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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




When the Civil War started Iowa was a young and new state.  What could such a state be expected to do to help win the war?  Iowa, at that time, did not even have an organized militia and the state treasury was practically empty.  The story of her soldiers tells us what she did.  Before the war was over, Iowa alone had furnished more soldiers for the Northern cause than George Washington had under his command at any time during the Revolutionary War.

The attack on Fort Sumter, which began on April 12, 1861, was the opening of the Civil War.  Two days later President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers.  Simon Cameron, Secretary of War, telegraphed Governor Kirkwood, "Call made on you by tonight's mail for one regiment of militia for immediate service."


There was no telegraph line in Iowa beyond Davenport at the time when Lincoln issued his call.  Governor Kirkwood was at his home on his farm near Iowa City.  The message was carried to the governor by Congressman Vandever of Davenport.  It is said that the governor was "doing chores" on his farm when the message was handed to him.  As he read the message the governor said to the congressman, "Why, the President wants a whole regiment of men.  Do you suppose I can raise so many as that, Mr. Vandever?"

On April 17, the governor issued a proclamation calling for volunteers and asked that they be ready not later than May 20.  A week later he issued a call for a special meeting of the legislature.  Within a few days after his call for soldiers, ten regiments of young men had offered their services.  The first regiment was formed and ready for the march two weeks before the time asked by the Government.  It was ordered into camp at Keokuk.  Ten companies of 78 men each made up this first regiment.  Two companies came from each of the three cities, Burlington, Muscatine, and Dubuque.  The counties of Linn, Johnson, Henry, and Scott, each furnished one company.

Although Iowa had no militia, many volunteer companies had been organized.  They had gaudy uniforms and fancy names.  Some of them were drilled by men trained in the armies of Europe.  They were organized more for show than for work but they soon became real soldiers.  So many companies insisted on service that the governor on his own accord organized the Second and Third Iowa regiments at Keokuk and the Fourth at Council Bluffs.


Although the governor had plenty of men who were willing to serve, his problem was not so easily solved.  What could the men do if they had no guns or ammunition?  And how could the governor get arms for the soldiers if he had no money and the national Government could not help him?  The first soldiers drilled with sticks for guns.

Governor Kirkwood and private citizens placed their own personal fortunes and credit to the benefit of the state.  The special legislature voted that bonds or stocks of the state up to $800,000 should be sold.  Because the credit of the state was not considered to be good, and also because "Copperheads," as Southern sympathizers were called, opposed the sale, the state obtained only about $300,000.  In October, 1861, the national Government paid $80,000 into the sate treasury.


It was August, 1861, before any Iowa troops took part in an actual battle.  For weeks before this, Union troops, many of whom were from Iowa, had been in service in Missouri.  They ran down small bands of rebels and tried to bring the main Southern army there to a real battle.  Missouri was a battleground at the start because the people were divided into Northern and Southern parties.

Two large groups of Southern soldiers had united to make a force of 10,000.  A Union army of 5,400 men, under General Lyon, met this large army at Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Missouri.  A desperate battle was fought on August 10.  The First Iowa Regiment was in the center of the fighting and had heavy losses.  The Union army lost 1,235 men and the Southern army about 1,300.  The battle lasted all day without a real victory for either side.  The Southern commander said:  "Probably no two forces ever fought with greater desperation."  President Lincoln ordered a special proclamation of thanks for the heroism of the men at Wilson's Creek, to be read before every regiment in the service.

The men of the First Iowa Regiment had enlisted for but three months.  Soon after the battle at Wilson's Creek their time was up and they marched home.  Many of them enlisted again in new companies and became officers.  The First Regiment, as such, was never reorganized.

The war in Missouri, in which Iowa soldiers played an important part, became largely a task of chasing down bands of Southerners.  There were few battles.  Many small groups of men from the Southern side would band themselves together, make an attack, break up their band and go back home.  It was difficult for the Union soldiers to locate such bands.  Fighting such as that is sometimes called "guerrilla warfare."


Two minor battles were fought, both of which were lost by the Union force.  At Blue Mills the Third Iowa Regiment marched into an ambush; that is, Southern soldiers who were in hiding.  Four thousand Southern soldiers fired into the Union troops from both sides and made them retreat in disorder.  At Belmont, on the Mississippi, General Grant led an attack which at first was successful.  The inexperienced Union troops were overjoyed at their victory.   But the defeated Southerners were joined by fresh troops and came back to battle.  The Northern forces were now outnumbered and being taken by surprise, were defeated.

In January, 1862, General Grant captured Fort Henry and moved to attack Fort Donelson, both in Kentucky.  Several Iowa regiments took an important part in General Grant's attack.  Major General H. W. Halleck, who was in charge of all the Union forces in the West, on Feb. 18, 1862, sent the following telegram to Iowa's Adjutant-General Baker:  "The Second Iowa infantry proved themselves the bravest of the brave.  They had the honor of leading the column which entered Fort Donelson."  The capture of Fort Donelson is sometimes called the turning point of the war.

The bloodiest battle west of the Mississippi River was fought at Pea Ridge, Arkansas.  Iowa's own general, S. R. Curtis, was in charge of the Union forces.  Nearly all of the Iowa troops that were not with Grant at Fort Donelson were with General Curtis at Pea Ridge.  The Southern forces were under General Van Horn and outnumbered the Northern army by many thousands.  The battle lasted three days, March 6, 7, and 8, 1862.  The first two days of the battle were very much against the Union forces.  They were driven back and nearly surrounded.  On the third day, however, they were victorious and drove the Southern army into the Ozark Mountains.

Another Iowa general, F. J. Herron, was in command of the last important battle fought west of the Mississippi.  Outnumbered in this battle, too, the Union forces fought and won a brilliant victory at Prairie Grove, Arkansas, Dec. 7, 1862.  It is said that artillery was used to better advantage by General Herron, and played a more important part there, than in any other battle of the war.

Thirty regiments from Iowa took part in the siege of Vicksburg.  By this time all had become seasoned soldiers.  The siege lasted for forty-tow days and nights, during which time there was continuous fighting.  Finally, on July 4, 1863, Vicksburg was captured.  The power of the Southern Confederacy was broken.

Besides the battles that have been mentioned, Iowans were in the Chattanooga campaign and in Banks' Red River expedition.  Fifteen Iowa regiments took part in the siege of Atlanta; seventeen regiments were in Sherman's march to the sea; and three regiments fought under Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1864.  Twelve regiments took part in the fighting at Mobile Bay in April, 1865.  Thus Iowa was well represented throughout the war and her soldiers won fame for their bravery.  Four Iowans, Samuel R. Curtis, Frederick Steele, Grenville M. Dodge, and Francis J. Herron, won the rank of major-general.


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