This Civil War veteran demonstrated how to ditch the bottle and become a saint – literally
On that rare occasion in your service, you might have run into a fellow trooper who, after reflection, could be called a “saint” for his or her selfless courage and commitment to duty.
And while very few of a martial bent wind up actually becoming saints, one Civil War veteran is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church for his devotion to duty.
Joseph Dutton was a veteran of the American Civil War. He left the United States for Hawaii in his mid-40s, arriving in Honolulu with nothing but the clothes on his back. He spent the remainder of his life in a leper colony trying to eclipse his past mistakes “in his own eyes and in the eyes of God.”
When Brother Joseph Dutton died in March 1931, former President Calvin Coolidge said:
Whenever his story is told men will pause to worship. His faith, his work, his self-sacrifice appeal to people because there is always something of the same spirit in them. Therein lies the moral power of the world. He realized a vision which we all have.
Dutton joined the Union Army in April 1861 as a private in the 13th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. The Vermont native moved to Wisconsin when he was just 4 years old. By age 18, he was enlisting to fight in the Civil War.
Though his regiment didn’t fight in any major battles during the war (only five men of the regiment were killed), it served faithfully in garrison duty and battled guerrillas until the end of the war. Dutton was recognized as a “dashing daredevil” and one “of the best and bravest officers in the army,” rising to the rank of regimental quartermaster sergeant and then lieutenant.
Dutton’s life was not so prosperous after the war. He performed the gloomy duty of supervising the disinterment of soldiers who were buried in unmarked graves and relocating their remains to national cemeteries. He married in 1866, but it ended in ruin when his wife cheated on him and they divorced.
For several years he found refuge in a bottle. He bounced around employment as an investor in a distillery business, an employee of a railroad company, and as a special agent for the federal government.
In April of 1883, the former army officer turned 40 and decided he needed a change in his life. He was baptized in the Catholic Church of St. Peter’s in Memphis and took the name Joseph after his favorite saint, dropping his birth name of Ira. He lived in the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky for two years, committed to a vow of silence and ascetic living.
Although he was content living his life in isolation at Gestsemani, Joseph wanted to commit the remainder of his years to helping others. He explained his motivation when he wrote:
“I wanted to serve some useful purpose during the rest of my life without any hope of monetary or other reward. … The idea of a penitential life became almost an obsession and I was determined to see it through.”
He was inspired to travel to Hawaii after reading about Father Damien and his work with lepers at Kalaupapa. He arrived at Honolulu from San Francisco in July of 1886 to offer his services to Father Damien de Veuster.
Hawaiians infected with leprosy or suspected of it were rounded up by the authorities and dumped into this remote settlement over the preceding decades. The leper settlement on the island of Molokai was located at the base of a range of sea cliffs bordering the ocean that formed a natural barrier from the outside world. Father Damien transformed the lawless settlement into a sanctuary that provided comfort, medical needs, and a place to worship for the infected.
The priest took the 43-year-old wanderer under his wing without hesitation. Damien had been infected with leprosy while serving the settlement for over a decade and was in desperate need of an assistant and a successor. He would be dead only three years later.
Dutton worked “from daybreak to dark” as he cleaned and dressed wounds of “all of the type that leprosy inflicts on mankind.” Dutton was as unconcerned with being infected as Father Damien was. One account said of Dutton, “leprosy had no power to instill fear in his mind.” When Damien died in 1889, Dutton took over as his successor and continued to tirelessly carry out his work.
Despite the isolation of the settlement, word of Dutton’s story reached the United States. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Hebert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt all praised him in writing. Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that he should “be raised up for the view and emulation of many others.”
President Theodore Roosevelt ordered sixteen Navy battleships sailing to Japan to redirect their course in July of 1906 and pass in sight of the settlement to pay homage to the worldly saint.
With the outbreak of World War I, Dutton wrote President Woodrow Wilson and offered his services by organizing “a few hundred of the old veterans” from the American Civil War to form a sharpshooter unit. This was politely declined by President Wilson, but his offer did not go unappreciated. Dutton remained a lifelong American patriot even though he never returned to the United States.
Dutton died in March of 1931 at 88. He was buried in the Saint Philomena Catholic Church Cemetery of Hawaii, and was mourned by many. The army veteran who devoted a portion of his life serving his country and the other half serving others never saw himself as a modern-day saint.
In the years before his death, he wrote: “These writers make me out a hero, while I don’t feel a bit like one. I don’t claim to have done any great things; am merely trying, in a small way, to help my neighbor and my own soul.”