LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON.—Most Northerners who fought in the War of the Rebellion declared that they did so to preserve the Union. But many citizen soldiers enlisted for other reasons — some quite personal, discussed privately if at all, and certainly not in polite society.
If anyone had asked John William Fenton why he joined the army, the tall, hazel-eyed 23-year-old from the Finger Lakes region of New York would most likely have expressed the same patriotic motives as a majority of his comrades in blue. But he had another motive: to redeem his family from scandal.
His early years were not ideal. His father was convicted of bank fraud after a very public trial that dragged the family name through the newspapers, then trekked to California, where he died in San Francisco during the waning days of the Gold Rush. A fragmentary paper trail suggests that Fenton, a younger sister and brother and his widowed mother weathered a storm of troubles. They lived for a time in Buffalo, then New York City. One source suggests that Fenton ran with a wild crowd. During the second spring of the war, he was living in the Kansas town of Shawnee, though how he came to settle there is unclear. He worked as a banker, just as his father had.
On April 9, 1862, Fenton enlisted in the Second Kansas Cavalry. His familiarity with numbers most likely contributed to his assignment as commissary sergeant. The regiment was ordered to join a brigade headed for the New Mexico Territory, to participate in reversing Confederate gains into the region.
Meanwhile in New York, Fenton’s old pals busied themselves recruiting volunteers for military companies to become part of a new regiment being raised in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to end the war. He dreamed of joining them. Friends finally secured him a coveted commission as an officer, and his superiors in the Second Kansas relieved him of his duties to enable him to accept it. In September 1862, Fenton shed his sergeant’s chevrons for the shoulder straps of a second lieutenant in the 132nd New York Infantry.
Fenton and his new regiment spent the majority of the next three years on outpost duty along the North Carolina seacoast, which had been secured by an amphibious expedition commanded by Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside in early 1862. But Confederate forces still held control of the inland region, and the 132nd faced hostile forces at New Bern, Batchelor’s Creek, Kinston and other crossroads villages nearby. Men fought and died in these lesser-known engagements with the same courage and dedication as the war’s momentous battlefields, although in far fewer numbers.
Fenton thrived in the army. Fellow officers respected him as a good soldier. His superiors promoted him to captain and company command. But one day in late 1864, a lapse in judgment cost Fenton his commission and severed his connection to the military.
On or about Dec. 15, in a New Bern restaurant kept by a free black man named Tony Fisher, Fenton showed up with a prostitute in tow and a chip on his shoulder. Fenton provoked a fight. When it was all over, Tony Fisher lay brutally beaten.
One witness happened to be the chief provost marshal — the man in charge of the military police. He moved swiftly to investigate the attack and charged Fenton on two counts: conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. In January 1865, he received a dishonorable dismissal from the War Department.
Fenton’s brother officers sent a petition to the overall commander in the region, Brig. Gen. Innis N. Palmer, a fellow New Yorker, requesting the charges be withdrawn. Moreover, “We ask that in consideration of his past services, his general good conduct as an officer, may so far mitigate your views as to induce you to accept the tender of resignation thereby removing the offending parts, saving from disgrace his family, and punishing an officer who is much attached to the service.” The petition worked. The War Department revoked the dismissal order. Fenton resigned, which allowed him to leave the Army with honor.
Fenton then headed west to seek a fortune, following the same path blazed by his father after the bank scandal. He joined at least two old Army buddies and signed on to an expedition to the Montana Territory. The group gathered in Minnesota and prepared to leave by wagon train from St. Cloud on August 1, 1865, but their departure was delayed by negotiations between the government and Indians. To kill time, Fenton and another party member, according to one sensationalized account, “went on a ‘frolic’ into the wilds of Minnesota” on horseback.
They brought along Monte, a Newfoundland that belonged to Fenton’s companion. At some point during the trip, miles away from civilization, a blizzard caught the small group off guard. The horses were lost during the three-day storm. “Not a living thing seemed to occupy the desolate waste of ice and snow,” continued the account. “The intense cold had frozen the feet of Capt. Fenton, and death stared them in the face.” Fenton suggested to his friend that he attach a note that explained their dire situation to Monte’s neck and send the dog to fetch help.
Minutes after Monte left, the sharp crack of a rifle startled the men. Fearing the worst for Monte, Fenton’s companion went out with his rifle to investigate. He discovered an armed Indian in the distance, and shot and killed him. Only then did he discover that the Indian had shot a fox. He buried the dead man in the snow and brought the fox back for food.
Meanwhile, Monte crossed paths with a cavalry patrol. The troopers mistook him for a wolf and shot him down. Upon discovering their error, they found the note and rescued Fenton and his friend. Frostbitten in both feet, Fenton suffered the amputation of the left foot up to the instep, and all the toes of the right foot.
Fenton returned to the east in 1866 and settled in Washington. He worked several jobs, including as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He married Jane Hyatt, and she gave birth to a son, Arthur. After she died in 1885, he wed German-born Elsie Steffans, a Treasury Department employee 20 years his junior. She bore him a second son, John Jr., in 1888. Shortly before his youngest son and namesake’s third birthday in 1891, Fenton died of pneumonia at age 53. A simple white stone in Arlington National Cemetery marks the site of his grave.
Source: New York Times Disunion
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