Sea Passages

Charles Albert Earp, upon finding the fragile Civil War journal of a surpeon's steward, worked feverishly to get its fascinating stories into print

October 07, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The yellow flag warning of disease and death flew over the USS Arkansas as the young surgeon's steward from Maryland swung aboard during heavy seas in the Gulf of Mexico.

"She seems to be an object of terror as she rides at anchor pitching and rolling," the 22-year-old sailor wrote in his journal on Oct. 8, 1864.

The seaman's name was C. Marion Dodson. He was from St. Michaels, a scion of an old Eastern Shore family, and had been in the Union Navy a little more than six months. As a surgeon's assistant, he was a kind of medic or pharmacist's mate. And he had volunteered to go aboard the Arkansas, where yellow fever raged.

"Captain stated since leaving Rio Grande three have died and were thrown overboard," Dodson says in his journal, which the Maryland Historical Society has just published as Yellow Flag: The Civil War Journal of Surgeon's Steward C. Marion Dodson.

Dodson found the ship's doctor, the paymaster, chief engineer and many of the crew down with fever. He had a look at things and they were "very bad." He seems to have had little fear for himself.

"What impelled me that night to visit every sick man I hardly know," he writes, "but I did." Two more men died the next evening, "between 6 & 7. Buried them at midnight in the angry waves. Gloomy time."

Charles Albert Earp of Catonsville, who discovered Dodson's handwritten journal in the archives of the Maryland Historical Society and edited it for publication, calls Dodson "exceedingly brave.

"He knew the seriousness of the disease and the fact that you couldn't cure it. And he was lucky. He didn't get bit by a mosquito infected with the disease."

When Earp found the 200-page journal, he knew immediately he had something unique.

"I was surprised to find such a rich prize," he says. "A great many of the things which you find are interesting to specialists, but hardly startling enough in their content to warrant publication. But this one was."

Dodson's journal was too delicate to photocopy, so Earp transcribed the whole thing by hand. Fortunately, it was easy to read, thanks to Dodson's legible handwriting. "There were very few places I could not make out what he was saying," Earp says.

Earp would copy two or three hours at a time, then come back another day. "After a point you weren't sure what you were doing, and you had to knock off and clear your head a bit," he says. "I was there for many sessions."

From his discovery of the journal until its publication, the work took about two years.

Earp, now 85 and living at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, is an ardent scholar of the Civil War. He studied history at Johns Hopkins University, and he was halfway through his doctoral thesis when he had to drop out and go to work. He spent most of his work life in personnel and retired from Franklin Square Hospital about 14 years ago. He's done history ever since, "except when I was loafing."

"I returned to my first love, which was the American Civil War," he says. He comes by that predilection honestly enough: His grandfather, William A. Chalk, fought with the 8th Maryland Infantry, U.S. Volunteers. Five other forebears also fought in the Civil War, "all on the Northern side, although I try to set that aside when I'm being a scholar."

His grandmother was active in the Ladies Auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, and often took her young grandson to GAR meetings.

"I guess I'm one of the few people still living who actually knew Civil War veterans," he says.

Yellow Flag is Earp's third Civil War book. He belongs to the Civil War Roundtable and has written some 20 articles, for publications as varied as the Washington Times and The Journal of Supreme Court History. The latter printed his piece about four justices who were Civil War veterans, two Union, John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and two Confederate, Horace Harmon Lurton and Edward Douglass White. In fact, during the war Harlan fired on the outfit Lurton served with.

"And here they were sitting side by side in the court and one of them [had] shot at the other, literally," Earp says. "I like that touch."

For Earp, the pursuit of history has been that kind of serendipitous journey.

"One of my favorite pastimes is to poke around in archives," he says. "In my more mobile days, I went over to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress."

That's where he found the letters that led to the Supreme Court story. But even county historical societies, such as those in Cecil and Carroll counties, are sometimes good sources, he says.

He especially enjoys prospecting in the rich veins of the Maryland Historical Society where, one day, he dug into Dodson's papers and found the journal.

Telling tales

Dodson "was a very observant young man as to what went on around him," Earp says. "He has some beautiful descriptions of his shipmates in the book. And he has a tendency to turn the joke on himself, so to speak."

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