By James B. McConville
---- — The bursting of shells over Fort Sumpter in April, 1861, had signaled the start of the Great Rebellion. It was to be America’s greatest watershed event, the Civil War. The North had awakened suddenly to the realization that war was a certainty. Throughout the land there had been a deep feeling of indignation at the traitors who were willing to ruin their country that slavery might be secure. The call to arms had been met with great enthusiasm. President Lincoln’s initial call for 75,000 men had soon been met. Many more calls were to follow, eventually totaling over 1.5 million Northern or Union men. And opposing them were over 1 million southern Confederate forces.
Appanoose County had at that time less than 12,000 inhabitants. With a population mainly devoted to agriculture, they knew nothing of war except by history and tradition. The response had been prompt from all parts of the state, and from none more hearty than from Appanoose County. The patriotic county had poured forth for its country’s services a continuous procession of volunteers.
In all nearly 1,200 enlistments were credited to Appanoose County, or about 10 percent of the population and 30 percent of the voting strength. The cost to Appanoose County had been staggering indeed. And after three years of war, the losses had been great. Now it was the spring of 1864.
The first company raised had been Company D, Sixth Infantry Regiment in 1861 with 112 men from Appanoose County under the leadership of their Centerville schoolmaster, Madison Matthew Walden. Already there had been many killed, wounded or disabled at the Battle of Shiloh, the Siege of Corinth, Miss., Gen. Grant’s Central Mississippi Campaign and the siege and battle of Vicksburg in 1863. They had gone on to fight at Chattanooga, Tenn. and Ringgold, Ga. and the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee late in 1863. By the spring of 1864, those remaining were prepared to participate in Gen. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and march through Georgia. Capt. Walden had been disabled by a lung hemorrhage.
Appanoose County had contributed 47 volunteers to the 17th Infantry Regiment, Company F. They too had marched to Corinth and Iuka, Miss. They had fought at Jackson, Miss., Champion Hill, the siege of Vicksburg, Miss. They had fought at Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge, Tenn. Nearly all survivors had reenlisted by the spring of 1864, ready to embark on Gen. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.
The 18th Infantry had had 32 men enlist from Appanoose County. The spring of 1864 saw them fighting in Arkansas along with the 36th Infantry Regiment, largely from Appanoose County. They too had experienced many losses as killed, wounded, captured or otherwise disabled. The 3rd Iowa Cavalry under Col. Cyrus Bussey of Bloomfield had fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge at Elkhorn Tavern, Ark. Detachments had fought at LaGrange, Ark. and Helena, Ark. They had been involved in the siege of Vicksburg and the siege of Jackson, Miss.
There had also been 65 Appanoose County men who had enlisted as part of the 8th Iowa Cavalry Regiment. Their leader was Centerville’s Capt. M. M. Walden, who had recovered and reenlisted in the cavalry. By the spring of 1864, they had already traveled from Louisville, Ky. to cover a wide area of Tennessee from Nashville to the Tennessee River, guarding and protecting the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad right of way. By the spring of 1864 they refitted and advanced to Chattanooga, Tenn., and were placed to the left of Gen. Sherman’s advancing army of 110,000 men. They were headed for Atlanta and Sherman’s march to the sea. That spring they were ready to advance on Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s 64,000 man force at Dalton, Ga.
But by far the largest contingent of Appanoose County men had formed four entire companies of the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment – Companies C, F, G and I plus parts of Company A, E, H and K. Nearly half the total of Appanoose County volunteers had enlisted in the 36th Iowa. All under the leadership of Lt. Col. Francis Marion Drake of Unionville, who had helped to recruit and organize the Appanoose County troops. Drake had been a veteran of the Appanoose County volunteer militia border guards. He had been part of the Missouri Campaign, and had been commissioned lieutenant colonel by Iowa Gov. Kirkwood. Other leaders of the Appanoose troops included Capt. William Vermilion of Company F who had been a physician from Iconium, Capt. Thomas M. Fee of Company G who had been a lawyer from Centerville, and Capt. Joseph Gedney of Company I who had enlisted and was elected captain as a 36 year old farmer from the Bellair-Numa area.
As mentioned in previous articles, the 36th Iowa Infantry troops were seasoned veterans. After training at Camp Lincoln, Keokuk, they had traveled by two steamers down the Mississippi for additional training at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. The previous year they had participated in the ill-fated Yazoo Pass expedition down the Mississippi River to Moon Lake, Yazoo Pass and Coldwater River in an ill- failed attempt to find an alternate passage way around Vicksburg, Miss. They had returned to Helena, Ark., which was an important staging area on the Mississippi. At Helena they had been attacked on July 4, 1863 by Confederate Cavalry troops under Gen. John S. Marmaduke. The Confederates had attempted to divert troops away from the siege of Vicksburg, but their attack had been thwarted by the 36th and 33rd Iowa Infantries, who had spent the previous night felling trees across all the roads leading to Helena.
The 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment men had joined Major Gen. Frederick Steele’s march on Little Rock, Ark. the previous September. Steele’s 7,000 infantry troops had been joined by 6,000 cavalry of Gen. Davidson. They had remained encamped throughout the winter of 1863-64 in the Little Rock area, with occasional forays into the surrounding countryside. With the approach of spring, Gen. Steele’s army had made plans to advance deep into southwest Arkansas. A convergent attack was planned. Gen. Steele’s army was to advance overland and join Gen. Nathaniel Banks at Shreveport, La. Gen. Banks commanded a 10,000 man detachment of Gen. Sherman’s army and had been ordered to head up the Red River to Shreveport.
On March 23, 1864, 150 years ago this month, the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment with Major Gen. Steel’s formidable army, advanced from Little Rock and headed southwest toward Shreveport. Steele took 6,800 troops, leaving the rest of his army to defend Little Rock. He was to be joined at Arkadelphia by 3,600 cavalry troops of Gen. Thayer coming from Ft. Smith, Ark. But things didn’t always go according to plan in the Civil War. He was soon to be faced by former Missouri Gov. Major Gen. Sterling Price, who commanded a formidable force of Confederate cavalry troops composed of rebels from Missouri and Arkansas. The outcome would prove to be disastrous for the 36th infantry and the Appanoose County men, and in what would soon prove to be Appanoose County’s Darkest Day.
To be continued…….