This book attempts to relate and recreate the experiences of two young individuals who became embroiled in the cauldron of our nation’s Civil War, a conflict that would overwhelm the nation for four destructive years and consume hundreds of thousands of lives. This is a war story. It is a love story.
The narrative is presented as part biography, part history, and part historical fiction. Biography because the characters have a noteworthy background and their remarkable life stories are worth telling. History because the various events described within are accurate and did happen, and the people involved, with very few exceptions, were real-life individuals. Historical fiction because many of the conversations and some situations have been created, but are, I believe, reasonable depictions based on my research of the people and events.
The main character is probably unknown to most Americans, though Civil War historians and armchair enthusiasts are certainly familiar with him. His name is Rufus R. Dawes of Marietta, Ohio, and Juneau County, Wisconsin. His life experiences were extraordinary even before the outbreak of the war, which exploded upon the nation when he was twenty-two.
A young lady, Mary Beman Gates, of Marietta, Ohio, is the other leading character. She was not yet nineteen when open warfare broke upon the nation. She found love unexpectedly and became fully engulfed in the conflict while serving on “the home front,” for better and for worse. Her life changed forever.
I became a Civil War enthusiast at age nine when my parents packed four kids into our bare-bones Pontiac for a hot summer family trip to Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg. At Gettysburg, I was mesmerized listening to the battlefield tour guide describe the scene along a stone wall, site of the famous “Angle” and the “Copse of Trees,” the target of Pickett’s Charge.
Since then I have read and collected numerous books on the war, and I developed a special interest in the Iron Brigade upon reading the excellent chronicle of that famous unit authored by Indianapolis native Alan Nolan. I began to collect other books about the Iron Brigade, including those authored by Lance Herdegen, William Beaudot, Craig Dunn, William Venner, and others. The most vivid account is arguably Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers. This book is evidence that Rufus Dawes played a key role in the exemplary history of this famous “western” volunteer fighting force. I read the recorded history and thought I understood his heroic contribution to America.
A new book emerged—The Dawes House: The Place Where You Are Always Welcome, written by Peggy Dempsey, herself part of the Dawes family tree. Peggy also created an online blog, recreating years of insightful war-journal entries recorded during the war by an amazing woman, Julia Cutler, Rufus’s aunt living near Marietta, Ohio. I urge the reader to investigate both. Peggy’s wonderful book and the terrific blog she created opened my eyes to a much more involved story. Many family letters, diaries, and journals have been preserved through the years, and I was prompted to investigate.
That investigation involved research trips to the Dawes Arboretum near Newark, Ohio; to the beautiful and historic city of Marietta, Ohio, and its library, museums, historical society, cemetery grounds, and the Marietta College Special Collections Library; to historical society archives in Madison and Juneau County, Wisconsin; to the Newberry Library in Chicago; and to state libraries in Indianapolis and Columbus. I toured specific Iron Brigade action sites on nine battlefields, all well-managed by the National Park Service. The letters and journals and manuscripts revealed a treasure trove of detail not previously published. As I delved into them, my admiration and respect for Rufus and Mary and their families became forever enriched.
What began as nothing more than a trip to satisfy a curiosity soon became an inspiration to do more. The fascinating story of Rufus and Mary begged to be told, obviously from a historical perspective, but more so as an example of strength of character, courage, and love amidst chaos and tragedy. My sincere goal is to portray the story of Rufus and Mary accurately and respectfully. My hope is that they become alive again in the mind of the reader. If so, I believe you will understand and appreciate the sacrifices they made for our country and the exceptional example their actions provide to all generations of Americans.
In a broader sense, their struggles reflect experiences endured by thousands of other couples and families during the Civil War and in all conflicts before and after. Untold numbers of young Americans have faced similar trials in answer to the call for service throughout our history. This book is meant to also honor their sacrifices—past, present, and future.
Along the way, I have walked in the footsteps of heroes and patriots, and I have met incredible people who realize the significance of ordinary people like Rufus and Mary—those who sacrificed so much to help secure for our nation what is too often forgotten or dismissed. I have been inspired by the great fortune of meeting and corresponding with family descendants. I am truly thankful for the wonderful support and assistance rendered by Barb and Jack Moberg and by Peggy and Rich Dempsey. The patience and encouragement received from my family and friends have sustained me throughout.
Steven R. Magnusen