Friday, June 8, 2018

Review of Lyftogt - "IOWA AND THE CIVIL WAR, VOLUME 1: Free Child of the Missouri Compromise 1850-1862"

[Iowa and the Civil War, Volume 1: Free Child of the Missouri Compromise 1850-1862 by Kenneth L. Lyftogt (Camp Pope Publishing, 2018). Hardcover, 12 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:408/432. ISBN:978-1-929919-79-6. $40]

Free Child of the Missouri Compromise
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A planned trilogy, Kenneth Lyftogt's Iowa and the Civil War will trace the history of the state's participation in the conflict*. The initial volume, Free Child of the Missouri Compromise 1850-1862, takes readers from the political upheaval of the 1850s through the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh.

According to the author, the project's primary focus will be on political and military matters. With some limited forays into other areas, this stated emphasis is readily apparent in Volume 1. In the early chapters, Lyfogt traces Iowa's mid to late 1850s transformation of political alignment from the Democratic Party to the new Republican Party. As was the case in many other states in both sections, the withering and ultimate death of the Whig Party in Iowa created a vast political vacuum. Free Iowa's common border with slave state Missouri along with its prominent role in the Underground Railroad, general distaste for the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, and regional proximity to the violence of Bleeding Kansas all made the slavery expansion question urgently real to its citizens. Those circumstances and others converted a great many Iowans to the emerging Republican Party.

Though Republican power was ascendant immediately before and during the conflict, Iowa's Democrats remained a considerable force. Opposition to the war is only lightly touched upon in Lyftogt's study, though perhaps such discussion will be expanded once the trilogy reaches the 1862 mid-term election cycle and addresses even more internally divisive issues like home front civil rights limitations and the expansion of war aims to include emancipation.

Many prominent Iowa political figures (among them Republicans, War Democrats, and Peace Democrats) are profiled in the book, but the individual that towers over the rest is Republican governor Samuel J. Kirkwood. Though overshadowed in the literature by other northern "war governors," Kirkwood is convincingly portrayed by Lyftogt as a tireless supporter of the president and an executive eager to enlist his state's leaders and manpower to the cause. Advocates in Washington also helped, their presence made even more essential by Iowa's extreme distance from the seat of power. For example, while Kirkwood rallied the resources of Iowa at home, John Kasson, the newly appointed ranking assistant to the Postmaster General, promoted Iowa interests behind the scenes in Washington.

In line with our modern understanding of how Civil War volunteer officers were appointed and conducted themselves in uniform, the author places heavy emphasis on the essential inseparability of politics from all aspects of Iowa's military leadership. The roster of Civil War generals with significant Iowa ties would be the envy of a much larger state. Military figures discussed in the book include many generals familiar to students of the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, among them Samuel Curtis, Grenville Dodge, Jacob Lauman, James Tuttle, Francis Herron, William Vandever, Marcellus Crocker, Hugh Reid, Cyrus Bussey, Washington Elliott, and Edward Hatch.

With state and national politics dominating the first half of the volume, the second half explores the many early war campaigns and battles that significantly involved Iowa troops. The Missouri battles at Athens, Wilson's Creek, Blue Mills Landing, Belmont, and New Madrid; the fighting at Pea Ridge in Arkansas; and the major western theater battles at Fort Donelson and Shiloh are recounted in some detail. One might quibble with some of the background details here and there, but overall the author does a fine job of combining a general narrative of these military events with a greater emphasis on the conspicuous presence of Iowa's fighting units at those places. Selecting two of the most prominent examples cited in the book, an Iowa infantry regiment (the 2nd) played a key role in seizing important ground on the Union left flank at Fort Donelson and several Iowa regiments combined to form the heart of the famous Hornet's Nest defense at Shiloh. While never going down the path of declaring Iowa regiments superior in their fighting ability, Lyftogt does appropriately recognize that Iowa's Shiloh contribution was disproportionately veteran. Field and combat experience gained in small, early-war actions in Missouri helped secure that state for the Union and steeled many Iowa soldiers and regiments for the larger battles of 1862. Incredibly, Iowans comprised nearly one-fourth of the Day 1 Union casualties at Shiloh.

Author and publisher also deserve a good deal of credit for commissioning a fine set of battlefield maps. Directly supporting the book's battle narratives, the maps appropriately center on those sections of the field where the Iowa presence was most prominently felt. Presumably, this very helpful aspect of the study will continue to be a strength of future volumes.

Large numbers of Iowa soldiers were captured at Shiloh, and the volume concludes with an overview of their painful odyssey in Confederate captivity. The concluding section also deals with the good faith effort by Iowa officers to broker a system of prisoner exchange. While the attempt ultimately failed, it wouldn't be too long before the Dix-Hill Cartel would be negotiated and implemented. However, as the book shows, Washington's official rejection of the Iowa officers' initiative engendered more than a little bitterness in the state toward the Lincoln administration.

Criticism of the limited scope of the study is legitimate but in fairness should be restrained until the other volumes are completed. It's entirely possible that a greater variety of home front topics and other themes common to the expansive nature of modern Civil War scholarship will be addressed later on.

While Lyftogt did not prioritize original manuscript research (only one such unpublished resource is listed in the bibliography), he does take full advantage of the great many Iowa soldier and civilian diaries, letters, and memoirs that have been published over the years in books and especially in historical journals, among the latter the Annals of Iowa, The Palimpsest, the Iowa Journal of History. The six-volume Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of the Rebellion is another important resource used.

Written in a popular narrative style, Free Child of the Missouri Compromise 1850-1862 succeeds in conveying to readers the nature of Iowa's political transformation during the 1850s, and it very fruitfully explores the state's many important contributions to the Union war effort on both sides of the Mississippi during the first year of the war. Numerous prominent Iowa civilian and military leaders not widely known or appreciated in the general literature are also usefully profiled in the study. The trilogy is off to a solid start, and the next two volumes will be highly anticipated.

* - I would also recommend Thomas Baker's very fine single-volume overview The Sacred Cause of Union: Iowa in the Civil War (2016).

1 comment:

  1. If you are an Iowan and love history, this is a must read book. Wonderful history on how Iowa was very much involved in the War between the States. Many named towns of when and where what happened. I loved it, but I like Iowa history


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