The Dodge Connection: ‘War, ambition, bankruptcy, promotion’ | Lifestyles


Thomas R. Emmett III Historic General Dodge House

“Be very careful,” wrote Anne Dodge to her husband Grenville Mellen Dodge in the early weeks of the Civil War.

“Do you wish to rush into the battle to win a name, at the cost of your life knowing what suffering you have brought to your family? For our sake, save your life…don’t get shot or taken prisoner,” she wrote. “Don’t fight when the odds are against you.”

We associate the name General Grenville Dodge with feats of bravery and larger-than-life achievement, even when the odds were against him, as evidenced by the house where he lived here in Council Bluffs. The Historic General Dodge House, an official national monument, pays tribute to the diversity of Dodge’s military, railroad, engineering, commercial, political and philanthropic triumphs.

But, when the Civil War began, Dodge was on the verge of bankruptcy and had a long way to go before he was promoted to a high rank in the Union Army. At this point in his life, his greatest asset was unbridled ambition.

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Anne Dodge knew it and it gnawed at her. She encouraged him to dress up.

“Get a soldier’s jacket… take the straps off that winter coat you wear every day. If anything happens to you, I want to die!

Dodge would have none of his wife’s advice. “You are ruining me, Annie, in my own state…you (would) see me stationed as a coward in my own town!”

His wife’s letters weighed heavily in his pocket and in his mind.

Anne was right to worry. Dodge had a soldier’s education, but no practical experience as a warrior. Even Iowa Governor Samuel Kirkwood, unimpressed with Dodge’s small stature, described him as a “sickly man”.

While his wife and the Governor had concerns about Dodge, he quickly earned the respect of his men. He did everything for — and with — his troops. He didn’t ask for anything he wouldn’t do himself. Thus, he came across his first nickname, the one he would not have chosen: “little badass”.

Dodge’s ambitions and tenacity only increased when, in the closing months of 1861, his Council Bluffs ventures into banking and land speculation failed. He was now in debt and honour-bound to repay every investor. He desperately yearned for the salary that would come with a promotion.

To add injury to the insult of financial failure, Dodge, just two days after Christmas, managed to shoot himself in the leg with a small pistol, given to him by Anne for his protection. He was the butt of jokes. Even his friends found it amusing.

A little good news fell in January. His unit, the Fourth Volunteers from Iowa, suffering from winter’s bite, were issued black frock coats rather than the typical blue. Much to Anne’s horror, Dodge and her unit would stand out all the more.

“Comfort! No one hurt yet,” he wrote to her, but Dodge was injured. His leg was sore from the self-inflicted injury, causing him to spend too much time in the saddle, resulting in wounds of a different type.

Dodge persisted. In March 1862 he would have his moment.

Most of us have never heard of the Battle of Pea Ridge on the Missouri-Arkansas border, even though it proved to be the most critical engagement on the Western Front early in the civil war. And he dramatically and breathlessly showcased the warrior within Grenville Dodge.

Before the Union forces could besiege Vicksburg, Mississippi, and take crucial control of the Mississippi River, they had to deal with the western armies of the Confederacy. This critical moment of decision has come far too soon. The Union forces closed as a large contingent of rebels headed straight for them, including Dodge (who held the rank of colonel at the time) and his men.

Victory for the North seemed far from probable. Dodge and his unit, under the command of fellow Iowan Brigadier General Samuel Curtis, were heavily outnumbered as they prepared to engage Confederate forces near Fayetteville, Arkansas. The rebels outnumbered the Union forces three to one. A total of 50,000 souls converged on the field.

We must pause to consider the absolute and abject hell of war at this time. The recovery of the injured has become an afterthought. No antibiotics. Infection, disease, dysentery, malnutrition and exhaustion could be as deadly as the enemy. The hot summers and the cold, wet winters were oppressive. Hygiene was, as a rule, impossible.

These facts prohibit nostalgia.

Fortunately, for the Union forces and for Dodge, Confederate General Earl Van Dorn had forced his troops to march for three straight days amid freezing rain. His army arrived cold and exhausted. Early in the battle, Dodge’s corps effectively blocked the roads by cutting down trees. Between their exhaustion, lack of leadership, lack of resources and now the roads barricaded, the rebels made little progress.

Many officers played important roles in the savage Battle of Pea Ridge, but Dodge’s contribution was exceptional. His bravery, courage, recklessness and daring became legend when an early biographer, JT Granger, wrote that General Dodge “saved Curtis’s army from disaster. Three horses were killed and a fourth wounded under his command, but when the order came to retreat Colonel Dodge fought bravely and simply sent word back that the retreat was ruined.

A high price in blood was paid for this victory. The fighting was so intense that a third of Dodge’s troops were killed or wounded and every field officer was also killed or wounded. The rebels suffered terribly too. A Confederate commander said, “Dodge fought more like a devil than a human being.”

Dodge and his troops, dressed in their unusual black robes, had a new nickname: “The Black Coated Devils”.

A name, no doubt, more to Dodge’s taste.

The victory at Pea Ridge effectively cut off most of Arkansas and all of Missouri from the rest of the Southern states. Here began the process of splitting the Confederacy into two that would be completed in Vicksburg just over a year later.

As for him, Dodge wrote that he suffered “three light blows” as well as an episode of diarrhea. He was the only field officer not killed or injured. In his letters to Anne, he mentioned nothing of insult.

Within a month, Colonel Dodge became General Dodge.

Sometime later, Anne would join her husband for a visit to his new command post in Corinth, Mississippi. Dodge was now on the rise. He would never be financially broke or desperate again. Still, Anne’s insight into her husband’s psyche proved correct. His new fortunes could not and never should tame his ambition.


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