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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Misplaced Minnesota Sharpshooter, John A. Dolson

by Gordon Thorsby

John A. Dolson was born in 1843 in Schuyler, IL. The family moved to Richfield, MN in the present day Minneapolis area. At some point in the 1850’s, he and his older deaf sister, Mary, were orphaned when the state was still a territory. When he reached manhood, he stood at 5’ 8 1/2” tall, above average of the times, with blue eyes and lighter shade of hair and was doing farming as a laborer when the war came along.

At 18, he enlisted with the First Minnesota Infantry on April 29, 1861, and he qualified to be able join in Company A of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters, one of Hiram Berdan’s regiments. He joined the sharpshooters on 9/21/1861, now 19 at Ft Snelling, MN also in the present day Minneapolis area.

It was around 3:30 on July 2, 1863 Company D faced almost parallel to Emmistburg Pike and Company A was to its left. Both were behind a low stone wall with Company A's left on the “Slyder Lane” while other companies were perpendicular on the Lane. They anticipated an advance from Confederate brigades in the distance to cross the Bushman Farm fields. It was around 4PM when Law’s Brigade of Alabamians advanced across Bushman’s field and Robertson’s Texans advanced on Companies A and D.

When skirmishers from the First Texas appeared from the Rose woods, Company D line dissolved leaving Company A’s right wide open. Members of A knew the situation was not sustainable. Lt. Dyer Pettijohn explained that he went for cover behind a stone wall and joined by Corporal Benjamin O. Hamblet and Private John O. Dolson. “A Confederate officer commanding the [Texas] skirmish line called for the three of them to surrender to halt, but Hamblet and Dolson failed to heed the request.” They turned to bolt toward Devil’s Den , the order to fire was heard and a volley of muskets fired. Both went down, Hamblet shot in the thigh, and Dolson in the lung, a severe wound to the left leg, and in some other place on his person. Pettijohn surrendered. The rest of Company retreated to Houck’s Ridge and the battle continued.

Map is from Timothy Orr's article, NPS

The gray lines surged over the two wounded sharpshooters and up Little Round Top. The fight that took place on the south end of the battlefield resulted in approximately 20,000 casualties between the two sides. The next day, men from McCandless’ Pennsylvania reserves reoccupied the ground and found Hamblet and Dolson. Hamblet lost his leg with amputation due to the wound. Dolson’s wounds were more serious and his rescuers transported him to one of the farms being used for hospitals for immediate treatment. When Camp Letterman was established, the wounded were moved there and Dolson became a patient at the large hospital system northeast of Gettysburg. The nature of his wounds kept him there rather than transport to surrounding cities.

The wounds with one being a puncture to the lung, surgeons had little expectation for Dolson to be able to survive yet he hung on. There are no known records how he progressed nor the pain and difficulties that he fought through. On September 3, he finally succumbed two the injuries. John had $1.70 in his pocket when he died and the money was sent to his sister, Mary, eight years older than John back in Richfield Twp.

It is here, John A. Dolson was about to travel an unexpected journey. Having been a soldier dying at Camp Letterman, the bodies were often embalmed, placed in a coffin, marked where possible, separated and buried by Union or Confederate sides. His casket was mislabeled, his name misspelled as Dobson, identified as a man of the 2nd North Carolina and he was buried in the Confederate rows of soldiers. In 1871, Southern states raised funds to transfer the dead of Gettysburg south and the southern men of Camp Letterman were transferred. For those of Gettysburg , 136 men traveled to Oakwood Cemetery, near the state Capitol, of North Carolina. John O. Dobson was one of the 136 reburied in Oakwood with pointed Confederate markers.

In 2006, Historians like Charles Purser, with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Glen Hayes of New York, and North Carolina historian Bruce Miller discovered the mistake. With further coordinating and confirmation, John Dolson’s real location was made. His headstone was changed to a rounded headstone, a special marker was presented in Richfield, MN along with a ceremony and John on one day in 2007 received recognition for his ultimate sacrifice that he made on July 2, 1863. Today, John Dolson’s round headstone rests in a sea of 1400 pointed markers. It is not known if John was 19 or 20.

Note: Mary Dolson Moffett passed away in 1919 and is buried in Richfield, MN, in the Minneapolis suburbs. She had three children.


“One Such Slender Thread Does the Fate of Nations Depend,” Timothy Orr, National Park Service, NPS

May 30, 2016, Lew Powell, University of North Carolina.

A Vast Sea of Misery, by Coco, Gregory A., Savas Beatie, 1988.

Historical Data Systems, Inc., PO Box 35,Duxbury, MA 02331 .

St Paul Pioneer Press, June 19, 2007.

Find-a-Grave- Mary Dolson Moffett.

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