Friday, May 20, 2011

W.C. Fields' Civil War Legacy

One of the best known performers in the first half of the 20th Century was comedian/actor W.C. Fields. From the time he was 15, when he started a juggling act interspersed with comic elements, until his death in 1946, he nurtured a comic persona of an alcohol loving, egotistical misanthrope that somehow remained sympathetic. His career spanned the heyday of Vaudeville, the Silent Movie Era, and the birth of the “talkies”, and is most remembered today for his comic performance in the 1940 film “My Little Chickadee” with Mae West. An oft told but wholly false legend states that he wanted on his tombstone “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia”; a story that at least reflects his strong roots to the city where he was born William Claude Dukenfield in 1880 and where he grew up. Looking back at the family he was born into, though, reveals a Civil War tale that many families of the time experienced, and a real legend W.C. could look to in his life.

The man who would become the father of one of the earliest screen legends was born James L. Dukenfield in England in 1840. One of at least thirteen children, his family immigrated to Philadelphia in late 1854, where they settled in, supported by their father’s comb making business. The family must have thoroughly felt themselves to be Americans, or at least Philadelphians, for they were swept up in the Secession Crisis that afflicted the United States only seven years later. The family watched as the Nation split apart in the early months of 1861, saw the war started in April 1861 when the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and read the accounts of the green Federal troops defeat at the hands of green Confederate troops at Bull Run in July of that year. All these signs belied the early belief that the war will be short and glorious, and it was realized that the effort to defeat secession would be much greater. The call went out for thousands of more men to volunteer to preserve the Union. In the later years of the war, many men were enticed to enlist by huge monetary bounties, and their patriotic ardor came from dollar signs. In August 1861 though, the deep patriotic ardor was real, and the men who enlisted to fight the nascent Confederacy in that month truly cuild be considered patriots. Two of those men were English-born James and his younger brother, George.

On August 10, 1861 both men went to a recruitment station and enlisted in the Union Army. The regiment they joined was being formed by a man named DeWitt Clinton Baxter, and consisted mostly of men who served as firemen throughout the city. So many men had flocked to serve that the unit reached its full complement of 1000 men in only a week. Their uniforms were styled after the “Zoauve” soldiers of the French North African Army, and they were popularly known as the “Fire Zouaves”. James and George drilled with the rest of the men at Philadelphia’s Camp Lyon, but when time came to join the rest of the Federal army, the two brothers were split up – James assigned to Company M, George to Company I. Despite being from Philadelphia, the regiment had been raised under the auspices of West Coast businessmen, who wanted California to be represent in the fight against Secession. Thus, at the start of their military service, the brothers marched to Washington DC in September 1861 as part of what was designated the 2nd California Volunteer Infantry. There they joined three other Philadelphia-recruited units also assigned under California designations, and were brigaded under command of General William F. “Baldy” Smith.

Battle Flag of the 72nd PA
More drill and military routine follow for James and George, as the regiment was kept in constant fighting trim to eventually face the enemy. One of the brigades regiments – the 1st California saw the Confederates first in October 1861 when they were in the center of what would be the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. There, an ill conceived attack on superior Confederates forces was made by Colonel Edward D. Baker, who was a US Senator serving to enhance his political standing with military glory, and had been the commander of the 1st California. The attack failed disastrously, with Colonel Baker being killed. The 1st California was part of the attack, and suffered great casualties. The resulting fallout from the disaster brought a number of changes for James and George Dukenfield, including the dropping of the “California” designations. Late in October 1861 the 2nd California was re-designated the 72nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, and the brigade itself became known as the “Philadelphia Brigade”.

In spring 1862 the first real fight in the East began in earnest. A massive army under Union General George B. McClellan was transported to the Yorktown Peninsula, with designs to move upland to capture Richmond, the Confederate Capital. The 72nd Pennsylvania marched up the peninsula, seeing little actual action but witnessing the carnage of war as they were held in reserve during the Battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks in May 1862.  In the later battle James, George and their comrades were shuttled around several times to various parts of the battlefield to meet perceived threats, but never came about meeting the enemy. Still, their discipline and readiness of the Philadelphia Brigade impressed their commander, General William W. Burns, who reported “I am entirely satisfied with the conduct of my brigade. It has been christened under fire, and will do what is required of it”. Hard fighting lay ahead for the Dukenfield brothers and their brother soldiers.

The next month, June, saw McClellan army remain in the Richmond area, as the general attempted to figure out what to do in the face of an imagined horde of Confederates against him (erroneous intelligence reports fed his fear that his massive army was actually outnumbers and vulnerable). For most of the month the Philadelphia Brigade was in constant contact with the rebels, fighting in various small skirmishes and taking casualties. It was in one of these skirmishes on June 27th that the fortunes of war would secure a future for the man who we would come to know as W.C. Fields. On that day the Confederates attacked the 72nd Pennsylvania’s picket line three times, and were thrown back three times. In one of those attacks, Private James L. Dukenfield was shot in the left hand, which carried away two of his fingers. Disabled, he had to leave the company of his men and went to a field hospital. He would miss the Brigade’s subsequent action in the Seven Days Battles (June 27-July 1), where the 72nd Pennsylvania lost 159 men killed, wounded and captured. After two weeks in the hospital, doctors determined that James’ injuries prevent him from further useful field service. He was discharged on July 18, 1862 and returned home to Philadelphia. His war was over, and he left George to continue the fight.

Private George Dukenfield slogged on with the men of the 72nd Pennsylvania without his brother, the worry of his family now focused on him with James safe at home. They had good reason to worry over the next few months, as the Philadelphia Brigade would gain a hard fighting reputation won by being involved in brutal combat and taking terrible casualties. In the September 1862 Battle of Antietam, they were thrown unsupported into the West Woods area of the battlefield, and were crushed by superior numbers; the 72nd losing almost half its men in a number of minutes. At Fredericksburg in December 1862 they were part of the waves of Union soldiers sent against the impregnable Confederate positions south of the town along Marye’s Heights, saved from great slaughter only by the fact that they were a later wave and the failed results of the earlier attacks made them more cautious. George Dukenfield lucked out in the May 1863 Chancellorsville Campaign as his brigade remained in reserve, and took no casualties – a welcome respite. However, George’s fate was to come to its nadir soon after wards in a small town in his home state.

The July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was the largest land battle in the Western Hemisphere, with 93,000 Union troops fighting 73,000 Confederates over three terrible days, producing nearly 8,000 men killed. The Philadelphia Brigade themselves were placed at the epicenter of the most famous action of the entire war – Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the engagement (July 3). Situated at “The Angle” on Cemetery Ridge, the men from Philadelphia stood tall and took crushing casualties as the remnants of the Confederate charge crashed over them, and then were finally repulsed. Private George Dukenfield’s comrades – old comrades of his discharged brother James – covered themselves with eternal glory that day. However, George was not among those men. His war ran out – and the fears of his family were realized – the day before. In the very same place where they would stop Pickett’s rebels the next day, the 72nd Pennsylvania helped repulse an earlier, much smaller charge by Georgians under General Ambrose Wright. There, Private George Dukenfield fell, killed by a Confederate volley. He would never know the fame his brigade would enjoy for the rest of their days.
While his brother was marching towards his destiny at Gettysburg, James L. Dukenfield applied for a US Army disability pension; he would receive fifteen dollars a month for the rest of his life. He married Kate Felton in 1879, and started his family in 1880 with the birth of William Claude, the first of four children. During his entertainment career W.C. Fields would tell many stories of his domineering and sometimes cruel father, painting a grim picture of the Civil War veteran. However, subsequent interviews with his siblings, and other anecdotal evidence suggests that they were simply stories made up to 
enhance his career. James and Kate did support their son’s entertainment aspirations, even seeing him off when he took the train to New York City for the first time. A few years later James actually travelled to see his son while he was performing in England – probably the only time he returned to the land of his birth. Still, the experience in the war, especially with the loss of his brother, must have weighed heavily in his life, as other stories show him to be “distant” and not fully able to relate to his children. It was a shadow that the great entertainer W.C. Fields must have grown up under. Private James L. Dukenfield, Company M, 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry, died on April 15, 1915, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Greenwood Cemetery, where his broken gravestone mentions he was a “Great Scout” in reference to his Civil War days.Kate Dukenfield lies next to him, her grave unmarked.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, Private George Dukenfield’s body was first buried on the farm owned by Peter Frey. Later, they were removed to the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where they lie today in Row C, Grave 18 of the Pennsylvania Plot.

72nd PA Monument at Gettysburg

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