Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Sad Plight of Civilians

Many civilians in the border region of the trans-Mississippi had the misfortune to be in the pathway of armies or guerrillas, and a number of soldiers on both sides commented on their fate. Earlier in the month, I featured a passage about a “toe-pick” from David Lathrop’s, The History of the Fifty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteers (1865). His book also contains a poignant passage about the impact of armies on civilians. Occurring in February 1862, Lathrop described the passage of the Federal army from Keetsville, Missouri, to the Arkansas border:

“At Keetsville nearly all the inhabitants fled. From that point to Cross Hollows about two-thirds of the inhabitants on the road have deserted their dwellings. In several houses the tables were spread for breakfast, and in the hurry of flight was thus left. The washtub was seen filled with water on the back of the chair, indicating that the hegira occurred, as it actually did, on ‘wash-day.’ The doors were ajar, the clock on the mantelpiece had ceased ticking, feather beds were piled in the center of the floor, all sorts of furniture were scattered about, and not a sound was heard but the mewing of a cat. An air of lonesome, heart-sick desolation prevailed. One large dwelling was recently burned down, and the ruins were still smoking. Surely the leaders in this cursed civil war will have much to answer for” (page 78).

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"This dance of death": The 32nd Iowa Infantry at Pleasant Hill

Colonel John Scott’s, Story of the Thirty Second Iowa Infantry Volunteers (1896), is one of the better trans-Mississippi unit histories. Dr. Ludwell H. Johnson deemed it as the most useful regimental history in his research on the Red River campaign. Mostly this is due to Scott’s inclusion of a number of eyewitness accounts of the battle of Pleasant Hill. The 32nd Iowa Infantry experienced heavy combat at Pleasant Hill and ended up losing 86 men killed or mortally wounded there. Scott’s book has been digitized and is available for reading on This is fortunate because Scott’s work has never been reprinted and copies can be expensive. Occasionally, I will feature some of the eyewitness accounts from the book and will start with:

“Corporal D. W. Robbins, Company D, now a retired merchant of Colorado Springs, at one time Mayor of that pleasant city, has taken pains to revisit the battle-ground of April 9th, 1864, and to collect and preserve many relics, and to record many incidents of the battle….Corporal Robbins found in 1891 the old field that lay in front of the line of the 32nd Iowa had changed to a forest of pines; many of the trees being from twelve to eighteen inches in diameter. Other parts of the battle-ground were equally changed. The village of Pleasant Hill has been abandoned; the smaller buildings having been removed, and the larger ones having fallen into ruins. A railroad now runs between Shreveport and New Orleans, passing about two miles south of the battlefield, the nearest station being named Sodus, but retaining Pleasant Hill as the name of the post office.

Corporal Robbins remained in that neighborhood several days, picking up things that had for him particular interest. He cut some bullets from a tree that stood in the rear of the position occupied by his company, cutting to a depth of six to eight inches for them; and also cut some sticks for canes. He found and secured possession of relics that had been picked up by others, and has them among his treasures at Colorado Springs.

In his reminiscences of the battle he speaks of the demoralized troops of Banks passing to the rear, ‘many of them bare-headed, and many having thrown away their guns,’ which were met by the 32nd Iowa when taking position to check the pursuing foe. He saw Lieut. Col. Mix fall and heard him say “I am killed!’ It also appears that when the right of the Regiment began to fall back, noting the withdrawal of the 27th Iowa, that the movement extended to Company D, and when checked by Colonel Scott, as being without orders, only a part of the men of that Company heard the order and resumed the former position; in which they remained till they were captured, failing to receive the order to move out by the left flank, at the close of the battle.

Robbins says it was reported among the rebels, and told to the prisoners, that of the bold riders who rushed upon our brigade at the opening of the battle, only twenty-six reported for duty the next morning.

After meeting the rebel battery that was rushing to this dance of death the prisoners met Gen. Kirby Smith, who inquired to what troops they belonged, and on being told he remarked that he knew very well that they were not the sort they had met the day before. As they passed to the rear they saw many of those killed in the battle of the 8th, lying where they fell, and so covered with the dust raised by the troops that they could hardly be recognized as human beings” (pages 162-165).

Friday, October 23, 2015


I’ve been reading one of the early regimental histories: David Lathrop’s The History of the Fifty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteers (1865). The 59th Illinois was initially called the 9th Missouri Infantry and campaigned in Missouri and Arkansas from the fall of 1861 through the spring of 1862. Its major service in the trans-Mississippi was at the battle of Pea Ridge where it lost nine men killed and fifty-seven wounded.

No doubt you are wondering about the title of this posting. It is derived from Lathrop’s book and rates as one of the most unusual passages that I’ve read in a Civil War account. He wrote:

“And it is also a fact, that there are men who have voluntarily taken upon themselves an oath to serve their country as good soldiers, who willingly allow themselves to be placed upon a footing with the veriest colored slaves in the land. The language is not too harsh. A soldier has been seen washing the feet and trimming the toe-nails of his captain, and this not only once, but habitually. The appellation given to him, and those of his calling, was ‘Toe-Pick’” (p.37).

Lathrop’s book has never been reprinted and is quite rare, however, a digitized copy is available on

Friday, October 9, 2015

New Thinking

I just couldn’t resist taking a photo of this trashcan in part because it’s the basic message of a book that I recently read.

Although it does not focus on the trans-Mississippi, Earl J. Hess’ Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (LSU Press, 2015) is a must read for anyone interested in how units maneuvered and fought. Some historians, most notably Paddy Griffith and Brent Nosworthy, have argued that the rifle musket did not revolutionize Civil War fighting. Hess agrees and contends that the linear tactics used by infantry units were well suited for the challenges of Civil War combat.

For the first time, I feel like I have a good understanding of how officers actually maneuvered their units and why some formations were more successful than others. Some of the chapter titles are “Tactical Manuals and the Management of Men,” “Moving Forward and the Art of Skirmishing,” “Changing Front,” “Columns,” “Multiple Maneuvers,” and “Large Formations.” For each, Hess gives multiple examples drawn from the Official Records and other primary sources; diagrams and a glossary aid in understanding the formations and maneuvers. After reading this book you will never again wonder what a soldier meant when he wrote about marching by the flank, wheeling, attacking in echelon, or any other puzzling terminology about maneuvering. This is an excellent and fascinating book!