Forging an identity

Matthew Rezab

When an artillery shell dropped through Wilmer McLean’s kitchen fireplace on July 21, 1861, he decided it was a good time to move.

The First Battle of Bull Run, also known as First Manassas, was the opening large scale battle between Union and Confederate forces… and it was happening in McLean’s front yard. Prudently, he decided to relocate to a safer location — Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Less than five years later, Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy was discussing terms of surrender with the Union’s Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in McLean’s new home. The war had come full circle, not only for McClean, but the entire nation.

From Virginia to the Heartland

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Court House — effectively ending hostilities between the Union and Confederate forces, and allowed the mending of the torn fabric the nation had become.

Iowa soldiers did not play a major role in the final battles around Richmond and Petersburg leading to Lee’s surrender, but that doesn’t mean Iowans’ role in the war was minor or insignificant.

“Most Iowa troops fought in the Western Theater,” said Jerome Thompson, State Curator of the Historical Society of Iowa. “Iowans were at places like Wilson’s Creek in Missouri and Shiloh [and] Vicksburg. [Iowans] also served with William T. Sherman.”

Throughout the war, approximately 79,000 Iowans volunteered for service, 13,000 of whom did not return home. Iowa sent more men per capita than any other state in the Union.

President Lincoln called for each state to raise a regiment of 1,000 soldiers to quell the southern uprising, believing the war would last no longer than six months. Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood worried he’d be able to find the necessary volunteers.

“They only wanted one regiment, but they filled 10,” said Michael Hoskins, senior in history and ROTC cadet.

Warriors from the Hawkeye State were also known for their ferociousness and dedication in battle, especially at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Thousands of Iowans and other Midwesterners held the point long enough at the “Hornet’s Nest”, in the face of wave after wave of Confederate troops and brutal cannon fire, to give Grant time to form a final defensive line and eventually turn the tide of battle.

“You read some stories on them and [the Iowans] were just crazy,” Hoskins said. “They were the Rambos of their time.”

Iowa also has the distinction of being the only state to field a regiment of men all age 45 or older. They were nicknamed the “Grey Beards” and served with distinction.

Maj. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge

Grenville M. Dodge moved from Vermont to Iowa in 1851 after graduating from Norwich University. He spent the next decade of his life as a railroad surveyor until the war broke out and he was appointed Colonel of the 4th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. 

He was later appointed by Grant as commander of a division in the Army of the Tennessee, where his troops aided Grant and Sherman by “rapidly repairing and rebuilding the railroads, bridges and telegraph lines destroyed by the Confederates.” Yet it was Dodge’s acumen as a pioneer of military intelligence and his post-war work for the Union Pacific on the transcontinental railroad.

“If the South tore up some railroad tracks, Dodge was right there rebuilding them, but he also had another role. He headed a spy operation for Grant, and quite a colorful one at that,” said Tom Morain, director of government relations at Grantland University and former administrator for the state historical society.

Dodge utilized human intelligence from runaway slaves, female spies and unionists living in Confederate territory. The network included more than 100 operators and was shrouded in so much secrecy their names remain mostly unknown to this day.

Morain said Dodge is also credited with convincing Lincoln to make Council Bluffs and Omaha the eastern hub of the the transcontinental railroad.

Sarah “Annie” Turner Wittenmyer

Annie Wittenmyer made her way to Keokuk, Iowa in 1850 at the age of 20 and opened a school for underage children. During the war, she cared for Union soldiers, eventually joining the Keokuk Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society.

Wittenmyer is credited with helping to improve conditions for soldiers throughout the Union.

“Back in those the army supplies and field hospitals were pretty retched and she took it upon herself to organize Iowa women to send food, blankets and materials to Union Army hospitals,” Morain said.

After being appointed president of the Iowa State Sanitary Commission, Wittenmyer faced push back from the all-male Iowa Army Sanitary Commission, successfully defending herself from accusations of mismanagement.

By war’s end, the male-dominated army medical department incorporated Wittenmyer’s ideas about sanitation and nutritional ideas in their hospitals.

A New Identity 

When Iowa became a state in 1846, it was still on the frontier of America. There were no true Iowans living there, other than the Native Americans who had managed to hold onto their land. 

“My theory is one of the things that the Civil War did to Iowa was to give it an identity as a state,” Thompson said. “Before the civil war most Iowans were from someplace else. Organizing into volunteer units with friends, relatives [and] neighbors — all fighting together in the same unit was a bonding thing.”

The soldiers’ and Iowa’s new identity was evident in the formation of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization. The GAR became a powerful political entity in Iowa.

“The GAR, was like the American Legion of today, only much stronger,” Morain said.

After the Civil War, Iowa became a Republican stronghold. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln, and Union veterans considered themselves part of Lincoln’s army. The GAR even had an office in the Iowa Statehouse until about 1950, Thompson said. The Republican Party of the 19th century is considered the more liberal of the two major parties. 

“All of that played into the Republicans ability to tar Democrats as the party of the South.” 

When veterans returned home from the battlefield they had formed an identity and reputation as Iowans, but the identities of the wives they returned to had changed as well.

While the men were away fighting, women were forced into unfamiliar roles. Many women became managers of their farms or businesses in addition to their families. Teachers before the Civil War were heavily male, but afterward the profession became dominated by women.

Morain said that eventually women won the right to vote as a result of the changing roles women played during the war. 

“There was a movement and it was gaining strength through the 1870s to extend the vote for women also,” Morain said. “The expansion of the franchise, first for black males and eventually for females was another development that came out of the war.”

Black males age 21 and older were granted the right to vote in Iowa in 1868.

Carrying On The Memory

In addition to becoming an officer in the 168th Iowa Infantry Regiment upon graduation and a historian, Michael Hoskins loves nothing more than to spend a weekend reenacting Civil War battles.

“The Civil War was always something that was very interesting to me growing up,” Hoskins said. “My Sunday school teacher actually turned me onto it. I was like, I wanna do that.”

Hoskins is part of the 15th Iowa Volunteers, a representation of the original regiment. When he participates in a reenactment, he may feel at least a little bit like, Jesse Middleton, his great-great-great grandfather, who served in the 3rd Iowa Regiment in the Civil War.

“For me, if I can get that snippet of where I can forget everything else — the cars, the people in the parking lot and for just a moment say, OK, this is what it was like — that’s great,” Hoskins said. “Minus bullets flying and people dying around you.”

In Memoriam

As we look back 150 years on the ending of a war pitting countrymen against countrymen and brother against brother, the cause and motivation can still be a point of confusion.

“The reasons for the war are not as simple and straight forward as others have portrayed them,” said Kathleen Hilliard, associate professor of history. “It wasn’t simply a matter of slavery or state rights.”

Hilliard said the Union did not originally go to war to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. As the war continued, the reasons for fighting became more complex.

“After the Emancipation Proclamation the meaning changes a bit,” Hilliard said. “There is sort of a larger moral purpose to Union efforts that takes time to take hold.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, along with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution are probably the most important things to come out of the Civil War, Hilliard said.

“Establishing those amendments means that African Americans and Americans broadly are asking this country to live up to the constitution,” Hilliard said. “Whether we are talking about northern or southern people, white or black, the civil war required a new way of thinking about the country, and I think it raised expectations for the country and those expectations have not fully been met yet.”