Of the 3,507 Medal of Honor recipients, nearly half of them earned the honor during the Civil War when the medal was first introduced. One of those recipients was Army Brevet Lt. Col. Dewitt Clinton Lewis, who saved one of his men during a treacherous battle through a South Carolina swamp.
Lewis was born July 30, 1822 in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Few details are available regarding his early life, but according to an online search, he was a 38-year-old carpenter when the Civil War began. Before that, however, Lewis married Sarah Winterbottom, and they had three boys named Adelbert, William and Fred.
On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops bombed Fort Sumter in South Carolina, officially starting the Civil War. Lewis enlisted in the Union Army shortly after that. He was commissioned but mustered out a few months later, so he reenlisted in October 1861. Lewis was made a captain and put in charge of Company F of the 97th Pennsylvania Infantry.
Several months later, Lewis and his soldiers found themselves trying to gain ground in South Carolina in what became known as the Battle of Secessionville. At daybreak on June 16, 1862, Union forces tried to take Fort Lamar, a strategic point for the Confederacy on James Island. If they succeeded, they would have the upper hand in taking control of Charleston.
Union forces outnumbered Fort Lamar’s garrison forces 3 to 1. This advantage helped the Union gain a foothold on the causeway approaching the low-lying post, but swampland kept them from making further progress. The 97th was ordered to push forward anyway, so they slogged through a deep swamp at low tide and got to within about 200 feet of the fort. They were able to keep the Confederate soldiers from firing in two directions before enemy reinforcements came and pushed the Union soldiers back.
By this point, the tide was rising in the swamp. The gun and artillery fire had stirred it up, too, which made it a mess to get back through. Lewis made it across and helped many others, who were all trying to stay afloat while dodging heavy fire from canisters shot at short range.
“I landed, tired, disgusted and dreadfully covered with mud, and was trying to find out where I was located in the mass of filth, when I heard a faint call that sounded thick and muddy,” Lewis said in a personal account of the ordeal.
Looking back into the swamp, he saw a private who was stuck and needed help. Lewis quickly dove back into the muck and rescued the man, despite the hail of fire exploding around them. If it weren’t for Lewis’ actions, that soldier would likely have drowned.
Lewis continued to lead his company through several more battles, including the Bermuda Hundred campaign near Petersburg, Virginia, in May 1864. During that battle, Lewis saved a wounded man in his company as they were retreating. Through a hail of bullets, Lewis went back for the man and carried him off the field to safety, despite being wounded himself.
Lewis received the brevets of major and lieutenant colonel before mustering out of the military for a final time on Oct. 3, 1864, due to the wounds he suffered at Petersburg, according to the publication Military Images.
During the Civil War, a brevet was a promotion for an officer to a higher rank without the corresponding pay. The practice of brevetting disappeared in the 20th century but was reintroduced by the Army in 2019.
For his role in the Battle of Secessionville, Lewis received the Medal of Honor on April 23, 1896, from President Grover Cleveland.
Lewis died on June 28, 1899 in Morton, Pennsylvania, not far from his hometown of West Chester, where he was buried in Oaklands Cemetery.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.
Source: Department of Defense