The state of Iowa played a role during the American Civil War in providing food, supplies, and troops for the Union army, though its contributions were overshadowed by larger and more populated eastern states.
Prelude to war
Iowa had become the 29th state in the Union on December 28, 1846, and the state continued to attract many settlers, both native and foreign-born. Only the extreme northwestern part of the state remained a frontier area. With the development in the 1850s of the Illinois Central and the Chicago and North Western Railway, Iowa’s fertile fields were linked with Eastern supply depots as the Civil War began. Manufacturing companies in the eastern part of the state, as well as farmers, could readily get their products to the Union army.
The Civil War era brought considerable change to Iowa’s politics. During the 1850s, the state’s dominant Democratic Party developed serious internal problems, as well as being unsuccessful in getting the national Democratic Party to respond to their local needs. Iowans soon turned to the newly emerging Republican Party. The new party opposed slavery and promoted land ownership, banking, and railroads, and Iowa voted heavily for Abraham Lincoln and other Republican politicians in 1860 and throughout the war, though there was a strong antiwar “Copperhead” movement among recent settlers of Southern origins. The Democratic party remained particularly in places around the Mississippi River such as Dubuque that had been heavily settled by German immigrants.
As the Civil War erupted, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood led efforts to raise and equip volunteer troops for the Federal service. The 1st Iowa Infantry was raised for three-months duty from May until August 1861. It helped secure the strategic Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in northern Missouri, then endured a series of forced marches across the state, finally fighting with distinction in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, a task rewarded by the official Thanks of Congress, and two Iowans would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for their efforts in the fighting.
There were no significant battles in Iowa, but the state sent large supplies of food to the armies and the eastern cities. 76,242 Iowa men (out of a total population of 674,913 in 1860) served in the military, many in combat units attached to the western armies. 13,001 died of wounds or disease (two-thirds of the total). 8,500 Iowa men were wounded. Cemeteries throughout the South contain the remains of Iowa soldiers that fell during the war, with the largest concentration at Vicksburg National Cemetery. A number also died in Confederate prison camps, including Andersonville prison. Though the total number of Iowans who served in the military during the Civil War seems small compared to the more heavily populated eastern and southern states, no other state, north or south, had a higher percentage of its male population between the ages of 15 and 40 serve in the military during the course of the war.
Iowa contributed 48 regiments of state infantry, 1 regiment of black infantry (the 1st Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment (African Descent)), 9 regiments of cavalry, and 4 artillery batteries. In addition to these Federally mustered troops, the state also raised a number of home guard or militia units, including the Northern Border Brigade and Southern Border Brigade, primarily for defense of the borders. Other local units included the Sioux City Cavalry.
Sporadically, Confederate partisans and bushwhackers raided Iowa. One such incursion in the fall of 1864 was designed to disrupt the reelection of Abraham Lincoln. Near the Missouri border, many Iowans were pro-slavery, anti-Lincoln Confederate sympathizers, and they provided a safe haven for guerrillas. On October 12, 1864, a dozen raiders disguised as Union soldiers terrorized Davis County, where they looted residences and kidnapped and murdered three Iowans near Bloomfield.
The Keokuk National Cemetery was established as a final resting place for bodies from five local U.S. Army hospitals in Keokuk. It holds over 600 Union soldiers, and 8 Confederate prisoners of war.
Following the war, a number of veterans organizations, and in particular the Grand Army of the Republic, played a prominent role in providing social functions, financial support, and memorialization of the former soldiers. The G.A.R. provided the funds and impetus for the construction of the Iowa Soldiers’ Home in Marshalltown and other similar homes and hospitals, as well as orphanages.