Iowa in the Civil War

Confederate States of America 

When southern whites heard the news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president in 1860, they feared that the federal government would take new steps to oppose slavery. To prevent that, several southern states decided to leave the Union. On December 20 the South Carolina legislature voted to secede (to withdraw from the United States). Within the next six weeks, six more states followed. Eventually their Congressmen left Washington, and the states claimed that all federal property, including forts and army supplies, now belonged to them. When Lincoln refused to order federal troops to leave Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, southern soldiers opened fire on April 12, 1861. With the news of open fighting, four more southern states voted to leave the Union, and these 12 organized the Confederate States of America.


President Lincoln called for volunteers to enlist for 90 days to put down the southern rebellion. Most people, North and South, thought the war would be short. Lincoln asked for a specific number of soldiers from each state, and volunteers quickly met his request. After the first battles everyone realized that the war would not end quickly, and the army signed up men for three years.

As the war began, Iowa was committed to the Union cause. Thousands of Iowans volunteered at the first call for soldiers. But the Union was not prepared for war. At first Iowans did not have enough weapons or ammunition. Governor Samuel Kirkwood appealed to Washington, but no arms arrived. He then sent Grenville Dodge to Washington to plead Iowa's case. Dodge was successful and returned with some supplies. Camp McClellan was built on the banks of the Mississippi River near Davenport as a training post for Iowa soldiers. Still, the first departing men were inadequately armed, clothed and trained.

There were no major battles between Union and Confederate forces in Iowa. Instead, Iowa soldiers fought mainly in the western Confederate states—Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. They also fought with General William Sherman in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. However, a different enemy threatened Iowa pioneers. In the frontier areas of northwest Iowa of southern Minnesota Native American raids prompted hundreds of settlers to flee to more heavily populated areas. Union soldiers were sent in to protect the settlers.

General Grenville Dodge is perhaps the most famous Iowa soldier in the Civil War. He was put in charge of rebuilding railroads for the Union (North) army. He also hired spies to learn information about the southern army. After the war he moved to Council Bluffs and helped to build the first railroad that ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

At first most Iowa soldiers were fighting to save the Union and to prevent the southern states from leaving. In 1862 President Lincoln gave a new cause for the North. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared that the slaves would be free wherever Union armies went. Not all soldiers in the North liked the law at first but most came to support it. With no slaves, the southern army had much more trouble getting supplies. Former slaves and free blacks also volunteered as soldiers in the Union army. By the end of the war, most Iowa soldiers wanted to see an end to slavery.

Iowans at Home Support the War

Iowans at home also helped support the war. While their husbands and fathers were in the army, Iowa women ran the farms and the stores. They sent food and medicine to wounded soldiers. Annie Wittenmeyer of Keokuk was very effective in helping to improve the hospitals for injured Union soldiers. She organized shipments of supplies and demanded better medical treatment from army doctors. After the war, at the request of wounded soldiers, she established two orphanages to care for the children of Union soldiers.

The war brought other changes for Iowa women. Before the war most school teachers were men, but women filled these positions when men left to join the army. After the war women continued to teach school in record numbers and soon most teachers were women. Women also took over jobs running family stores when their fathers and husbands served in the army.

War Ends

After four long years of fighting, the Union armies defeated the armies of the South. The end came in April of 1865. General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the largest Confederate army, surrendered to General Ulysses Grant at a little town in Virginia called Appomattox Courthouse. The war was over, the Union was saved, and slavery ended.

By the end of the war in 1865, 76,534 Iowa men had served in the Union army. Of those 13,169 died. More Iowa soldiers died from diseases than were killed in combat. 


Compare Iowa's response to the Civil War to Iowa's response to other wars. How it is similar? How is it different?

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