John B. Fenton’s gravestone says nothing about the year he wore gray and fought for the South.
Nor about the year after that, when he wore blue and fought for the North.
No reason this weekend to take a second look at his resting place in a shaded Catholic cemetery on the edge of Dawson, deep in Nebraska’s southeast corner, 160 years after he fled Ireland with his widowed mother.
“He probably has never been remembered on a Memorial Day or has ever had a flag over his grave,” Dennis Ranney said, “and hopefully one day, he will.”
Ranney, an amateur historian and Civil War enthusiast from Georgia, found Fenton’s story while researching Galvanized Yankees, also known as Whitewashed Rebels: soldiers who started the war fighting for the Confederacy and ended it in service to the Union.
“We really don’t know a lot about those Confederates. And this is the 150th anniversary of them going into the Union Army. It seemed fitting and appropriate some research will be done.”
In the past few weeks, Ranney gathered Fenton’s military records, Matt Piersol of the state Historical Society found additional information and a descendant of the two-sided soldier provided family history — the three of them, at least for a few moments, resurrecting the man who has been gone, and largely forgotten, for nearly 90 years.
Fenton’s path to Richardson County began in 1841 in Limerick, Ireland, during the potato famine. His father was killed during an uprising against the crown, in the Battle of Widow McCormick’s Cabbage Patch, after which the family was booted by their British landlord.
“He not only refused to continue the widow in her holding,” according to a published family history, “but employed a force of bailiffs to haul away the crop intended for the sustenance of his children by a provident father.”
They landed in Connecticut in 1854 and moved south, but then Virginia joined the Confederacy. The thousands of dollars the brothers had saved to buy a home for their mother, Johanna, were converted to worthless Confederate script.
Two brothers made it back to Connecticut, but John Fenton couldn’t avoid the draft. The 21-year-old joined the Virginia Cavalry in October 1862, according to the records Ranney found.
It’s not clear what happened at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863: Fenton either surrendered to the Union, or he was captured.
He spent a couple of months behind bars at Fort Delaware, Md., before enlisting with the 3rd Maryland Cavalry. Military records describe him as a blue-eyed, dark-haired 5-foot-3 tinsmith who signed his name with an X, Brooke said.
Hundreds of soldiers switched sides during the Civil War, Brooke said. “The Union was looking for ways to deplete the Confederate population in prison and demoralize the South at the same time.”
And it wasn’t always a difficult decision for the prisoners, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln history Professor William G. Thomas III. “Deserting to the Union Army with higher pay and regular pay, and little inflation relative to the Confederacy, would have been understandable.”
Most of the so-called Galvanized Yankees were sent to the West — to fight Natives, protect railroads and escort supply trains — in case they started questioning their loyalties on the battlefield. But about 400 former Confederates in the 3rd Maryland Cavalry, including Fenton, were sent to fight their former comrades in Louisiana and Alabama.
Then the war was over. Fenton’s large family headed west to Nebraska, where they joined other Irish Catholics near Dawson in what was known as the Connecticut Colony. Two brothers served in the Legislature. One bought newspapers. A nephew became the warden of the penitentiary.
John Fenton’s story tapers off after that, said Kathy Ahroon, a great-great niece and Fenton family historian.
This is about all they know: He married later in life. They adopted a son. He farmed near Burchard. He lived in Greeley.
And Fenton died in Lincoln, according to his obituary in the Jan. 26, 1922, Dawson Herald. “He was a pioneer of southeast Nebraska and has lived in Lincoln for a number of years and has not been in good health for some time.”
The Irish immigrant deeded his land to the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth.
His obituary mentioned his service to the Union, but not to the Confederacy.
His gravestone mentions neither.
“His grave has no marker of him fighting for the North or the South,” said Ranney, the amateur historian. “Perhaps he wanted it that way.”