By J.B. McConville
---- — The Civil War was a watershed event for the entire nation as the North or Union States had been pitted against the South or Confederate States in an epic struggle over states’ rights and ultimately the question of slavery. By the spring of 1863, 150 years ago this month, progress had been slow and uneven. The North had the superiority in men and firepower, but thus far the South had the best General officers. There would be two more years of war yet to come.
Appanoose County was embroiled in the conflict as well. As a border state, there had been a lot of contention for two years. Out of a population of 12,000 mainly devoted to agriculture, the response to the war had been tremendous. The patriotic county poured forth for its country’s services a continuous procession of volunteers, nearly 800 men. The cost had already been staggering.
Over half of all Appanoose County volunteers had joined the 36th Iowa Infantry Regiment. Francis Marion Drake of Unionville had been commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of this regiment by the governor of Iowa. The veteran Drake was entrusted to help recruit and organize the Appanoose County troops in September, 1862. He was joined by Dr. Sylvester H. Sawyer of Unionville as regimental surgeon.
Capt. Thomas M. Fee of Centerville was commissioned Captain of Company G. Joseph Gedney, a 36 year old farmer from south of Numa was elected Captain of Company I. Dr. William Vermilion of Iconium was elected Captain of Company F. Although a medical doctor by training, it was his choice to lead a company of infantrymen. In all, Appanoose County contributed to an enlistment of about 400 in four companies to fill the ranks of the 36th Iowa Infantry.
The 36th Iowa had mustered by wagon and train to Burlington, then to Camp Lincoln, Keokuk the previous October where they had been sworn in. They drilled and trained in camp near Keokuk. In November the regiment had embarked on steamers for Benton Barracks in St. Louis for additional training. Then in December they embarked down the Mississippi River to Helena, Ark., arriving on Dec. 31.
With the arrival of spring 150 years ago, the Volunteer Regiment from Appanoose County began an expedition to take part in the Yazoo Pass, or Fort Pemberton Expedition. The regiment was 600 strong at this point because of a number of illnesses in camp. They embarked down the Mississippi in February, 1863. The operation was conceived by Gen. Grant and entailed blowing an opening through the east bank of the Mississippi River near Moon Lake below Helena to open a channel connecting with an inland water route to encircle the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg from the north.
As the expedition proceeded, the regiment had to wade in ice-cold water waist-deep. It was still fairly cold in the water as it was not yet spring. The regiment saw its first action at Shell Mound, Miss. After witnessing a fierce artillery duel between federal and rebel batteries, Capt. Swiggett noted that the 36th Iowa had a “sharp exchange” with the rebels. They spent 40 days of wading in the Coldwater River and fighting through this desolate but well-fortified area. They found no pass unguarded along the way. The expedition had to be abandoned. As they approached Ft. Pemberton on March 11, 1863, they had to back away as it was too well fortified and deemed too risky to proceed.
During the campaign, the men suffered greatly because of almost continuous exposure to the elements on this campaign. They were exposed to freezing rain and high winds that blew down their tents. Many were brought down by cold, flu and fever due to constant cold and dampness. Losses included Asbury Hall, Company C, killed at Shell Mound, W.W Reynolds, Company C, Mound City, R. B. Shaffer, killed at Shell Mound and Sgt. H.N. Swallow, Company F, killed at Shell Mound.
They finally returned back to camp at Helena, Ark. in April, 1863, 150 years ago this month.
More to come later.