We are fortunate to have in paperback the Civil War Journal of Theodore Dodge, who after losing a leg at Gettysburg as a young Union adjutant became America’s best-known writer on generals ranging from Alexander the Great to “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Dodge’s journal is edited by Stephen W. Sears, masterful analyst of the Civil War’s Eastern campaigns and biographer of Gen. George McClellan — whom, long after Abraham Lincoln had fired him, young Dodge still admired above all other commanders.
Dodge came from a prosperous family and had been educated in Europe, including military schooling in Berlin. He was a competent officer, and it was no fault of his that he never progressed to senior ranks. Modern readers can be grateful that he did not, for his journal gives a frank and detailed picture of life in a Union regiment as seen by a young captain.
It was a life that included weeks of inaction in 1862-63, which Dodge and the 119th New York spent not altogether unpleasantly in Stafford County, Va. The 119th missed the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Then came warm January days that to Dodge were almost like June, but he wrote that two days of rain would make the roads impassable. Cold rain thereafter descended, and then Gen. Ambrose Burnside tried to make up for defeat at Fredericksburg by moving his army up the Rappahannock in the infamous Mud March. Mr. Sears reports that the desertion rate in the Union forces may have been 1 in 10, and as Dodge makes clear, there was a high degree of incompetence among Union officers.
At the beginning of May came the battle of Chancellorsville. Union morale was much improved, and on the first day, things looked good for the Army of the Potomac. Dodge wrote, “Bravo for Hooker!” But by May 5, Hooker’s army had been badly defeated, after Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s surprise flank attack on the Northern forces. Dodge reported that the battle had taken “a slice of 1/3 at least of our Regiment” killed, wounded or missing. The dead included the regimental commander, a family friend.
Dodge had now changed his view of Hooker. Three times, he wrote, notice had been sent to Hooker that the enemy was turning the Union’s right flank, yet the commander had done nothing.
Two decades later, Dodge produced a considered, detailed analysis in his work “The Campaign of Chancellorsville,” the complete text of which is now available on the Internet, thanks to Project Gutenberg.
Dodge believed, as he wrote in 1886 in the Boston Herald, that “Truth will get written some day,” and his book delivered an unvarnished account of the battle. He found grave faults in Hooker’s generalship and blasted him for attempting to lay blame for the defeat on his subordinates. He did not spare President Lincoln, who had taken over the supreme command but “was swayed to and fro by his own fears for the safety of his capital, and by political schemes and military obtuseness.”
Dodge’s journal gives a good if subjective look at the Union Army’s many European-born officers and men. Dodge offers less than laudatory portraits of Col. Enrico Fardella, who had fought to free Northern Italy from Austrian control, and Col. Wladimir Krzyzanowski, who had fled Poland after the failed 1848 revolt against Russian rule. About 10 percent of the North’s officers and men had come to America from Germany, mainly in the wake of the unsuccessful democratic revolution of 1848.
Dodge’s regiment came under the 11th Corps, commanded by German-born Franz Sigel, and was part of the division commanded by Carl Schurz, who had fought in the German revolution and then became a Midwest newspaper editor, U.S. senator and envoy to Spain. It was, Dodge said, like a German settlement, and when he saw a soldier, he automatically addressed him in German. These were not, alas, all good soldiers. Dodge reported that some of the 119th’s German captains “are perfect Schaefskoepfe,” i.e. sheep’s heads. Later, at Chancellorsville, a number of Union units broke and ran. These included both native-born and foreign-born soldiers, but Dodge reported that “the panic among the [Germans] was fearful.”
Nor did Dodge care much for blacks. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863, Dodge wrote that he was not fighting for blacks. “I fight because having once gone into it, I will not back out.” He writes in negative terms of fellow officers who were Jews.
In June 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee moved north to invade Pennsylvania, and Hooker began to move after him in pursuit. When Hooker halted south of the Potomac, saying that he was waiting for the enemy to develop his plans, Dodge wrote in his journal in frustration, “I fear, Monsieur, the Enemy will finish his plans before we see the development. … All this while the Rebels are quietly devastating Pennsylvania.”
On July 1, on the outskirts of Gettysburg, Dodge’s unit had the first news that the Confederate army was nearby. At the regimental level, Dodge and his fellow officers knew nothing of Confederate movements or of Union plans. By afternoon, the 119th was fully engaged. A Minie ball pierced Dodge’s right ankle, and when his regiment retreated, he was captured. Several days later, a Confederate surgeon amputated his lower leg, but as he wrote several years later, “I was one of the luckiest” — he survived.
Dodge was a good writer, and after finishing his wartime journal, a reader may wish to go on to several other books of his that are still in print, including his comprehensive “A Bird’s-Eye View of Our Civil War,” published in 1883, and his works on Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar.
Peter Bridges spent 29 years in the Foreign Service, his last posting as ambassador to Somalia. His most recent book is “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel.”