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The “Troublous Times” of 1860–1861: A Memoir by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, U.S. Army

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 206-234 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0040

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During his forty-three years as a commissioned officer, Richard Irving Dodge (1827–1895) became a well-known figure both within and outside the United States Army. Among military men he earned the reputation as a stalwart soldier’s soldier, a versatile infantryman with strongly held views, a sociable disposition, and a love of good conversation. To the American public at large, he was best known as the author of three books—The Black Hills (1876), The Plains of the Great West and Their Inhabitants (1877), and Our Wild Indians (1882)—all of which were considered authoritative on the subjects they treated. Outgrowths of his service on the western frontier, these works portrayed scenes, incidents, and populations he had come to know intimately.1

Following his retirement in 1891, Colonel Dodge took up new writing projects, one of which developed a topic he had never broached in print—his experiences in the months immediately preceding and following the outbreak of the Civil War. Upon graduation from West Point in 1848, he passed a decade of service in Texas before receiving in 1858 an assignment as first assistant instructor of infantry tactics at his alma mater. A promising young officer, he performed his academic duties with credit in the two years that followed, even as the likelihood of disunion between the states grew. Despite strong ties to his home and family in North Carolina, when war broke out he remained firm for the Union. His memoir of the period details his vexed efforts as a loyal southerner to secure an appropriate place among the forces being marshaled for the Union’s war effort.

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Richard Irving Dodge in 1889. Photograph courtesy of James D. Buck.

In general outline, Dodge’s experiences during the months of upheaval resembled those of many young officers from both North and South as they weighed conflicting sectional claims and appeals, influenced in varying degrees by their personal associations, beliefs, responsibilities, and ambitions. An individual permutation of these considerations impelled him in the direction he chose, despite inducements toward another.2 Early in 1861 he took part in a series of informal debates among U.S. officers stationed in New York City regarding the meaning and binding force of the oath they had sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Almost all these men, southerners he knew well, concluded that duty and honor required them to resign their commissions and go south. By an accident of fate, at that time he was far distant from the psychological support of his longtime comrades in the 8th Regiment of Infantry, whose companies were stationed in Texas and New Mexico and about to be captured piecemeal by Confederate forces.3 He learned with dismay that other officers of his familiar acquaintance—including William J. Hardee, until recently the commandant of cadets at West Point, and James B. Longstreet, his immediate superior during the early years in Texas—had resigned and joined the Confederate army. Prominent southern leaders urged him to join their cause as well, and he was even promised a major generalship.

Meanwhile, his father, a New York man, wrote him from the family home in Surry County, North Carolina, urging him to stay true to the Old Flag. Other family members and a circle of friends were nearer at hand, and they added their voices to the loyalist appeal, which for him proved decisive. Dodge was a gregarious man who valued the fellowship of his southern comrades and was distressed at their departure, but he never considered following them.4 Amid the whirl of events, he understood that he was passing through perilous waters, but he knew his own mind—his beliefs, abilities, and hopes. Then thirty-four years of age and in his physical prime, with ample field experience, he enjoyed army life and intended to make a career of it. He could reasonably expect assignments in suppressing the rebellion that would open a broad field for further display of his military talents, quite possibly leading to rapid elevation in rank.5 Service on the battlefield did entail the possibility of wounds that might...

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