About Brevet Brig. General William E. Doster (USA)
Civil War Union Brevet Brigadier General. A law student at the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Army and was appointed a Captain in the Pennsylvania Cavalry Corps. In 1862, he was promoted Major in 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Army of the Potomac and participated in the Antietam Campaign.
At the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, he was a Lieutenant Colonel in command of regiment in support of a battery of field artillery when he distinguished himself in successful repel of Confederate forces at the Union rear flank. For actions at Gettysburg, he was brevetted Brigadier General of US Volunteers.
In late 1863, he graduated from Harvard Law School and served as Provost Marshal of the City of Washington until the end of the War. After the assassination of President Lincoln, he was assigned to defend accused Lewis Powell (aka, Louis Paine) at the Conspiracy Trial of 1865.
Bvt. Brig. Gen. William Emile Doster was born on January 8, 1837, at the Moravian town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His father, Lewis Doster, a native of Swabia, Germany, served a campaign against Napoleon, and emigrated to America with his father, Doctor Daniel Doster, in 1817, at the age of twenty. His mother, Pauline Louise (Eggert) Doster, was the daughter of Matthew Eggert, at one time Vorsteher of the Brethren’s House, and granddaughter of Adam Rupert, a soldier of the Revolution. His father owned and operated the successful Moravian Woolen Mills in Bethlehem.
As a child, he preferred drawing and painting, but as the seventh son, as his grandfather before him had been, he appeared destined for the profession of medicine. However, he did not like medicine or have any interest in pursuing it as a career. William attended the Moravian school until the age of fourteen, and after a careful preparatory training entered the sophomore class of Yale College, graduating in 1857. In 1859 he graduated as LL.B. at the Harvard Law School. In 1860 he matriculated as student of civil law, in the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and heard lectures on the Code Napoleon in Paris.
Upon his return home he apprenticed with ex-Governor Andrew H. Reeder, at Easton, and was admitted to practice at the Northampton County bar. Aside from fencing and riding, taught in the European universities, he had no military training.
When the war broke out he was in the office of S. Van Sant, of Philadelphia, but putting aside briefs and black letter-books, he responded to the President’s call for volunteers, and recruited a company of cavalry, which, not being wanted for that arm, was turned over to Colonel Edward D. Baker’s infantry regiment. Doster then raised another company for Harlan’s Light cavalry, of which he was made Captain, his muster bearing a date of August 15th, 1861. A few weeks later this company was transferred to the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
On October the 28th of October he was promoted to Major, and a little more than a month later, was detailed with a squadron to act as bodyguard to General Erasmus Keyes.
Toward the close of February, 1862, he was placed in command of the mounted provost guard of Washington, D. C. When the Army of the Potomac departed for the Peninsula, and the appointment of General James S. Wadsworth as Military Governor of the District, Colonel Doster was selected for Provost Marshal, giving him command, by detachment, of four infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment, together with a flotilla cruising upon the Chesapeake.
In October, 1862, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, but continued at his post as Provost Marshal. Just previous to the opening of the spring campaign of 1863, he applied for an order to return to his regiment, which was granted, and was coupled with a recommendation from General Wadsworth to President Lincoln, for his appointment as Brigadier General. On rejoining his regiment he assumed command, and led it during the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns. He had his horse shot under him at Ely’s Ford, and in a charge which he led at Upperville, was taken prisoner. However, in less than an hour, Doster escaped by striking down his guard and returned to his command.
At Gettysburg he was ordered to report with his regiment to General Pleasanton, at General Meade’s headquarters. On the afternoon of July 2, the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry was the only regiment sent to take position on the Federal left flank, meaning that one regiment was supposed to provide the same coverage as the provided by two brigades of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s division. That evening, Doster was ordered to picket duty on the left flank, and established a line in front of the infantry at eleven o’clock that night. On July 5th, he was ordered to advance through Gettysburg in pursuit of the enemy.
Tearing aside the barricades that obstructed the way, he pushed on as far as Stevens’ Furnace, where he engaged the rebel rear guard. By the evening of the 6th, he had reached Marion, near Greencastle, where he struck Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry. After a severe action brought on by reconnoitering towards Winchester, he led his regiment back to the Rappahannock, where he was prostrated by malaria. Too ill to return to duty, he sent in his resignation, which was accepted. He returned home to Easton and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. However, soon after, he was appointed colonel of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, but never joined the regiment. He was subsequently brevetted brigadier general of volunteers.
Doster practiced law in Washington for a short time, and at the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, he was appointed, by Judge-Advocate-Generals Hold and Bingham, to defend Lewis Payne and George Atzerodt, two of the defendants. Both were convicted and hanged.
Soon after the close of the war he returned to Northampton County and resumed the practice of the law at Easton, residing at Bethlehem. From 1867-1879, he held the office of Register in Bankruptcy for the Eleventh Congressional District. He was also the long-time president of the Lehigh National Bank and also of the New Bridge Street Company.
On August 15, 1867, he married Evelyn A. Depew, daughter of Edward A. Depew, of Easton. They had one son. The couple settled in Bethlehem in 1873. Doster traveled to Europe more than 30 times in the years after the Civil War.
In 1891, Doster published his Brief History of the Fourth Pennsylvania Cavalry, following it in 1915 with his memoirs, Lincoln And Episodes Of The Civil War.
Doster died on July 2, 1919, and was buried in Nisky Hill Cemetery in Bethlehem.