Grenville Mellen Dodge

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Grenville Mellen Dodge

Civil engineer Grenville Mellen Dodge (1831-1916) distinguished himself as a Civil War general and railroad builder. He served as the chief engineer of the Union Pacific leg of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. An opportunist as well, Dodge amassed a fortune through land speculation and other ventures. Theodore Roosevelt once confessed publicly to Dodge: "I would rather have had your experience in the Civil War and have seen what you have seen and done than to be President of the United States."

Dodge was born in Danvers, Massachusetts on April 12, 1831 to Sylvanus and Julia Theresa Phillips Dodge. From the time of his birth until he was 13 years old, Dodge moved frequently while his father tried various occupations. In 1844 the fortunes of Sylvanus Dodge improved. An ardent Democrat, he became postmaster of the South Danvers office and opened a bookstore. Good fortune also was in store for the young Dodge. While working at a neighboring farm, the 14-year-old met the owner's son, Frederick W. Lander, and helped him survey a railroad. Lander, who was to become "one the ablest surveyors of the exploration of the West," according to Charles Edgar Ames in Pioneering the Union Pacific. Lander was impressed with Dodge and encouraged him to go to his alma mater, Norwich University, and become a civil engineer. Dodge prepared for college by attending Durham Academy in New Hampshire.

Dodge entered the military and scientific Norwich University in Vermont at the age of 18. Despite its military discipline, the university failed to tame the young man's spirit. Somewhat cocky, he often was in scrapes. That same trait would serve him well later in life as he dealt with railroad officials and politicians. A story describing Dodge's treatment of a Negro servant while in college exemplifies his cockiness, though not his subsequent treatment of blacks. The student Dodge, dressed in his military uniform, publicly humiliated his servant for looking at the wrong part of his uniform. Later, as a Civil War general, Dodge would delegate important responsibilities to black men. He also urged President Theodore Roosevelt to expand the civil rights of Southern blacks.

Like his mentor Lander and other scholars at Norwich, Dodge dreamed of a transcontinental railroad. At Norwich, he took studies that gave him the knowledge to help implement the dream. Following his graduation as a civil engineer in 1850, he made a brief visit home then headed to Peru, Illinois, to join classmates. He never would live in New England again.

Pioneer and Surveyor

Dodge's first job in Illinois was surveying for the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1852 he became the principal assistant of well-known surveyor Peter M. Dey. Together they made the first railroad survey across Iowa, from Davenport to Iowa City, for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad. This survey reached a point near Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1853— the area that Dodge would promote as the eastern terminus of the Pacific Railway. On May 28, 1854, Dodge married Ruth Anne Brown of Peru. He took his bride to Nebraska Territory, where the couple tried homesteading on his Elkhorn River claim. Relentless Indian attacks on settlers caused them to move to Omaha by the fall. Their daughter, Lettie, was born there in 1855. The next year the family moved to Council Bluffs, where Dodge opened a banking and real estate business. The Baldwin and Dodge Bank merged into the Pacific National Bank, with Dodge as president. Later it became the Council Bluffs Savings Bank. The main activity of Dodge's firm was selling lots and locating land warrants, to which land speculation and bribery of public officials were later added. One of his speculative deals involved buying land along the route he and Dey proposed for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad and persuading the towns of Omaha and Council Bluffs to sell bonds for it. A financial panic canceled the project, but Dodge would go on to make a fortune speculating on real estate along other railroad routes he surveyed. Another Dodge venture in Council Bluffs was a general store. His second daughter, Ella, was born in 1858.

Over his lifetime Dodge is said to have been associated with the building of more than 10,000 miles of railroad on the estimated 60,000 miles he had surveyed. Along those routes he also platted and established communities, including Cheyenne, Dodge City, and Laramie. Dodge had already made surveys of the Platte River Valley in Nebraska Territory for the Chicago and Rock Island Railway when he met an attorney for the railroad, Abraham Lincoln. Not yet a candidate for president in 1859, Lincoln nevertheless was making political speeches. Americans were interested in a transcontinental railroad even as war was becoming imminent. After Lincoln finished a speech one August night in Council Bluffs, his host "pointed out Dodge to [him] and said the young engineer knew more about railroads than any 'two men in the country'," related Stephen E. Ambrose in Nothing Like It in the World. For two hours, Lincoln questioned him about possible routes and the best site for the eastern terminus. Dodge told Lincoln that the best railroad route would be from Council Bluffs out the Platte Valley, a route he had surveyed. Building of the eastward railroad had already been begun using private and state funding. Starting in Sacramento, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, was just 22 miles long. Funding for the westward leg hit hurdles causing its delay. In 1860, Dodge, then a Council Bluffs city council member, appeared before the Congressional railroad committee which was debating the issue of funding. The country faced more pressing matters. Before Dodge attended Lincoln's inauguration in 1861, six states had left the Union. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 enabled westward construction to begin; the Act of 1864 solved the financial problems that had blocked the progress of both routes.

Iowa's Greatest Civil War General

Soon after settling in Council Bluffs, Dodge became captain of the Council Bluffs Guards, which he had organized and equipped. The group, later known as the Dodge Light Guard, "played an important role in the opening days of the Civil War," claimed Ames. The History of the Iowa National Guard: The Civil War, related how Governor Samuel Kirkwood sent Dodge to Washington in 1861 "to secure arms for Iowa troops. [There] he obtained 6,000 muskets and was offered a commission in the Regular Army. He declined, preferring to serve in the Iowa Militia." Dodge was named colonel of the 4th Iowa Infantry on June 17, 1861, and drilled alongside his men. When other regiments confiscated weapons from his troops, Dodge gave his store the business of re-outfitting the regiment.

Dodge suffered two wounds during the Missouri campaigns of 1861 and 1862. A thigh wound resulted when the pistol in his flapping coat struck the saddle and discharged, explained Stanley P. Hirshson in Grenville M. Dodge. The second injury occurred at Pea Ridge. An enemy shell severed a tree branch, striking Dodge in the head. For his service in Missouri, Colonel Dodge was promoted to brigadier general and put in command of the Central Division of the Army of the Tennessee," as stated in the History of the Iowa National Guard.

For General Ulysses S. Grant, Dodge undertook special assignments. He and his troops aided Generals Grant and William T. Sherman by rapidly repairing and rebuilding the railroads, bridges, and telegraph lines destroyed by the Confederates. In the History of the Iowa National Guard a source was quoted that described how the troops, using just axes, picks, and spades, reopened the Nashville and Decatur Railway: "General Dodge had the work assigned to him finished within forty days of receiving his orders. The number of bridges to rebuild was 182, many of them over wide and deep chasms; the length of the road repaired was 102 miles." Rebuilding the 150-mile Mobile and Ohio Railroad, the troops had to contend with the Confederates and guerillas ripping up track, wrecking bridges, and killing pickets. Dodge partially solved the problem by building two-story blockhouses near the bridges.

Dodge also organized and ran an effective espionage network. His "spies," declared Hirshson, "saved the Army of the Southwest from annihilation." Dodge identified some 100 secret agents by number and would not reveal their names to anyone, including his superiors. He devised a method to estimate the size of an enemy force based on the space it occupied on a road. The estimates, coupled with locations, of the Confederates, enabled Union officers to make shrewd strategic decisions. Women and blacks were among Dodge's spies. He organized the First Tennessee Cavalry, First Alabama Colored Infantry Regiment, and the First Alabama Cavalry Regiment as agents and messengers. He also armed a detachment to guard runaway slaves. Because Southern pickets seldom stopped and questioned blacks, they made good messengers. Communications also came through wives and parents of certain regiment members. Because of the intelligence his spies gave Grant at Vicksburg, Dodge was given command of the large left wing of the Sixteenth Corps of Army of Tennessee. In the spring of 1863, fearing a reprimand for arming blacks, Dodge answered a summons to Washington. Instead President Lincoln wanted advice once again on the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad and related matters.

During the Atlanta campaign of 1864, Dodge commanded the 16th Army Corps, which included the 2nd, 7th, and 39th Iowa regiments. His troops held the right flank for General Sherman's army, earning him the rank of major general. On August 19, Dodge received a third wound that was so serious the New York newspapers reported his death. Hirshson described the incident: "Dodge went to his front lines and looked through a peephole. Almost immediately a Minie ball glanced off his forehead, went through his black slouch hat, peeled a ribbon of skin off his scalp, and laid bare a portion of his skull. Dodge was knocked senseless, fell back into a ditch, and was carried to the rear in a blanket. He had suffered a fracture of the external table of the frontal bone and a severe brain concussion." The injury was not as serious as first thought; he was given a 30-day leave. In November he was made commander of the Department of Missouri. Two months later he was given command of the Departments of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Utah. As stated in the History of the Iowa National Guard, Dodge "oversaw the Indian campaigns on the plains, protecting overland routes to California."

Dodge practiced a tough policy towards the Native Americans through psychological warfare, brutal exterminations, and worthless treaties. In the 1850s the Indians had nicknamed him "Long Eye," "Sharp Eye," and "Hawk Eye" because he could see for miles through his surveyor's equipment, and presumably shoot as far. "Dodge's spies constantly warned the enemy how useless it was to fight Long Eye, who, besides his other powers, could send messages long distances at great speeds over the 'Big Medicine,' or telegraph." Dodge offered the Union Pacific Railroad captured Indians as laborers, who would work for food and clothes, and guards to watch them. When Dodge called for volunteer troops to fight the Indians, most men said the war was over and declined the service. Five regiments of "Reconstructed Rebs" provided the necessary forces. They were made up of Southern war prisoners willing to fight Indians for their freedom. Before the Indians were eradicated, President Johnson instituted leniency. Dodge resigned from the Army effective May 30, 1866.

Political and Railroad Career

The year 1866 was a banner one for Dodge. On March 7, his third daughter, Annie, was born. He also accepted the position of chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad and was elected to Congress. Dodge epitomized the politician of the time: a Republican general, lobbyist, and business speculator. His nomination came on the 78th ballot at the convention, after promising employment to a third candidate. Throughout the summer and fall he worked on the railroad. Dodge was in the Rockies on Election Day, unmindful that voters in Iowa were going to the polls. Ambrose related that Dodge "figured himself to be the only man 'elected to Congress who forgot the day of the election.' He never campaigned for the office and hardly ever went to Washington to serve." He declined re-nomination in 1868, but continued to be active in politics, serving as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1868, 1872, and 1876. Dodge also headed a commission that investigated the management of the war with Spain.

As chief engineer, Dodge was responsible for supervising the surveyors and choosing the route for the road. Though capable, he was not in charge of construction of the transcontinental railroad or its workers, as he liked people to think. "Still," Hirshson pointed out, "Dodge passed on to the Union Pacific's workers things no one else supplied. Dynamic, forceful, efficient, and fearless, he gave strength and direction to those in the field." As he had done during the Civil War, Dodge took action as he saw fit. He struck back when Indians attacked his surveyors and saw to it that the troublemakers were eliminated from one particularly lawless town at the head of the road construction. On May 10, 1869, Dodge and Samuel Montague, the Central Pacific's chief engineer, set the final spike of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah. Resigning from his engineering position with the Union Pacific, Dodge left his 14-room mansion that overlooked the railroad and Missouri River for New York. He would live in Manhattan for the next few decades.

Opportunist and Self-Promoter

Dodge loved to make money, "irrespective of whether it were ethical or permanent," concluded Hirshson. He speculated in land along the railroad routes that he proposed and won government contracts to supply Indian agencies, even though he had the highest bid and substituted items in the contracts. Between 1860 and 1870 his wealth increased from $12,000 to $350,000. Enterprises run by Dodge and his brother supported hundreds of Council Bluffs families. However, despite his wealth and substantial government contracts, and the fact that he helped build the Union Pacific, the Texas and Pacific, and other railroads, the federal government granted him a pension in 1873 because his war wounds disabled him so he could not "obtain subsistence from manual labor." The pension was made retroactive to his discharge in 1879. From the mid-1870s until his return to Council Bluffs in 1907, Dodge built and consulted on railroads in the Southwest as well as in Europe—on German, Italian, and Russian railroads. Ames related that Dodge "became president of the American, the Pacific, and the International Railway Improvement Companies, and of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, as well as of others, and built a line to Mexico City. He was Director of the UP during most of the years between 1869 and 1897." He completed his last project, the Cuba Company Railroad, in November 1902.

In the mid-1880s, Dodge began writing his memoirs. He hired an assistant to compile information and interview people who knew him. The research resulted in the Dodge Records, 23 laudatory volumes on Dodge's life. As noted by Hirshson, Dodge "conveniently passed over [in his lectures and writings] his connections with politics, lobbying, and various scandals. And shrewdly but discreetly he upgraded his role in significant events and downgraded his opponents." Among Dodge's writings are Address to Army Associations, a collection of essays, How We Built the Union Pacific Railway, The Battle of Atlanta, and Personal Recollections of President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman. Regardless of how he presented events, there is no denying that the railroads he built helped develop and populate the western United States.

Retiring to Council Bluffs in 1907, Dodge spent much of his time organizing his memoirs and being active in patriotic organizations. He donated his records to libraries, but never could arrange for someone to write his biography during his lifetime. In 1915 he fell ill with cancer. He returned briefly to New York for radium treatment and also had an operation without anesthesia. He died in Council Bluffs on January 3, 1916. A caisson carried his body to Walnut Hill Cemetery for entombment. Camp Dodge, the state headquarters of the Iowa National Guard, established in 1905 as a militia training camp, continues to honor Dodge's memory as does a statue of him at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at the state Capitol in Des Moines.


Ambrose, Stephen E., Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Ames, Charles Edgar, Pioneering the Union Pacific: A Reappraisal of the Builders of the Railroad, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969.

Hirshson, Stanley P., Grenville M. Dodge: Soldier, Politician, Railroad Pioneer, Indiana University Press, 1967.

Latham, Frank B., The Transcontinental Railroad, 1862-69: A Great Engineering Feat Links America Coast to Coast, Franklin Watts, 1973.

McCagne, James, Moguls and Iron Men: The Story of the First Transcontiental Railroad, Harper and Row, 1964.


"Grenville M. Dodge," History of the Iowa National Guard: The Civil War, (October 17, 2001).

Longdon, Tom, "Grenville Dodge: Railroad Engineer 1831-1916," Famous Iowans, (October 17, 2001). □