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Military: Civil War



The Civil War Journey of

the 21st Regiment of Iowa Volunteer Infantry



It is one thing to think of dead men in the aggregate, but something else again to consider them as individuals, whether Yank or Reb. When one knows something of the real person, a degree of sympathy sometimes develops.1

"Letters written in moments of leisure are probably the best source material for the Civil War historian who wants to know what the soldier did and thought."2

    “The history of a country is best told in a record of the lives of its people.”3

The past presents itself before the eyes of those who know how to see it.”4

A news article said “there were 16 million men and women in the armed forces of the United States during World War II. Don’t you think that each one of them had a story?5 The same can be said of the Civil War. In 1885, Samuel Kirkwood, Iowa’s wartime Governor, implored veterans to preserve their wartime memories. “Write out these stories you so love to tell and to hear,” he said, “and place them in our State Historical Society for preservation . . . that in the distant future will excite the smiles of those now unborn.”6

It’s these stories of real people of whom I now write - soldiers at war, far from home, who suffered hardship, disease, wounds and homesickness - wives and parents and children who struggled to survive and, too often, learned their soldier would not be coming home.

Whether known as the Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Attempted Secession to Walt Whitman, the War of the Rebellion to Congress, the War of Yankee Aggression, the War of Southern Independence, the War of 1861, the War for the Suppression of the Rebellion of the Seceded States, the Scorpion War, the “late unpleasantness” or any of its many other names, America's great internal war was, if nothing else, an interlude, a devastating four year interlude, in the history of a country and the lives of its citizens. It has been chronicled by participants, archivists and historians. It has been dissected and analyzed and debated for more than a century and a half. The memoirs and actions of its Presidents, political leaders and commanding officers have been well-documented. Major battles have been examined, maps have been drawn, films have been made. Diaries and letters, often well-written, emotional and patriotic, have been published.

For almost forty years, I have read many previous works and reviewed thousands of pages of records, personal letters, diaries, newspapers and reels of microfilm. Included were military records of 444 members of the regiment and pension records for 200, all purchased from the National Archives, the original or transcribed journals kept by six members of the regiment, and a total of 206 letters by thirty members of the regiment (including 134 original letters by Jim Bethard). I have visited numerous cemeteries, talked to hundreds of people and followed routes used by Union infantry in the Trans-Mississippi. From all of this, I was most affected by the personal lives and trials and concerns of the enlisted volunteers and their families.

These were the men in the trenches who died by the thousands and left wives and families at home while they followed what most saw as their patriotic calling. Only a few years earlier they had been young boys. They went to school, played together and helped their parents. They became friends without any premonition of what lay ahead but, when their Presidents called, they went to war.

History books are replete with statistics of how many were killed in battle. Others were maimed for life and graphic photographs show piles of corpses and amputated limbs. The story less told has been the personal one - men doing their duty as they saw it while also worrying about friends and family and crops at home - wives who cared for children, ran households and businesses, entered the classroom and "followed the plow" - relatives who grieved for distant soldiers - civilians who died while sons, husbands and fathers were gone - the awful routine of death.

Men in Northern regiments were not always outfitted in pretty blue uniforms with shiny buttons. Thousands of Confederates never saw the grey uniforms with which they are commonly associated. For much of the war, Grant did not command the North and Lee did not command the South. Rarely mentioned are the large numbers of immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Germany, Austria and elsewhere who willingly went to war for their adopted country. Magnificent battles, daring charges and personal bravery are extolled, but not every battle was a turning point. Brief skirmishes, guerrilla raids and sniping by sharpshooters were a daily occurrence. Of more than 10,000 engagements, only a few have names that are recognizable.

Not every charge was glorious and heroic. Men died, often in great pain, armless, legless, thirsting for water, ravaged by disease. Not all were noble and brave. Desertions were sometimes rampant, the draft was frequently evaded, bounty jumpers were not uncommon and loyalties wavered. They were, after all, human. Mentioned far less than popular battles with dashing cavalry and shining sabers is the low, debilitating death from illness. Many more died from disease than from battle, especially in the west. Rarely mentioned are the long, tedious marches, months between engagements, the frustration and boredom of inactivity. There are too few accounts of what happened to these men after the war, what lives they returned to, how they continued to suffer and die from war-related illness, wounds and injuries, and how they fought new battles for meager pensions. Perhaps this account will fill a void.

Iowa was young and predominantly agricultural when the war began and only a small percentage of those who enlisted from the state were native born. The state’s 21st infantry joined the war during its second year when James and Caroline Bethard were working a rented farm along a small stream in the northeastern part of the state. Jim, his brother, an uncle and a cousin enlisted while Cal saw not only her husband, but also four brothers and five cousins enroll.

Jim entered the war as a private and was discharged as a private. His name is in no history books, but he exemplifies the infantrymen who carried the muskets, did what they were told and fought the good fight. In his letters to Cal, he mentions numerous other people - their daughter Nellie, his father Alexander, his brother Jonathan, his sisters and aunts and uncles, and his inlaws, Joel and Sarah Rice. He discusses Union and Confederate officers and enlisted men from his own regiment to the Ohio regiments of his boyhood friends. Most of these people have been identified; only a few remain unknown. While the focus is on Jim’s regiment, contemporaneous reference will be made to friends and relatives serving elsewhere. This may temporarily break the continuity, but only a chronological discussion can keep their respective movements in proper perspective.

Figures given for troop strength and casualties were usually estimates that varied greatly depending on who gave them. Names, spellings, dates and other details were frequently wrong even in well known works by respected authors. Men sometimes spelled their own names differently from one day to the next. One person attributes an incident to one date, another to a different date. First person letters and diaries written by men sharing the same tent give irreconcilably different accounts of the same event. Apparently reliable public records, personal documents, family Bibles, government records, obituaries, death certificates, birth certificates and gravestones differ regarding dates of births and deaths. Days of the week do not always correspond with the dates given for those days; was the day correct, or the date, or neither? Sometimes differences can be reconciled, mistakes corrected or reasonable assumptions made; other times they cannot.

Jim’s letters and letters by others are presented verbatim. Where capitals or punctuation were omitted by the writers, they have not been added. Misspellings remain. Where words were missing, they are still missing. Where words were repeated, the repetitions remain. The reader can make the corrections as well as I. In addition to Jim's letters, comments of others are liberally quoted, some with attribution, some without, but all believed accurate and all directly related to the incident portrayed although some of these are from transcriptions and appear to have had corrections made.

In the words of Colin Powell, we "all are the products of our time" and I hope readers will not be offended by the vernacular of the time or any of Jim's comments. Sometimes writing with a dry sense of humor, his letters exhibit the formality common of the era. He loved his wife but Caroline was "Dear wife." His father-in-law was "father" or "uncle Joel." A "smutty" poem might be sent to Caroline's brother, but never to her. From a family of abolitionists, Jim's frustration at the pace of the war becomes evident as he is taken farther and farther from home and wishes "all the niggers were back in Africa." Offensive and demeaning today, "nigger" and "negro" were terms of the times; he should not be blamed for their use. Similarly, it was an age for clear separation of the sexes. What man today would tell his wife he would not let her cut her hair? What man would tell her, in writing no less, that she looked fat?

Men who thought they would win a war and be back with their families in a few months were gone for years. They suffered from uncommon illness, often had little food, slept on the ground and saw friends suffer and die with regularity. Frustrations surfaced, sometimes verbally, sometimes violently. Furloughs and leaves of absence were stretched from weeks to months. Some men deserted. Stragglers tarried. Some died "from homesickness," some wrote sentimental or patriotic poetry and others wrote letters expressing love and yearning for wives and children. However worded, feelings were always expressed with strict propriety. Men cared strongly for their dying comrades, but accepted suffering stoically. Dwelling on death could be self-destructive.

My personal interest does not end with this account and I welcome comments, corrections and additional information. Due to the extent and detail of the material included, errors are likely and I will welcome assistance in correcting the record. The function of a preface is, after all, “to ingratiate the author with the reader in a naive effort to forestall criticism by a show of modesty.7 Where information was conflicting, I either omitted it completely or utilized what appeared most likely to be accurate. In most instances, I have omitted considerably more information and documentation than space permits me to include. If readers recognize relatives or familiar names or have their interest otherwise piqued, they should feel free to contact me. My telephone number is listed.

I ask little of the reader, merely that you try to experience the lives of these participants, understand their changing emotions and appreciate their feelings and frustrations. See how their lives and the lives of their families were affected during and after the war. Feel it. Share in their joys and sorrows. It was a very long, difficult and destructive war. And, sometime, stop at a roadside cemetery and visit a veteran or members of his family. I’ve placed flowers on the graves of Julia and Ida Purdy, Margaret Drummond and Elizabeth Allen whose stores follow and visited the graves of dozens of soldiers who served in the regiment. Each has a story and each deserves our remembrance.


Carl F. Ingwalson, Jr.

San Diego, California

1 James Lee McDonough, War in Kentucky (The University of Tennessee Press 1994), page 301.

2 Mildred Throne, Iowa Journal of History p.153 (April 1958).

3 Macaulay

4 Lily Deveze, Carcassonne and the Cather Castles (2015).

5 Harry Ettlinger, translator for the “Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Allied armies that was charged with safe-guarding cultural treasurers threatened by the fighting and retrieving those stolen and stockpiled as future trophies for Adolf Hitler’s bizarre conceit:the Führermuseum.” Lily Rothman, The Art of War. The Monuments Men Recalls Fight at the Museum. Time Magazine (February 17, 2014)>

6 Lathrop, The Life and Times of Samuel J. Kirkwood, page 397.

7 G. W. Dalzell.

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