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~ Military Biography ~

Dubuque county Civil War Soldiers
 of the
Twenty-first Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Historical information, notes & comments, in some cases correcting the record
Soldier biographies written by Carl Ingwalson

Carl will do look-ups in his extensive records of the 21st Iowa and he is always willing to share what he has.



      Henry and Elizabeth (Epley) Kephart reportedly had eighteen children including John who was born on August 23, 1818, in Franklin, Pennsylvania. Most of his known siblings were also born in Pennsylvania, but over a period many years moved to Iowa and settled in Dubuque County with John immigrating in “the early fifties.” He was the only one of seven boys who have been identified from his generation to have served in the Civil War, but at least seven of his nephews served in Iowa infantry or cavalry regiments.

      Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Regiments of infantry and cavalry were quickly raised, war followed and thousands died. Like most states, Iowa had been ill-prepared for war. Only a few years earlier, the state Assembly viewed military preparedness as a joke and its Committee on Military Affairs, with mock solemnity, had presented a report on the merits of "big guns, little guns and pop guns" and recommended "the arms of the girls of Iowa, as the most affectionate weapons to protect the peace of the State.” Despite that, the volunteers came and on July 9, 1862, Governor Kirkwood received a telegram asking him to raise five more regiments.

      On August 13th John and two of his nephews (Conrad and Jacob) enlisted in what would be company C and on August 22nd two more nephews (Alfred and Caleb) enlisted in what would be Company H. All gave their residence as Cottage Hill in Dubuque County. With John as an 8th Corporal, ten companies were mustered in as the 21st Regiment of Iowa Volunteer Infantry on September 9, 1862. John was described as being 5' 6˝” tall (about two inches shorter than the regiment’s average) with blue eyes, light hair and a fair complexion; occupation, blacksmith.

      On September 16, 1862, the able-bodied left Dubuque on board the Henry Clay and two barges tied alongside. They spent one night on Rock Island before resuming their trip, debarked at Montrose due to low water, traveled by rail to Keokuk, took the Hawkeye State to St. Louis, and from there went to Rolla, Missouri, where they arrived on September 22nd. Company Muster Rolls were taken bimonthly and John was marked “present” on the October 31st roll taken at Salem where, at his own request, he was reduced to private. On December 31st he was present with the regiment in Houston and on February 28, 1863, at Iron Mountain. From there they walked to Ste. Genevieve on the Mississippi River where they arrived on March 11th. They were then transported downstream to Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, where General Grant was organizing a large three-corps army with the intent of capturing the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. On a rainy April 12th, under General John McClernand, they started a slow walk south along roads and through swamps and bayous west of the river until reaching Disharoon’s Plantation on April 29th. By then many had become ill and were left behind, but John was still with the regiment when, the next day, they crossed to the Bruinsburg landing in Mississippi. The first regiment to cross was directed to high ground near the landing so they could alert others if the enemy approached. The second regiment, the 21st Iowa Infantry, was directed to proceed as the point regiment for the entire Union army along a dirt road and to continue inland until fired upon. About midnight they encountered Confederate pickets and, after a brief exchange of gunfire, both sides rested. On May 1st John participated with his regiment in the Battle of Port Gibson.

      Having been at the front since leaving the river, they were rotated farther back as the Union column continued inland and on May 16th they were present, but held out of action, during the Battle of Champion’s Hill although one man accidentally shot himself and lost two fingers. On the 17th their brigade was back in the lead as they approached the Big Black River where entrenched Confederates were hoping to keep a large railroad bridge open. After a brief conference, Colonel Merrill of the 21st and Colonel Kinsman of the 23rd ordered their men to charge. They rushed forward over an open field and, in three minutes, had routed the enemy. They were allowed to rest to bury their dead and care for their wounded but were soon on the siege line encircling the rear of the city. On May 22nd, John participated in an assault before the army settled into a siege that lasted until the city surrendered on July 4th.

      John was still at Vicksburg on August 2, 1863, when he was granted a 30-day furlough. Three weeks later he reached his home in Cottage Hill and while there secured an extension of his furlough after Dr. Phillips said the legs, especially the right one, were affected by varicose veins. John’s Descriptive Book said he “ret’d to Co.” on October 20th, but the October 31st roll showed he was again absent, this time in a New Orleans convalescent camp while the regiment started an expedition into southwestern Louisiana. He was “restored to duty & rolls” on November 18th, the same day his first wife (name not known) died. John remained “present” on December 31st at Matagorda Island, Texas, February 29th at Indianola and April 30th at Matagorda Island before the regiment returned to Louisiana.  He was still “present” on June 30, 1864 and August 31st and, in October and early November, received treatment for rheumatism while they were camped near the mouth of the White River.

      In the spring of 1865, the regiment embarked on its final campaign of the war, a campaign to capture the city of Mobile. John was present in February when they camped near Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island but was treated for chest pains, a cough and varicose veins and for several days was on “light duty.” Despite not being in the best of health, he was with the regiment when they occupied the city and camped at Spring Hill and on July 15, 1865, when they were mustered out at Baton Rouge. On the 16th, on board the Lady Gay, they started north. They debarked at Cairo, Illinois, on the 19th, had a good meal and at 2:00 p.m. left by rail. On the 21st they arrived in Clinton and camped outside of town until the 24th when they were formally discharged from the military.

      On October 12, 1865, in Dubuque, he married Sarah J. Smith. While living in Epworth “during the year 1868,” John said he was unable to walk and due to his varicose veins was confined to the house while being treated by “Dr. Jackson.” About four years later they moved to Ida County where John worked as a farmer, part of the time for Nathan Edwards. Nathan said John, due to his leg problems, could not do as much work as an able-bodied man. Finally, on June 12, 1880, John applied for an invalid pension claiming that during the war he had been “disabled by varicose veins on his legs.” Nathan confirmed that John’s health had been affected by his medical problems and said John was a temperate man not addicted to drink. Additional affidavits were signed by John Stapleton of Battle Creek, Iowa, and by Richard and John Plumbe who were living in San Francisco. Richard had married John’s sister, Catherine, and served in Iowa’s 37th Infantry. After investigation by the pension office, the application was approved. John and Sarah continued to live in Ida County except for several years John said they spent “at Jefferson Dakoty.” About ten years before his death they returned from South Dakota.

      John died on October 6, 1892, in Battle Creek and was buried in the town’s Mount Hope Cemetery. Five years later, still living in Battle Creek, Sarah applied for a widow’s pension. Dr. Warnock confirmed John’s death from pulmonary tuberculosis and Sarah’s application was approved. She was pensioned at $12.00 monthly until her death on February 3, 1916. 

      John reportedly had at least five children. Two sons, John and Theodore, may have been with either wife, but three were with Sarah: Lulu D. born August 27, 1880, Mable born August 10, 1883 and Ollie born August 8, 1888.


~ Compiled & submitted by Carl Ingwalson <cingwalson@cfilaw.com>

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