Iowa History Project


Making of Iowa

Chapter XXXII

Some Iowa War Scenes

June 1, 1846, while the people of Iowa Territory were deep in the discussion of the question of Statehood, there came to them a call to arms.  War with Mexico had broken out,  and the President of the United States had issued a call for fifty thousand volunteers.  Iowa Territory was asked to raise a regiment, and on this day Governor James Clarke presented a proclamation stating what Iowa was expected to do.

The news set the citizens aflame with patriotism.  In various towns mass meeting were held, at which burning speeches were made, and glowing resolutions passed supporting the Government, and pledging help.  Some were composed.  Men rushed to enlist.  So far as spirit went, the days of 1846 were not different from those of 1898.  Iowa, of course, was not so well populated as now.

There was such eagerness to enroll in the regiment that June 26 it was announced in the press of the Territory that already not only had the necessary ten companies been formed, but that there were two extra ones - making the number twelve.  Des Moines County had raised two companies; Lee Company, two; Van Buren, two; Muscatine, one; Louisa, one; Washington, one;  Dubuque, one' Johnson, one, and Linn, one.

The command of the regiment was offered by Governor Clarke to ex-Governor John Chambers.  Governor Clarke, not knowing that ex-Governor Chambers was in poor health, paid a visit to him, for the purpose of making the tender.  But the former Territorial executive was too feeble to accept the honor.

This regiment, however, never was summoned into service.  Had it been required, it would have given good account of itself, as Iowa regiments always have.

July 16, this year, a separate company of infantry was mustered in at Fort Atkinson, and was stationed there.  This company, like the regiment, had enlisted for twelve months, unless sooner discharged.

If Iowa troops as an Iowa organization did not serve in action in the Mexican War, Company K, Fifteenth United States Infantry, proved of what stuff Iowa men are made.

The fifteenth Infantry was recruited from the central United States.  Ohio furnished six companies; Michigan, two; Wisconsin, one; Iowa, one.  Almost all of Company K was from Iowa, the majority of the men being enrolled from points on the eastern border.

Edwin Guthrie, of Fort Madison, was captain.  He died from wounds received in battle.  Frederick Mills, leading lawyer of Burlington, was a major in the regiment, and was killed at Cherubusco.

Major Mills' horse became unmanageable, and ran away, leaping a wide ditch and bearing him right into the midst of the Mexicans, to his death.

Company K reported at Vera Cruz, Mexico, July 10, 1847, and served in many battles, winning much glory and credit.

So the part Iowa took in the fighting was sustained with gallantry.

While hostilities with Mexico were in progress, the Mormons were crossing Iowa.  In June, 1846, Captain James Allen, of the First Dragoons, arrived at Mt. Pisgah, to procure a battalion of infantry from the Mormons.  From Mr. Pisgah he went to Council Bluffs - or, rather, to the site now occupied by Council Bluffs - and interviewed the Mormon leaders.

In case the Mormons willingly furnished troops, the Government indicated that the pilgrims would be allowed to choose land in the Salt Lake Valley, and settle there unopposed.

Brigham Young was prompt to seize on the opportunity, and issued an address to his people:

"If you want to go where you can worship God according to the dictates of your conscience, we must raise a battalion."

The Mormons understood.  Captain Allen had not the slightest difficulty in securing five companies of one hundred men each.  On July 19 the battalion held a ball, to signalize the farewell, and on the next day the start from Council Bluffs was made.

Eighty women and children accompanied the battalion to Fort Levenworth.  Several elders also went along.  At the fort the Mormon soldiers received arms and clothing, and each was given forty dollars.  The money they sent back for the use of their families.

Then, with the remainder of the army division, they set forth on a long march across the plains, westward, bound for the scene of war.  In a short time they demonstrated that Mormons can endure most bravely.

We now pass to the Civil War.  April 16, 1861, four days after the first shot of the struggle had been fired, a telegram was received at Davenport.  It was from Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, and read:

"Call made on you by to-night's mail for one regiment of militia for immediate service."

The dispatch was addressed to the governor.

At this time Samuel J. Kirkwood was the chief executive of the State of Iowa.  "The old war governor" is the title now popularly awarded to him.  His residence was at Iowa City, where he spent the time not required at Des Moines, the capital.  In 1861 Davenport was the nearest point, having telegraph service, to Iowa City, and some way must be found by which the message could be conveyed quickly to its destination.

Colonel Vandever, a well-known resident of Davenport, volunteered to carry the dispatch to Governor Kirkwood, and immediately started.  Arrived at Iowa City, he hired a team, and drove to the farm on which the governor lived.  He found Mr. Kirkwood clad in homespun clothes, and working in the field.

Governor Kirkwood read the message carefully.  The he said, musingly:

"Why, the President wants a whole regiment of men!  Do you suppose I can raise so many as that, Mr. Vadever?"

But within a few days not only one but ten regiments were offered the governor.  He was agreeably surprised.

There was no lack of volunteers from Iowa, but there was great lack of means whereby they might be clothed and armed.  Governor Kirkwood was equal to the emergency.  He was a man of the most pronounced loyalty, and undaunted energy.  Ere war had broken out he had visited President-elect Lincoln, at Springfield, Illinois, in January, 1861.  He saw him again at Washington.  In one of the interviews President Lincoln asked:

"Well, governor, what can I do for your State?"

"I have not come to find out what you can do for Iowa.  Mr. President," replied the sturdy governor, "but I want to know what Iowa can do for you?"

The approach of war found Governor Kirkwood sadly embarrassed by scarcity of money in the State treasury.  The financial panic of 1857 had left Iowa poor.  When it came to a question of equipping troops the governor was perplexed.  The guns in the hands of the militia were in bad condition.  The supply was very limited, even including the old, almost useless, pieces.

In addition to arms and food, shelter and clothing must be secured for the soldiers.  In order to afford these Governor Kirkwood pledged his property, his earnings and his personal bonds, and borrowed money in this way.  He was nobly supported by a number of citizens who told him to draw on them for whatever amounts he required, and they would take their payments when they could get them and not inconvenience the State.  Iowa banks notified the governor that they would honor his drafts, if by so doing the soldiers could be fed and clothed.

The transaction of all the details of the hour fell on Governor Kirkwood's shoulders, for he had no aides, no staff, and at first not even a private secretary.

"Give us muskets-muskets!" came the call from all quarters of the State.  The governor had none to give.

"Send us arms," he wrote, in despair, to Secretary Cameron, April 29.  "I ask for nothing but arms and ammunition.  We have the men to use them.  Three regiments are waiting, and five thousand guns are required at once."

May 6 the First Regiment of Iowa Infantry was ordered into camp at Keokuk.  The Government thought that this one regiment was enough, but Governor Kirkwood was so besieged with offers of other companies that, without waiting for permission from the War Department, he accepted another thousand men.  This was the Second Regiment.  It, too, assembled at Keokuk.

Neither of the regiments had arms.  Governor Kirkwood sent more telegrams to headquarters, beseeching that guns be sent.  Finally, in August, he went to Washington to plead in person for munitions of war.

On his own responsibility, and at his own risk, the governor authorized the Hon. Ezekiel Clark to purchase in Chicago cloth for fifteen hundred uniforms.  But not a yard of cloth could be found in all that city.  The demand had been so great.  Promptly Samuel Merrill offered to contract for cloth in Boston, and take his pay as the State was best able to afford.  Mr. Merrill's kindness came in time of much need.  The women of Iowa turned to and sewed hundreds of garments and haversacks, and prepared other articles of equipment.  Everywhere in the State the loyal women rallied to the cause.  The cloth of the first uniforms was gray.  The Government refused to recognize the color, because the Confederates were wearing it.  So the gray gave place to the Union blue.

It is not the purpose of this book to follow the career of the Iowa troops in the war.  No soldiers were braver, and none attained higher rank in public estimation.  The number of men enlisted during the war was 78,059.

The days of the Civil War were anxious times in Iowa.  News did not travel through the State as fast as it does now.  Telegraph lines did not penetrate everywhere.  In many a village the report of the firing on Fort Sumpter was given to the people by the editor of the local paper, who, standing on a dry goods box, read from an exchange - a Burlington, Davenport, or Dubuque paper, perhaps - the tidings that war had begun.

Much the same course was followed all through the war.  Even Keokuk, in 1861, had no telegraph connections, and it took a letter three to five days to reach Des Moines.

During the first three years, especially, of the war, Iowa was troubled by foes within, as well as those without.  In the State was a strong party of Southern sympathizers.  Governor Kirkwood was hampered by them, and even his efforts to sell Iowa bonds were thwarted.  In the summer of 1861 meetings were held in Des Moines, in Marion County, and elsewhere, when the administration of Governor Kirkwood and President Lincoln were denounced, and treasonable resolutions were passed.  At Ossain the Confederate flag was raised!  Governor Kirkwood received many threatening letters.

Soon it came about that the southern portion of the State, especially the counties bordering Missouri, were in a state of ferment.  The loyal citizens residing there sent appeals to the governor for protection.  They wanted arms with which to defend themselves.  So Governor Kirkwood's duties were increased.

Missouri was a seat of war, for the State was beset with slavery adherents, and espouses of the cause of the Confederacy.  In addition, the "border ruffians," formerly ravaging Kansas, now roved hither and thither through Missouri, ostentatiously enrolled under the Confederate flag, but usually pillaging either side, regardless of right or wrong.

Thus Iowa had to watch out for guerillas, besides the "Copperheads".

"Copperheads" was the name applied to the Confederate sympathizers.  It referred to the deadly moccasin snake, and indicated contempt.  "Copperheads" denoted their propensities by wearing suits of butternut jeans, or a badge of half a butternut, or a copper cent as a breast pin.  Keokuk County, with its forks of the Skunk River, was the most rabid "Copperhead" stronghold of Iowa.

Saturday, August 1, 1863, a "Copperhead" meeting was held on the English River, in Keokuk County.  The meeting was conducted by the Rev. George Cyphert Tally, a Baptist minister, whose father was a Tennessean, and who was a strong Southerner.  Not far away was the town of South English.  It was stoutly Union, and it was not strange that a clash occurred.  On the afternoon of this day the "Copperheads" started for the town.  Threats had been made to "clean out" the Union people, and when the men, many with butternut clothing and copper pins, entered South English, they were met with hoots and defiance.

Tally rode in the first wagon, pistol and bowie knife ready in his hands.  Taunts were exchanged, for the Union element of Iowa hated the "Copperheads" as traitors and cowards.

The taunts led to shooting.  Tally shot three times, and then fell dead, with several bullets in his body.

The occurrence created much excitement.  Governor Kirkwood was asked to send troops, which he did promptly, and came himself, to see what could be done.  The effect of the shooting, and the investigation which followed, was to quiet matters in Keokuk County.

In Fremont County, also, scenes of violence were witnessed, while numerous murders in other portions of southern Iowa still farther horrified the people.  In 1864 parties of guerillas, deserters and "Copperheads" ravaged Davis, Poweshick and Mahaska Counties, waylaid peaceable farmers, robbed them, stole horses, and killed returned Union soldiers.  The men who entered Davis County were from Missouri, and were disguised in Federal uniforms.

Ruffians and other disreputable characters in the vicinity of the two Skunk rivers organized themselves into the "Skunk River Army", and committed many depredations.  But they were too cowardly to do all they might have done.

So far as possible the governor armed the counties of the two tiers along the Missouri border, not only to restrain the "Copperheads", but also to guard against invasion from Missouri.  For a time the fortunes of the Union cause in Missouri hung in the balance, and it looked as though Iowa might be stormed by Confederate forces.  While this crisis was on, in many a town of Iowa companies of men were constantly under arms; even in the interior the alarm was so great that guards lay out in the woods and fields all night, watching for the enemy.

Aside from the incursions by the ruffianly guerillas, and the murders by the "Copperheads", the tide of war touched Iowa soil only once.  That was the battle of Athens, fought, August 5, 1861.



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