One of my readers is researching General Grenville M. Dodge and asked for information. I, of course, turned promptly to my buddy Peter A. Hansen who knows more about rail history than anyone I know. Pete writes for most of the major rail history magazines, consults with museums and rail companies, speaks regularly on rail history, and is currently editor of Railroad History, the scholarly journal of the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society. Pete has also been an on-camera source for CBS News and NBC News. More about Pete here.
Fun Fact: It’s an indisputable fact that Railroad History is the oldest (and still the most scholarly) rail history journal, but it is also believed to be the oldest industrial heritage journal of any kind in the U.S.
The information below is all Pete’s.
“You’ve seen Dodge many times, though you may not have known it. He appears at the center of what’s arguably the most famous photograph in American history (below). Two men on the ground are shaking hands; Dodge is the one on the right.
Dodge was born in Danvers, Mass. in 1831, and educated at New Hampshire’s Durham Academy and Vermont’s Norwich University. Upon receiving his engineering degree, he did what many ambitious young engineers did in the 1850s: He went to work for a railroad. He started with the Illinois Central, and later went to the Chicago & Rock Island and the Mississippi & Missouri. It was during his service to the latter two roads that he met Thomas C. Durant, who would later become the driving force behind the Union Pacific, the eastern half of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad.
Dodge’s relationship with Lincoln stemmed from a chance 1859 encounter on the front porch of the Pacific House hotel in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Lincoln was in town to inspect some real estate that had been offered as collateral for a loan requested by a friend, and he was also due to make a speech there. (He wasn’t yet an officially-declared candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, but he was at least considering it.) Dodge had just returned from a surveying expedition in Nebraska’s Platte Valley, seeking a route for an eventual Pacific railroad. Lincoln, a frontiersman by birth, was intensely interested in the subject of internal improvements, and particularly in a line to California. During their two-hour meeting, Lincoln did most of the listening, and Dodge, the talking. “By his kindly ways,” Dodge would recall, “[he] soon drew from me all I knew of the country west, and the results of my reconnoisances. [sic] As the saying is, he completely ‘shelled my woods,’ getting all the secrets that were later to go to my employers.”
A few years later, when President Lincoln needed impartial advice on the Pacific Railroad, the greatest non-military undertaking of his administration (or indeed, in all of American history, up to that point), he turned to Dodge. Apart from his unquestioned abilities, it may have been Dodge’s relationship with Lincoln that made him a favorite of Sherman and Grant.
Dodge began the war inauspiciously enough, as colonel of the Fourth Iowa infantry regiment. He was to make his mark at Pea Ridge in early 1862, where he sustained multiple minor wounds and had three horses shot from under him. He was promoted to brigadier general in April of that year, and was commanded to rebuild the Mobile & Ohio Railroad between Corinth, Miss., and Columbus, Ky. Despite continual harassment by Nathan Bedford Forrest, he got the job done by October.
His performance did not go unnoticed. Grant’s chief of staff, John Rawlins, sent for him that month, and he was given a divisional command with the Army of Tennessee. He became something of a spymaster during the Vicksburg campaign, where he also covered Grant’s left during the final stages.
It’s also worth noting that Lincoln sent for Dodge during the Vicksburg siege, seeking his advice on several matters related to the Pacific Railroad Act. In particular, the Act had authorized the president to name the eastern terminus of the line, and Lincoln wanted to hear more about Council Bluffs. Also, certain provisions of the 1862 Act had scared private investors away from the project: Lincoln sought Dodge’s advice on how to redress them, but ultimately rejected Dodge’s advice on the finance question. Dodge thought the government should simply build the railroad itself; Lincoln favored a revised Pacific Railroad Act in which government bonds would take second position to private issues – a reversal from the original Act. Lincoln’s view prevailed in Congress, and a second Pacific Railroad Act was passed in 1864. Lincoln did follow Dodge’s advice about Council Bluffs, however, and to this day, the city is Milepost 0 on the Union Pacific’s line west from the Missouri River.
Dodge went on leave after Vicksburg, and Durant lobbied him vigorously to resign his commission and return to railroading. Durant saw an opportunity in the young engineer for unparalleled Washington influence, and offered him the generous salary of $5,000. Nonetheless, Dodge remained in uniform for the rest of the war, though he would never again attain the distinction of the early campaigns. He served under Sherman during the siege of Atlanta, where a bullet fractured his skull, after which he was effectively out of the war.
Incidentally, Dodge’s papers can be found at the Iowa State Department of History and Archives in Des Moines. Do take his writings with a grain of salt: Dodge was not above embellishing his record. His home in Council Bluffs is now a museum, and it’s well worth a visit. While you’re in town, you might also check out the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, which tells the story of the first transcontinental railroad, and of Dodge’s role in it.
Two additional footnotes:
- One of the perks of being a railroad construction engineer, especially in virgin territory, was the ability to name places. Thus, the highest point on the first transcontinental line was at Sherman, Wyo., 8013 feet above sea level. Some 120 miles west, another Wyoming town bears the name of Rawlins.
- Some of Dodge’s history with Lincoln is recounted in my February 2009 Trains magazine feature, ‘The Rail Splitter and the Railroads.’”
Many thanks to Pete for the information above!
For more on Grenville Dodge, I recommend:
- Iowa Public Televisions Series on Dodge here.
- Dodge’s book, How we built the Union Pacific railway: and other railway papers and addresses thanks to Google Books.