Daniel Craig has been appointed Honorary Commander of the Royal Navy
On this rare occasion in your service, you may have met another soldier who, upon reflection, might be called a “saint” for his selfless courage and commitment to duty.
And while very few of a martial inclination end up becoming saints, a Civil War veteran is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church for his dedication to duty.
Joseph Dutton was a Civil War veteran. He left the United States for Hawaii in his mid-forties, arriving in Honolulu with nothing but clothes on his back. He spent the rest of his life in a leper colony trying to eclipse his past mistakes “in his own eyes and in the sight of God.”
When Brother Joseph Dutton died in March 1931, former President Calvin Coolidge said:
Whenever her story is told, men stop to worship. His faith, his work, his selflessness seduce people because there is always something of the same spirit in them. This is where the moral power of the world resides. He achieved a vision that we all have.
Dutton joined the Union Army in April 1861 as a soldier in the 13th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. The Vermont native moved to Wisconsin when he was just 4 years old. At the age of 18, he enlisted to fight in the Civil War.
Although his regiment did not participate in any major battles during the war (only five men in the regiment were killed), he served faithfully in garrison and fought the guerrillas until the end of the war. Dutton was recognized as a “dashing daredevil” and one of the “best and bravest officers in the military”, reaching the rank of regimental quartermaster sergeant and then lieutenant.
Dutton’s life was not so prosperous after the war. He fulfilled the grim duty of overseeing the exhumation of soldiers who were buried in anonymous graves and moving their remains to national cemeteries. He married in 1866, but it ended in shambles when his wife cheated on him and they divorced.
For several years, he found refuge in a bottle. He rebounded from employment as an investor in a distillery company, employee of a railroad company and as a special agent for the federal government.
In April 1883, the former army officer turned 40 and decided he needed a change in his life. He was baptized in St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Memphis and took the name Joseph after his favorite saint, dropping his birth name of Ira. He lived at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky for two years, committed to a vow of silence and ascetic life.
Even though he was content to live his isolated life in Gestsemani, Joseph wanted to devote the rest of his years to helping others. He explained his motivation when he wrote:
“I wanted to serve a useful purpose for the rest of my life without any hope of monetary or other reward. … The idea of a penitential life almost became an obsession and I was determined to make it happen.
He was inspired to travel to Hawaii after reading about Father Damien and his work with lepers in Kalaupapa. He arrived in Honolulu from San Francisco in July 1886 to offer his services to Father Damien de Veuster.
Hawaiians infected or suspected of leprosy have been rounded up by authorities and dumped in this isolated colony in previous decades. The leper colony on the island of Molokai was located at the foot of a chain of cliffs bordering the ocean that formed a natural barrier to the outside world. Father Damien transformed the lawless colony into a sanctuary providing comfort, medical care and a place of worship for those infected.
The priest took the 43-year-old vagrant under his wing without hesitation. Damien had been stricken with leprosy while serving the colony for over a decade and was in desperate need of an assistant and a successor. He would not die until three years later.
Dutton worked “from dawn to night” as he cleaned and healed the wounds of “every kind that leprosy inflicts on mankind.” Dutton was as careless of being infected as Father Damien. One account of Dutton says, “Leprosy had no power to instill fear in his mind. When Damien died in 1889, Dutton succeeded him and tirelessly continued his work.
Despite the colony’s isolation, word of Dutton’s story reached the United States. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Hebert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt all congratulated him in writing. Franklin D. Roosevelt said he should “be bred for the point of view and emulation of many others.”
President Theodore Roosevelt ordered sixteen Navy battleships sailing to Japan to reorient their course in July 1906 and pass within sight of the colony to pay homage to the socialite saint.
With the outbreak of World War I, Dutton wrote to President Woodrow Wilson and offered his services in organizing “a few hundred veterans” of the Civil War to form a sniper unit. This was politely declined by President Wilson, but his offer did not remain unsatisfied. Dutton remained an American patriot for life even though he never returned to the United States.
Dutton died in March 1931 at the age of 88. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Philomena of Hawaii Catholic Church and was mourned by many. The army veteran who devoted part of his life to serving his country and the other half to serving others has never considered himself a modern day saint.
In the years leading up to his death, he wrote: “These writers make me a hero, while I don’t feel like one at all. I don’t claim to have done great things; I just try, to a small extent, to help my neighbor and my own soul.