, in what he described as a “carnival of blood,” Dawes took a discharge from the army. His letters of the time indicate he was almost certainly suffering from what today we would describe as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During the course of the war Dawes’s regiment suffered 244 officers and men killed and mortally wounded. To place this figure in perspective, this was the 10th largest number of killed and mortally wounded of any regiment in the entire Union Army during the Civil War. Dawes had experienced an uncommon amount of combat and carnage, yet, he adjusted well to civilian life. He embarked on a successful career in the lumber industry, served on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Marietta College, in Ohio, and as a trustee for Ohio’s Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, and fathered three sons and two daughters with his wife Mary. In 1881 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from his congressional district in Ohio. On December 18 of that year, Dawes took a break from his duties as a congressman to visit Arlington Cemetery, where 24 men of the 6th Wisconsin who died under Dawes’s command during the war were buried. The letter he wrote to his wife Mary later that day is among the most powerful and moving I have ever read in conveying the painful memories of war and dead comrades that haunted the survivors who wore the blue and gray, yet also the inspiration the living drew from the dead.
December 18, 1881
My Dear Wife: I have to-day worshipped 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 I went over that road, admiring the beautiful city and great white capitol, with its 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 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 I by a merciful Providence 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 headboards 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 to-day, 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.*
D. Scott Hartwig
*The full text of Dawes letter can be found in his wartime memoir, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, on pages 316-317. If you have not read this book I highly recommend it. It is one of the classics to come out of the war.