Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday July 24, 2004 

Postcard 254: Civil War impacts Iowa City & UI



Civil War significant sites in Iowa City include Metropolitan Hall (left, north face), the stile or steps over a fence 

at the southeast corner of Pentacrest (center) which served as a speaking platform, and the Johnson County 

Court House of that era. Another was the east steps of Old Capitol. Images from the author’s database.



By Bob Hibbs  

The Civil War arrived in Iowa City four days after hostilities were triggered at Fort Sumter, S.C.; but, when word came, its impact was immediate and pervasive.

Iowa Gov. Samuel Kirkwood hailed from Iowa City where he was a successful miller, merchant and lawyer, the University of Iowa would lose a major portion of its older male students and some faculty members to volunteer war service, and debate was stirred by the presence of a few “Copperheads,” as pro-South persons were called.

A speakers’ stand formed by a fence stile at the southeast corner of Pentacrest made the Clinton-Washington streets intersection a lively spot with awareness that the nation was at war. An image that includes the stile was recorded about 1865 by pioneer photographer Isaac Wetherby.

With the nearest telegraph point being Davenport, it was April 18, 1861, before word arrived of the April 14 Fort Sumter attack.

UI alum of 1866 Mrs. Ellen Rich provided a first-hand account of local activity published in the January 1899 issue of the Iowa Historical Record of the State Historical Society.

She records that a few southern sympathizers initially found it difficult to suppress their feelings despite a faculty rule forbidding badges of any nature. “Copperhead pins” and confederate flags were seen in the North Hall chapel and in classrooms, she reports, and five students were suspended.

UI Pres. Silas Totten left Iowa City in fear for his family after a local mob from the beer halls numbering some 200 men showed up at his home after rumor spread that eldest son, Richard, had spoken favorably of the southern cause and reportedly was expelled by UI’s Zetagathian debating society. Totten resigned Aug. 23, 1862.

Ironically, he was a native New Yorker; but, as a liberal-minded educator would hear all sides of any issue.

But, overwhelmingly, both the university and surrounding community supported the Union cause.

On the Thursday evening that word of Fort Sumter reached Iowa City, a gathering of locals and students headed by Mayor George Clark gathered at the Johnson County Court House to hear speeches and a call by Gov. Kirkwood for enlistments and money for needy families of those who served.

Forty-three volunteered and $3,000 was pledged for support. Thirty UI cadets in a unit calling itself the Washington Guards brought the initial list of volunteers within five of the 78 needed for a full company.

On Saturday afternoon Gov. Kirkwood joined Mayor Clark and others on the east steps of Old Capitol to generate further recruits and funds.

That same evening brought calls for another company during a meeting at Metropolitan Hall, a three-story business building capped by a large third-floor hall on what is now the Jefferson Building site downtown.

Ezekiel Clark arrived back on the Chicago train the next day with cloth for uniforms. After worship services women gathered in Metropolitan Hall to begin the task of sewing. Apparently to avoid embarrassment of working on Sunday, newspapers reported the work began on Monday.

Three-a-day drills at the fair grounds filled time of volunteers. After a farewell banquet at Metropolitan Hall, Company B of the First Iowa Volunteer Regiment, under the command of UI’s Capt. Bradley Mahana left by train for Davenport, and then traveled by steamboat to Clinton for rendezvous with other regimental units.

Later, local volunteers served in several regiments, particularly the highly regarded 960-man 22nd Iowa, with seven of 10 companies filled by Johnson County men.

University enrollment climbed from 172 in 1861 to 668 in 1866, although Mrs. Rich reports that seven male classmates during 1865-66 had but one arm.

The Civil War exacted a high toll in lives and treasure, both locally and nationally, but preserved the American union. Who could ask more of any generation?

Next Saturday: Airmail at Iowa City.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them.   

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