The Sacred Cause of Union: Iowa in the Civil War

The Sacred Cause of Union: Iowa in the Civil War

by Thomas R. Baker


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The Sacred Causeof Union highlights Iowans’ important role in reuniting the nation when the battle over slavery tore it asunder. In this first-ever survey of the state’s Civil War history, Thomas Baker interweaves economics, politics, army recruitment, battlefield performance, and government administration. Scattered across more than a dozen states and territories, Iowa’s fighting men marched long distances and won battles against larger rebel armies despite having little food or shelter and sometimes poor equipment. On their own initiative, the state’s women ventured south to the battlefields to tend to the sick and injured, and farm families produced mountains of food to feed hungry federal armies. In the absence of a coordinated military supply system, women’s volunteer organizations were instrumental in delivering food, clothing, medicines, and other supplies to those who needed them. All of these efforts contributed mightily to the Union victory and catapulted Iowa into the top circle of most influential states in the nation.

To shed light on how individual Iowans experienced the war, the book profiles six state residents. Three were well-known. Annie Wittenmyer, a divorced woman with roots in Virginia, led the state’s efforts to ship clothing and food to the soldiers. Alexander Clark, a Muscatine businessman and the son of former slaves, eloquently championed the rights of African Americans. Cyrus Carpenter, a Pennsylvania-born land surveyor anxious to make his fortune, served in the army and then headed the state’s Radical Republican faction after the war, ultimately being elected governor.

Three never became famous. Ben Stevens, a young, unemployed carpenter, fought in an Iowa regiment at Shiloh, and then transferred to a Louisiana African American regiment so that he could lead the former slaves into battle. Farm boy Abner Dunham defended the Sunken Road at the Battle of Shiloh, before spending seven grim months in Confederate prison camps. The young Charles Musser faced pressure from his neighbors to enlist and from his parents to remain at home to work on the farm. Soon after he signed on to serve the Union, he discovered that his older brother had joined the Confederate Army. Through the letters and lives of these six Iowans, Thomas Baker shows how the Civil War transformed the state at the same time that Iowans transformed the nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609384357
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Series: Iowa and the Midwest Experience Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 755,144
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Thomas R. Baker is the associate dean of students at the University of Iowa. A judicial administrator since 1988, he specializes in civil rights investigations. He lives in Muscatine with his partner, Neva Rettig Baker.

Read an Excerpt

The Sacred Cause of Union

Iowa in the Civil War

By Thomas R. Baker

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-436-4


The Storm before the Hurricane

A series of disruptive events rocked the state of Iowa several years before the Deep South states seceded from the Union. Starting in 1854, proslavery thugs in Kansas Territory harassed free-state settlers on a scale that intimidated Iowans, living in the closest free-state jurisdiction to Kansas. The violence had not abated by 1857, the year the regional economy collapsed. Every state in the Union suffered in this financial panic, but none experienced as deep a depression as Iowa. The 1857 credit crisis struck just when Iowans feared proslavery forces would migrate north to Nebraska and Iowa.

Extremely high voter participation reflected the intense disenchantment. In 1860, 90 percent of the state's eligible voters cast a presidential ballot. Iowans blamed Eastern capitalists for the credit crisis and Southern slaveholders for terrorizing free-state Kansans, and the confluence of the two inflamed their passions. The sudden refusal of financiers to lend money affected everyone. More than half of the state's residents had arrived just a few years earlier with little capital. Individual families had borrowed heavily to purchase land and build homes, and many incorporated towns and counties had borrowed much larger sums to build local infrastructure. As thousands of Western debtors faced bankruptcy, the rate of in-migration dwindled to almost nothing. Rather than relocate to the New West, people stayed put in the Eastern United States.

The Origins of the Credit Crisis

The inflationary spiral began in February 1857, the month when East Coast bankers first downgraded the value of paper securities issued by twenty-two Illinois banks. With no Federal paper currency in circulation, Illinois banknotes served as the primary currency in Iowa. When indebted Western merchants discounted the value of the banknotes paid to them by indebted Western farmers, the economy began to unravel. Orders for Eastern goods dropped precipitously as Western merchants scrambled to collect the money they had lent to farmers and shopkeepers. As inflation rose, Eastern lenders stopped lending money on credit. In October, the editor of the Keokuk Gate City noted that the "country merchants owe the city merchants, the farmers owe the country merchants, and neither at the western end, nor in the middle, nor in the east end of this linked chain of debt is there any money."

Every county, town, and rural village in the state felt the harsh effects of the Panic of 1857. One desperate Delaware County farmwife in the spring of 1860 appealed to relatives in Rhode Island for cash. "Eastern money is good here but Western money won't go at the East." Property owners, unable to resolve their debts or collect on debts owed by others, stopped paying their county taxes. As a result, counties owed the state treasurer nearly $400,000 in back taxes, an amount exceeding the annual state government expenses. The state owed its creditors $300,000. Municipal and county governments owed much more, having borrowed more than $7 million before 1857. Governing boards in several towns and counties attempted to repudiate their debts by canceling the loans unilaterally.

The 1857 credit crisis struck Iowa when relatively few miles of railroad track had been laid. Iron tracks that began near the Mississippi River ended abruptly in dirt paths. The railroad stopped eighty miles short of Des Moines, the state capital. On the banks of the Mississippi, unused steamboats moored quietly, and unfinished canal projects stood silent. "I am sick of this whole state and all its associations," Cyrus Carpenter confided to a friend in 1859. Without incoming migrants, the young bachelor found little work surveying land near Fort Dodge. He wondered if the boom years would ever return.

The economic stagnation did prompt some residents to exit the Hawkeye state. Carpenter, a Pennsylvania native, was one of them. He left Fort Dodge for Pikes Peak, Colorado, in 1859. After promising his fiancée he would return with money filling his pockets, he joined the caravan of gold-seekers.

Most Iowans endured the credit crisis as best they could, staying put in part because of Iowa's status as a nonslave jurisdiction. Most of the state's residents had earlier chosen Iowa over Missouri because slavery existed in the latter state, and in looking ahead they expected future migrants would do the same. Convinced that slavery would forever burden Southern states, Iowans assumed the boom years of the early 1850s would eventually return to their adopted state, as long as the nation remained united and a majority of its citizens continued to control the destiny of the nation.

To stimulate the economy and migration, anxious Iowans demanded Federal railroad projects, navigation improvements, and other measures. Both parties endorsed the proposed Homestead Act, a bill that would eliminate the per-acre fee Federal officials charged for unsold land. Ninety-seven percent of all public land in Iowa had been sold already, but across the Missouri River sat millions of unsold acres. Once Nebraska Territory was occupied by white settlers, Iowans expected the land rush would boost their own state's economy and revive plummeting real estate prices.

Iowa's Primitive Economic Infrastructure

Frontier states were particularly vulnerable to the aftereffects of Eastern financial panics, and in Iowa the 1857 credit crisis struck before the first generation of settlers could establish a system of regional economic distribution. The state's population had grown to 674,000 souls, but only six towns in the entire state exceeded 5,000 inhabitants. The census-taker counted fewer than 4,000 residents in Des Moines. Dubuque, the oldest and most populous town due to the lead mining boom of the 1830s, had 13,000 residents. At the time Carpenter migrated to Colorado, only 2,500 whites inhabited his home of Webster County, situated eighty miles west of the nearest railhead, in Cedar Falls.

In Iowa's largest Mississippi River ports, buildings constructed in the boom years stood silent. Grandiose plans to complete a series of railroads from Chicago to the Missouri River gathered dust. Of Iowa's many Mississippi River ports, only Davenport enjoyed a direct railroad connection to Chicago by the start of the Civil War. Without railroads, most Iowa merchants relied on steamboats to export produce and import manufactured goods, a mode of transportation restricted by seasonal changes in the water level. Not only did low water and high water prevent navigation, but when the water reached a moderate level, two sets of natural rapids inhibited boat traffic. Boats steaming up from St. Louis usually docked in Keokuk rather than challenge the rapids between that port and Fort Madison. Travelers disembarked at Keokuk and hauled their goods by road thirteen miles upstream, then reembarked on smaller vessels for the journey upstream. Eighty miles upstream, near Davenport, steamboat captains encountered a second series of water obstacles.

The dilapidated state of Iowa's housing in 1860 would dismay modern-day travelers. River port residents built simple frame houses using local hardwood and shopped at Main Street storefronts adorned with crudely made bricks. Because few fences had been erected, farm animals frequently wandered off nearby farms and into the ports. Farther to the west, simple log cabins became more common. Without milled lumber, residents constructed shelters as best they could, stacking logs to form walls, then packing clay soil between the logs to keep out the wind and rain. For roofing, pioneers cut shakes four feet long from the trunks of large trees. Chimneys were made of field stones molded with clay soil. Lacking plank roads and bridges, Iowans in their animal-drawn wagons bounced along on ungraded dirt paths and forded creeks and rivers. Seasonal floods stopped traffic in both directions until the high water receded and the mud roads dried.

The 89,000 farm families in Iowa often found it difficult to produce enough food to sustain and nourish family members. Having only recently broken the turf, the vast majority of farmers could plant only a modest amount of grain. Most owned a small number of domesticated animals, and one-cow families were common. The weather patterns of the 1850s brought too much rain or too little. Insect plagues and prairie fires further reduced crop production. "Early frosts in the fall and late frosts in the spring, chinch bugs, wet weather, sore feet, sore hands, dead cattle, etc.," noted Sarah Kenyon, a Delaware County farmwife, in a letter to relatives in New England. She wrote that when she went out to work "something not very much akin to gratitude swells in my bosom for ... it is hard to see everything laid waste." Most farm families relied on wild game and berries and nuts to supplement a diet of homegrown cornmeal and vegetables.

To survive, rural Iowans turned to their neighbors for assistance. With food and currency both in short supply, cooperative resource sharing sustained many rural neighborhoods. Farmers traded produce for shoes and cloth, and swapped one type of produce for another. Families close to starving offered their labor in exchange for food. At the start of the war, a typical farm family owed favors to a list of neighbors, while another list of neighbors owed favors to them.

The frontiersmen's work ethic caught the attention of one Hungarian immigrant who farmed in south-central Iowa in the 1850s. In a letter home, he observed that "the American ... minds his own business, and when he works at something he does not understand, he keeps at it until he learns it. All men make their own luck here."

The letters of the Hungarian transplant also testify to Iowans' pride in self-governance. A university graduate forced to flee Europe for political reasons, he found his English-speaking neighbors quite unlike European peasants. Although poorly educated, rural Iowans regularly engaged in political discussions. Despite all the talk and speculation, however, few residents in 1860 could have imagined the enormity of events to come.

Annie Wittenmyer, Alexander Clark, Ben Stevens, Abner Dunham, Cyrus Carpenter, and Charles Musser all were swept up in these most challenging circumstances. The fact that their families struggled economically during the years before the war compounded the task of preparing for war. Their experiences offer a window on how Iowans coped with the burden of war.

Keokuk and the Wittenmyer Family

The prewar credit crisis hit Keokuk particularly hard. Lawyer Samuel F. Miller, a Keokuk businessman who amassed $40,000 worth of paper assets before 1857, saw his fortune disappear almost overnight. A plot of land valued at $1,000 in 1856 could not be sold two years later, even at the cellar price of $10. In hopes of building a rail line to Des Moines, the port's governing council sold bonds to Eastern investors in the early 1850s. When railroad construction halted far short of its target following the Panic of 1857, the port owed $900,000 to Eastern lenders. In 1858, the value of taxable property in Keokuk dropped by $5.5 million, and many of those owing taxes failed to pay. Civic employees did not receive their wages as a result of the lack of tax revenue.

Merchant William Wittenmyer, like Samuel Miller, feared he would lose his business enterprise and real estate holdings to creditors. William and his wife Annie also feared losing their newly built home. The couple had dedicated themselves to improving Keokuk since their arrival in 1850, and the possibility of bankruptcy represented a severe threat. Prior to the credit collapse, William accumulated real estate in several towns near the Missouri-Iowa border, where he resold merchandise purchased in St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. He had located his chief retail outlet in Centerville, the Appanoose County seat eighty miles west of Keokuk. As the population of Appanoose County tripled in size between 1850 and 1856, merchants like Wittenmyer earned a handsome profit buying clothing and dry goods on credit in Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio, and then routing the merchandise by steamboat upriver through Keokuk for transportation by wagon cart to Centerville. As the population of Keokuk climbed from 2,500 to 8,100 during the six-year period, William and Annie built their large colonial-style home near Main Street, valued at more than $10,000. In 1856, 700 new homes and business facilities were built in the Gate City, construction that generated work for a multitude of sawmill hands, brickmakers, and carpenters.

The credit crunch put intermediaries like Wittenmyer in a tight situation. William owed money to businessmen in other states, but he could not pay off his debts until his customers in Centerville paid off their debts to him. He owned full title to Annie's dream house in Keokuk, yet he could not afford to pay his annual property taxes. Pressed by his creditors, William sued customers in Centerville, only to find his customers short of currency. In 1859, William signed a deed granting Annie a life interest in their new home, a tactic frequently used by American businessmen anxious to discourage creditors from seizing a debtor's personal assets. William and Annie Wittenmyer survived 1859 and 1860 without being evicted, but creditors, both private and public entities, would come calling if the economic malaise continued. Unless back taxes were paid in full, the Lee County treasurer intended to put their property on the public auction block.

The appearance of Keokuk in 1860 reflected the scale of the economic depression. Home to 431 merchants in 1856, Keokuk's commercial district seemed nearly deserted two years later. Empty storefronts sat abandoned, unfinished construction projects stood silent, unrepaired sidewalks hindered shoppers, and the gas lampposts, the pride of the city, remained unlit. Nearly every mill and brickyard had closed, and saloons did a brisk business among the unemployed while few steamboats docked along the riverfront. With few police officers available to keep order, gangs of dockworkers fought to control the handful of freight-handling jobs still available.

The persistent economic crisis compelled Annie Wittenmyer to rededicate herself to volunteer charity work. During the boom years, she had led charity drives for the local Methodist church, and as the need for food and clothing multiplied, she felt an obligation to expand the scale of her work. In the worst times during the 1850s, Annie looked to her church congregation and family for comfort and strength. Her parents, John G. and Elizabeth C. Turner, and her five siblings had followed Annie and William to Keokuk in 1853. On their 300-acre farm five miles west of the port, the Turner family harvested grain and raised livestock. They also maintained a large garden, which supplied friends and relatives with vegetables and fruit during the leanest years.

Persistent economic stress took a toll on the Wittenmyers' marriage, which was fragmenting for a variety of reasons. By 1860, William and Annie spent much of their time apart. William's two daughters by his first wife had married and moved to the Centerville area, leaving Annie's four-year-old son as the only child at their manor in Keokuk. Four other children born to Annie died during the 1850s, tragic events that apparently aggravated the growing religious gulf between husband and wife. A dedicated spiritualist, William skipped Methodist church services and met instead with others interested in communicating with deceased relatives. William's practice of attending séances disturbed Annie, a devout Trinitarian Christian.

Filling the needs of impoverished Keokuk residents helped Annie cope with the loss of her children and the frequent absences of her husband. At this critical time, she found herself inundated with requests from poor families for food and clothing. While William tended to his business affairs, Annie focused her attention on the welfare of Keokuk's most vulnerable families. She joined with other Keokuk women charity workers to establish a system for securing local donations and distributing food and clothing locally. "She went from house to house among the poor," noted a minister, "carried baskets of food, bundles of clothing, ordered fuel, visited the sick, [and] attended their funerals ... In herself was a whole committee of the Mercy and Help department." In the case of severely ill women who were unable to afford hospital care, Annie invited them into her two-story home where she could provide personal nursing care. Convinced that men had little or no ability to nurture the downtrodden, she and her female colleagues in Keokuk's charity system resisted attempts by leading male citizens of the community to minimize their leadership.

Muscatine and the Clark Family

Sixty miles upstream from Keokuk, citizens in the port of Muscatine contemplated an uncertain future in 1860. The city government's debt to Eastern creditors exceeded the value of its total assets. As in other river towns, a lack of available credit continued to stall economic growth. Before 1857, hundreds of migrants settled on farmland in the county or came to the bustling port to find work as laborers. Now, few migrants passed through the area. Muscatine's sawmills cut relatively little lumber, and the port's iron foundry operated with a skeleton crew. Without much industry, the port's population seemed stuck at about 5,300. Local investors directed much of the blame at Davenport, the transportation center twenty-five miles upstream that had eclipsed Muscatine as the chief commercial point between Burlington and Dubuque. Although a rail line connected Muscatine to Davenport, the rival river port controlled the direct rail connection to Chicago. Muscatine's own railroad endeavor, a project designed to run west of Muscatine through Washington County to Oskaloosa, remained in the planning phases due to a lack of funds.


Excerpted from The Sacred Cause of Union by Thomas R. Baker. Copyright © 2016 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction I

Chapter 1 The Storm before the Hurricane 4

Chapter 2 The Military Frenzy 31

Chapter 3 United in Spirit If Not in Readiness 62

Chapter 4 Preserving Missouri for the Union 83

Chapter 5 Blood Sacrifice 102

Chapter 6 Radical Impulse in the New West 126

Chapter 7 The Militant Class of 1862 146

Chapter 8 1863: Triumph in Mississippi and Arkansas 166

Chapter 9 1864: A Heightened Level of Violence 192

Chapter 10 The Radical Legacy 213

Epilogue 237

Notes 253

Index 277

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