Why It's Important

Union Veterans Union Porcelain Presentation Canteen Presented To M.A. Dillon, Commander in Chief


In the years following the American Civil War, veterans' organization such as the Grand Army of the Republic and the Union Veterans Union created iconic souvenir and presentation pieces modeled after the M1858 regulation canteen. Emphasizing their "fellowship in battle" these pieces usually bore the inscription "We drank from the same canteen." These pieces were of various sizes and differing materials ranging from inexpensive pot metal to stoneware and, in rare circumstances, porcelain. The piece shown here is of the highest quality. Made of fired porcelain, it is highly decorated with both hand painted designs and extensive gilding. While the surface glaze shows microscopic crazing, as expected in a piece of this age, the paint and gilt decoration is fresh, bright and at 95% of its original condition. This piece retains its original stopper and chain. The interior of the spout shows a slight imperfection in firing. The obverse states "To M.A. Dillon Commander in Chief" in gilt letters placed over a starry field containing the UVU badge. Beneath the badge, "We Drank From the Same Canteen" is inscribed in gilt letters within an overall gilt decorative border. On the reverse is a central painted patriotic motif of crossed American flags on a starry field. Above the central panel "From B.B. Ogden Command No. 21" is written in gilt letters, and below, in the same lettering is "Department of Ohio U.V.U." all within a decorative gilt border. In design, decoration, rarity and historical significance, this presentation canteen, in our opinion, is one of the finest examples of its kind.

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Michael Augustus Dillon was born at Chelmsford, Mass. on September 29, 1839. He served with Co. G, 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry having entered the service May 15 1861 at Wilton, N.H. Dillon was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Williamsburg and a subsequent action. Discharged for wounds on October 18, 1862, he re-enlisted on September 17, 1863. Promoted to full sergeant on December 15, 1864, he was discharged for wounds a second time on October 2, 1865. Following the war, he worked in the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. where he also founded and organized the Medal of Honor Legion and the Union Veterans Union. Dillon served as the first commander of both groups. As the organizer of Meade Post #8 of the Grand Army of the Republic, he was prominent in Grand Army Circles in Washington, D.C. and occasionally served as an adjutant to Gen. William T. Sherman at ceremonial occasions in the capital. Dillon died in Washington, D.C. on October 6, 1904 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery-Section W ENL site 14600. His wife, Theresa Quinn Dillon is buried with him. At his request, his headstone only designates him as "Private, United States Army, Medal of Honor".

This constitutes the bare outline of the life of a remarkable man, even by the standard of his own time when remarkable men were plentiful. It is a spare description of a hero, one who was recognized as such by his own contemporaries in a time when heroism was the normal fare of a bitter conflict. Even after his death, when Henry Lanier compiled and published The Book of Bravery (Scribner, New York, 1920) Dillon is singled out from all others who served in the Civil War. Speaking of the Medal of Honor, Lanier writes that, "There is a tale of bravery back of every one of these medals. Perhaps as good an example as any of the 'fighting spirit' is the action that won this coveted reward for Private Michael Dillon." Twenty years before this publication, the two volume set Deeds of Valor, How America's Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (Perrien-Keydel, Philadelphia, 1901) placed Dillon in the forefront of those awarded the decoration during the Civil War with the following account taken from official reports:

"During one of the charges of the enemy it had been found impossible to withdraw one of our batteries, and four guns fell into the enemy's hands as our lines were being pressed back. Then occurred the incident which displayed the courage of young Dillon, and won for him the Medal of Honor awarded by Congress for conspicuous bravery. Seeing the pieces in the hands of the enemy, he sprang to his feet and rushed forward, begging his comrades to follow and retake the guns. His lieutenant, seeing him thus exposed to the enemy's fire, and fearing it might be concentrated upon the position which they occupied, shouted to him: "Get down, Dillon, you are drawing the enemy's fire."

Dillon exclaimed: "What in hell are we here for? Come on, boys, come on! We mustn't let them take that battery." And, with arms raised high in the air pleading for men to follow him, he rallied a gallant group, all boys like himself, rushed into the thickest of the fight, repulsed and drove back the enemy, and rescued Battery H, First United States Artillery.

Subsequent to this action, Dillon was cited for bravery on no less than three more occasions. His Medal of Honor citation is unique in that two separate acts of heroism (at the Battle of Williamsburg and a month later at Oak Grove) are cited.

For Dillion, the post war years were filled with activity. Along with most northern veterans, he was active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The GAR was the primary organization formed for veterans to maintain a connection with each other. Their shared experience in the war was the basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power.

The GAR grew and prospered as an almost de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union veterans, black and white, became entwined with partisan politics. Initially the GAR promoted voting rights for African-American veterans, extolling their demonstrated patriotism. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the GAR's message of equality, shunned black veterans' organizations in preference for this racially inclusive group. Eventually, however, as the Republican Party's commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the GAR's mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many departments (i.e. State and regional chapters) ceased to exist.

In the 1880s, the organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating Federal pensions for veterans. As the organization was reestablished, black veterans joined again in significant numbers and organized local, but often segregated, posts, especially in the south. Additionally, the issue of pensions for black soldiers was not pressed. As a result, most black veterans never received any pension or remuneration for wounds incurred during their service.

For Dillon the exclusion of black combat veterans was intolerable. In 1886 he formed the Union Veterans Union in Washington, D.C. to fill a need that many Civil War Veterans felt was lacking in the GAR. There was no question that the GAR was the strongest of all the Union Veterans Organizations. Many, however, felt that they had become an "elitist" group, loosing touch with some of the real concerns of the typical Union Veterans. It was also felt that the GAR membership requirements were too readily accepting of those men who had never actually served in combat. Moreover, as unrest in the South increased during the period of Reconstruction, Dillon felt that few leaders of established veterans' organizations were concerned with the plight of the African-American veterans. Dillon, then working in the Treasury Department, was concerned with all of these issues, along with many others. He had been instrumental in forming two GAR Posts in the capital, which now he commanded. He was also credited with starting a GAR Auxiliary Association. Now he turned his leadership and organizational skills into establishing the Union Veterans Union and guiding its development as its first Commander in Chief.

Dillon, as a combat veteran and Medal of Honor winner, believed that there was a special bond among those who had actually been exposed to the battlefield. In the new UVU, therefore, either exposure to combat, being wounded in action, or having been a prisoner of war, constituted the membership requirements of the organization. This rule essentially excluded most of the early war, so-called "90 and 100 day men", as most of these units did not see active service in the field. (In 1902, at the Union Veterans Union National Encampment, a large number of veterans who considered themselves to be "battlefield soldiers", walked out of the encampment in protest because this rule had been changed to allow all veterans as members, regardless of combat experience.) Most importantly, perhaps, African-American Union veterans would be welcomed as equal members and segregated posts would not be permitted, either in the north or the south.

The Union Veterans Union worked tirelessly for veterans' rights including pensions. In 1893, General Samuel Yoder, a close associate of Dillon's and now Commander of the UVU, petitioned the government to have a per diem pension rate established for all of the aging veterans, i.e. a pension determined by services rendered and graded upon a basis of one cent per day for the term of a veteran's service. Under Dillon's leadership the UVU was also an early proponent of battlefield preservation, petitioning Congress to save the battlefields from commercial development and for the lands to be set-aside as parks and monuments.

In 1890, Dillon formed yet another veterans' organization - the Medal of Honor Legion. Membership required only one qualification, to have been awarded the country's highest decoration. The list of Dillon's work on behalf of Union veterans, black and white, seems almost endless and becomes almost expected given the nature of the man. Yet one surprise remains. The poverty of the south in the post war years meant that few state or federal resources were extended to deal with the plight of aging Confederate veterans. Dillon became the organizing force and a charter member of the Washington Aid Association for Virginia's Richmond Confederate Soldiers' Home.

Matthew Augustus Dillon died on October 6, 1904 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. At his own request, neither his full rank in the army (Commissary Sergeant), nor his Captain's rank in the Union Veterans Corps, nor any title relating to the many organizations which he led, were placed on the headstone. His service to his country is indicated in three lines:


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