“At 5 o’clock in the morning, the enemy attacked us in force, and, after a very severe fight by our men, the Federal line began to fall back. From the first moment I learned the position of the enemy, I played upon him with artillery, the section in the road using very short fuse and canister as the enemy moved to and fro. In the movement of this section, securing and defending the front of our line from the persistent attacks of the enemy, notwithstanding its own exposed condition, and under almost galling fire from the rebel sharpshooters and line of battle, Lieutenant Dimick showed the skill and judgment of an accomplished artillery officer and the intrepid bravery the truest soldier.”[i]
– Thomas W. Osborn, Captain and Chief of Artillery, 2nd Division, III Corps
On the morning of May 3, 1863, a young West Point graduate positioned his artillery battery at a defensive point in the Union line. The III Corps of the Army of the Potomac tried to make a stand against the Confederate Second Corps which had reorganized and attacked again under General J.E.B. Stuart’s direction. The III Corps which had worked to halt the Confederate attack the previous night was in the process of falling back from the higher ground at Hazel Grove when the new assault started, and artillery would take an important role in the new defense. Twenty-three year old Lieutenant Justin E. Dimick and Battery H of the 1st U.S. Artillery had their moment of glory, legend, and tragedy.
Several years earlier his professors probably would not have predicted such a moment for Justin E. Dimick. One of U.S. General Justin Dimick’s fourteen children, he had entered West Point in 1856 but earned a less-than-stellar record at the military academy. Dimick racked up demerits and was a regular ringleader for creating mischief. Amongst his other misdemeanors, he had a reputation for climbing out the barrack windows after “lights out” and spending a night drinking and carousing at Benny Havens – a nearby and infamous saloon. It went from bad to worse. One day in ethics class, Dimick arrived before the professor and made a little speech, declaring to his fellow cadets: “The virtues are what we are, the duties are what we do, what we are is more important than what we do. Thus the virtues are more important than the duties.” He ended by hurling his textbook across the classroom and shattering a window at the exact moment the professor entered.[ii] After orders to pick up the glass, discuss virtue, and return to his room under arrest, Dimick received a dismissal from West Point.
General Dimick – a Mexican-American war veteran – had enough influence to get young Justin back in West Point. That only led to a second dismissal in March 1859. For better or worse, he returned again with his father’s influence. He did manage to graduate on June 24, 1861, commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Infantry, then quickly promoting and transferring to the 1st U.S. Artillery. Dimick Jr.’s Civil War experiences began without glory and with a battered reputation. He was one of those cadets; he had a father ready to bail him out of trouble.
The Civil War gave Dimick a chance to rewrite his story and accomplish something built more on his merit than his father’s influence. He started by drilling new recruits in the Federal capital during the summer months and fought at First Bull Run. By February 1862, Dimick served as the adjutant for the 1st U.S. Artillery, mostly on garrison and guarding duties prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg. He learned and had time to rethink leadership. By Chancellorsville, he commanded Battery H of the 1st U.S. Artillery. Influence might have helped with his placement, but he put his skills to work on May 3, 1863, and the praise he won from his superiors that day was his own, not something his father arranged.
During the night of May 2, Dimick and his battery – positioned along the Plank Road – lobbed shells toward the advancing Confederate lines, unknowingly aiming at the exact points where Confederate General Jackson lay wounded near the road and his staff hustled, trying to get him away from immediate danger.
The next morning the battery supported the III Corps Infantry. Captain Osborn continued with details in his official report:
“After holding this position for upward of an hour, his men fighting bravely, but falling rapidly around him (his horse was shot under him), and our infantry crowding back until his flanks were exposed, I gave him the order to limber and fall back.”[iii]
Through the chief of artillery’s report, a different image of Lieutenant Dimick appears which greatly contrasts with his record at West Point. At Chancellorsville, there is no party-boy, no spoiled child running to father for help. Here is a young man using acquired knowledge to stop and slow an advancing enemy for about an hour while under fire. That takes courage and skill. To keep a battery operational took energy, observation, and leadership. Undoubted, Dimick relied on his gun crews and sergeants, but he was present and active in Battery H’s fight along the Plank Road that early morning.
Captain Osborn explained what happened next as the battery prepared to move:
“In doing this his horses became entangled in the harness, and in freeing them he receive a shot in the foot. This wound he hid from his men, but in a moment received one in the spine, and from the effects of it died in two days after.”[iv]
Dimick managed to rewrite his story during his short lifetime. The Civil War and particularly the Battle of Chancellorsville allowed him to redeem himself from the difficulties at West Point. Any number of factors or excuses could be attempted to explain his abysmal experience at the academy, but that is not the point. He found a way to move forward and reshape his experiences, leadership, and ultimately, legacy. Dimick’s death did not define him. His military service did, particularly at Chancellorsville. In the end, his commander remembered him in the thick of the fight – under fire, directing his artillerymen, untangling horses, and struggling to hide the pain of an injury from his men.
Lieutenant Justin E. Dimick died of his injuries on May 5, 1863, and was later buried in his family’s grave plot in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Captain Osborn – though pressed for time and the need to write with brevity – offered a tribute to the young officer in his report:
“He was an educated and accomplished officer, just budding into the full vigor of manhood. As a line officer he has shown fine abilities and on the battle-field was unsurpassed for gallantry.”[v]
Dimick’s story and artillery action is often overshadowed by accounts of generals’ woundings, great attacks, and divided or struggling armies. However, his actions at Chancellorsville along the Plank Road on May 2 and 3 impacted larger events. His shots in the darkness endangered “Stonewall” again. His canister delayed the Confederate advance and supported the Union infantry’s retreat.
Young Justin Dimick’s life offers a reminder that character qualities can be reclaimed and leadership can be rebuilt. Not once did Captain Osborn allude to Dimick’s West Point record; he judged him based on his present actions. He did not see a boy who got kicked out of an academy. He saw a young man with great potential, applying himself to command responsibilities and succeeding with admirable gallantry.
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” ~William Shakespeare
Sears, Stephen W. Chancellorsville. New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.
[i] Official Records, Volume XXV, Part I Reports. Captain T. W. Osborn, May 8, 1863, page 482-486.
[ii]Brown, Kent M. Cushing of Gettysburg: The Story of a Union Artillery Commander. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993. Pages 34-52.
[iii] Official Records, Volume XXV, Part I Reports. Captain T. W. Osborn, May 8, 1863, page 482-486.