John A. Dix, Troubleshooter

ECW welcomes back guest author Leon Reed

A single patriotic envelope with an enigmatic message led me to the story of one of the Civil War’s more interesting figures.

John A. Dix was a New York politician and businessman who before the war had served as a U.S. Senator and New York Secretary of State. Dix’s loyalty to the Union was unquestioned, but at first, he was one of many New Yorkers who were sympathetic to the southerners’ complaints and worked to find a compromise. Through the first month after Lincoln’s election, Dix led efforts in New York City to muster business leadership to bring about a peaceful solution to the crisis. He was a leading sponsor of the December 16, 1860, “Pine Street meeting,” where leading New York businessmen wrote an open letter to the South urging that they remember the historic feeling of friendship between North and South and begged for time to resolve the problem. But his sympathies for the South ended at secession.

In January 1861, Dix was appointed Secretary of the Treasury to replace Howell Cobb of Georgia and served the last two months of Buchanan’s presidency. Dix was a conscientious and energetic Secretary, working to make sure that southern ports remained open and customs duties were sent to the United States.

As it became evident that Louisiana’s vote to secede was imminent, Dix ordered all revenue cutters to be brought north so they wouldn’t be seized. When Dix heard that one of his captains, John G. Brushwood had refused to obey, he sent a message ordering him arrested as a mutineer and added “If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” The telegram was intercepted by Confederates and never delivered to the Treasury agents. But the text was widely published in newspapers, and Dix became one of the first Union heroes during the Civil War.[1] Notably, the New Orleans Daily Delta printed Dix’s telegram, with an explanation that:

The mayor of New Orleans, Mr. Monroe, last night received a highly important dispatch from Governor Moore, of Alabama, addressed to “the governor of Louisiana or the mayor of New Orleans.” Mr. Monroe, finding himself unable to communicate with Capt. Brushwood last night, has thought it best to give publicity to the dispatch.[2]

The newspaper then printed the entire dispatch, of course fulfilling its duty to warn Capt. Brushwood if he remained out of communication and incidentally letting every reader of the Daily Delta know of this “aggressive act” against “the sovereign state of Louisiana.”

Dix’s effort was to no avail. “Capt. Brushwood declined to obey the orders and brought his vessel up the river to [New Orleans]. She now lies in our waters.”

Nevertheless, Dix’s status as a Union hero was secure. One cover equated his “Shoot him on the spot” quote with the Star-Spangled Banner and nationalist quotes from President Andrew Jackson and Senator Henry Clay.

After his short stint as Treasury Secretary, Dix continued to show a talent for being involved in important and prominent activities. Within a few days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Dix was the chief organizer and speaker at a huge pro-Union rally in New York City’s Union Square. Attended by an estimated 100,000, it was the largest rally ever held on American soil up to that time. By then, any hint of sympathy for the South was gone, as Dix denounced the “unscrupulous men” who had pushed the country “to the extremity of war and bloodshed.”[3]

Growing out of that meeting, Dix led the effort to create (and served as the first president of) the Union Defense Committee (UDC), which was established to raise funds to equip and transport newly formed regiments. In these early days when Union authorities struggled to raise and equip regiments and rush them to defend the capital, President Abraham Lincoln authorized the Treasury to pay public funds directly to the UDC. This was so they could spend public money to raise and equip volunteer regiments for Federal service and charter or buy ships to transport them.

The UDC aided every New York regiment in some way (purchasing uniforms and equipment, bounties to soldiers, aid to families, chartering vessels) and directly organized four regiments (including the Mozart and Tammany regiments). In the early days of the crisis, the UDC also served as a sort of national mobilization “czar,” surveying the loyal states to determine the readiness of new regiments, providing arms to Unionist militias in Kentucky, western Virginia, and Missouri, and chartering ships to protect commercial shipping on the Chesapeake Bay from Confederate privateers.

Dix was appointed a major general of volunteers on May 16, 1861. His name appeared on the list ahead of two other political generals, Nathaniel P. Banks and Benjamin F. Butler, so throughout the war, he was the senior ranked major general of volunteers.

Although he was considered too old for field command, John Dix seemed to have the trust of Lincoln and his advisors as a man who could get things done smoothly and efficiently. Lincoln’s secretary, William O. Stoddard, reported that Lincoln was impressed the first time he met Dix: “I cannot say that I know him very well, but, judging from the counsel he has given me tonight, and from all he has said, I should say that Gen. Dix was – a very, very wise man.”[4]

And throughout the war, he was given a series of politically delicate assignments. In the summer of 1861, commanding the Department of Maryland, Dix arrested six members of the Maryland General Assembly, administering a final death blow to the secession movement in Maryland. He was then appointed one of two commissioners to interview the prisoners and determine which ones should be released.

While in command at Fort Monroe in July 1862, Dix negotiated the first formal prisoner exchange agreement, the Dix-Hill cartel. The agreement established a protocol for opposing commanders to exchange information about prisoners and a table of equivalents to guide exchange negotiations.

In the summer of 1863, he was appointed military commander in New York City immediately after the suppression of the “Draft Riots.” His job was to get the draft operating smoothly, which he did.

Above: envelope cover of John Dix; John A. Dix (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

After the war, he served as U. S. Minister to France, governor of New York, and president of the Union Pacific Railroad during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Fort Dix, in New Jersey, is named for him.[5]

As a rule, the Civil War generals we remember earned their fame or notoriety on the battlefield. Grant, Lee, Sherman, Jackson, Forrest, Stuart — or for that matter Banks, Bragg, and Pope — are remembered primarily for the strategies they developed and the way they led their troops in battle.

Yet the Civil War was a war where events that happened in the supply depots and railroad offices; in the State, War, and Navy building and the Capitol; in corporate boardrooms and factories; and in the cities and political clubhouses had a vital effect on the outcome of the war. John Dix earned no fame on the battlefield but nevertheless was an important figure in settling the outcome. Many historians conclude that the Civil War was a transitional event between traditional warfare and more modern, organized warfare where political, organizational, and supply issues are crucial. Perhaps we could conclude that John Dix represents a precursor of future generals such as Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, who earned their fame performing organizational work hundreds of miles from the battlefield.

[1] See, for example, “The Revolution: Important from Washington: The Future Policy of Republicans,” New York Daily Herald, February 4, 1861, “The National Crisis, A Peremptory Demand for the Surrender of Fort Sumter, Instructions of Secretary Dix to the Commanders of Revenue Cutters,” New York Times, January 29, 1861, “The War,” Buffalo Commercial, February 8, 1861, “The AP Dispatch,” Alexandria Gazette, February 7, 1861, “The Seizure of the Revenue Cutter McClelland,” Lancaster Intelligencer, February 12, 1861, and “The Secession Movement: Report of the Secretary of the Treasury,” New York Herald, February 23, 1861,.

[2] “Highly Important – Buchanan Administration and the Cutter McClelland – Instructions to Arrest Capt. Brushwood,” New Orleans Daily Delta, January 30, 1861.

[3] “The Union Forever! Immense Demonstration in this City,” New York Times, April 21, 1861.

[4] William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Time: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

[5] “John A. Dix,” Lincoln and New York, Lehrman Institute, (accessed March 5, 2019).

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3 Responses to John A. Dix, Troubleshooter

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    In Summer of 1862 the remaining Union soldiers of the 2300 captured at Battle of Shiloh were languishing at Camp Oglethorpe and the Madison Prison in Georgia. Following the first death in custody end of April, the deaths due to malnutrition, camp diseases and misadventure steadily accumulated at an increasing rate; and there was no hope for return North for these men in the foreseeable future: no one knew how long the war would last. Enter John Dix, who with his Confederate counterpart, D. H. Hill, hashed out terms to a prisoner exchange arrangement that permitted over 13000 Rebels captured at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Island No.10 to be swapped, one-for-one by rank, with Federal soldiers taken at Belmont and Shiloh (and Harper’s Ferry and Antietam.)
    With reprisals threatened, and early determination to summarily execute bridge burners and privateer crews as pirates, the Dix-Hill Cartel was one of the first acts that formalized humane procedures during wartime. Over 20000 lives, North and South, were preserved due to this agreement.
    Thank you for providing this biography, filling out the story of John A. Dix.

  2. Leon’s fine summary of the life of John Dix signals the need for a full-length biography of an influential figure before, during, and after the Civil War.

    • Leon Reed says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I had never heard of Dix before I saw that envelope but he is one of the fascinating characters of the war. One assignment I missed: apparently just before his assignment to go fix things in NYC, he apparently led an advance from Fort Monroe toward Richmond, apparently intended to divert Lee’s troops from the Gettysburg campaign. My limited reading suggests that he at least was criticized about a case of the “slows.” But apparently he left this post to accept the position in NYC with the draft riots.

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