Our Forgotten Vet: John F. Dottridge

John F. Dottridge grave, photo by Paul Rifkin


Armistice Day marks the celebration of the end of the Great War on November 11, 1918. When I was a boy our teacher would stop class at 11 in the morning and ask for a moment of silence to remember with sorrow those thousands who died in the war, and to dedicate ourselves to peace, so that it would never happen again. We failed miserably, as two wars go on without end, and we send drones into four or five other lands.

I havc just discovered the death of a forgotten Cotuit veteran of the Spanish American War. Why had we forgotten? There was no gravestone for John F. Dottridge, just the name and dates 1880-1898 on the family stone on the south side of old Mosswood Cemetery.

John F. Dottridge was the first born child of the Cotuit builder Howard Dottridge and his wife “Lizzie” Collins, daughter of the Mashpee storekeeper, and founding Reader of the Christian Science Church of Cotuit. John was named for his grandfather John Dottridge, the builder. He was probably born in the house at 544 Main St., which his father had just built in 1878.

At the graduation of the class of 1896 of Cotuit High School he gave an oration on “Indian Character”. With three generations of housewrights behind him, John probably worked for his father as carpenter, with a probable future of building Cotuit homes and public buildings.

After the sinking of “The Maine”, Congress declared war on April 20, 1898. At age 18 John enlisted and on May 11 joined Company D of the “Dashing 8th” Massachusetts Volunteers regiment in Lynn. The “Old Eighth”, formed in 1636, had fought in all the colonial wars, in the Revolution at Bunker Hill, Trenton, Valley Forge and Saratoga, in the War of 1812, Mexican War, the Civil War defending the capital and in North Carolina.

John’s regiment went by rail to Chattanooga, and on May 20 marched nine miles to “that place of horrors, that valley of death” according to one of John’s superior officers. This was Camp Thomas, laid out as Chickamauga National Park on the battlefield where in 1863 the Confederates had defeated the Union forces, with 3000 deaths on both sides. It is said that Chickamauga means in Cherokee, “Valley of Death”, perhaps from a smallpox plague there.

Dottridge’s Eighth was posted in the southeast corner of the park, in wet low-lying terrain along the Chickamauga Creek. University of Michigan Prof. Victor Vaughn’s study found the first case of typhoid fever in the unit was May 28, but not diagnosed for a month, since current medical knowledge could not distinguish it from malaria, which is not common in the area. Gerald Pierce’s doctoral dissertation shows how the “Yellow Press” of the day blamed the epidemic on polluted water, but the Eighth was commended for its strict sanitary measures. Water was boiled after being brought by eight-mule carts from outside the park, at Blue Spring. When a soldier failed to bathe he was scrubbed down naked by two sergeants (also naked).

But then it rained. Harry Webber, the Eighth’s historian, tells of some college age soldiers skimming off the slime from a spring after a flood, to fill their canteens. Water may not have been the cause, but flies, which spread the disease from open latrines to food in kitchens and mess tents. The first case of typhoid in the 48 regiments was in the Pennsylvania 16th May 8, nine days before that regiment arrived at Camp Thomas. The troops brought typhoid to a crowded camp. The flies did the rest.

Prof. Vaughn estimated that nearly 10,000 of the 44,800 troops at Chickamauga came down with typhoid. The 761 who died was twice the number that were killed in combat in the whole war. John Dottridge died on Sept. 5, 1898. He was buried in the south edge of old Mosswood, where I’ll put a flag today, on November 11, to remember another life wasted by a war for empire.

Published in Barnstable Enterprise 11 November 2011.


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