John Balderson Doughty was born in 1842 in Frodingham, Lincolnshire, England, to Thomas and Elizabeth Doughty. When he was nine the family departed for New York on board the Albert Gallatin. Arriving on November 28, 1851, the three set off for Wisconsin where Thomas could find better opportunities as an immigrant to work as a farmer on the frontier. By 1860 the Doughty family had settled down in Waukesha County, west of Milwaukee.
On May 10, 1861, John enlisted as a private into Company F of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry. During his travel to the east later in the year, he suffered from illness and nearly lost his life in Baltimore, Maryland, at the hands of “an old female fiend.”
“When the regiment arrived here, John Doughty and myself, being unwell, were put into a car to wait for a carriage to carry us to the camp ground,” wrote Orlando Culver.
While waiting there, several of the citizens came round, and one lady, who seemed very enthusiastic in our cause, desired to get us food and drink. She did bring cakes and water. John ate one cake; I ate two and drank some water, and in about half an hour afterwards, was seized with violet vomiting, cramps and pains. I was dangerously sick for about twelve hours, but by good medical treatment, am about all right again.
“The old rip, there is no doubt, designed to kill us,” Orlando concluded.
John recovered from his maladies and steadily rose through the ranks, reaching Sergeant Major on October 16, 1862; 1st Lieutenant on August 19, 1863; and Captain of Company A on September 8, 1864. A colleague described the captain “as brave a man as ever belonged to the old 5th.”
On the night of April 1, 1865, Doughty received instructions to form his company for a charge the next morning on the Confederate earthworks outside of Petersburg. He sat with Major Evan Rowland Jones, a Welsh expatriate, and another messmate on a log contemplating the next day’s work. “At least one-third will fall,” he solemnly declared, “and of the three I feel a strange presentiment that I shan’t come out of it.”
If John did have a nervous premonition about his death, he did not convey that fear to the rest of his colleagues and command. Captain Shadrack A. Hall, a brand new officer in the freshly enlisted Company K, described how Captain Doughty walked among the regiment that night “cracking jokes and laughing and talking to the men as coolly as though he was going to a picnic.” His light-hearted manner encouraged the men.
“I remember that his bearing was such as to give us confidence,” continued Captain Hall who “having heard from the old men stories of the great losses endured in charging the enemy’s works, felt that it was rather a serious matter to charge those breastworks in our front.” Captain Doughty however “seemed to think it was only a pleasant matter, and apparently cared nothing about it.”
Sadly, Captain Doughty was shot through the head that morning just as the charge began.
“It seemed hard to me, that he who had been a hero of more than thirty battles, should fall that way, while we new officers were spared,” mourned Captain Hall. However, the actions of Doughty, like many of the slain officers during the Breakthrough served as an example for these men to follow. “I wish to bear testimony to his bravery and readiness,” declared his fellow company commander.
But perhaps the most fitting eulogy comes from Doughty’s good friend, Major Jones:
“He girded on his armour to the sound of the first gun on Sumpter, and fell pierced through the head, when crowning victory was ours, to the booming of the last hostile cannon in the land. England did much, through her many statesmen, and a devoted little band of her press, to cheer us on in the path of duty; but she offered no brighter, holier tribute at Liberty’s shrine than the life of John B. Doughty.”
Hall, Shadrack A. Recollections. Report of the Proceedings of 5th Wisconsin Vol. Infantry, Seventeenth Annual Reunion, held at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Tuesday, June twenty-third, nineteen hundred and three.
Jones, Evan R. Personal Recollections of the American War. Newcastle-on-Tyne: M. and M.W. Lambert, 1872.
“Two Waukesha Boys Poisoned—Narrowly Escape.” Janesville Daily Gazette, August 16, 1861.