Recently, I was having a conversation about World War II with my children. As the discussion progressed, I told them that it was important for them to learn about that time in history, because those things should never be forgotten. I told them that they needed to remember and carry that knowledge forward into the next generation.
Later, I was driving along and thinking about what I had told them. As my thoughts progressed, I thought of another, equally as terrible conflict that our great state was involved in – the American Civil War.
The first tremors of the Civil War came early in American history. Over the years leading up to the war, Iowa and the rest of the nation were embroiled in serious social and political debate. Although the debates over issues like slavery ebbed and flowed, by the 1860’s, Iowa was very much pro-Union and anti-slavery.
In 1861, the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Almost immediately, President Abraham Lincoln sent out a call to all the remaining states of the Union to supply volunteers for the war effort. Iowans eagerly volunteered. They rapidly filled the initial call for 90-day enlistments, and continued to supply men for the rest of the war.
The volunteers, much like today, came from all walks of life. Carpenters, lawyers, doctors, and laborers would fight side by side. Some joined out of a sense of patriotism; others wanted to further political aspirations. Some wanted to fight against slavery, while others just wanted to get away from the family farm and see the world.
Whatever their reason, Iowans stepped forward and answered their nations’ call.
After enlisting, the brand new soldiers would say goodbye to their families and friends, and set out from home. Mostly, after a short training period at places like Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, they would set out with their regiments to wherever they were needed.
One such group, the 4th Iowa Infantry from southwest Iowa, marched south to Rolla, Missouri. From there, they would march still further south to fight Rebels near Springfield. Eventually, they would help to oust Confederate forces from the region at the climactic Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas.
A short while after that, they would march south to Vicksburg, Mississippi and would become a part of the siege on that city. At that time, Vicksburg was thought to be vital to the control of the Mississippi River, and so much effort would go into its capture.
The first battle that the 4th Iowa Infantry would be part of there was Chickasaw Bayou in 1862, which would be a dismal failure. They would continue to participate in various other battles during the siege, and would eventually help in capturing Vicksburg in July of 1863.
Other Iowans would face the Confederate tide at a place in southern Tennessee called Shiloh Church. The first truly grand scale battle of the Civil War, the battle was an effort by Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnson to take the Union forces by surprise and annihilate their army.
Unfortunately for him, he was unable to do so, despite being initially successful on the first day of the battle. Part of the reason for this was a group of stubborn Iowans in a stand of trees who refused to retreat. The fighting was so intense that Confederates would name it the “Hornet’s Nest,” due to the sound of so many bullets whizzing through the air.
Although they were eventually surrounded and captured, their valiant effort helped to prevent a complete rout of Northern forces that day.
On the home front, women did their part, as well. In addition to the more traditional roles of serving as nurses in hospitals both at home and on the field, some stepped forward to handle other issues. One of these women was Annie Whittenmyer.
Annie Whittenmyer, a young widow, travelled south from Iowa to visit her younger brother, who had been wounded in Missouri. She was horrified at what he had to eat, and she immediately approached Union army officials about the issue. She felt that soldiers would never be able to recover eating only coffee, a slice of bread, and bacon. They needed good food, and she was determined that they would get it. Eventually, the U.S. Christian Commission would provide funding for kitchens that would provide decent food, thanks in part to her efforts.
Later, she would establish an orphan’s home for the children of Civil War veterans who had perished in the conflict in Davenport, Iowa.
Although the Civil War lasted only a few years, the repercussions of the war lasted for years. Like World War II later, the American landscape would be forever changed. Over 600,000 men died during the years between 1861 and 1865, with many others emotionally and physically scarred for the rest of their lives.
For the first time, the United States was truly that – one united nation. One of the most dividing issues for the country – slavery – had been abolished, and millions of blacks in the south were now free for the first time in their lives.
Any way that you look at it, the effects of the American Civil War had a long and permanent change on the American landscape. Iowans had an important role to play in that, a fact that we should all be proud of. Because of this, and the sacrifice of thousands of brave Americans on both sides of the issue, the Civil War should continue to be remembered and the knowledge passed on to our future generations.