The 2d Iowa Infantry and the Battle of Fort Donelson

After sitting on my bookshelf for more than a year, I finally have found time to read Steven E. Woodworth’s exceptional book on the Army of the Tennessee, “Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865.”  This book is considered, by many, to be one of the best histories on this hard fighting army of the West.  The birth of this army can be traced to the quick formation of state volunteer regiments after Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 state militia troops after the firing on Fort Sumter.  Originally composed largely of men from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri its ranks would swell, after it officially became an army, to also include soldiers from Nebraska, Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.  When its regiments first started arriving at Cairo, Illinois, in the fall of 1861, the 2d Iowa Infantry was stationed at Saint Louis, Missouri.  It would arrive in time to take part in the capture of Fort Donelson.

The 2d Iowa Infantry was recruited largely from the area of Keokuk, Iowa.  Its ranks included farmers, laborers, clerks and business men.  Mustered into Federal service on May 27, 1861, its commanding officer was Colonel Samuel R. Curtis.  Curtis would eventually reach the rank of major general and would command the Army of the Southwest, the District of Missouri and later the Department of Kansas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  Other officers from the 2d Iowa would become general officers including James M. Tuttle and Marcellus Crocker.

Its earliest service would be at St. Joseph, Missouri where it was assigned to guard the railroads until July 1861.  It would witness its first major engagement at the Battle of Fort Donelson, on February 15, 1861, where it would be the first regiment to place its flag on the enemy parapets.  The following quote, from Woodworth’s excellent book, prompted my desire to write this article.  It paints a vivid picture of the courage of soldiers attacking a prepared position.

“‘Come on, you volunteers, come on,’ roared [Brigadier General Charles F.] Smith.  ‘This is your chance.  You volunteered to be killed for love of country and now you can be.’  …..[original color bearer Harry Doolittle took four bullets and the colors were quickly picked up by  Scehencius "Solomon" G. Page who would be killed] Page was dead by this time, and Cpl. James Churcher carried the colors of the 2nd Iowa.  The regiment broke free of the abatis at last and plunged forward to cover the last few yards to the breastworks.  A bullet broke Churcher’s arm, and the colors fell for a third time in the charge.  Cpl. Voltaire P. Twombley, last man in the color guard, snatched them up.  Almost at once a spent bullet slammed into him, knocking him to the ground.  [General Charles F.] Smith was already leaping his horse over the Rebel breastworks.  Twombley scrambled to his feet, climbed the breastworks, and planted the colors atop the Rebel parapet.  The 2nd Iowa surged by all around him.  Most of the Rebels fled, and the attackers bayoneted those who stayed to fight.  Then as the defenders tried to form up for resistance a hundred yards or so in the rear of the breastworks, the Iowans quickly capped their rifles and poured a devastating fire into them [Smith had ordered them to charge with their muskets loaded but not capped so they would not stop to fire, slowing them down].”(i)

All told, during their assault, the 2d Iowa would lose three color bearers, with the fourth, Twombley, wounded.  They would remain close to the enemy’s lines, through the bitterly cold night of February 16, until CSA Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner surrendered the fort later in the day.

The regiment would remain at Fort Donelson until March 5 when they were sent to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee.  They were part of Colonel James Tuttle’s First Brigade of Brigadier General W.H.L. Wallace’s Second Division.  They would bivouac at Pittsburg Landing for several weeks while they prepared to attack CSA General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Mississippi at Corinth, Mississippi.  On April 6, Johnston would attack first, in a battle named for a small church near their camp – Shiloh.  The initial assault was against US Brigadier General William T. Sherman’s Fifth Division.  Sherman’s forces, and those of Major General John A. McClernand’s First Division, would be surprised by the assault and would be pushed back several hundred yards.  The 2d Iowa Infantry, commanded at this time by Lieutenant Colonel James Baker, would quickly be sent forward to reinforce the rapidly crumbling Federal position.  They would take position along an old sunken farm road with a small open field separating them from their adversary.  The Iowans would endure repeated attacks.  Known as the Hornet’s Nest, it would witness some of the most brutal fighting of the Civil War.  Eventually, facing a numerically superior force with significant artillery support, they would fall back towards their camps near Pittsburg Landing Road.  Wallace would be mortally wounded during the fight and would die a couple days later.  Overnight, with the arrival of US Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Major General Ulysses S. Grant would plan an attack for the next morning – a devastating unsuspected attack that would push the Confederate Army of the Mississippi all the way back to Corinth.

Over the next several months, the 2d Iowa would take part in the fighting to capture Corinth.  They would capture the town in October 1862 and would be garrisoned there through April 1863.  The 2d Iowa Infantry would continue to see action in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama through November 1863 when they were sent to Pulaski, Tennessee to guard the Nashville & Decatur Railroad.  They would eventually be sent to Decatur, Alabama where they would continue to guard the road until May 1864.

On May 5, 1864 the 2d Iowa Infantry would be sent to northern Georgia where they would take part in Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.  They would fight at the battles of Resaca (May 13-15), Dallas, New Hope Church, Allatoona Hills (May 25 – June 5) and the operations around Marietta.  They were assigned to Brigadier General Elliott Rice’s First Brigade, Thomas Sweeny’s First Division of Major General Grenville Dodge’s XVI Corps.  On June 27, they would take part in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain where they would attack the fortified position the Confederate Army of Tennessee held on the north face of the mountain.  They would suffer significant losses in this largely one sided battle – a battle which Sherman would quickly realize was hopeless.

Sherman would eventually push around the right flank of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army, pushing them all the way into Atlanta.  Johnston would be removed from command and be replaced with hard fighting General John Bell Hood.  With the Federal armies fully encircling the north approaches of Atlanta, Hood would attack Sherman’s left flank on July 22, 1864.  In what would be called the Battle of Atlanta, the 2d Iowa Infantry would be positioned near the far left flank of the Army of the Tennessee.  Hood’s Confederates nearly rolled up the entire flank before being repulsed.  Once again, the 2d Iowa would take significant casualties but would retain their position at the end of the battle.  Sherman, settled in for a siege that would last for several weeks before he was able to push Hood from Atlanta.

The 2d Iowa Infantry would stay with Sherman’s army and would participate in the March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign.  They were with the army when General Joseph Johnston, once again commanding the Army of Tennessee, surrendered to Sherman in April 1865.  They would participate in the Grand Review of the armies, in Washington City, on May 24, mustering out of Federal service on July 12.  They would return to Davenport, Iowa on July 20 having suffered 283 casualties.  The men of the 2d Iowa Infantry could be proud of their service.  They were the first regiment to hoist their colors on the Confederate parapet at Fort Donelson and would witness the surrender of two Confederate armies.(ii)

(i) Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865, published by Vintage Civil War Library in October 2006, Pgs. 109-110.
(ii) The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System was used to research this article.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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