Commentary

Shaffer: Civil War detective buried with soldiers he championed

February 24, 2013 

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Charles Purser of Garner, standing among Confederate graves at Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh.

CHUCK LIDDY — 2011 News & Observer file photo

— A century and a half ago, a Minnesota farm boy named John O. Dolson took a bullet at Gettysburg and died slowly in a military hospital, the sound of bone-saws and screams surrounding him.

As a last indignity, officials there recorded his death with a string of errors, misspelling his name, mistaking his unit and sending him to Raleigh as John O. Dobson – a Yankee buried in a Confederate cemetery.

I’ve told this story before.

I need to revisit it briefly to introduce my friend Charles Purser, who died in January at age 73. He’s the only reason anyone knows Dolson’s name.

I’ve told you about Purser before, the quiet airman and postal worker who doggedly uncovered names for hundreds of forgotten soldiers, including Dolson.

I’ve described him poring through muster rolls and census reports from the 1860s to identify the men buried in Oakwood Cemetery – a self-appointed Civil War detective.

I’ve told you how he personally ordered the white markers that line the Oakwood hillside, and how he changed the graveyard from a shabby and weed-choked mess to a place that conjures Raleigh’s past.

Now I’ll tell the last piece of Purser’s story.

He died of cancer in January and took his place in Oakwood, next to the men he rescued from obscurity. From his grave, you can see the rounded tip of Dolson’s stone – the only Union man in his row.

Purser grew up in Charlotte and had relatives who fought for the South. He served as an intelligence analyst in the Air Force, including a stint in Alaska.

But in all the years I knew him, I never heard him talk about the war’s cause, its rights, its wrongs, its legacy or its controversy. All that mattered to Purser was seeing that soldiers got their due.

It didn’t faze him at all that Dolson had pointed a rifle at the southern side. He ordered him a special Union marker and invited blue-uniformed reenactors to a special ceremony.

When Purser first walked into Oakwood, he found the Confederate section choked with weeds, most of the graves lacking any kind of marker. He and a handful of friends spent months in libraries, or on ancestry Web sites, or comparing data with Civil War buffs.

Purser would call me every time he’d had a new breakthrough:

• George Piper from North Carolina was actually Jacob Pfeiffer from New York.

• The first North Carolina soldier to die in the war perished in a Raleigh horse stable, of pneumonia, before he so much as heard a shot fired.

Each time he called, his voice sounded like it came from a man who’d found treasure after years of digging. For Purser, joy came in correcting history’s rough draft, presenting it to a new audience in polished form. Dolson’s grave now carries a correction on a slab marble with more information than you’ll find on the headstone.

I like to walk on that hillside and think about the men under my feet who heard the cannons at Gettysburg – not because I feel like waving any flags, but rather whenever I’m in the mood to ruminate on all that’s come and gone through the city where I live.

I never get tired of taking friends from out of town through that cemetery, pointing out Dolson and his adopted resting place, or doomed Lt. Walsh of Texas, hanged for taking a potshot at the federals as they marched down Fayetteville Street.

My friends probably get tired of it.

But we don’t have an Old North Church in Raleigh, or a Ford’s Theater, or a Brooklyn Bridge. Oakwood is where I take people when I want to make Raleigh’s story seem wider and richer. When I go there next time, I’ll take people by Purser’s grave.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4818

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