Preface: This article originally appeared on the internet in 1999, and is credited to Dr. James Owston and Chris Rasmussen.
Of the eleven hundred men who served in the ranks of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, Samuel P. Bates chronicled the lives of only two in Martial Deeds of Pennsylvania: the regiment’s original commander, Conrad Feger Jackson; and Richard C. Dale. Although Dale’s active tenure with his original company lasted only four months, his rise to immortality is testimony to the caliber of men who were the 9th Reserves.
The son of an Allegheny City physician Thomas F. Dale and the former Margaret Kennedy Stewart, Richard Colgate Dale was born on December 19, 1838. With his father’s occupation, Dale grew up in a well to do household. In a time when unskilled laborers earned an average of $10.00 a month, the Dales had accumulated wealth of seven thousand dollars. His family’s financial resources enabled young Richard to pursue an English and classical education leading to his initial career as a clerk in a variety of firms. By 1861, he was an active partner in a local mercantile house. His patriotism, however, overshadowed any desire for position, power and prosperity. He enlisted in the Pittsburgh Rifles when Lincoln issued his initial call for volunteers.
Mustered into the Rifles on May 1, 1861, Dale and his comrades were shortly outfitted with gray uniforms and Sharps rifles by community leaders. The company rolls lists Dale as standing 5 feet eight and 1/4 inch tall with a fair complexion, gray eyes, brown hair and a scar on his left hand.
While he never rose above the rank of Private in the 9th, his talents did not go unnoticed and on August 22, 1861 he was selected for service in the Signal Corps. Detached from the 9th, Dale was immediately enrolled in the Signal Camp of Instruction located at Tenallytown. Dale’s first assignment as a member of the Signal Corps was as clerk to Major Albert Myer, founder of the fledgling corps. In the spring and summer of 1862, he served under McClellan until the end of the Seven Days Battles when he received a ten-day furlough. Arriving in Washington, the Adjutant General extended his furlough to provide him an opportunity to raise a signal company in his home county.
Upon his arrival in Pittsburgh, he opened a recruiting station, however, the 123rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was in the process of being formed and Dale was elected as First Lieutenant of Company G. As a result, Dale was discharged from the 9th on July 14, 1862 to accept the commission. For the next several months, he was detailed as acting regimental adjutant of the 123rd. In this position he used his sixteen months of military experience to bring the unit up to full strength. Three other 9th Reserves’alumni, Henry F. Martin (Assistant Surgeon), Samuel D. Karnes and John C. Anderson (both of Company C), also joined Dale as officers of this new regiment.
In the fall, he returned to Company G and assumed command when its Captain Daniel Boisol was wounded during the second phase of attacks on Mayre’s Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Luck was with Dale that day; he emerged unscathed even though his haversack was riddled with bullets. As a reward for the leadership he displayed Dale was appointed Brigade Assistant Adjutant General and promoted to Captain. Shortly after his appointment, the line officers of the 123rd elected Richard as Lieutenant Colonel on January 1, 1863. The junior captain accepted the position on the condition that he was afforded the opportunity to close out his AAG duties. Following Chancellorsville, the 123rd fulfilled their nine-month term of service and returned to Pittsburgh where it was mustered out on May 13, 1863.
Most soldiers satisfied that they had done their duty would have returned quietly to civilian life, however, this was not the case with Dick Dale. When news reached the Pittsburgh regarding the battle at Gettysburg, he packed up a few personal belongings and boarded a train to Harrisburg. Upon arrival, he reported to Governor Curtin asking to be sent to the front in some capacity. With all roads to Gettysburg closed, a dejected Dick reluctantly returned home.
That same month, General William T.H. Brooks, commanding the Department of the Monongahela, offered Dale the command of an emergency cavalry battalion that was in its final formative stages. Having been trained in cavalry maneuvers while with the Signal Corps, he readily accepted.
Unfortunately, the men of the battalion did not share Brook’s enthusiasm for the young officer. His age caused some initial opposition from some of the older men who personally desired the command and resented being subordinate to a mere “boy.” Dale was able to overcome the initial opposition to his appointment; through discipline, drill and dedication, he gained the respect of his unit. The battalion was posted in SW Pennsylvania’s Fayette County to guard the Commonwealth’s southern border from rebel attack.
With fears of another Southern incursion into the state having subsided, the unit, which had become known as Dale’s Independent Cavalry Battalion, was mustered out of service on December 29, 1863.
The new year presented another challenge for the soldier. Governor Curtin selected Dale to help raise the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers back to its former regimental status. Originally organized in Philadelphia, the 116th was of the regiments comprising the famed Irish Brigade. The 116th’s first major engagement was in the bloody assault of the Irish Brigade against Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. In late February 1864, Dale began recruiting three new companies for the Army of the Potomac in his home ground of Western Pennsylvania – two in Pittsburgh and one in Fayette County.
Now serving in his fifth martial organization of the war, May of 1864 found Dale poised in line of battle at the Wilderness while his former comrades from the 9th were being sent back to Western Pennsylvania having completed their three years of service. Dale continued to enjoy a seemingly charmed life; striking him in the side, a bullet cut through Dale’s undershirt without breaking the skin.
“Gentlemen . . . today may be for some of us the last on earth.”
In a letter written May 11, Dale related the events leading up to the Wilderness and his visit to the site of the Battle of Chancellorsville. “I gathered a few flowers as mementoes. By the way, the battlefield is covered with wild flowers, nearly all of a purple color, as though the blood of our brave soldiers had so drenched the soil as to darken the very flowers that grew upon it.” Having cheated death twice, Richard C. Dale’s luck was about to run out. His blood would drench the “sacred soil” of Virginia the very next morning.
In preparation for the conflict at Spotsylvania on May 12, Dale urged his officers to “Strike for your God and country.” As they tried to move silently through the predawn darkness, the men of the 116th tripped over stumps and stumbled into the ditches that crisscrossed the landscape between the opposing positions.
Moving through the lines of men, Dale provided both reassurance and realism; prior to their assault on the Confederate breastworks, he was heard to say “Gentlemen . . . today may be for some of us the last on earth.”
When at last their advance was discovered by the Rebel pickets the men of the 116th let loose . . . “A yell as only the old Irish Brigade can give, and in we went, like as if the devil had broken loose, over the works in among the Johnnies . . .” According to the 116th’s Colonel, St. Clair A. Mulholland, “Dale seemed omnipresent, and was everywhere at once, bringing back order and preparing for a further advance.” Having crossed the second set of breastworks, Lt. Colonel Dale was at the front with his sword raised shouting “Forward boys, forward boys.” Although an enfilading fire caused a portion of the regiment to retreat to the first line of captured works, Dale continued to encourage his men to “stand firm.” Suddenly, his sword fell and his voice grew silent. Unable to reach Dale in the chaos, his men feared the worst.
The details of Dick Dale’s fate were not to be known until August when an officer of the 116th was captured at the Battle of Reams’ Station. On a prison transport train, Lieutenant Zadock Springer spied a Georgia lieutenant wearing Dale’s cap and sword. When approached by Springer, the Confederate stated that he had taken the articles from a Union officer who had been killed while waving his sword in the air at Spotsylvania.
Of his fallen lieutenant, Colonel Mulholland later reminisced: “He was a man of splendid abilities, virtuous, gentle, brave and accomplished. He was remarkably calm in battle, and was very much beloved of his comrades.” Survived by his parents and two sisters, Dale like a number of his former comrades in the 9th Reserves lies in an unknown grave far from home, his resting place unmarked except perhaps each spring when the wild flowers bloom.