Not Gone Before His Time: The Adventures of Civil War Captain Harry B. Doolittle

On August 13, 1896 the Daily Democrat and Davenport Daily Times ran the obituary for Captain Harry B. Doolittle. The Civil War veteran had died after a fall at his residence at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Marshalltown, Iowa. Interestingly, this was not the first time citizens of Davenport had mourned the loss of this brave soldier or read his news of his passing in the paper. 

34 years before the nation was in the midst of what became known as the Civil War. A young man named Harry B. Doolittle had moved from his native Ohio to Davenport around 1857.  As his obituaries noted, he was a popular and industrious man who joined the Iowa 2nd Infantry, Company C on April 24, 1861 with the rank of Corporal. On August 21, 1861 he was promoted to Full Sergeant.

From February 11 – 16, 1862 the Iowa 2nd Infantry, Company C joined in the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee. Doolittle had been selected Color Sergeant of his regiment and carried the regimental colors into battle.  According to the 1896 obituaries, Sergeant Doolittle was first shot through the abdomen, then the shoulder, and finally the leg during the company’s charge.  The regimental colors were taken up by a Corporal Page (who was killed almost immediately) and then a Corporal Twombley who was wounded, but survived with the colors still flying.

The Union would go on to win the Battle of Fort Donelson, but Sergeant Doolittle was removed and eventually found himself in a hospital in Mound City, Illinois in dire condition. On March 21st a letter was received in Davenport stating that Sergeant Doolittle had passed away from his injuries. The newspapers prepared obituaries and the town mourned the loss of another brave soldier.

The following day a letter arrived addressed to Mr. H. G. Smith of Davenport. This one written by Henry Doolittle himself and dated after his supposed passing. In it he stated the only reason he was still alive was due to the intervention and care received by the Davenport Relief Committee (a group of doctors and other men who went to battle sites to retrieve the bodies of local men who had died and also toured the hospitals to make sure their soldiers received proper care. The committee was funded by donations from Davenport citizens).

The relief committee, according to Doolittle’s letter which was printed in the paper, had removed him from the hospital, placed him in better accommodations and nursed him back to health.  He referred to his original hospital as a living grave (Davenport Democrat and News, March 22, 1862, Front Page) and stated those doctors had told him he only had two weeks to live. At the end of the letter he indicated he would fight again to avenge the deaths of those who had fallen at Fort Donelson.

The newspapers reported the great relief at the news Sergeant Doolittle was still alive. Another letter printed in the Davenport Daily Gazette, March 24, 1862 from Doolittle to Mr. A. J. Smith gave more details of his wounds which he said occurred during battle on February 16th.  At the time of this letter Doolittle was in Cincinnati.

Sergeant Doolittle did recover and did fight again. He rejoined the Iowa 2nd Infantry, Company C and went back into battle. He once again was selected to take the regiment colors into battle and, once again, he was severely wounded and survived.

On January 1, 1863 he was promoted to Captain and was transferred to the Iowa 20th Infantry, Company K on March 25, 1863. He would serve with this unit until it was mustered out on July 8, 1865.

Captain Doolittle would eventually marry, have a child, and return to live in Davenport as a well-respected citizen and veteran. Age and his wounds were a deciding factor for Doolittle to move into the Old Soldiers’ Home leaving his wife in Davenport in the care of their adult daughter. Captain Henry B. Doolittle was buried in the Iowa Veterans Home Cemetery.

As stated in the Davenport Democrat and News of March 22, 1862 concerning the obituary they had written from Sergeant Doolittle, “We can’t say that we take back any part thereof, excepting the portion announcing his death. Otherwise it is as good as ever. It is not the first time in our life that we have written a person’s obituary before his death, though it is very seldom that men live long enough to hear what men say of them after they think they are dead.”

In Captain Doolittle’s case the good words still remained 34 years later, only with new adventures and compliments added to an already exceptional life.

(posted by Amy D.)

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