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Delaware County, Iowa in the Civil War


Big Black River Bridge Engagement

update to addendum

Researched and documented by Carl Ingwalson


I am not from Iowa, am not a descendant of anyone who served in the regiment, and have no interest in anything but accuracy. Twenty years ago I was given numerous original documents regarding the regiment, that piqued my interest and, since then, I've visited every place it visited, spent thousands of dollars purchasing military and pension records from NARA for hundreds of its members, visited sites in Iowa, amassed a library of more than 400 books almost exclusively relating (albeit sometimes remotely) to actions of this regiment, reviewed many rolls of microfilm, purchased numerous Iowa newspapers from the era, purchased additional records from the State Historical Society, conducted many hours of on-line research, obtained 135 original letters and copies of many other letters and documents, purchased photographs, made a presentation to the Des Moines Civil War Roundtable, secured copies of five diaries, etc.


The erroneous information relates to the regiment's participation in the three-minute assault at the Big Black River during General Grant's Vicksburg Campaign. The account says:

"The regiment was again engaged at Black River Bridge, May 17th. Here Col. Merrill was suddenly taken very sick; the boys yelled for Van Anda, who dashed to the front, assumed command, and led the gallant but bloody charge, the success of which was due to his cool and daring courage. The regiment suffered severely in this terrible charge, losing eighty-three men in three minutes, but captured a large number of the enemy. After the charge, Col. Merrill was slightly wounded by a stray shot from the prisoners the boys had taken, while coming up in the rear." The History of Delaware County. Iowa (Western Historical Company, 1878).


Although not stated in the article, there's an implication that Colonel Merrill "suddenly" became sick to avoid participating in the assault (something for which another officer was discharged), that Lieutenant Colonel Van Anda led the assault, that Colonel Merrill came up "in the rear" after the assault that he was wounded by a prisoner, and that the wound was slight. There is nothing in the mass of materials I've reviewed that even hints at such things, nothing except the single account in the 1878 History that was repeated in 1914, and there is a considerable amount of documentation to the contrary.


In fact, there is no indication Merrill was taken sick, he is one who suggested an initial movement, he is the one who gave the order to charge, and he led the charge of his regiment. He was not sick and there is nothing in his military or pension records or anywhere else that even hints at such a thing. He gave the order. He led the regiment up and out of a ravine in which they had been concealed. During the charge he was shot with the ball striking high on his right thigh and passing through both thighs (accounts that say he was shot in the hips were wrong). The wounds were extremely serious, he fell on the field, and some even reported he had been killed (that erroneous report was repeated most recently in Steve Meyer's book, "Iowa Valor ", in which he has a photo of Merrill with the caption that he "was killed in action in the Engagement at Big Black River Bridge").  When Merrill fell, the charge continued with Van Anda then the commanding officer, although there wasn't much commanding to do since the entire assault lasted only three minutes, was already in progress, and the men, exposed to fire the entire time, were understandably running as fast as they could from start to finish with no time to re-load after their initial volley - into the bayou, through barbed wire, over trees and other obstructions, and into the enemy trenches. Merrill did not come up "in the rear." He couldn't walk. He was carried from the field and laid next to his Adjutant, Henry Howard, who was mortally wounded during an earlier movement. He wasn't shot by a prisoner. He wasn't "slightly" wounded. He was sent north to recuperate and was not well enough to rejoin the regiment until almost nine months later, on February 11, 1864 in Texas. Even then his wounds prevented him from riding a horse and he resigned four months later.


Since there is absolutely no doubt about what happened, one might question how the article could be so wrong.


Merrill had a very successful career, serving two terms as Governor of Iowa, and then moving to California where he was a co-founder of several small cities near Los Angeles. His 1899 funeral was attended by governors and ex­governors of half a dozen states as well as numerous other dignitaries. 


Documentation used to make the corrections concerning the Colonel Merrell and the Big Black River Engagement.

01. A report by Brigadier General Michael Lawler (commanding the brigade at the Big Black) in the government's "Official Records" says Merrill "was wounded early in the charge: while gallantly leading his regiment against the enemy."

02. "Col. S. Merrill was wounded seriously at the battle of Black River bridge while leading his men
gallantly to victory."
Clayton County Journal (June 4, 1863).
03. "Our Colonel, Merrill, of the Twenty-first Iowa . .. suggested to General Lawler that he move his command to the right, along the belt of timber skirting the river, and from that position charge the enemy's works . ... Quietly along the line was passed the order, 'Fix bayonets!' and as quietly it was obeyed . .. Colonel Merrill saw at once that a movement in this order would be impossible, and shouted his words ringing out clear above the din of battle, 'By the left flank, charge!' .... Merrill is shot through both hips . ... I was one of four who carried of four beloved Colonel. We laid him beside that noble Christian soldier, Adjutant Howard, who was mortally wounded, fearing that his fate would be the same. " Col F .M. Thompson, The Charge at Black River Bridge. Midland War Sketches, Volume VI (July 1896), pages 172-173.
04. Colonel Merrill "was severely wounded through the hip. He was laid up from the 17th of May to January, when he again joined his regiment in , and in June, 1864, on account of suffering from his wound, resigned and return to McGregor. " History of Monona County. Iowa (National Publishing Company, Chicago, 1890), page 136.
05. "[TJhat while the impetuous charge of Black River Bridge was being made, Colonel Merrill was
severely, and reportedly fatally, wounded . ... While Colonel Merrill was leading his regiment in this deadly charge, he received an almost fatal wound through the hips. This closed his military career. It was long before he was able to walk, even with the help of crutches; and even yet, on damp days, the old wound gives him twinges of pain."
The Western Monthly (Reed, Browne & Co., Publishers, 1869), Volume II, Page 73.
06. "Colonel Merrill, gallantly leading his regiment, fell with a bullet through both thighs, which
well-nigh proved fatal."
George Crooke, The Twenty-First Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry.
A Narrative
(King, Fowle & Co., Book Printers, 1891), page 70.
07. Brigade commander Mike Lawler's official report said, "the command 'Forward' was given by
Colonel Kinsman . ... The Twenty-first Iowa led by Colonel Merrill moved at the same instant .... Colonel Merrill, the brave commander of the Twenty-first Iowa, fell wounded early in the charge . ..."
Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers, Volume III, Historical Sketch, Twenty-Third Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry (1910, page 678-688).
08. "Let it suffice here to say that Colonel Merrill was there well nigh mortally wounded" Lurton
Dunham Ingersoll, Iowa and the Rebellion (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 3rd ed. 1867), page 468.
09. "Lawler signaled Merrill and Kinsman to start the action . ... Kinsman and Merrill went down almost immediately . ... Among the wounded still lying where they had fallen were . .. Colonel Merrill." Dick Barton, Charge at Big Black River. America's Civil War (09/1999).

The article is also wrong regarding the number of casualties. It did not lose 83. There are a documented 7 killed and 18 fatally wounded; another 38 suffered non-fatal wounds, some very slight and their service was not impaired. It's possible there were other casualties that don't appear in the record, but I'd have to order military records for the balance of the regiment to know.

~ Researched and submitted by Carl Ingwalson