Rufus Dawes (1838-1899) was a Union soldier and officer, a businessman, a congressman, n author, and the father of a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as Vice President. He was descended from the man who warned of the coming of the British prior to Lexington and Concord.
He is also considered to have written one of the best, if not the best, memoirs of the Civil War, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers.
Dawes distinguished himself as a member and officer of the famed Iron Brigade during the Battle of Gettysburg and other Civil War engagements. Comprised of regiments from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, its numbers and composition kept changing because of casualties. It was one of the most feared of all Union troops; it often stood its ground when other brigades were in full retreat.
He meticulously provided accounts of battles, engagements, and camp life to his family, his wife (they married during the war), and friends. Most of the letters were kept, and he had ready access to his own first-hand accounts when he finally wrote and published his memoir in 1890. He and the Iron Brigade were involved in some of the most famous battles of the war in the Eastern Theater. In addition to Gettysburg, Dawes wrote of Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, among others. And he was there at the Battle of the Wilderness and nearby Spotsylvania Courthouse, writing meticulous accounts of what happened.
His descriptions of the battles put the reader right in the thick of the battle. He describes each as would a trained and highly observant military journalist or historian. He explains what went right and what went wrong. He is always crediting his troops for bravery and courage; this is not a man who focused attention on himself (as so many officers and generals tended to do).
Dawes also describes his work as presiding judge during court-martials. He doesn’t explain why he served in this capacity, but it was obviously because of his trained eye, his military reputation, and his strong sense of fairness. His judgments reflected facts and evidence, not emotions or personal feelings.
Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers is more than a memoir of the Civil War; it is a fascinating account of some of the most important battles of the Civil War, written by a man who was both a strong partisan but a fair and observant one.
Top photograph: a few members of the Iron Brigade.