Daniel V. Fenton monument, 1890. Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Daniel V. Fenton was an ordinary man. When he died in 1890, shortly after being discharged from the Government Printing Office because the patronage system was then favoring Republicans and he was a Democrat, his wife had a little-known part of his story engraved on his monument. It turns out he came through some of the grimmest battles of the Civil War and had on one occasion been summoned before a Congressional hearing. Let’s have a look.

Daniel V. Fenton monument. Detail: narrative text. Photo: author.

“He served in the Regular
Army and was honorably
discharged. At the break-
ing out of the war he en-
listed in the Twelfth Regi-
ment United States In-
fantry and was discharged
of consequence of [expiration]
of [service].
His discharge papers bear this
endorsement “This man was an
excellent soldier.”

The two patches in square brackets I cannot read well. I think my conjectures fit the letters I can make out, they fit the meaning implied by context, and they reflect what I know from other sources.

On 16 April 1866 we find Fenton a bodyguard of Major Philip Stanhope, commander of Union troops in Norfolk, Virginia. For reasons all too predictable, white citizens of Norfolk, sullen and nervous over the citizenship granted to all ex-slaves on 9 April, stoked race riots. The black citizens seemed happy to give as much as they got. Fenton, a Private, had little control over events of that day, but his testimony to a commission in the following year offers a vivid picture. Rowdies in the crowd had begun firing at Stanhope and Fenton rushed to his aid.

The Congressional hearing on the patronage scandal I’ve already mentioned cited the case of the by-then deceased Fenton as an example of partisan unfairness. More interesting for our purposes are the threads of Fenton’s story we can pull from this document appended to the Congressional report.

We learn that he served for three years and nine months in the Third Maryland Infantry. His discharge certificate said, among other things,

He proved himself a gallant soldier, not only in the ordinary duties of camp life, but by bravery displayed in various engagements. His behavior and moral deportment were such as to win for him the entire confidence of his superiors.

Upon discharge he enlisted on 21 September 1863 in Company E of the Twelfth U.S. Infantry for three years. His discharge came on 21 September 1866 (about 5 months after the riots), and was accompanied by a “certificate of character” signed by Stanhope, now a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel: “This man is a gallant soldier.”

We’re further told in the Congressional record that he fought in fifteen battles, including The Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. Stanhope certified the list and finished with another endorsement: “conducting himself in a most gallant manner in all of them.”

Fenton worked in the GPO from 1878 to January 1890, when he was let go from the office for being in the wrong political party.

A GPO report of FYE 1885 lists Fenton among the employees, stating he had worked 2348 hours and brought home $0.451 per hour for $1059.00.

Why did he die? Why did he die no more than two months after being let go from work? He was 57 years old at death, which is not out of line for his day. Did the GPO let him go because he was ill and couldn’t work any more? Did he die for reasons associated with his no longer having income from the GPO? His salary had been quite OK for his day: scroll through this document for a sense of how OK.

The Congressional testimony would make it seem that the Republicans of 1890 were mustache-twirling villains, but we know how partisan Congressional testimony can be, and fierce exploitation of the patronage system was hardly limited to the elephant in the room.

As a palate cleanser after this talk about partisan Congressional hearings, here is the monument of Fenton’s wife Theresa, who lived from 12 November 1845 to 26 March 1910. “May she rest in peace. Amen.”

Theresa R. Fenton monument. Photo: author.

The two monuments are of the same general design, and I suppose they were bought at the same time from the same dealer. Since Theresa takes credit for erecting Daniel’s monument, I infer that she bought both and had them erected at the same time.

While his monument doesn’t quite quote the Congressional record of 1898, I would think that the similarity in the clipped resume of his career makes it probable that she relied upon it in composing his stone.

This would mean that his monument—and if I’m right, both of their monuments—were set up at the same time after 1898. The block font on his monument seems crisper than the same font on hers. This could be due to different times of carving or different hands on the two stones.

And now the caffé corretto at the end: Fenton is not the only Civil War soldier I’ve seen who bases his claim on the endorsement of an officer. John Leary, interred at Laurel Hill in Philadelphia also bases a claim on this basis.

John Leary monument, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia. Photo: author.

Nothing more to say about Leary. There is almost nothing about him online. But he was always present for duty.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Scranton, PA

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