A fourteen-year old boy wanted to serve in the Union Army, but could not get parental consent. He forged a letter of permission, assumed a false name, lied about his age, and enlisted as a drummer boy in the 7th Connecticut Volunteers. His unit fought in many battles, losing eleven officers and 157 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded. At age sixteen he was discharged as a veteran, and resumed his true name, Frederick H. Dyer. Back in civilian life he finished his schooling and in 1875 married his wife of a lifetime, Georgia Dickerson.
In Philadelphia, in 1880, he organized the Army and Navy Escutcheon Company, manufacturing metal insignias and badges for veterans’ groups and remembrance societies. The insignias were customized by regiment and other variables. Dyer kept detailed records of the groups and their services. In his work with the Grand Army of the Republic he collected more data on units and their service. Gradually the idea dawned of a great compendium, but where to find the concentrated time? In a dramatic move, in 1903, he bade farewell to his family and moved to a large room in Des Moines, Iowa. He brought with him huge boxes and trunks of loose records. In a marathon of five years, working all day, every day, he completed the 1,800- page manuscript. (Visitors expected to see a lean, ascetic hermit, but found a jolly, chubby man, full of optimism.) When it was finally published, he returned to his family and remained with them until his death in 1917. His wife, Georgia, lived on until just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
This author has found one omission in Dyer’s masterpiece. There is no mention of the California Native Guards, a Spanish-speaking cavalry regiment formed in Los Angeles during the Civil War.
Every serious Civil War historian has a copy of “Dyer.” The book is currently available, in a two-volume edition from the Broadfoot Publishing Company, under the title of A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. In 1908 the Des Moines Register published a photo of him at work.
-By Thomas P. Lowry