(August 8, 1819–October 17, 1897)
Charles F. Ritter
The Civil War saved Charles Dana’s career. With a wife and four children to support in 1862, the forty-two-year-old newspaperman was out of a job, dismissed by Horace Greeley after fifteen years as managing editor of the New York Tribune. Dana quickly landed a position in the U.S. War Department and soon became a confidant of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (q.v.) and President Abraham Lincoln (q.v.). The political and social contacts he made in his three years in the War Department enabled Dana to purchase the New York Sun in 1868 and launch a brilliant twenty-nine-year career as one of the most influential journalists of the Gilded Age.
Dana was born in modest circumstances in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, on August 8, 1819, the eldest of four children. His father was Anderson Dana, who James H. Wilson characterized as a “self-centered ne’er-do-well.” A failed country store keeper, Anderson Dana was a poor relation to the more prosperous Massachusetts Danas. His mother, Ann Dennison, died in 1829 when Charles was nine years old. Financially unable and emotionally unwilling to care for his children, Anderson Dana abandoned them to various relatives. Charles went first to his uncle David Dennison’s Connecticut farm, and in 1831, he was shipped off to Buffalo, New York, where he lived with his uncle William Dana and worked in the dry goods store of Staats & Dana.
Charles Dana was an ambitious young man, evidently determined not to have his hardscrabble background hold him back. Before he was twenty, and with only limited country schooling, he taught himself Latin, Greek, and the dialect spoken by the local Seneca. One member of his widening circle of associates, Dr. Austin Flint, was a Harvard graduate. Through him Dana matriculated at Harvard in 1835, where he excelled. Janet Steele says going to Harvard was an “astonishing achievement” for one of Dana’s impoverished background. Deteriorating eyesight and perhaps tight finances forced Dana to leave Harvard in