According to Governor Francis W. Pickens, Dunovant’s unit became “the best drilled Regiment in the Service.”
Soldier. Dunovant was born on March 5, 1825, in Chester, the son of Dr. John Dunovant and Margaret Sloan Quay. Two of his brothers, Alexander and Robert, would be signers of the Ordinance of Secession. John Dunovant fought in the Mexican War as a sergeant in the famed Palmetto Regiment, and in 1855 he was commissioned in the regular army as captain of the Tenth U.S. Infantry. Accessible details of his army service, like details of his early life, are sketchy. Despite lacking a formal military education, Dunovant had used the Mexican War as a springboard into one of the few professions outside planting that southerners respected.
Dunovant resigned his army commission in early 1861 and was appointed major in the South Carolina volunteers. During the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Dunovant earned plaudits for his handling of his command at Fort Moultrie. He was afterward commissioned colonel of the First South Carolina Regiment, which saw duty, but not much action, in and around Charleston. According to Governor Francis W. Pickens, Dunovant’s unit became “the best drilled Regiment in the Service.” Dunovant commanded the unit until falling from grace in the summer of 1862.
The most flagrant event in Dunovant’s fall was his August 1862 court-martial for drunkenness–a charge that remained tied to his reputation and probably contributed to his death. Dunovant was cashiered, with Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s approval. Yet both previous and subsequent events suggest something at work other than concern for military sobriety. Sometime before the court-martial, Dunovant fell out with a superior, General Roswell S. Ripley, over troop dispositions. And soon after being run out of the service, with several officers weighing in on his behalf, Dunovant was returned to duty as colonel of the Fifth South Carolina cavalry.
Duty with this unit gave Dunovant a chance to redeem himself. Transferred with other South Carolina units to the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1864–one historian notes that Dunovant and his men “were garbed in neat, even snazzy uniforms, their officers wearing white cotton gloves”–the Fifth S.C. saw action in some of the grittiest fighting of the war. Dunovant earned high praise for his efforts at places such as Drewry’s Bluff, Cold Harbor, and Trevilian Station, proving himself to be more capable in combat than he was in the boredom of South Carolina garrison duty. Davis, who earlier had supported Dunovant’s court-martial sentence, elevated him to the temporary rank of brigadier general in August.
Dunovant was killed on October 1, 1864, during a cavalry charge along the Vaughan Road near Petersburg. In previous days he had made several mistakes in both tactics and reconnaissance; those blunders and past smears on his record may have contributed to what was a desperate gamble at best and a reckless decision at worst. Yet some measure of Dunovant’s effectiveness as a combat officer can be read into Union reports. Dunovant was shot by Sergeant James T. Clancy of the First New Jersey cavalry. For that shot– which occurred “within ten yards of our line,” according to one report, and which had the effect of “confusing the enemy and greatly aiding his repulse,” according to another–Clancy was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Dunovant was buried in the family cemetery near Chester, South Carolina.
Longacre, Edward G. Lee’s Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Force of the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861–1865. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 2002.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.