Thursday, March 3, 2011

Will the Real John Dolan Please Stand Up?

One of the joys of studying history is chasing down odd threads to see where they lead. I recently came across one such thread as I was cross-referencing information between regiments. I chanced upon an account of a former noncommissioned officer in George Price’s Across the Continent With the Fifth Cavalry that touched on three different regular cavalry regiments. Price’s account is the only more or less contemporary account of the regiment during the Civil war and on the frontier. It’s a decent reference as long as one keeps in mind that it has a very friendly bias (he was one of the regiment’s officers) and is entirely anecdotal in nature.

The individual in question, First Sergeant John Dolan, at the time of his death, “had been in continuous service for nearly thirty years, and had served more than twenty years as a first sergeant.”

A perfect soldier to profile, I thought. Given the information laid out by Price, there should be a wealth of information available on this fine soldier. Alas, trying to corroborate Price’s information in some areas proved to be quite challenging. A quick check of the National Park Service's database revealed no less than ten John Dolans in regular cavalry regiments during the Civil War, from 5 of the 6 regular cavalry regiments. Two were for a first sergeant of Company B, 4th US Cavalry.

Price’s coverage begins at the beginning of Dolan’s career. “He served two enlistments in the First Dragoons from 1850 to 1860, and during his first enlistment was on active service against hostile Indians and was distinguished for bravery and good deportment. He participated during his second enlistment, in many expeditions, and was frequently engaged in combats with the Apaches in Arizona and New Mexico.”

The only records that I can find for a John Dolan in a mounted regiment through regimental muster rolls or enlistment documents prior to the Civil War are for the 2nd Dragoons, not the 1st Dragoons. According to his enlistment documents, Dolan was born in Longford, Ireland, and was described as 23 years old, 5’ 10” tall, with grey eyes, dark hair and a ruddy complexion. He was enlisted in Company B, 2nd Dragoons by Captain James Oakes in Pittsburgh on April 6, 1853. He reenlisted in the same company as a private at Fort Riley, Kansas Territory on February 6, 1857. 1st vs 2nd Dragoons is an easy enough mistake, so perhaps it was the same person.

Price continues: “His third enlistment was with the First (now Fourth) Cavalry, and during the year 1860 he participated in an expedition against the Kiowas and Comanches. He served, with his regiment, during the early operations of the war of the Rebellion, participating in the battles of Springfield and Shiloh, and the fall of Corinth.”

This is possible, but would have required Dolan to move between units a bit. In 1860, B Company, 2nd Dragoons, commanded by Captain John Buford, was in Utah on the Mormon Expedition, not fighting Indians. Transfers of soldiers and noncommissioned officers between companies within the regiment were not unheard of, however, if not an everyday occurrence. There were companies from the regiment in New Mexico and Colorado, and their movements east toward the war would have brought them into contact with the 4th Cavalry in Missouri at about the time of the battles mentioned. Indeed, the only regular cavalry representatives at the battle of Shiloh were Company C, 2nd Dragoons and Company I, 4th Cavalry, commanded by an infantry lieutenant. These two companies remained together through the fall of Corinth.

At this point, our two Dolans diverge. 2nd Dragoon Dolan must have continued east with his regiment. He was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania when he was sworn in for his third enlistment, according to his enlistment papers, into Company M, 2nd Cavalry on May 28, 1862 as a private. During their long march west, the regiment had been redesignated as the 2nd Cavalry. His enlistment documents describe him as 32 years old, 5’ 11” tall, with grey eyes, dark hair and a ruddy complexion, matching our previous description.

“He distinguished himself in the battles of Perryville and Stone River; commanded his company at Stone River, and had a horse killed under him during the pursuit of General Bragg; also had a horse killed under him and was severely wounded while commanding the advance-guard at the battle of Snow Hill,” according to Price.
Official reports verify this. In the regimental commander’s report on the battle of Murfreesboro, or Stones River, Captain Elmer Otis notes, “First Sergt. John Dolan, Company B, captured a captain and received his sword.” (OR, Vol. 20, part I, page 650)

“He was recommended for a commission in 1863, but declined an examination; was again recommended in 1864, but failed to pass the required physical examination because of the wounds received at Snow Hill.”

Entirely possible, as several first sergeants in the 4th Cavalry, many of them the same ones mentioned in the report from Stones River for gallantry while leading their companies, received commissions as second lieutenants in the regiment. Given his wounds, it is entirely possible that he wasn’t able to pass the examination. Another 4th Cavalry first sergeant who was appointed a lieutenant in the 6th US Cavalry waited several months to report to his new regiment while his wounds healed.

“He served with General Sherman’s army in Georgia, and afterwards joined the army under General Thomas and participated in the battle of Nashville, where he had a horse killed under him, was captured and sent to Andersonville, where he remained four months, when he was exchanged, and rejoined his regiment in July 1865.”
This describes the course of the remainder of the 4th US Cavalry’s campaigns during the war, and logically makes sense. Unfortunately, I could find no reference to a John Dolan from the 4th US Cavalry in any records from Andersonville, and there is a pretty significant existing database. There was a John Dolan from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, but he perished from diarrhea, and the only regular army John Dolan was from the 19th US Infantry.

Meanwhile, Dragoon Private Dolan again reenlisted at Carlisle, PA on April 11, 1865. This time he enlisted in Company I, 2nd Cavalry. His enlistment documents describe him as 35 years old, 5’11” tall, with grey eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion. He reenlisted a final time at Fort D.A. Russell, Dakota Territory on April 11, 1868, into the same company. Other than his age, his description in the documents is unchanged. He was discharged as an orderly sergeant from the 2nd Cavalry at the same post on May 24, 1869 in General Order #26, Department of the Platte and disappears from any further records.

As for Price’s Dolan, “he was in constant service, after the war, in Georgia and Texas until December 1870, when he was discharged for disability resulting from the breaking out of old wounds; after his wounds had again healed he enlisted in the Sixth Cavalry in November 1871, and had active service in the Indian Territory and Arizona until the expiration of his fifth period of service, when he joined the Fifth Cavalry, in 1876, on his sixth enlistment.”

All quite possible, and accurate descriptions of units and locations, but I was unable to locate any documents confirming the information.

“..was again recommended in 1878, and when he met his death in battle a bill was pending in Congress authorizing the President to appoint him a second lieutenant and place him on the retired list. It was favorably reported upon after the gallant soldier was dead.”

First Sergeant John Dolan, Company F, 5th U.S. Cavalry was killed in action at Milk Creek, Colorado on September 29, 1879. Price eulogized him as “a model first sergeant, and perfect in the duties of his office. He commanded, under all circumstances, the respect and good-will of his officers.”

Where does this leave us? With not one but two John Dolans, each of whom served in regular cavalry regiments over 25 years, including the entire Civil War. Surely that’s worth a memory and a few minutes of your time?


Price, George F. Across the Continent with the Fifth Cavalry. New York: Antiquarian Press Ltd., 1959. Page 682.

Returns from Regular Army Regiments, 1821-1916 (accessed via

U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 (also accessed via

Civil War Soldiers and Sailors database, National Park Service

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (as noted in text)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First let me thank you for your service to our country. I just ran across your blog while researching my family history in the C/W. I am looking to prove or disprove a small Bio I have received on a General David S. Gordon of the 2nd & 5th US Cavalry in the C/W & following Indian War. You briefly mentioned him in your article of Theophilus F. Rodenbough. Can you please provide me with some info or direct me where I can find some info. Sincerely Mr. Kelly Reynard. My email address is