[Iowa's Martyr Regiment: The Story of the Thirty-eighth Iowa Infantry by David Wildman (Camp Pope Publishing, 2010). Softcover, 9 maps, illustrations, footnotes and endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:280/338. ISBN:978-1-929919-31-4 $24.95]
Camp Pope Publishing (formerly the Press of the Camp Pope Bookshop) has done much to bring the Civil War contributions of Iowans to the attention of the reading public, and the newest release, David Wildman's Iowa's Martyr Regiment: The Story of the Thirty-eighth Iowa Infantry, is another fine unit history. But it is not a typical one. While many Hawkeye formations forged enviable battle records in the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, the 38th always seemed to miss the action. Nevertheless, the roster of dead was incredibly high for such a comparatively meager combat history. While only two men were killed in action or mortally wounded, sickness sent over 300 of its soldiers to an early grave.*.
Organized in the summer of 1862 with members recruited primarily from five northeastern counties, the 38th regiment was initially stationed at New Madrid, Missouri, where the men manned the earthworks and helped suppress local guerrilla activity. Later, when General Grant failed to carry Vicksburg by direct assault in May 1863, more men were needed for siege operations, and the Iowans were sent there as part of General Francis Herron's division. The regiment occupied trenches located at the extreme right of the Confederate lines, opposite South Fort, coming under artillery fire, but suffering negligible casualties.
After the Vicksburg garrison surrendered, the 38th boarded transports and headed up the Yazoo River to Yazoo City. Soon, however, they were taken back down the Mississippi and shipped to Texas, where they occupied Brazos Island at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The forces stationed there monitored border activity and occasionally headed inland to the Brownsville area.
By late June 1864, the decision was made to withdraw most Union forces from Texas. The Hawkeyes returned to New Orleans and were consolidated with the 34th Iowa [rather curious given that the unit still had over 500 men on its active rolls]. It would be 1865 before the men would see serious combat, as part of General Frederick Steele's Pensacola column, marching by a roundabout route to Confederate held Fort Blakely. In the final assault, the soldiers from the old 38th penetrated the Confederates line to the right of Redoubt No. 4, a section of the front occupied by a brigade of stubborn Missourians. The author deems this twenty minute action the regiment's "one moment of glory."
The published and unpublished letters, diaries, and memoirs of dozens of officers and men form the heart of Wildman's research. In addition to the author's careful chronicling of military movements, he extensively covers the unit's camp life, political infighting, and the deleterious effects of the waves of sickness that frequently rocked the regiment. Wildman documents his lengthy narrative with both footnotes and endnotes. The book's nine maps are adapted mostly from previously published material, not a great deficiency in this case given the regiment's lack of a prominent role in most engagements described in the text. However, given that a unit roster of some kind is almost an expected feature of modern regimentals, the lack of one here is a source of minor disappointment.
Every regiment deserves a published history, even those that couldn't even begin to sniff Fox's "Fighting 300" list, and Wildman's book is a good one. His Iowa's Martyr Regiment is perhaps the fullest treatment I've encountered of a unit that spent so little of its service on the firing line. Even if the reader has little specific interest in the 38th, the author offers more than enough context to make his book worthwhile reading for students of the Vicksburg, Rio Grande, and Mobile campaigns, as well as counterinsurgency operations in southeast Missouri. Given its quality, as well as the lack of modern, full length Iowa regimental histories in general, this study is a notable addition to the Civil War literature.
* - I have nothing to back this up, but, at over 150 to 1, the 38th may very well have the highest ratio of non-combat losses to KIAs of any three-year Civil War regiment.