Under-aged and under-sized when he enlisted with the 16th Michigan Infantry, George Dallas Sidman soon proved himself an able and eager soldier. Born in or near Rochester, New York, on November 25, 1844, Sidman had moved with his family to Owosso, Michigan, prior to the war. Four months shy of his 17th birthday, Sidman claimed to be 18 years of age when he walked into the enlistment office in Flint, Michigan on August 1, 1861. In time, Sidman proved to be a garrulous man, who seems to have enjoyed the spotlight and sought the attention of anyone, especially newspaper correspondents, who would listen to him. In his youth he may have been brash and cocky, as a means of overcoming his lack of size and his boyish features. Still, he failed to completely fool the recruiting officers, who signed him up as a drummer in Company C, the color-company of the regiment. Later, when officers determined the company had too many musicians, Sidman was given the choice of being mustered out or entering the ranks as a private. Without hesitating, the eager youth exchanged his drum for a musket, and, as the shortest member of the company, standing just 5 feet 4 inches tall, took his place immediately to the left of the color-guard.
The Michiganders first came under fire during the siege of Yorktown in May 1862. Later in the month, the regiment missed most of the fighting at Hanover Court House when Col. Thomas Stockton, acting on his own account, marched the regiment away from the brigade in a vain attempt to flank the enemy position. The Wolverines endured their first true crucible of combat in the slug-fest at Gaines’s Mill in late-June. After a Confederate charge forced their brigade to retire, the Michiganders rallied around a ditch as night descended over the field. Holding their ground and with men falling in ever-increasing numbers, the 16th Michigan became part of a rear-guard covering the retreat of the main Union force. Before surrendering the field and crossing the Chickahominy to safety, the regiment lost at least 230 men, killed, wounded and captured.
Standing alongside the colors, young Sidman went down with a bullet in his left hip during the bloody fighting around the ditch. Left behind when his comrades finally retired, Sidman later claimed to have destroyed his musket and then crawled off through the swamps under cover of darkness, eventually finding his way to the large Union field hospital at Savage’s Station. His efforts had been in vain, however, as Confederates troops soon overran the hospital and took the patients, including Sidman, prisoner.
Exchanged in mid-August, Sidman rejoined his regiment in time for the Maryland Campaign and also saw action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. On June 21, 1863, Sidman, now a member of the regimental color-guard, set out with the regiment before dawn, marching through Aldie and Middleburg and then up and over Mount Defiance. Moments later, the regiment engaged Southern cavalry posted on a low rise west of Kirk’s Branch. In the skirmishing which followed, the 16th Michigan lost one man killed and at least eight wounded, including George Sidman, who suffered a bullet wound in his right foot. The wound kept Sidman on crutches for months and ended his tenure with the regiment. Once the wound healed, Sidman served with the Veteran Reserve Corps through the remainder of the war.
The War Department organized the Veteran Reserve Corps in 1863 as a means of employing soldiers too badly injured to return to their regiment but still able to perform light duty away from the front lines. Assigned to, what the soldiers termed, the Invalid Corps, Sidman chafed at being away from his regiment and wrote the following, undated letter, to Michigan’s governor, Austin Blair:
“Being a Michigan Soldier I have taken the liberty [of] introducing myself for your notice, for the purpose of asking a very great and I fear impossible favor to comply with. It is this, If I could furnish good recommendations from my regimental and company officers could I stand any chance for a commission. I enlisted on the 9th day of August 1861 in the 16th Mich. Infantry, and entered the field with them. I have participated in the following battles with my regiment – Yorktown, Hanover C. H., Gaines Mills, Antietam, Shepardston Ford, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Upperville. I was wounded severely through the left hip at Gaines Mills and taken prisoner and after nearly two months confinement in Libby Prison and Belle Isle, I was exchanged. I was also wounded very severely through the right foot at the battle of Upperville, which kept me seven months on crutches. As soon as I was able I was transferred to the Vet. Res. Corps “or Invalid Corps,” where I am at present. I have tried very hard to be transferred to my old regiment from this but the surgeons will not pass me. I have re-enlisted in this company for three years more and would be willing to go to the front if they would allow me to. I will own that a commission is preferable to a gun and knapsack, but still I would take a gun and go to the front in a short time if they would let me. I am tired of this quiet life. I love to fight and live on hard bread and pork. It gives me a stronger arm and reminds me that we have to suffer a little for our Country. I have suffered and would suffer ten times as much for her if I thought it would do her any good. Yes Sir, I would give my life to see this blood stopped if it would stop it. I am a poor boy as you might say and what need I live for when thousands of brave men are falling daily. When we are willing to fight, why not let us, even if we are not able to stand the marches. I know I could stand it long enough to kill one rebel and traitor, and if each man does that, why where would the rebels be in a short time “Echo answers in H—,” for I do think that every man that would turn traitor will go to that place but I am running off the track, so I will say (if his Excellency will pardon me for my boldness in using hard language towards the rebels, and I can not help it, for who could, after losing a father and brother by their blood-stained and deep-dyed traitor’s hands) that for myself you see before you a good hit at my penmanship. I am versed some in arithmetic and geography but pretend to be no scholar for my parents were poor and what I got I had to pick up for myself. But I can say if my parents were poor I never was taught to drink any kind of intoxicating liquors or use tobacco, which my officers will vouch for, I know. And I thank Heaven for it. If his Excellency will give me a chance, I will furnish good recommendations from all my officers in this corps and my regiment. I think Col. Stockton would vouch for my good behavior for I carried the Brigade flag, through the Battle of Fredericksburg, under Col. Stockton, who commanded the brigade, or Col. Welch I know would vouch for me hoping your Excellency will approve this and let me know if I can have a chance for it – with good [recommendations], I subscribe myself,
Very Respectfully Your humble servant
Corp’l George D. Sidman
Then, in a PS, Sidman told Blair that he was assigned to the Executive Chamber in Washington and added, with a bit of cheek, “try me if you doubt it. G.D.S.”
His attempt to rejoin the 16th Michigan failed, probably for no other reason than his injuries but mentioning Colonel Stockton’s name to Governor Blair could not have helped, as the two men shared an intense dislike for each other. Still, as the war closed Sidman began a life which might easily have been the inspiration for Forrest Gump. I had been aware of a small facet of his postwar life for many years, but I had only a passing interest in him because of the wound he suffered at Upperville. Then, I found his letter to Governor Blair a couple of years ago and tagged it in my mind as a possible short blog story. I had hoped to post the brief story several weeks ago as a follow-up to the previous story on the 16th Michigan, but as I pulled at and chased down the many unfolding threads of Sidman’s story I found myself going down several rabbit holes and forced to return to the Archives several times in an attempt to learn the truth. Still, numerous aspects of his story remain either unclear, unanswered or unexplored and I continue to ask myself – could everything be true?
Had he, in fact, lost his “father and brother by their blood-stained and deep-dyed traitor’s hands?” In 1855, his mother, Anna, referred to herself as a widow. If true, George’s natural father had not died by “traitor’s hands.” However, George’s mother, whose name appears on some records as Hannah, had been forced to separate her family prior to 1855, placing George, the youngest of her children, in a poor house in upstate New York. He later lived with another family in New York before moving to Michigan. When, or if, he reunited with his mother and siblings remains unclear.
Eventually identifying Abraham Sidman, aka Abram, as George’s father, I learned that Abraham had joined the 14th U.S. Infantry and had been mortally wounded in July 1864 near Nashville, Tennessee. I then learned that Abraham and Anna had separated prior to the war before a court granted Anna a divorce on the grounds of Abraham’s adultery. Considering the stigmas of the day, Anna may have found life easier as a widow rather than a divorcee. Trying to identify, with certainty, George’s brother and any possible military affiliation proved too time consuming.
In 1867, a small-town Michigan newspaper carried a story that Sidman had been appointed Consul to the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in Northern Germany. The editor credited Sidman’s appointment to the fact that he had been on duty near the residence of Secretary of State William Seward on April 14, 1865 when Lewis Powell tried to assassinate Seward. According to the editor, Sidman had been “the first to respond to the call for help,” and “his promptness, efficiency and kindness upon that occasion are rewarded by this appointment.” A later account credited Sidman with being “a witness and orderly for the court that tried and condemned the conspirators for the assassination of President Lincoln, and [he] was present when Mrs. Surratt and her companions were hanged.” Considering the editor’s statement about Sidman rushing to assist Seward, one might read the next statement, in which Sidman is termed a witness to the trial, as meaning he had testified during the trial. However, he is not named on a list of court witnesses but he was serving with the 12th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps, and attached to the headquarters of the Provost Marshal in Washington as a clerk during the spring and summer of 1865 and may well have witnessed the court proceedings and executions as claimed. Had he then brokered his actions at Seward’s home into an appointment with the State Department?
In March 1867, Sidman sent the following letter to Seward, who had remained the Secretary of State in President Andrew Johnson’s administration.
“I have the honor to address you for the purpose of asking an appointment to some foreign country as clerk for Consul or Agent.
I am a ‘Veteran’ of the late war, having served four years and a quarter, was wounded three times during the war, and was in Libby Prison, and on Belle Isle nearly four months as a prisoner of war.
Trusting my appeal will be favorably considered
Fourteen months later, Sidman, still seeking an appointment overseas, sent another letter, this one to President Johnson, in which he explained what had transpired in the wake of his previous letter to Seward.
“I am a ‘Master Mason,’ and having been found ‘worthy and well qualified,’ and knowing you to be the same, I have taken the liberty to address you for the purpose of asking a consideration in my favour.
I am a ‘Veteran’ of the late war, and served four years, three months and five days, was wounded three times, and am now recipient of a pension from the government in consideration of same. I was also confined in Libby Prison and on Belle Isle several months, as a prisoner of war, in consequence of the great ‘victory’ at Gaines Mill, VA in the Seven Days battles before Richmond.
Since my return home I have been employed first as Assistant Assessor of the 6th District of Michigan until April 14, 1867, when I was nominated by you, and confirmed by senate as U.S. Consul to Schwerin, Germany, but at that time not having means to pay the expense of an outfit, and being unable to borrow the required amount, I was forced to resign my commission, since which time I have been employed as Bookkeeper in the First National Bank of Bay City, Mich.
My object in addressing you is to ask for an appointment or nomination as ‘Secretary of Legation,’ to some point where I may be employed to an advantage to myself in getting acquainted with some of the different languages, and at the same time perform all the duties of my position. I have no choice about any point but would prefer the Indies or Europe, or I would go to Japan or China as Clerk for Consul or Legation. Provided I can get the nomination from you I think I am sure of confirmation as I have some encouragement already.”
Having appealed to Johnson as a Mason, Sidman concluded his letter by appealing to the President politically, making clear, in the ugly language of the day, where he stood during the war on the question of Emancipation which had so divided his regiment, and where he continued to stand on the question of rights for African Americans.
“As to my politics, I was formerly a Republican and was opposed to your policy, until the ‘Radical’ faction began to look too ‘black,’ and like thousands of others in Michigan, I changed my mind and am now what I ought to have been before. I voted against the ‘Nigger Constitution’ in Michigan last April, but in favor of Prohibition.
Trusting you will favorably consider my application and give me the desired nomination as I am poor and an appointment of this kind will help me very much.
I am sir…
Not shy about alerting local editors or correspondents to his latest comings and goings, Sidman dropped from sight for several years before sending an appeal to President Grant in 1872. Living again in Bay City, Sidman explained his absence with quite a story.
“Having fought under your command in the Army of the Potomac during the late war, and at present fighting under your command in the war for Grant and Wilson [Grant was seeking re-election at the time and Henry Wilson served as Vice President during his second term in office]. I have taken the liberty to ask your consideration of my application for the office of Consul to Fayal, Azores. I fought four years in the war for the Union, and bear three honorable wounds as proof of my fidelity, at the close of the war I came home and commenced the study of law, the year following I was appointed Asst. Assessor of Int. Rev for this Dist. and in 1867, (unknown to myself) upon the recommendation of Sec’y Seward I was nominated by the President, and confirmed by the Senate, as Consul to Schwerin, Germany but I couldn’t ‘Swing around that circle’ so I resigned. Having a desire to see more of the world, I shipped on a Whaler for a voyage in the Atlantic, and Pacific, and after a year’s hard service, I ran away [from] her in Fayal, secreting myself in the mountains until my ship had set sail for the South Pacific, when I came down and gave myself up. Having money of my own I preferred remaining [in] the Azores, and the Consul gave me an appointment at ‘Act’g Vice Consul at Santa [Cruz], on Flores, where I remained nearly a year, making myself acquainted with all the business of that Consulate, which on account of the laws for Whalers being different, necessarily makes the duty double, and more complicated for an inexperienced person. After leaving the Azores I went to China and was employed at the Consulate of Shanghai for a short season, after which I was employed by the Chinese government as a guard in a silk boat up the Canton River, afterward I set sail for Bombay, India where I remained a year in the employ of the British Government, and finally came home in 1871. Since which time I have been in the U. S. Detective Police Force. I am now anxious to change, and with the knowledge I have of the Azores, and the duties of that Consulate, I think I am better fitted for it, then perhaps, any other man in America. If any Boards of examination have been formed since the passage of the Civil Service Reform bill, and it is necessary for me to pass an examination, I am ready at any moment to report, you may deem best, or advise me of. Trusting this may meet your favorable consideration…”
Sidman failed to receive an appointment from Johnson or Grant but he had presented a heck of a tale. His claim of having fought under Grant’s leadership may be questioned, as Sidman had been transferred to the Veteran Reserve Corps prior to Grant coming east and taking command of the armies. Sidman also mentions having received a third wound. He never reported the third wound to the pension board, but he repeated the claim several other times over his remaining years. And he, rather than Seward, had precipitated the appointment to Germany, so Sidman had begun to stretch the truth but nothing suggests he was fabricating complete falsehoods.
In 1877, accompanied by a friend or business partner, Sidman traveled to South Africa, where he remained for about two years seeking his fortune in the diamond mines, while his wife and children remained in Michigan. In 1878 he contracted to have five ship-loads of building materials and work implements sent to a port in South Africa, from where the cargo, along with another friend or partner, journeyed “700 miles into the interior on wagons.” Present during the British/Zulu conflict, Sidman reportedly volunteered to try and infiltrate the Zulu camps to gain valuable intelligence for the British military but was rebuffed “as a ‘Yankee adventurer.’”
He appears to have returned to the states by late-1880, followed by an allegation that he had married “an actress in Cape Town, South Africa in 1879.” The American “legation at London” claimed to have proof of Sidman’s bigamy, though the story dropped from the newspapers quickly. George married three times. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1870. He remarried in 1872 but his wife died in 1883. He married a third time in 1885.
After returning to the States, George worked as a bookkeeper in Michigan before receiving an appointment as a pension examiner, assigned to offices in Michigan, New York, Washington, D. C, Pennsylvania and possibly Maryland and Ohio during his tenure with the government.
The War Department awarded him the Medal of Honor in April 1892 for gallantry at Gaines’s Mill. Though I had several accounts regarding his award, I looked at his Medal of Honor file only recently. In my experience, these files usually include one of more statements from the applicant and witnesses providing some specifics of the soldier’s valor, but Sidman’s file contains no such documentation. In later years, he claimed the award had been issued for bravery at Gaines’s Mill, as well as an act of humanity at Fredericksburg, where he gathered water for comrades on the battlefield. In fact, the brief citation refers only to Gaines’s Mill, where, on June 27, 1862, he rallied “his comrades to charge vastly superior forces until wounded in the hip. He was a 16-year-old-drummer.”
Somehow, the application paperwork ended up in Michigan and historian Kim Crawford explains that Lieut. Col. Edward Hill, aided by Gen. Daniel Butterfield, submitted Sidman’s name to the War Department. According to Crawford, Hill submitted a detailed record of Sidman’s time with the regiment, to include his leaving a Union hospital against doctor’s orders and stowing away on a ship in order to rejoin the army on the march into Maryland. Hill also explained how Sidman had carried the brigade flag at Fredericksburg and risked his life carrying water to his wounded comrades on the battlefield. Hill clearly admired Sidman and may have been the unnamed source of several accounts of Sidman’s actions which later appeared in print. But Hill had also stretched the truth; Sidman was well into his 17th year and had been a private rather than a drummer for about nine months at the time of the battle.
Within days of receiving the award, Sidman told Butterfield; “I am informed by Col. Edward Hill, who, it seems, originated the idea of bringing this recognition, that you kindly gave your endorsement and influence in the matter. To say that I am proud of the honor conferred upon me would scarcely express my feelings, and I particularly desire to thank you, General, for your kindly interest in my behalf. I can never forget that it was your voice in the din of battle that rallied our old Brigade on the margin of Chickahominy Swamp, where we had been swept in the stampede that day at Gaines’ Mill, and incited me forward in the ‘forlorn hope,’ that held Stonewall Jackson’s Corps in check until night, and thereby saved the Army of the Potomac from complete annihilation. It was the rally, and subsequent events, under your leadership, General, that made it possible for me to be so honored to-day…”
The award provoked much discussion at the next regimental reunion, wherein the veterans vowed to seek the award for both Colonel Hill and General Butterfield. Shortly thereafter, Butterfield received the award for his actions at Gaines’s Mill and Hill later received the award for his actions at Cold Harbor in 1864.
In his later years, Sidman remained active with several veterans’ organizations and attended regimental reunions when possible. In 1900, he escorted Colonel Hill’s body to its final resting place in the military cemetery in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 1911, Sidman donated three flags carried during the Civil War and Spanish-American War to the state of Michigan. The following year he attended the 32nd Annual Reunion of his former regiment and presented a history of the 16th Michigan to the attendees.
George Dallas Sidman died in Lakeland, Florida on February 3, 1920. He had become “a winter visitor” or a snowbird in his last years, after serving the “Pension Department for forty years.” The writer of one obituary termed him “one of the most expert criminal examiners in the Pension Bureau.” He rests today in Arlington Cemetery.
Documents from the National Archives
Documents found on Ancestry.com
Documents found on Fold3.com
Documents from the Detroit Public Library, Burton Collection
Detroit Free Press
Lakeland Evening Telegram
Livingston County Daily Press & Argus
St. Joseph Herald
Washington Evening Times
Julia L. S. Butterfield, A Biographical Memorial of General Daniel Butterfield
Kim Crawford, Sixteenth Michigan Infantry
The Story of American Heroism: Thrilling Narratives of Personal Adventures