By the time that Private Constantine Dickerson and the 67th New York Volunteers were called up from reserve on the morning of July 3rd, 1863, two Confederate attempts to take Culp’s Hill from Union defenders had already been repulsed. As Major General Edward Johnson launched a third assault, Union defenders called for support. Brigadier General Alexander Shaler and his brigade of New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, among them Private Dickerson and the 67th, had been held in reserve near the Spangler House since 9 am. Reserve status, however, by no means meant being detached from the fighting. Wounded men had been passing through their ranks all morning, and stray rounds passed overhead. For Dickerson, a veteran, these hallmarks of battle were nothing new. Dickerson had enlisted with the 67th New York (also known as the 1st Long Island) for three years in August of 1861. He had been a part of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, seeing action at Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fair Oaks (where his unit suffered 170 casualties), and Malvern Hill Not two months prior to the clash at Gettysburg, he had fought in the Chancellorsville campaign, storming Marye’s Heights. On the morning of July 3rd, however, surrounded by the familiar sounds, sights and smells of battle, as well as his comrades of almost two years, enduring a wait for battle that must have also been familiar, Dickerson went AWOL (absent/away without leave).
What could have prompted him to leave his regiment in the face of battle, which he had seen so often? The records of Dickerson’s court martial, which took place a month after the battle, are less than revealing. The witnesses at the trial, all from Dickerson’s Company B, included First Sergeant Edward Fahey and Captain William Dermady. Speaking for the prosecution, both officers stated that they did not know why the private had left the regiment nor where he had been during his absence. Captain Dermady also spoke for the defense, discussing his belief that Dickerson lacked mental competency. Dermady did not think him to be “in possession of his faculties sufficiently to be fully aware of his responsibilities” as a soldier. The specific evidence for this claim is less than convincing: “I would state of [Dickerson’s] seeming want of a mental capacity in the large quantity of clothing drawn and thrown away by him; he seems to have no idea of the value of it.” The Captain also accused Dickerson of being slovenly in personal appearance, and failing to change his ways despite the threat of docked pay. But if slovenly appearance and a habit of throwing away clothing were the qualifications of mental ineptitude, many a soldier, both North and South, might have been labeled as such (especially during summer campaigns). If Dickerson did somehow lack mental capacity to the degree that he did not understand the responsibilities of a soldier, how can one explain his history of doing his duty under fire? Captain Dermady’s accusation simply does not fit with Dickerson’s record. Perhaps Dermady sought to characterize the private as inept in the hopes of saving him from the firing squad.
Despite the lack of revealing detail in the court martial record, we can speculate about what may have contributed to Dickerson’s decision to leave his unit. Physical exhaustion may have been a factor. The 67th New York was part of the Union 6th Corps, a late arrival at Gettysburg. The Union army had fanned out in the days preceding Gettysburg, putting it in a position to better confront a thrust by the elusive and well-screened Army of Northern Virginia. Because the 6th Corps was so far to the southeast –camping in Manchester, Maryland as the fighting of July 1st came to a close– necessity dictated a forced march to reach Gettysburg. After covering thirty-seven miles in seventeen hours, reaching Gettysburg on the evening of July 2nd, Private Dickerson and the rest of Shaler’s brigade went immediately into line of battle on the Union left flank. It was to be another short night: by 8 a.m. on July 3rd, the brigade reported to Brigadier General John Geary in support of the 12th Corps, positioned on the extreme right of the Union fishhook position. One can only imagine what an arduous forty-eight hours Dickerson experienced leading up to the morning of his desertion. In this light, perhaps his desertion can be explained not so much in terms of a lack of a sense of duty, as in the presence of sore and blistered feet, exhaustion, and probably an empty stomach. Under such circumstances, even reliable soldiers like Dickerson may have lost the will to fight.
Perhaps as he waited in reserve that morning it was Dickerson’s very familiarity with the sensory experience of battle imminent battle – sounds of bullets flying overhead, the smell of sulfur, the sight of wounded men streaming through his line – that caused him to flee. Instances of green soldiers fleeing from battle are well known, but it is wrong to assume that being a combat veteran meant one was inured to battle. Veterans often did experience a dulling of the senses, causing them to recall being unaffected by fear and death after months of fighting. Other veterans, however, simply grew sick of combat and all that accompanied it. Dickerson had experienced some of the heaviest fighting of Peninsula Campaign, and just two months earlier he and the 67th New York helped lead Sedgewick’s assault on Marye’s Heights; he may have sought to avoid what he would have known all too well–the mental and physical stress of intense combat.
Where Dickerson had come from might have also been a factor in his actions that morning. Hometown ideology and political orientation could influence the decision to desert. Dickerson’s service record indicates he enlisted at Fort Schyler, a recruiting station for the New York City area. Much of the New York City area voted heavily for Stephen Douglas in the election of 1860, including. Perhaps an ideological resistance to President Lincoln, the war, or the Emancipation Proclamation not yet issued at the time of his enlistment in 1861, or some combination of these, finally manifested itself at Gettysburg. The size of the hometown could also be a factor in men’s decisions to desert. Residents of smaller towns often felt increased pressure to do their duty because units were recruited from the same area. Comrades could, and often did, report back to a hometown about a man’s cowardice or desertion. Because of its size, New York City might have offered Dickerson the degree of anonymity necessary to risk the ignominy of desertion.
Regimental and company climate was also often an important factor in decisions to desert, or not to. Unit cohesion was importa
nt for soldiers, and yet socioeconomic and ethnic differences could prove to be obstacles to the development of such cohesion. Particularly for a regiment raised around New York City, a center of immigration, ethnic differences and tensions could have been especially problematic. Perhaps the democratic inclinations shared by many in the larger communities from which the 67th New York was recruited combined with a lack of unit cohesion to create an environment conducive to desertion. Prior to July 3rd, 1863, the 67th New York had suffered approximately 250 desertions.
Though all of the aforementioned factors often contributed to decisions to desert or to be away without leave, we can, again, only speculate about what influenced Dickerson’s decision that July morning. What we do know is that after going AWOL, Dickerson returned to his regiment sometime on July 4th or 5th, was court-martialed, and sentenced to be shot by firing squad. This sentence was later remitted because the Review General found the court record to be defective, and Dickerson was sent back to duty. What is most notable about Dickerson story is not that he left his unit – desertions and AWOLs were common enough – but rather that he chose to reenlist in December of 1863. He did so despite what would have been a tarnished reputation and the memory that he was nearly executed for his failure to perform his duty. Perhaps a desire for redemption contributed to his decision. Regardless, Dickerson once again survived some of the bloodiest combat of the war, confirming that he was neither a coward nor a man unaware of his “responsibilities” as a soldier.
For further reading:
On desertion and the soldier’s experience in Civil War combat
Costa, Dora L., and Matthew E. Kahn. Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Dean, Eric T., Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Hess, Earl J. The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997. Print.
On the action around Culp’s Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg – Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.