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~ Military Biography ~

Dubuque county Civil War Soldiers
 of the
Twenty-first Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Historical information, notes & comments, in some cases correcting the record
Soldier biographies written by Carl Ingwalson

Carl will do look-ups in his extensive records of the 21st Iowa and he is always willing to share what he has.



      William Pliny Dickinson was born to George L. and Lucy (Evans) Dickinson in Walpole, New Hampshire, on May 31, 1842. George moved west in 1845 “and established himself in Dubuque, Iowa, the family following in the autumn, making the journey in twenty-one days, the only railroad on the route being from Albany to Schenectady.” William did well in high school, being “proficient in languages,” and was still a student when Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Eleven days later he enlisted in the 1st Iowa Infantry, a regiment mustered for only ninety days which most in the North thought would be sufficient time to end the Southern uprising. At the end of his term, he was mustered out on August 21, 1861, but the war continued.

      A year later, on August 19, 1862, he gave his occupation as hotel clerk when he was enrolled at Dubuque by Manchester attorney Salue Van Anda in what would be Company H of the state’s 21st regiment of volunteer infantry. William was described as being 5' 8" tall with blue eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion. Like other volunteers, he was paid $25.00 of the $100.00 enlistment bounty and a $2.00 premium. They were mustered in as a regiment on September 9, 1862, at Dubuque’s Camp Franklin where they received brief, largely ineffective, training, before leaving for war on September 16th on board the Henry Clay and two barges tied alongside. William, perhaps due to his prior military experience, was promoted to Sergeant Major, the highest of the non-commissioned ranks.

      The regiment’s initial service was in Missouri - Rolla, Salem, Houston, Hartville and then - after a wagon train bringing supplies from the railhead in Rolla was attacked - back to Houston. They left Houston on January 27th, reached West Plains on the 30th and from there started a movement to the northeast on February 8, 1863. They reached Ironton on the 21st and Iron Mountain on the 25th. On March 11th they arrived in the old French town of St. Genevieve and James Noble resigned as 2nd Lieutenant to accept a promotion to 1st Lieutenant. Since this was a commissioned rank, Colonel Sam Merrill wrote to Governor Kirkwood and recommended William Dickinson to take Noble’s place. The Company’s captain, Joseph Watson, was in agreement, but Major Van Anda said the rank-and-file were not and he wrote to Adjutant General Baker proposing 1st Sergeant and fellow Manchester resident Willis Brown for the promotion.  The “boys came to me as they always do when in trouble,” he said and he asked that Baker “arrest the proceeding in favor of Dickinson.” This was an early indication of a feud developing between Merrill and Van Anda. The appointment stalled and, perhaps disheartened by the delay and the fact that twenty-six of his comrades had expressed their preference for Willis Brown, William asked to be reduced to the ranks. His request was granted on April 27th, he served the balance of his enlistment as a Private, and the position of 2nd Lieutenant remained vacant.

      From St. Genevieve they were transported south to Milliken’s Bend where they were assigned to a corps led by General John McClernand. With two other corps, they moved slowly south along the west side of the Mississippi until reaching Disharoon’s Plantation from where, on April 30th, the three corps crossed the river to the Bruinsburg landing in an amphibious movement that would not be exceeded until Normandy during World War II.  As the point regiment for the entire army, they were the first to encounter the enemy - about midnight near the Abram Shaifer house - and the next day William participated with his regiment in the Battle of Port Gibson. On the 16th he was present during the Battle of Champion’s Hill when the regiment was held out of action, but on the 17th participated in a successful assault on entrenched Confederates at the Big Black River. Regimental casualties included seven killed in action, eighteen with wounds that would soon prove fatal and forty with non-fatal wounds. After burying their dead and caring for the wounded, they joined other regiments in the rear of Vicksburg.

      An assault on the 19th had been unsuccessful but, with more troops having arrived, General Grant thought another assault would have better results. The morning of the 22nd opened with cannon fire until 10:00 a. m. when, along the entire Union line, the infantry charged. This too was unsuccessful and the 21st Iowa had another twenty-three of its members killed in action, a dozen fatally wounded and at least forty-eight with non-fatal wounds. Among them was William Dickinson who sustained a serious wound to his right shoulder and back and was taken to the division hospital. When the regiment’s surgeon, William Orr, recommended a thirty-day leave, William returned to Dubuque but his recovery was slow and Dr. Benjamin Cluer recommended several times that the leave be extended. William was still in Dubuque on September 20, 1863, when Dr. Cluer recommended another extension, but William eventually went south and by the end of October was in a convalescent camp in New Orleans. Still there on December 7th, he was discharged from the military and returned to Iowa.

      On April 11, 1864, William Dickinson and Mary Lee Jones were married. The next month William began studying dentistry in the Dubuque office of Dr. E. L. Clark. Reading everything he could buy or borrow, William opened his own dentistry office in Charles City in May 1865.  The following year, on July 9, 1866, Mary gave birth to a son. Three days later Mary died and on October 16th their son died. William sold his dental office and moved to Joliet, Illinois, but by the summer of 1868 was back in Dubuque practicing dentistry.

      On December 6, 1871, he married Evalina Samantha D. Robinson. William and Evalina had two daughters: Lucy Evalina Dickinson born October 29, 1874, and Gertrude Dickinson born November 20, 1878. In 1883 and 1884, William attended the Pennsylvania College of Dentistry where he received a degree as a doctor of dental surgery (D.D.S.). After returning to Iowa, he taught a course to the senior dentistry class at Iowa State University and then lectured in a “Practitioner’s course” in Chicago’s College of Dental Surgery.

      In 1890 he moved to Minneapolis where he taught in the Dental Department of the University of Minnesota and, for five years, served as Dean. William’s tenure in Minneapolis was described by one writer as his “most fruitful in service to his profession bringing greater numbers of students and practitioners under the influence of his character.” He resigned from the University of Minnesota when his “eyesight began to fail and for a time he gave up professional activities” while he and Evalina lived with Gertrude and her husband, R. S. Parker, in Alabama. In 1910, after surgery restored sight in one eye, William and Mary returned to Minnesota “but soon after went to Portland, Oregon in 1910.”

      In Portland he worked as a professor of therapeutics and pathology at North Pacific College on the corner of Oregon Street and Sixth Avenue NW. In 1912 he applied for, and presumably received, an age-based pension although government records are incomplete. His health began to deteriorate in 1918 and the following year, on November 21st, William was suffering from arteriosclerosis when he died. His body was cremated. He was survived by his wife, two daughters, their husbands, and eight grandchildren. An obituary in the Journal of the National Dental Association recognized him as “a man of unusual ability, high ideals and force of character” while  the Delta Sigma Delta Desmos (a publication of dentists and dental students) recalled that “no meeting seemed quite complete without his gentle and kindly presence.”

      Lucy had married E. F. Hertz, a dentist who, like William, had been connected to North Pacific College. After William’s death, Evalina lived with Lucy at 425 S. E. 68th Street, Portland. Evalina broke her arm in 1935 and four months later, on October 29, 1935, at age eighty-seven, had a fatal heart attack. She is interred in Wilhelms Portland Memorial Mausoleum.


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