At the Central Community Historical Museum on 6th Avenue in DeWitt, there’s a sword. It sits in a glass case along one wall, humbly and quietly. But that sword bore witness to a violent and bloody event in the lives of some Clinton County, Iowa residents.
Nathaniel A. Merrell was born in New York, became a lawyer, than came to DeWitt with his wife in 1856. He built a successful practice, and life carried on well for him until 1861, when America itself changed forever. The Civil War had begun.
Following a presidential call for 75,000 volunteers to take up arms, Clinton County responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. Hundreds of men would volunteer their service and add their names to the growing muster rolls of the Union Army.
As these brave men fought and died on battlefields like Bull Run, Pea Ridge, and Shiloh, even more volunteers were needed to replace them. In 1862, the 26th Iowa Volunteer Infantry was formed. Consisting mostly of men from Clinton County, this regiment initially stayed at nearby Camp Kirkwood in Davenport, where they received basic military training and equipment. Among those present was Nathaniel Merrell, who was commissioned captain of Company D, and given his sword as not only a weapon, but a symbol of his rank.
By October, the regiment had been sent south to Helena, Arkansas, where they were to join one of the biggest campaigns of the Civil War – U.S. Grant’s assault upon the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the time of the Civil War, Vicksburg was thought to be a vital point along the Mississippi River, and controlling it would enable the North to control that river.
From the beginning, their greatest enemy was illness, which had grown prevalent both in their camps and on the march, partially due to poor weather conditions. At their first major engagement, the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, the 26th were held in reserve and did not fight at all.
In January 1863, the Union commanders in charge of the campaign decided to launch an assault against Fort Hindman, Arkansas. They were afraid that the Confederate troops garrisoned there could attack their forces from behind as the Union tried to capture Vicksburg.
On the night of January 10th, the Union soldiers moved through a dense swamp in the middle of the night to reach their position. As the battle began on the afternoon of January 11th, the 26th took up the forward most position on the left side of the Northern Army. They were heavily bombarded by both musket fire and Confederate artillery, but they fought hard and bravely. And leading Company D was Nathaniel Merrell, probably shouting commands and encouragement to his men, sword held high, fighting alongside the other soldiers. Finally, the Confederates surrendered the fort, and the Union had won. But Merrell paid a heavy cost for his part in the Union victory. During the fighting, he was severely wounded. Of the 26th Iowa, eighteen were killed, and ninety-nine others were wounded, including Merrell.
Merrell was discharged from the army on April 18, 1863, probably because of his wounds. He returned to civilian life and enjoyed a successful political career. His sword was passed down through history, until it was loaned to the museum by its very gracious owners.
If you get a chance, I highly encourage you to go and see Mr. Merrell’s sword. And when you see it, think of his brave deeds, and remember that through it all, that sword was with him, bearing silent witness to the events of those long-ago days.