Monday, September 29, 2008

James A. Dickinson in the Civil War's Brown Water Navy

James A Dickinson
U.S. Mississippi River Squadron

Fortunately for thirteen-year-old James Alpheus Dickinson, zero tolerance was a policy that no one considered in 1863. Had such a disciplinary code existed, the life of this bright but rebellious teen surely would have taken a different course.

The youngest child of U.S. Congressman Rudolphus Dickinson, James grew up fatherless in Fremont, Ohio. His birth occurred just months after his father's untimely death in Washington, D.C. By 1863, ideas of manhood, warfare, and adventure captivated the young boy's imagination. Dickinson ran away from home, planning to enlist in the U.S. Army. His rejection (due to his small size) was undoubtedly a severe disappointment, but Dickinson remained determined to serve his country. He signed on for a year's service in the U.S. Navy. Within a week, he found himself aboard a gunboat patrolling the Mississippi River, fending off the attacks of Rebel guerrillas on Union supply channels.

Dickinson reveled in his newfound freedom. He proudly recorded in his diary incidents of smoking, missing church, and chewing "because all sailors chew tobacco."

Disciplinary measures did not deter Dickinson from jumping ship to enjoy nightlong drinking sprees in towns along the Mississippi. Despite swift, severe punishment, the young sailor continued his wild ways - missing inspections, drinking, enjoying forbidden night swims, and stealing food. Yet he performed his duties admirably. Even with a painful shrapnel injury, he continued to return sniper fire. Dickinson withstood a bullet wound to the knee and endured frozen toes, the result of long hours on guard duty in the cold. He wrote his mother regularly. She responded with her own letters and issues of the Catholic Telegraph.

A year later, his Civil War service complete, the high-spirited Dickinson returned to Fremont where he spent his first few weeks fishing and dancing with his boyhood friends. We can only guess what forces molded the rebellious teen into a man. But at age sixteen, Dickinson took a positive step and entered Notre Dame. He graduated with a law degree in 1869. He practiced law in Fremont until he took a position with the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C. and then the Department of Labor. While supporting a family, Dickinson returned to school and earned a degree in medicine from Howard University in 1889. He moved to North Carolina where he practiced medicine.

Upon his death in 1922, Dr. James A. Dickinson was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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