By the age of 40, former Union lieutenant Ira Barnes Dutton felt disgusted with how he had spent most of his twenties and thirties in sin. To atone for these misdeeds, he decided to devote his remaining years to helping others. Once he read about Father Damien’s selfless work among Hawaiian lepers banished to the island of Molokai, he left the United States in 1886 and set out by a steamer from San Francisco to offer his service to the Belgian priest. During the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Dutton was recognized worldwide for his humanitarian work there, even drawing the admiration from prominent Americans such as Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Two decades before Dutton devoted himself to fulfilling this vow, he served as a lieutenant and quartermaster during the Civil War. “His self-reliance, his initiative, his ability to get willing service out of others, all were the product of his experiences in the American Civil War,” author Charles J. Dutton declared. In addition, he gained valuable skills as a builder, architect, and administrator. Dutton’s Civil War experience prepared him for a life of penance on Molokai.
Ira Barnes Dutton was born in Stowe, Vermont, on April 27, 1843. Four years later, Ira’s father, Ezra Dutton, a fervent entrepreneur – He had tried his hand as a manufacturer of potash and pearlash, shoemaker, and farmer – moved his family to Janesville, Wisconsin, to pursue another business venture. As a teenager, Ira worked as a clerk in the first bookstore established in town.
Interest in militia organizations soared during the years preceding the Civil War. Young men from town and cities throughout the United States were captivated with the elegant, colorful, and tight-fitting uniforms of these units. The Janesville City Zouaves was formed, and like most of the other boys his age, Ira Dutton rushed to join it.
Following the Union defeat at Bull Run, Dutton left James Sutherland’s bookstore after six years of employment and enlisted in the army on September 9, 1861. Those men from the Janesville City Zouaves that enlisted were mustered in as Co. B. of the Thirteenth Wisconsin Infantry. Colonel Maurice Maloney, a captain of the Fourth United States Infantry who distinguished himself during the Mexican War, was appointed its commander. “It was then a sort of local ornament,” Dutton later recollected of the Janesville City Zouaves. “[I]n 1861 [it] became something more.” The men would no longer be performing drills for the amusement of friends and family members at home. They would be facing a real enemy bent on killing them.
The Thirteenth Wisconsin Infantry assembled at Camp Tredway, not far from Janesville, on October 17, 1861. Eight days later, Colonel Maloney thought enough of the 18-year-old Dutton to appoint him as a quartermaster sergeant. Even at this young age, Dutton was recognized among his comrades for his confidence and thoroughness in everything he undertook. These were traits that would come in handy while supervising the distribution of stores and supplies associated with the duties of a regimental quartermaster.
On January 18, 1862, the regiment proceeded by railroad to the city of Leavenworth, Kansas, and remained there until February. It then left for Fort Scott, Kansas, to take part in an expedition under the command of the Brigadier General James Henry Lane. The notorious Jayhawker’s expedition was called off, and the regiment returned north to Lawrence, Kansas.
It looked as if the Wisconsin boys would finally see the elephant after all when they were ordered to Fort Riley, Kansas, to take part in a proposed New Mexico expedition. The regiment arrived at this outpost on April 27. Unlike their poor campsite at Lawrence that had led to rampant sickness, Dutton recalled that the regiment “went into camp near the fort on a beautiful piece of ground for camping purposes.” He described the fort to be “one of the finest on the border commands [and] a most beautiful and commanding site.”
The regiment was placed under the command of Brigadier General Robert B. Mitchell, the leader of the newly formed “New Mexican Brigade.” On May 13, Mitchell reviewed his regiments and proudly commended the Wisconsin regiment “on being the finest regt in the Brigade.” The Thirteenth was eager to validate Mitchell’s statement. Instead, the expedition was abandoned, and the disgruntled soldiers trudged back to Leavenworth.
On May 18, the regiment proceeded to Tennessee. “[W]e will probably engage in the more active service of the war,” Dutton noted with enthusiasm in his diary.
The Thirteen accompanied Colonel William W. Lowe’s column as it moved from Fort Donelson to recapture Clarksville, Tennessee, in early September. In command of portions of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, Seventy-First Ohio, Eleventh Illinois, Thirteenth Wisconsin, and two battery sections (1,030 men), Lowe met roughly 1,100 Confederates under the command of the flamboyant Massachusetts native, Colonel Thomas G. Woodward, at Riggins’ Hill on September 7. Dutton stated that Lowe’s command easily drove the enemy force from an apple orchard. “They then made a very successful skedaddle,” Dutton declared. “[N]othing more was heard from them.” After occupying Clarksville, Lowe burned 1,000 bales of hay and destroyed 250 boxes of commissary stores before returning to Fort Donelson with his detachment the following day.
The regiment helped to quell Confederate guerrillas and cavalrymen harassing Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s line of communication in West Tennessee during the fall and winter of 1862. On February 3, 1863, the town of Dover, defended by a Union garrison of 600 men under the command of Colonel Aber C. Harding, was besieged by 3,000 Confederate troopers commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler. This force was also accompanied by a brigade of cavalrymen commanded by the feared Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The 26-year-old Wheeler planned to disrupt Union shipping on the Cumberland River by seizing Dover.
Dutton at one time had mocked the 55-year-old Union colonel at Dover for being too quick to cry wolf over the proceeding months. “We frequently receive dispatches from Col Harding advising us to prepare for an attack. The Col gets scared very often.”
This time it was no false alarm. Wheeler arrived at the city and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Union garrison. Harding refused and his entrenched soldiers put up a spirited defense against overwhelming numbers. Portions of the Thirteenth Wisconsin, Seventy-First Ohio, and Fifth Iowa came to the garrison’s aid and clashed with the Eighth Texas Cavalry five miles west of Dover. Dutton’s regiment suffered one casualty during this engagement and drove the enemy from the field.
Wheeler abandoned his effort to capture the city after suffering heavy casualties. For Dutton, the Battle of Dover was the most impressive engagement he had witnessed since enlisting. “In proportion to the number of men engaged,” Dutton proclaimed, “this third fight at Ft Donelson was probably the most brilliant affair of the war.”
In February 1863, Dutton was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. His responsibilities would exponentially grow in the coming months.
The regiment luckily missed taking part in the Union defeat at Chickamauga in September, since they were assigned to protect the Army of the Cumberland’s depot of supplies. It was slated to take part in Major General William T. Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta in May 1864, but as fate seemed to keep this regiment out of any major campaigns, it was detached to guard railroads against Confederate guerrilla raids and patrol the banks of the Tennessee River.
In June 1864, Dutton was elevated to the staff of Brigadier General Robert S. Granger, in command of the District of Northern Alabama. Granger appointed the 21-year-old officer the chief quartermaster for the whole department. Overnight, Dutton went from providing for a few hundred men to thousands scattered throughout Granger’s district. He had the immense task of supplying Granger’s soldiers – by boat, train, and wagon – and overseeing the construction of blockhouses, roads, pontoon bridges, and railroads in the district. “I was busy all hours, had soldiers detailed and men working,” Dutton later recalled of his assignment. “[T]hat was my work, and it had to be done, they depended on me.” He was responsible for handling money and property estimated at 20 million dollars, no simple task for a man of his age.
Dutton excelled at his job and received praise from his superiors. “He is a young man of high character and of through business qualifications,” Brigadier General Charles C. Doolittle, declared of Dutton. “[He] can be trusted in any position.” Granger was so fond of his young quartermaster that he was unwilling to part with him when Major General Lovell H. Rousseau requested his service.
Dutton was engaged in his quartermaster duties when the Thirteenth Wisconsin was ordered to Texas with Major General David S. Stanley’s Fourth Corps. He requested to rejoin his regiment in November. While waiting in New Orleans to join his regiment at San Antonio, he received word that the regiment had been mustered out.
For about a year or so after the war, Dutton remained in government service and oversaw the morbid task of disinterring thousands of Union soldiers who had died while serving in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Each body was placed in a coffin and hauled to national cemeteries established at Shiloh and Corinth. Dutton described this as “delicate work,” having to pinpoint and retrieve the scattered remains of soldiers only identified by crude markers. “So far as possible I made it a rule to be present at the disinterment of every body,” the meticulous officer stated. By the end of his assignment, Dutton claimed that he supervised the removal of 6,000 bodies.
Once his cemetery duties ended, Dutton became superintendent of a distillery in Alabama. The once-promising quartermaster, possibly battling depression from a recent divorce and the grim cemetery work he had been tasked, found relief in the bottom of a bottle. In 1870, broke and alone, he drifted to Memphis, Tennessee, looking for work. He took a job as a clerk with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company. Afterward, he served as a special agent for the War Department investigating claims of persons who had remained loyal to the Union. His drinking got out of hand, and sometime between 1875 and 1876, Dutton decided enough was enough and swore to never take a drink again.
By the age of 40, now sober, he began to seriously consider his purpose in life. He turned to religion and was baptized a Catholic in April 1883. He took the name of his favorite saint, Saint Joseph. No single person can be attributed to helping Dutton turn his life around, but one significant individual was Jorantha Semmes. He even asked Mrs. Semmes to serve as his godmother at his baptism. It is worth noting that her husband, Benedict Joseph Semmes, was a Confederate commissary officer during the war. Benedict’s cousin, Raphael Semmes, was the Confederate seaman of CSS Alabama fame.
Despite the urging from friends that he was not cut out for a life as a priest or monk, Dutton began to seriously consider pursuing this vocation. “I lived for some years a wild life and felt that I should make some sort of reparation for it,” he gave as his motivation. “[T]hroughout my life I was a firm believer in thoroughness in everything, and so I decided that my penance should be thorough; in other words, that the remainder of my life should be devoted to that, and to nothing else.” He went to live among Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, adopting their modest habits and ascetic lifestyle. After twenty months, Dutton left the monastery without taking his vows in search of a better way to help others.
While in New Orleans, Dutton came across an article revealing Father Damien’s work among the lepers in Hawaii. He became infatuated with going to the leper colony. In July 1886, he set out from San Francisco to Hawaii, arriving in Honolulu. Several days later he reached Molokai, and Damien took the American drifter by buggy to the settlement. He would remain there for the next four decades.
It did not take long for “Brother” Joseph Dutton to become engrossed in his duties. Damien, who was overwhelmed with work, needed all the help he could get. Dutton served in a variety of roles on the settlement – acting as a sometimes doctor, carpenter, stonemason, architect, gardener, and secretary. Many of these tasks he had performed in some capacity as a quartermaster during the war. In April 1889, Damien succumbed from leprosy and his faithful assistant succeeded him as the administrator of the leper colony.
While Damien attracted more international acclaim than Dutton, individuals from around the world began to take notice of the deeds of his noble counterpart. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the United States Atlantic Fleet, on its way to Japan, to divert its course and to pass Molokai and dip the colors in Dutton’s honor. President Warren G. Harding could barely find the words to express his admiration for Dutton when he sent this letter to him in 1923:
I do not know why I have been moved to write a letter to you…I am very sure that nothing I can say can possibly add to the satisfaction which you must feel in having carried on a service to the bodies, the minds, and souls of men and women, for which we find few parallels. But it has seemed not improper, I hope not an intrusion, for me to say to you that your work is not unknown, is not unappreciated; that all over the world there are people who regard you and Father Damien as men whose lives have been well-nigh perfect examples of self-abnegation, sacrifice and service.
Dutton was proud of his wartime service and never hesitated to display his patriotism while on Molokai. He erected a flag pole outside his small cottage and flew the Stars and Stripes. As part of his daily ritual, he raised the flag at daybreak and lowered in at nightfall. Union veteran organizations caught wind of this informal ceremony, and G.A.R. encampments sent him dozens of flags as a token of appreciation.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the 74-year-old Civil War veteran considered shouldering a rifle once more. “I wanted to help organize quickly a few hundred of the old veterans, such of us as would be willing to close our days in this way; to coax Mr. Wilson to rush us to the front as a body of independent sharpshooters, needing no drill, no physical examination, no pay, of course, outfitting ourselves in the old blue uniforms,” he wrote to a friend in 1917. “Not that we would do much good at the front—the Army would be stumbling over us; but for the example to the youngsters at home… nothing but the country’s service could cause me to go away or break the lines set for voluntary penance.” Instead, Dutton sent a pair of sturdy binoculars in his place, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, returned them after the war with a letter assuring the aged veteran that they had been put to good use.
Dutton remained committed to his vow of penance until his death on March 26, 1931, at the age of 87. One admirer, when referring to Dutton, declared that “Lives that live forever are lives of self-sacrifice.” This onetime Civil War lieutenant has continued to attract admirers for his noble deeds on Molokai 88 years after his death. The Joseph Dutton Guild is currently spearheading the effort to open a cause for his canonization.
Brackett, Albert G. History of the United States Cavalry, from the Formation of the Federal Government to the 1st of June 1863. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1865.
Cooling, Benjamin F. Fort Donelson’s Legacy: War and Society in Kentucky and Tennessee, 1862-1863. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
Cooling, Benjamin F. “The Battle of Dover: February 3, 1863.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 22, no. 2 (June 1963): 143-151.
Dutton, Charles J. The Samaritans of Molokai: The Lives of Father Damien and Brother Dutton Among the Lepers. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Dutton, Joseph. Joseph Dutton His Memoirs: The Story of Forty-four Years of Service Among the Lepers of Molokai, Hawaii. Edited by Howard Case. Honolulu: Press of The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Ltd., 1931.
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), March 27, 1931.
Joseph Dutton’s Civil War Diary – 1855-1864. Folder. CDUT 2/06. University of Notre Dame Archives. Joseph Dutton Papers.
Quiner, Edwin B. “Regimental History—Thirteenth Infantry.” In The Military History of Wisconsin: A Record of the Civil and Military Patriotism of the State, in the War for the Union, 590-97. Chicago: Clarke & Co., 1866.
Taylor, Albert P. Under Hawaiian Skies. Honolulu: Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd., 1922.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 16, Part 1—Reports. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886.
Williams, Nannie H. The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams: A Southern Woman’s Story of Rebellion and Reconstruction, 1863-1890. Edited by Minoa D. Uffelman, Ellen Kanervo, Phyllis Smith, and Eleanor Williams. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2014.