Iowa soldier shares disdain and contempt for Copperheads

Civil War Archive of William C. Holden, 2nd Iowa Infantry

Civil War Archive of William C. Holden, 2nd Iowa Infantry

When we infantry soldiers hear of a cavalry man getting killed, someone will exclaim, ‘What! That must be impossible. I never heard of the like before.’ They will do for scouting but when it comes to fighting they don’t amount to much. As for Copperheads at home, he was outright scornful. If the peacemaking, armistice, traitorous, vile, damnable, whitelivered, sneaking, cowardly ‘fire in the rear’ villains would dare to show their face in our camp, he wrote, we would furnish gratuitously, rope enough to suspend them to the highest limb of the first tree, for bate, for the carrion crow…

Source: Cowan’s Auction, Civil War Archive of William C. Holden, 2nd Iowa Infantry

Full item description below:

Living on the Iowa side of the border with Missouri, William Holden grew up with guerrilla warfare at his doorstep, and at only 17, he became one of the state’s first wave of volunteers for the Union army. When he enlisted with the 2nd Iowa Infantry on May 21, 1861, Holden could not have known that his regiment would earn the distinction of being the first deployed into the field, that it would serve longer than any in the state, or that it is considered to have served with particular valor. From Ulysses Grant’s epic capture of Fort Donelson to the battles of Shiloh and Corinth, the siege of Vicksburg, the Atlanta Campaign, and Sherman’s March to the Sea and March through the Carolinas, the 2nd Iowa participated in an extraordinary number of the decisive campaigns in the western theater.

Holden’s surviving letters begin at the end of January 1862, while the 2nd Iowa was stationed in St. Louis, and shortly thereafter, his letters swing into action. After the regiment was called to participate in Grant’s assault on Fort Donelson — the engagement that helped open the northern part of the Mississippi River for the Union – Holden was informed that he and his still-green comrades were to take the fort at the point of the bayonet without firing a shot. His letter displays the finely honed sense both for the bravado with which he approached his service and the remarkable success he seemed always to find.

When we came in ful view over a slight declevity in the hill the Rebels opened on us a most terrific fire which mowed our men down like rain. Our boys answered it with a deafening shout and marched steadily on without returning the fire. On we marched over the tangled trees toward the fort wile volley after volley was thinning our ranks and at last we reached the works and charged over them with another wild huzzah, and then opened our fire with the muzzles of our guns almost against them. They could not stand the shock but turned and fled in disorder to their next intrenchments.

They soon rallied however, and came on in gallant style to drive us back, but the right wing of our own Regt had got up the hill and gave them another warm reception… Our Regt was still in advance, and so close under the walls of the next fortification that some of the balls fired by the 52nd Ind. struck some of our men. The 25th Ind was then ordered to carry the next works at the point of the bayonet but they failed, and as our Regt had bore then brunt of the battle on that wing, we were ordered to take cover behind the enemys works which we did in good order… The left wing of our Regt had one half of their men shot before we got up the hill, or ever fired a gun. I walked over man a brave comrade in that charge, that I would have almost died myself. My heart bled for them as I seen them falling. Our gallant captain was killed in the charge. Our colors were shot down three times in the charge but was as often picked up again and borne forward…

In keeping with Grant’s inexorable plan, the 2nd Iowa moved out within a month and entered the even fiercer battle of Shiloh where, as Will reported home, Grant was not prepared to meet them [the Confederates]. He had not a line formed or a battery planted. In fact, Holden’s regiment found themselves stationed at one end of the famous Hornet’s Nest, the critical point in the first day’s fight, where Union forces fended off eleven separate assaults by superior numbers of Confederates, hoping to buy precious time for reinforcements to arrive. Holden’s letter is a long and detailed account of the entire battle, from the panicked reaction upon the first Confederate assault and the moment when he knew the battle had been lost: to the timely arrival of reinforcements under Gen. Don Carlos Buell, and ultimately to the Union triumph. Holden’s description of the moment the tide of battle: About 3 o’clock our Regt was brought into action after having laid under fire all day. Our Brigade was near the center, and in a short time after being engaged, the brigades on our right and left gave way, and the Rebels poured in on both flanks of the brigade. Our Regt succeeded in making their escape, but the 12th and 14th Iowa Regt were completely surrounded and taken prisoners. By this time Gen Buell arrived, and rode along the line and told the men to hold their ground two hours longer and he would have 25,000 fresh troops on the field. This kept up the spirits of the men and they fought with renewed vigor, but kept losing ground….

Not to let down the folks at home, Holden went from battle to battle. Pursuing the retreating Confederate Army, the 2nd Iowa entered Mississippi and laid siege to and eventually captured the vital railroad center at Corinth, Miss. His next letter describes the Battle of Corinth, less well remembered than Shiloh, perhaps, but no less important in securing the Union force in the deep south. The artillery of the whole division was playing on them, he wrote, as was the infantry on their front and on their flanks. They waver. Their leaders are all down, and every stand of colors have been shot down. At this moment two field officers finely dashed to the front, sieze each a stand of colors and dash forward, their men gather courage and follow, the officers soon fall, and their horses go back without them, but the men push forward, although our fire is mowing them down by hundreds, but they press on and soon gain the works and our forces retire… The account continues at much greater length to describe the desperate stand taken by the 2nd: Our position was on a slight eminence, in the edge of a heavy piece of timber and in front of us lay an open field a quarter of a mile in width, through this field the Rebels had to advance to the charge. They advanced as usual with them in solid column. We awaited them in silence. When they got within about 200 yards we received the command to fire, and our fire told with fearful effect on the enemy. We were soon loaded again, and at about 100 yards poured in a fire so destructive as to cause them to halt. Their field officers rode to the front to cheer them on, but they were soon dismounted…. Col. Baker of our regt fell mortally wounded and our cartridges being all shot away, our boys knowing what to be done took it upon themselves to do it, and that was to charge the enemy, and we did it in regular Fort Donelson style… The remainder of the letter – and there is a great deal more – deals with Rosecrans’ rallying of the troops, the heroic actions of the 7th Iowa (and cowardice of the 81st Ohio), and yet another charge that brought a perfect slaughter on the Rebel side. The loss to the 2nd Iowa, he records, was severe. Of the 320 effectives they carried into the battle, 20 were killed in action, including their Colonel, probably their lieutenant colonel, and four lieutenants. Holden himself was slightly wounded in the leg.

After Corinth, the regiment spent several months fending off Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry, and guerrillas, contending with poor and inadequate rations, making sorties into the surrounding countryside to suppress what remained of the Confederate forces. Holden was implacable in his desire to crush the enemy and disdainful of some of his comrades in the cavalry who seemed to have it so easy.  When we infantry soldiers hear of a cavalry man getting killed, someone will exclaim, ‘What! That must be impossible. I never heard of the like before.’ They will do for scouting but when it comes to fighting they don’t amount to much. As for Copperheads at home, he was outright scornful. If the peacemaking, armistice, traitorous, vile, damnable, whitelivered, sneaking, cowardly ‘fire in the rear’ villains would dare to show their face in our camp, he wrote, we would furnish gratuitously, rope enough to suspend them to the highest limb of the first tree, for bate, for the carrion crow… Like his commander, Grant, Holden would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender.

Although nearly a year of Holden’s correspondence has been lost, when it recommences, it picks up with the same verve with which it left off. On August 8, 1864, Holden opens a window onto his participation in the Battle of Atlanta and its aftermath. In typical 2nd Iowa fashion, the regiment was involved in a mano a mano charge on rebel fortifications, and Holden survived a near brush: It was very dark in the woods, and thick underbrush. There was a gap in our line on our right between us and the 4th Division skirmishers, and I started to find the right of our line and got in the gap. I heard men talking about 30 yards from me and supposing they were our men, started towards them. When I got near them, I stepped on some brush accidentally, which made considerable noise, and bang, bang goes two guns wand two balls come close by. I stopped still and stood there for several moments, and then moved silently away, thanking the rebs for firing when they did…. A month later, he described with pride the sight of grizzled union veterans entering the city: The old veterans looked rough, but they marched with the proudest step, that I ever saw soldiers march with; their torn and tattered flags and banners floating to the breeze, and splendid brass bands playing ‘Hail Columbia,’ ‘Red, White and Blue’, ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Yankee Doodle.’ Their guns did not look so flashy and bright in the sunlight, as they did a little more than four months ago when they started from Chatanooga.

After defending the lines near Rome, Ga., what remained of the 2nd Iowa –consolidated with the remnants of the 3rd – joined Sherman in the decisive March to the Sea and March through the Carolinas. Since he would have been unable to send letters home during the marches, only one letter survives from Holden’s stay in Savannah, discussing the delays and hardships caused by the weather as they prepared to head north. After his arrival in Goldsboro and the total defeat of the Confederacy in the east, Holden summed up his experiences:  If he [Johnson] has surrendered the war is ended, and we will now begin to think of home. After four years of desperate war, we have triumphed. Not a star has fallen from our flag. We have a whole union, and a free Union. The stain of slavyer is blotted out, and the South may blame themselves for being deprived of it. They have been terribly punished for attempting to destroy the government, and I believe it was a punishment sent upon them by God, because they trafficked in human souls. I feel proud that I can say that I entered the service at the very beginning of the struggle, and remained at my post until peace was conquered. I might say I was present when it was born, and was in at its death. We have proven to the World that a Republic based upon the principles of justice, right, humanity, and freedom can stand any shock. We have shown to the crowned heads of Europe, that man is capable of self government…

Holden’s last letter is a stirring account of joining the Grand Review in Washington, D.C., en route to mustering out of the service. Having been apprenticed in the printing trade before the war, Holden returned to civilian life and entered into the newspaper business in Ottumwa. In 1873, he moved to Nebraska, becoming an important figure in newspapers there. The quality of his Civil War letters certainly seem to have set the stage.

Many Civil War collections include an outstanding letter or two where the writer manages to transport the reader in place and time. Holden’s letters, nearly all of them, attain a level of clarity and insight rarely found in a teenaged volunteer, and they deal with the most dramatic scenes of the most dramatic battles of the war. Time and again, the 2nd Iowa was thrust into the critical part of major engagements and through grit, experience, and force of will, they helped turn defeat into victory.

The letters show expected wear and tear, and have been fully transcribed. An outstanding opportunity to acquire a dense collection from a young and humble plough boy who happened to be born with the attention to detail and care for of a journalist.

Lot includes typed transcriptions of all letters and other photocopied documents relating to Holden.


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