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Friday, April 5, 2019

Ephraim Cutler Dawes: A Wounded Soldier's Journey Home

They called it the "War of Rebellion." The Civil War. Southerners used the understated phrase “The Recent Unpleasantness," as though the war never happened. Over 700,000 perished in the War from combat and illness. At least that many more were wounded - often with disabling injuries. The poignant experiences of courage, injury, illness, and death changed countless lives forever. This is the story of a wounded Union officer of the 53rd Ohio Voluntary Infantry from Marietta. He should have died but beat the odds with luck, heroic care, and determination.

Ephraim Cutler Dawes 1863 photo from Wikipedia

Lieutenant-Colonel Ephraim Cutler Dawes was a grandson of his namesake, Ephraim Cutler, an early Marietta civic leader. Dawes and his brother Rufus R. Dawes enlisted early, both passionate about the Union cause. Ephraim tells the story of the harrowing wound experience in his own words as published in his brother's publication: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers:

"I was shot at Dallas, Georgia, two weeks ago to-day. We were in rifle pits. The rebels charged us. We gave them an awful licking. The bullet struck the left side of my lower jaw, and the surgeons say, 'carried away the body of the inferior maxilla to the near angle.' It took off my lower lip, tore the chin so that it hangs down, took out all the lower teeth but two....It is a horrible looking wound and will disfigure me, but the doctors say they can fix up a face for me....I was also hit in the back of the head."

"I was shot late in the afternoon of May twenty-eight and remained in the field hospitals until May thirtieth. A wagon train was (to be) sent under strong escort to the railroad at Kingston. The surgeons advised me to go in this train. They said that if I remained around the hospital the chances were that I would contract gangrene or erysipelas and die, and that I should get home as soon as possible. My old friend Haydn K. Smith volunteered to go to Nashville with me. I could hardly have got along without him. My colored servant, Wesley Benson, accompanied me. He was a faithful and competent young man but he could not read writing and I could not talk.

...I got into one of the wagons and sat on a bag of corn. The different surgeons bid me good bye....The road was very rough...My wound was much inflamed and my tongue so swollen that it was almost impossible to swallow. The misery of that night’s ride was indescribable. 

Early next morning Major Patrick Flynn, of the nineteenth Illinois,...put me in (an) ambulance (wagon)....the day was very hot the road was very dusty.  About noon we crossed the Etowah river. Near the end of the bridge was a house. One of the women (at the house) brought out a great yellow bowl filled with buttermilk...I was weak with hunger, faint from loss of blood, and burning with thirst. I crammed the bowl into my mouth with both hands, despite the awful pain, and drank nearly the whole of the buttermilk. It revived me at once. 

Front View
The "Moses" Ambulance Wagon, similar to what may been used to transport Major Dawes.
Descriptions and images from
 The ambulance is entered by two steps in the rear, contains seats for eighteen persons--fourteen inside and four on the front seat. By raising the flaps of the inside seats and supporting them by the uprights attached, and removing the cushions from the backs of the permanent seats, a bed is arranged which will accommodate one, two, or, on an emergency, three men lying down. With one man in a recumbent position, room for twelve men seated remains; with two men lying down, room for eight, and with three men lying down, room for six remains. 

Rear View

...The train reached Kingston (GA) between five and six o’clock. There seemed to be no adequate preparation for the wounded. But agents of the Sanitary Commission...took possession of a house (to care for the wounded). Mrs. Bickerdyke and Mrs. Johnson were in charge. I camped in a corner of the porch....One of the women brought me a bowl of soup. I took off my bandage to drink it. She look at me, burst into tears, and ran away. An old gray surgeon came in to dress the wound. At the sight of it he turned very white and went away. I went out myself to find a surgeon. Fortunately, my good friend, Dr. Edwards,....met me in the yard. He spent an hour dressing my wound and gave Wesley full and careful instruction how to care for it; that night I slept well. 

Seal of the United States Sanitary Commission, 
founded in 1861 as the American Civil War began. Its purpose was to promote clean and healthy conditions in the Union Army camps. The Sanitary Commission staffed field hospitals, raised money, provided supplies, and worked to educate the military and government on matters of health and sanitation.

Nurses and officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission at Fredericksburg VA. Picture taken in May of 1864. Courtesy Library of Congress

Next day, June 1st, a train of empty freight cars backed down in front of the house.....all the wounded who were able to walk were to go Chattanooga on that train. Many were badly wounded, but all were in high spirits... The train reached Dalton at dusk. I....walked along the platform to a car where there was more room. It was occupied by a dying officer,....Lt. George Covington, adjutant of the Seventeenth Indiana Regiment. He died before the train left Dalton. (A) surgeon seeing that I was badly wounded and very weak, gave me some stimulant and put me on Covington’s cot... 

I went to sleep, but at Ringgold, woke with a start to find my bandages drenched with blood from some small arteries under the tongue, which had sloughed away. I stopped it by cramming a towel under my tongue...About midnight the train reached Chattanooga. There was no one at the depot to tell us where to go. I saw the row of hospitals on the hill and started toward them. A guard cried: ‘Halt!’, ‘Halt!,’ but I did not care whether he shot me or not, and pushing past him, opened the door of the nearest building, which was the officers’ ward. The nurse on duty was a wounded soldier. He knew exactly what to do, dressed my wound carefully, fixed a cot so that I could rest comfortably, and I slept until the surgeon came around in the morning.

...Mr. Smith...secured a pass for me to Nashville. The train left at three P.M., June 2nd. This railroad ride was the most trying experience of all. My wound was sloughing freely, my tongue was very much swollen and it was almost black....At Nashville I was taken to the officers’ hospital. Under the efficient care of Dr. J. H. Green,...I improved rapidly,....and was able to leave for home June 6th.” 

Dawes was given a discharge on October. On March 13, 1865, he was breveted (promotion to a higher rank based on outstanding service) to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel for his "gallant and meritorious service."

Lt. Colonel Dawes was fortunate to have his jaw and lip reconstructed by Dr. George C. Blackman. An account from New England Families Genealogical and Memorial (see below) describes the reconstruction: "By an intricate and delicate surgical operation, one of the most celebrated of its class performed during the war, a lower lip was made for him by material taken from his cheek, and the point of his jaw replaced by an artificial one." 

Recovery was slow, but he learned to speak again. He was in constant pain for the rest of his life. He grew a full beard to disguise the scars. Despite all of this, Dawes became a successful businessman, managing multiple rail lines and a coal company.

Dawes compiled a war library of documents, histories, and related information about the war. He authored several publications. Literary work became a favorite avocation for the rest of his life. 

Author John K. Duke, said about Ephraim Cutler Dawes:
"His own words written on the death of Generals Sherman and Hayes fittingly apply equally to himself:
'It is by the lives of such men as these that future generations may estimate the priceless treasure committed to their charge; for, if liberty is worth what liberty has cost, no words may express its value.' "

He is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta. 

Major Ephraim Cutler Dawes wore this navy wool double-breasted frock coat with brass buttons on the day that he was shot in the jaw at the Battle of Dallas, Georgia in 1864. From Ohio History Connection:


Cutter, William Richard, A.M., Editor, New England Families Genealogical and Memorial, Volume II, New York, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1913.

Dawes, Rufus R., Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, E. R. Alderman, 1890

Duke, John K., History of the Fifty-Third Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry During the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865, Portsmouth, Ohio, The Blade Printing Company, 1900.

Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, Vol IV, “Sketches of Life Members,”  Columbus, Ohio, Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, 1895, page 457., “Ephraim Cutler Dawes.”

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