LYON COUNTY GENEALOGY
THE "IMMORTAL FIRST IOWA"
There was wild excitement at the steamboat landing at Burlington on the seventh of May 1861. Company E of the First Iowa was embarking for Keokuk, where it would join the rest of the regiment and march on to war. War was something new, very thrilling and exciting. Only here and there in the crowd was a tear brushed away by some mother or sweetheart. With the colors flying, the band playing "The Girl I Left Behind Me," and the soldiers in their bright-colored uniforms, it was a stirring and martial occasion.
The women of Burlington had been weeks making those uniforms, and their husbands, brothers and lovers were going into battle as they would have them look, like conquering heroes. Every one of the seventy-eight men had gray blue coats, tight at neck, sleeve and wrist. Their trousers were of "heavy buckskin type and color," and the whole uniform was trimmed with strips of Venetian red. Every man wore on his head a dashing hat of a black felt hunting pattern with a gay red cockade worn jauntily on the side. The gentle hoop-skirted women who had spent so many hours sewing on these bright trimmings did not realize they would make excellent targets for Rebel guns.
Amid cheers of farewell the boat, with colors flying, steamed off down the river. Back to the waters on the shore floated the sounds of "Dixie Land," for that song was not then considered the property of the South.
After all the glory of departure, there were long hard days for the First Iowa in Keokuk. Not all the people in the southern part of the State were wholesouled Northerners and some of the southern sympathizers tried to win the war by selling the boys poisoned pies and doped beer. The regiment was made up of volunteers, with inexperienced officers. There were troubles and riots on every hand.
When the shipment of guns, for which they had waited so long, finally came they were marked "U.S.A. 1829," having been used in the Black Hawk War. But guns meant that some day they would get into battle, after long, tiresome days in camp. The homesick soldiers named the old muskets "Hannah" or "Mary-Jane" or Silver Sue" after the girls they'd left behind them.
Fifty days passed and it seemed to the men that all the three months for which they had enlisted would be wasted without a fight. They were eager to get into battle and at last the call came to move down into Missouri and enemy territory. On June 13th they embarked on the Mississippi and landed at Hannibal, from which they were taken by train across the State to Renick, near Booneville on the Missouri River.
Then the fresh recruits realized that the country was at war for there were indications of a recently fought battle. General Jackson's army had been almost defeated and was in retreat. They were to follow. So they took up the march, singing at the top of their lungs, "The Happy Land of Canaan."
General Nathaniel B. Lyon, who commanded the Union army, watched the Iowa regiment swing along. "See those Iowa grey-hounds stretch out when the sing, "The Happy Land of Canaan," he said to one of his officers.
War was still a glorious adventure to these volunteers. Their officers had a habit of attaching the name of the State to their commands. "Forward, Iowa," "Halt, Iowa." It was a thing of pride to be marching as to war.
Then came gray days. As they followed the retreating army to Springfield they marched through a deluge of rain, waded through mud, and ate their food raw, for there was not a dry twig with which to make a fire. On July 20th, their three months' enlistment was up, but not a man would leave. "A fight or a discharge," they cried and after all it was a fight they wanted.
On August 9th they reached Springfield and knew they would get their wish. The sun was just sinking when the bugle called them to attention. They stood in lines waiting, when out before them rode the wiry little General Lyon. "Men," he called, "We are going to have a fight...We will march out in short time...Don't shoot until you get your orders...Don't get scared...It is no part of a soldier's duty to get scared."
That night there were many fast beating hearts as the soldiers slept on their arms in readiness for the attack. At the first streaks of dawn they were up and advancing into the ravine of Wilson's Creek. There the Confederates were waiting and the full storm of battle broke over them. They stayed by their guns in the midst of it all, with bullets whizzing past them, shells screaming overhead and the thunder of great guns deafening their ears. Comrades fell on every side. As the battle waged they grew hot, their throats were dry and parched. Now and then a soldier would step to give a wounded man a drink from his canteen, but no one broke and ran; no one deserted.
The First Iowa routed a troop of Louisiana men, and picked up their guns with joy. They were marked "U.S.A." but they were new guns without the terrible recoil of the Black Hawk veterans that they had had to use. Another time they faced a Texas regiment and saw a Texas ranger run out in the face of the battle to pick up a fallen Confederate flag. An Iowa man shouted, "Don't shoot" and Iowa guns were quiet a moment to honor the Texan's brave deed.
At last came the final charge that turned the tide of victory for the Union forces. In this General Lyon fell mortally wounded and the moment before he died he said, "Iowa Regiment, you are noble boys." Finally the charge was over, the guns were quieted and one hundred and sixty of the Iowa men lay wounded. Twenty of them would never again return to the State of which they were so proud. As the First Iowa marched back through St. Louis on the way home, triumphal arches were put up for them, the people cheered and school children scattered flowers in their path. They returned home and were mustered out. The war was hardly started but they had done their duty so gloriously that Governor Kirkwood would not let them reorganize again. Most of the men, however, enlisted in other regiments. And all through the Civil War the watchword of the State was, "Remember Wilson's Creek, and the immortal First Iowa."
Source: True Tales of Iowa by Edith Rule, M.A. and William J Petersen, Ph.D., Research Associate in the State Historical Society of Iowa 1932
Provided by Roseanna Zehner, Transcribed by Darlene Jacoby