John Bull Dimitry: First Among Equals

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John Bull Dimitry's book Three Good Giants

On December 27, 1835, John Bull Smith Dimitry was born in Washington, DC, the eldest son of Alexander Dimitry and Mary Powell Mills Dimitry. Like his father before him, Dimitry is remembered as a historian, master of languages and a statesman. Alexander (1805-1883) was the son of Andreas (1775-1852)  and Marie Celeste Dragon (1777-1856) whose father was a Greek. While John Bull Dimitry could claim Greek ancestry on his father’s side of the family on his mother’s side, Mary Powell Mills Dimitry (1816-1894) was a descendent (and so related) to some of the most distinguished families in North America.

Dimitry was educated at College Hill, a school established by his father, then located near Raymond, Mississippi. Later he attended Georgetown College, in Washington, from which he received an AM degree. In 1859, he accompanied his father, the appointed Minister to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, as secretary of the legation until the outbreak of the American Civil War.

From 1861 to 1864, Dimitry served in the Confederate army of Tennessee. “John Dimitry of Co. C, Crescent Regiment of New Orleans” in the battle at Shiloh “received a wound that ended his military service. At the Battle of Shiloh, Dimitry had first attempted to assist the wounded Captain Graham off the field (who was shot twice before dying), and then was himself shot through the hip. He was taken to a hospital in Corinth for two weeks; when that city was abandoned by the Confederates, he was taken on a mattress to New Orleans, where he remained under the medical care of Dr. Natili for two months.

The National Herald Archive

John Bull Smith Dimitry

“When he was finally able to use crutches, New Orleans had been captured by the Union army and he found himself within Union lines. He received permission from General Shepley to depart without a parole. He went to Richmond, was discharged, and then worked for the Confederate Post Office Department [as chief clerk] until war's end. He departed Richmond with the rest of the Confederate government on April 2, 1865, and traveled with President Davis and Postmaster General Reagan into North Carolina; he remained with the party until April 15 or 17, at which time he received pay and presumably was dismissed (”

Upon his return to New Orleans in 1865, Dimitry immediately became secretary to the state superintendent of education. That same year, he composed a tribute in epitaphic form to the memory of General Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862). This single epitaph struck such a sympathetic cord among its readers that it saw repeated publication not only throughout the South but across Europe. Later this epitaph was carved on the tomb of the Veterans association Army of the Tennessee in New Orleans. In point of fact, John Bull soon became widely known for his epitaphs on Confederate heroes. Among John Bull’s most popular epitaphs includes but certainly is not limited to: Henry Watkins Allen, Gen. Albert S. Johnson, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Temple, Charles Sumner, the Confederate Flag, Jefferson Davis. John Bull often spoke of writing a book-length series of biographies of noteworthy Confederates but he never progressed further in this work than the writing of long series of individual epitaphs.

In 1865 he became the literary and dramatic editor for the New Orleans Times for the next seven years. He engaged extensively in journalism and contributed to various papers from his post-war years until his death. In 1869, the New Orleans Democrat sent Dimitry to Europe to write of the manners and customs of the peoples of the continent and devoted especial attention to a study of Spain. Once again, he gained considerable praise this series of articles.

Also during that period, he was connected with the press in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, and being for several years a steady contributor to the Mail and Express.

The National Herald Archive

John Bull Dimitry's book Three Good Giants

Upon his return from Europe, he had, through friends and relatives, some contact with the family of Colonel Oscar J. E. Stuart. In 1871, He married Adelaide Lewis Stuart (1843-1911), a cousin of J.E.B. Stuart. In 1872, the Dimitrys went to DC, where he immediately found work as a correspondent. In 1873, they moved to New York City, where he continued working as a journalist. Then from 1874 to 1876, they traveled to South America where he taught English and French at the Colegio Caldas, in Barranquilla  Colombia. In 1877, they returned to American shores, settling for a time in New York, where the Mail and Express regularly featured his writings.

Upon his return to New Orleans, he finally saw publication of  his Lessons in the History of Louisiana, from its Earliest Settlement to the Close of the Civil War, to Which are Appended Lessons in its Geography and Products (A. S. Barnes & Co.: New York, 1877). All sources from that era note that Dimitry’s state history was for many years a popular and valuable textbook in public schools.

In 1888, his next major work, Three Good Giants whose famous deeds are recorded in the ancient chronicles of Francois Rebelais; by Franc?ois Rabelais; Gustave Dore?; Albert Robida Compiled from the French by John Dimitry (Boston: Ticknor & Company, 1888) saw wide release. In 1890, he co-edited/co-wrote, with Varina Jefferson-Davis (1826-1906), the Life of Jefferson Davis. Despite this steady stream of publications in 1895, he began teaching at Montgomery College in Virginia. In 1897, John Bull was asked to write a history that became the Confederate Military History of Louisiana: Louisiana in the Civil War, 1861–1865 (Atlanta, Ga.: Confederate Publishing Company, 1899).

During the last years of his life, Dimitry received the commemorative medal the bronze Southern Cross of Honor. The Southern Cross of Honor could only be bestowed through the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It could not be purchased; it was given in recognition of loyal, honorable service to the South and only a Confederate veteran could wear it.

On September 2, 1901, John Bull Smith Dimitry died at his home, 1635 Clio Street in New Orleans. He was “laid away  by his devoted comrades in the tomb of the Association of the Army of Tennessee’ in New Orleans. The statue atop the tomb is General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was once interred here. The Tomb consist of 48 vaults, the most famous resident being General P.G.T. Beauregard. At the time of John Bull’s death  a long obituary (with a photograph) on his life appeared in ‘The Lost Cause’ (the long-time publication of the Daughters of the Confederacy) describing the events immediately after his death: ‘the tomb of the ‘Association Army of Tennessee’ contains a few vaults, with copper doors, designated as the finally resting place of distinguished members. Only two had been used up to this time, one for Gen. Beauregard and the other for ‘Charlie Dreux.’ At a meeting of the camp on the evening of October 8th a resolution was offered that John Dimitry be placed in one of the vaults set aside for distinguished members and that his name be engraved on the door. When the motion had been read three members arose at one time to second it. The motion was unanimously adopted by a rising vote. A great compliment to the memory of John Dimitry (Volume 10 pages 68-69).”

Those wishing to study his life further may consult The John Bull Smith Dimitry Papers, 1848-1922, held by Duke University in Durham, NC.

Many of Dimitry’s descendants, long proud of their Greek heritage, still attend Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox church in New Orleans.

As Hellenes, should we not learn something of their lives?