A Brattleboro Words Trail Site

The Charles A. Dana Bridge. Photo by Michael Quilt 2017.

One of the two Route 119 bridges that connect Brattleboro with Hinsdale is called the Charles Dana Bridge. It’s the eastern bridge, closer to the New Hampshire shore; the western span is the Anna Hunt Marsh Bridge. Brattleborians are somewhat likely to recognize the name of Marsh as the benefactor whose $10,000 bequest in 1834 made possible the founding of what is now the Brattleboro Retreat. But mention Charles Dana, and you’ll probably draw a blank stare.

Charles Anderson Dana was born in Hinsdale in 1819, but didn’t live there very long. He would grow up to have a way with words that led him into a long career in journalism. But along the way, he would play a key role in the Civil War — one that helped elevate Ulysses S. Grant to the status of supreme military commander and helped win the war for the North.

Little is known about Dana’s early life in Hinsdale. His father was Anderson Dana, his mother Ann Denison; Charles was their eldest son. Anderson was a merchant, but his business didn’t fare well, and when Charles was just a few years old, the family moved to the village of Gaines in western New York, where trouble followed them. Anderson tried running a warehouse near the Erie Canal, and when that failed, turned to farming. An epidemic of “ague” ran through the settlement and killed the mother when Charles was nine; there were three other siblings by this time. The loss of Ann necessitated another move, this time to Guildhall, Vermont, where Charles was placed to live with his uncle David Denison. 

There Charles did well in school, but when he was twelve, his education was deemed to be complete and he was sent to Buffalo to live with another uncle, William Dana, and to work in the general store of Staats & Dana. The store’s business included trading with members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League, tribes of Native Americans who lived in the region, and Charles was interested enough in them to learn the language of the Senecas. He also used his teenage working years to study, on his own, Latin, Greek and classical literature, and when he was twenty, he entered Harvard College for further education.

At Harvard Dana continued his classical education but also picked up an interest in the transcendentalism being taught by Emerson and others, and decided he was a follower of the Swedish theologian Swedenborg. Without the support of a wealthy family, Dana struggled for financial support of his studies. For a time, he considered moving to Germany to study for the Swedenborgian ministry; the cost of attending a university there would be much lower than at Harvard, and he could support himself by teaching English.

But near the end of his second year in 1841, Dana had to give up his German aspirations as well as his studies, because of severe troubles with his eyesight. He decided, instead to go live at the newly-founded Brook Farm in Boston, a utopian experiment in communal living. Brook Farm was associated with the Transcendentalists, and included among its early backers and supporters Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. Its basic principles were socialism including the sharing of labor and common ownership of property. Dana soon rose to be one of the trustees of Brook Farm, and stayed with the experiment until its dissolution in 1846.

While at Brook Farm, Dana met Eunice Macdaniel, who had come to live at Brook Farm with her family; they married in 1846.

At Brook Farm, Dana’s career as a writer began. He wrote for, and later edited, the organization’s publication The Harbinger, which circulated widely outside the community and espoused principles of social reform. He also developed a correspondence relationship with Horace Greeley, the editor of the New-York Tribune (which he had founded) who was generally a supporter of Transcendentalism and the socialist principles of Brook Farm.

“When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.”

— Charles Anderson Dana

Thus, following the demise of Brook Farm, Dana was able to join the staff of the Tribune, with his first assignment being to travel in Germany and send back dispatches from there. He happened to be in Europe in 1848 when a number of revolutionary upheavals took place in a number of countries including Germany and France. Dana reported on these and interviewed leaders of the movements including Karl Marx. Later, he attracted Marx as a writer for the Tribune from 1852 to 1861. Following his return from Europe, Dana was made managing editor of the Tribune.

Just before the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Greeley editorialized that seceding southern states should be allowed to go in peace. The Tribune switched to a hard line as soon as war broke out, but Greeley’s early dovishness would be held against him later on when he ran for president in 1872.

Philosophical differences broke out between Dana and Greeley: Dana was a practical hawk who saw the war’s principal aim to be the suppression of the rebellion and restoration of the union; Greeley, as leader of the radical faction of the Republicans, saw its aim more broadly to include the elimination of slavery. While subtle, these differences led to Dana’s dismissal from the Tribune in March, 1862. 

Dana was then engaged by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to carry out several investigations into fraud and mismanagement of army resources by quartermasters and contractors. In this capacity he was assigned to spend time with the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant, then in charge of the army district of Southeastern Missouri. Grant was well-regarded in Washington but frequently accused of alcoholism, which kept him from being promoted. In Grant’s camp, Dana saw no evidence of this, and his reports to Seward about Grant served to strengthen and maintain the confidence Lincoln and Seward placed in Grant, thus having a major influence both on Grant’s career and the outcome of the war. Dana became a trusted aid to the general as he rose through the ranks and eventually became supreme commander of all the Union armies, reporting only to Lincoln.

While present at the siege of Vicksburg, Dana met Captain Ely S. Parker, a full-blooded Seneca, a friend of Grant’s who had become an army engineer. Drawing upon the knowledge of the Seneca language he had gained during his teenage years as a store clerk in Buffalo, Dana was able to converse with Parker in his native tongue, and two became friends. This incident served to reinforce Grant’s regard of Dana and his many talents.

In 1863, Stanton appointed Dana as Assistant Secretary of War, a position he held until 1865. In this capacity he continued to support Grant’s moves and at times to act as an intermediary between the army and the administration.

After the war, following a stint as editor of the struggling Chicago Republican, Dana returned to New York to become editor and part-owner of The Sun, a daily newspaper. He remained with The Sun until his death in 1897.

While The Sun opposed the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and supported U. S. Grant for president in 1868, it gradually switched its allegiances to the Democratic Party after Grant’s perceived malfeasances in office.

One instance of racial insensitivity is ascribed to Dana. In 1895, supposedly in reference to the boxer Jack Johnson, Dana published (and possibly wrote) these lines in The Sun: “We are in the midst of a growing menace. The black man is rapidly forging to the front ranks in athletics, especially in the field of fisticuffs. We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy.” However, it appears that Dana was at that time not yet aware of Johnson (whose first paid fight that year was on the docks in Galveston for a purse of $1.50), and that Dana was referring to white supremacy not in a political context but simply as a fact, at the time, in the boxing world. His editorial continued admiringly: “There were two negroes in the ring today who can thrash any white man breathing in their respective classes … George Dixon and Joe Walcott.” The passage concludes, “Wake up you pugilists of the white race! Are you going to permit yourself to be passed by the black race?” As a whole, the passage is more likely an attempt at humor rather than evidence of racism. (But its sentiment would be echoed for decades, as late as the 1980s, as a variety of white boxing contenders, beginning with challengers to Johnson, were touted as “the great white hope.”)

However, it is clear that his racial attitudes were typical of the time, and less enlightened than might have been hoped from an early opponent of slavery. As Reconstruction proceeded in the Southern states, Dana became a supporter of the white point of view in the South, opposing the idea of “carpetbagger” politicians, elected with the benefit of the black voters, coming into control of statehouses.

Dana wrote several books, including Recollections of the Civil War and Eastern Journeys, Some Notes of Travel in Russia, in the Caucasus, and to Jerusalem, both of which were published posthumously in 1898.

He died on October 17, 1897 at the age of 78, at a weekend home he owned on Long Island. After leaving Hinsdale as a child, he does not appear to have shown further interest in his birthplace.


The Dana Family In America, by Elizabeth Ellery Dana and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana

The life of Charles A Dana, (1907) by James Harrison Wilson

On The Map

42°51’02.9″N 72°33’01.4″W, NH 119, Hinsdale, New Hampshire

The Charles A. Dana Bridge

About the Research sites

The Brattleboro Words Project is working with the community to identify specific sites and themes significant to the study of words in Brattleboro and surrounding towns. Research Teams – classrooms/teachers, amateur historians, veterans, writers, artists and other community members — will produce audio segments and other work to be incorporated into audio walking, biking and driving tours tours.

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