A stack of letters sits on the desk in Rosemary Olds’ office. The letters are yellow and faded with sharp, creased edges across them. The writing is faint and written in a fancy script. The words are that of the soldier, a young man from Massachusetts who signed up for the American Civil War.
Inside one letter is the image of a young man, a soldier dressed in his uniform. His name was David Pillsbury. The 18 letters give a glimpse of his life during the two years he served in the war from September 1861 to the end of 1863.
Olds, who lives on the city’s west side, received the letters from her aunt who was the executive secretary of the Iowa Civil War Centennial Commission in 1961. Olds has been transcribing the letters for the past year and is about halfway through the process.
“It’s wonderful to pick up these pieces of paper and to know the hands of the past, of the people who have held them,” Olds says.
Thus far she has learned Pillsbury was originally from Boston but mustered into the war from Clinton and was part of the 13th Iowa Volunteer Infantry.
He wrote several letters home to his mother and sisters. In one he describes his excitement at having finally received his uniform and looking like a soldier. He included the picture of himself in uniform in that letter, along with others for his uncle and other family members.
In another letter, he complains of the boredom of marching. He marched south with his unit through Mississippi to Tennessee and fought in the Battle of Shiloh. Although Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, Pillsbury wrote very little about it.
Olds says she hasn’t been able to discover exactly what happened to Pillsbury. He later marched to Corinth with his unit, but something happened to him. He described to his family in letters that he was suffering from “war frenzy.” He was placed in a battlefield hospital and later sent to a military hospital in Keokuk. He sent letters to friends with political connections asking to be released from the military.
Pillsbury eventually was released and spent the rest of the war working for the United States Christian Commission.
Olds’ own great-grandfather served in the Civil War. Joseph B. Atherton was a major with the 22nd Iowa Volunteer Infantry. He was injured at Vicksburg, Miss. His wife, Josephine, got word that he had been injured and sent her four daughters to stay with family. She traveled from central Iowa to the Mississippi River, talked herself onto a troop ship and made her way south to Vicksburg. She then learned her husband had been sent to a military hospital in St. Louis and eventually met up with him there.
Josephine Atherton brought her husband back to Iowa and tried to nurse him back to health, but he had contracted tuberculosis and died a few years later.
Olds’ mother was raised by the Athertons, so she heard many stories as a young girl.
“The Civil War was always discussed in our household like it happened last week,” Olds says.
Joseph Atherton and David Pillsbury were just two of the 75,000 Iowa men who felt the call to action. Of those, 13,000 lost their lives and 8,500 were wounded. There were only 151,000 men in Iowa of military age at the time. Iowa had the highest casualty rate in the country — 19.1 percent of its men did not return home or died shortly thereafter.
Iowans fought because they felt it was their duty, for patriotism and a sense of honor, according to the exhibit “Iowa and the Civil War,” located at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Others served because they were drafted, wanted a sense of adventure or planned to take advantage of the bonuses and bounties offered to soldiers. James Grimes, who was Iowa’s governor prior to the Civil War, said Iowans should play a role in the Civil War in order to stop slavery and prevent the spread of it.
Overall, an estimated 618,000 American men lost their lives as a result of the war, which pitted brother again brother, father again son, friend again friend in the bloodiest battles ever fought on U.S. soil. Some historical experts say the death total is closer to 700,000.
Iowa had 48 regiments of infantry, one regiment of black infantry (the 1st Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment African Descent), nine regiments of cavalry and four artillery batteries. There also were several home militia units that were formed to defend the state, according to the Iowa National Guard.
Ed Truslow’s great-grandfather, John Braddock Starr, served in the Civil War from the beginning until it ended in 1865 as part of the 73rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company F.
Starr fought in many key battles including the second battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the siege of Atlanta.
“To me it’s fascinating that anybody could go through that length of time in the Civil War with those battles and survive,” Truslow says.
Truslow says he only recalls one story that his grandmother told him about Starr’s service. Starr was one of the soldiers standing outside a tent waiting for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to finish a meeting. Sherman came out of the tent, and one of the soldiers asked him where they were going. Sherman replied, “Wherever I damn please,” which wasn’t very surprising given his reported temperament and attitude.
Another great-grandfather also served in the war. John J. Truslow was a 17-year-old tobacco farmer from Louisiana, Mo., when he joined up with the 39th Missouri Volunteer Infantry in 1864. He served only six months until the war ended.
Paul Stigers interest in the Civil War began when he was 15 years old. That’s when his grandmother began researching the family’s genealogy to join the Daughters of the American Revolution.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Civil War, in general, but once I learned about my own family’s involvement, it became a passion,” says Stigers, who lives on the city’s west side. He is a member of the Governor’s Own Iowa Rifles; Company A of the 49th Regiment, Sons of Veteran Reserve Honor Guard unit for the Department of Iowa and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The group is not traditional reenactors, though some members do belong to clubs as a hobby. The members are military historians whose ancestors fought during the Civil War and who work to commemorate their service by preserving and restoring Civil War graves and monuments throughout the state.
“We want to keep alive the memory of our ancestors,” Stigers says.
Two of Stigers’ great-great-grandfathers served in the war.
Hiram Bissell joined Co. E of the 111th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment. He rose to the rank of second lieutenant. The regiment took part in fighting at Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg the Battle of Peach Tree Creek and Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Bissell was a prisoner of war for two months but was released during an exchange of Confederate soldiers. He rejoined his regiment and served until the end of the war. After the war, he used the money he had received from the military to move to Iowa and buy a farm in Tama County.
Stigers still has the sergeant’s stripes from Bissell’s uniform, a picture of the young Bissell in uniform and a flag that flew at his grave when he died in 1930.
Another great-great-grandfather, William F. Eshbaugh, served in Co. B of the 2nd Iowa Calvary. He was a bugler and rose to the rank of sergeant. His job during the war was to serve as a scout, and two of Eshbaugh’s horses were shot out from under him.
Eshbaugh served four months in a prison camp after he was captured near Booneville, Miss. He later suffered from an illness that later led to him being discharged from the military and limited his activity for the rest of his life.
Ironically, Bissell settled near Eshbaugh’s farm in Tama County when he came to Iowa. One of Bissell’s sons later married one of Eshbaugh’s daughters.