Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Review - "Not Till Then Can the World Know: Replacement Companies of the Fourteenth Iowa Infantry in the Trans-Mississippi" by L. Spencer Busch, ed.

[Not Till Then Can the World Know: Replacement Companies of the Fourteenth Iowa Infantry in the Trans-Mississippi by L. Spencer Busch & Valentine L. Spawr (Laurel Busch-Author, 2020). Softcover, 2 maps, photos, footnotes, roster appendix, bibliography, index. Pages:xiv,326. ISBN978-1-7347086-1-5. $9.99]

The 14th Iowa Volunteer Infantry regiment distinguished itself in a great number of campaigns and battles on both sides of the Mississippi River from Fort Donelson in 1862 through Pilot Knob in 1864. Though memoir, diary, and letter materials associated with the 14th have appeared in print over years (including regimental chaplain F.F. Kiner's 1863 classic One Year's Soldiering and the much more recent 2008 volume Soldier Life—Many Must Fall), it appears that no modern, full-length regimental history has been published. The 14th Iowa entered service in 1861, and three companies (A-C) were detached that October for  frontier duty at Fort Randall in Dakota Territory. The loss of the battalion became permanent in September 1862, necessitating the need to recruit three new companies to take their place. It is their Civil War story that is the primary focus of L. Spencer Busch's Not Till Then Can the World Know: Replacement Companies of the Fourteenth Iowa Infantry in the Trans-Mississippi.

The first part of the book consists of the 1863 diary of Busch's ancestor, 28-year-old Corporal (later Sergeant) Valentine Spawr of replacement company C. Written between June 18 and September 15, the diary documents the early period of Spawr's war service spent at Kentucky's Fort Halleck, which was located atop a Mississippi River bluff a short distance north of Columbus. Though the sparsely footnoted diary only covers a relatively brief interlude of rear area garrison duty, much of which was spent by the writer sick and in the camp hospital, there are definitely points of interest for Civil War readers. Spawr's literacy level was far from polished, but he was highly observant of his surroundings. His examination of the remnants of the heavy chain system that Confederate forces previously used to block river traffic at Columbus is interesting, as are his detailed descriptions of several prominent events he witnessed (including the execution of three contraband camp recruits who murdered a local family and the passing wreckage of the paddle-steamer Ruth). Overshadowed in Civil War maritime disaster lore by the even more horrific Sultana episode of 1865, the Ruth burned and sank on with heavy loss of life during the night of August 4-5, 1863. Spawr also documents his interactions with Chaplain Kiner, the prominent 14th Iowa author mentioned above. His noting how frequently the fort was placed on high alert, as well as how often troops became casualties when patrolling the surrounding area, effectively reminds readers how dangerous even secure rear area posts like Fort Halleck could be. Spawr's camp diary may not be the most terribly exciting one for more general Civil War readers, but it offers original, or at least rare, coverage [is there another Camp Halleck diary addressing this mid-war period as extensively as this one does?] representing another informative thread in the vast tapestry of published Civil War firsthand accounts.

The second part of the book picks up where the Spawr diary left off, with Busch's narrative following the 14th Iowa through a number of significant 1864 campaigns. As part of Col. William T. Shaw's brigade (Shaw was also the 14th's first commander) of A.J. Smith's Sixteenth Corps, the replacement companies experienced their first real field service during the February 1864 Meridian Campaign in Mississippi and participated in their first battle a short time later during the storming and capture of Fort DuRussy in Louisiana. The replacement companies and the rest of the 14th featured prominently at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, where Shaw's Brigade occupied a vulnerable bulge in the Union center and suffered heavy casualties. They also helped anchor the Union left at Yellow Bayou near the end of the Red River Campaign. On the whole, Busch's unit history narrative strikes a good balance between being attentive to the experiences of the replacement companies while also keeping the bigger picture in focus. Primary accounts associated with other regiments in the brigade are used effectively to fill gaps in 14th Iowa source coverage.

The regiment was next back in action in North Mississippi, where the Iowans were present at Smith's successful defense of Tupelo and suffered substantial casualties at Old Town Creek during the pursuit phase of the operation. Later that year, after Confederate forces under General Sterling Price advanced from Arkansas into Missouri, the 14th also provided key veteran support to the defenders of Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob. There, Union forces repulsed all of Price's attacks before slipping away. The daring escape from surrounded Fort Davidson and retreat to safety represented the end of the 14th's combat service. Desperate to retain veterans, the War Department initially attempted to renege on its earlier promise to muster out the replacement companies at the same time as the 1861 three-year enlistees but ultimately relented, and the short-timers were released from service along with the original seven companies in November 1864.

Busch also addresses at some length the circumstances behind the ordering of Col. Shaw's dismissal from the army for official misconduct in criticizing both superiors and fellow officers. Shaw's complaints stemmed from his general dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Red River Campaign and his particular anger over what he perceived as lack of support on both flanks of his brigade at Pleasant Hill. Like many other citizen-officers, Shaw unwisely flouted army regulations by airing his grievances in public. Fortunately for Shaw, his otherwise excellent command record saved him from having the dismissal acted upon.

Complaints with the book center mostly around flaws and irregularities in formatting and presentation, the types of issues common to self-publishing. More and better maps would have been helpful. The editor/author's decision to deal almost exclusively with primary sources is admirable to a point but does exclude the possibility of engaging with an extensive secondary literature that frequently offers excellent coverage of many of the events described and analyzed in the text. The bibliography lists only a small number of digitized primary sources, but it is obviously incomplete as just a quick perusal through the footnotes reveals many sources (the most obvious ones being newspapers) not listed there. The very modestly priced book contains many valuable strengths as is, but it might be worth Busch's time to enhance the volume's lasting worth by publishing a future edition that fleshes out the bibliography and standardizes the footnotes.

In addition to the edited Spawr diary and narrative history of the 14th's extensive 1864 combat record in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Missouri, the book also contains a detailed roster of the three replacement companies compiled from Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of the Rebellion. Each of these elements hold considerable value for readers and researchers. Focusing on the 14th Iowa's extensive contributions to Union victory in both the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters during key moments of the second half of the Civil War, Not Till Then Can the World Know will hopefully also help inspire the creation of the complete regimental history the unit richly deserves.


  1. It's interesting to hear that the replacement companies were allowed to muster out with the veterans in 1864. Later enlisters in New York regiments were usually not so fortunate, and it caused lots of controversy.

    1. Given how difficult it was to fill the ranks of the 14th Iowa replacement companies (according to the author, Spawr's Company C was mustered in at barely over half regulation strength), I wonder if the promise was an exceptional enlistment concession born out of desperation.

  2. Does the author elaborate much on the relationship between the replacement companies and the veterans in the regiment? It wasn't entirely unusual to herd replacements into a single company or two (though rarely did most Iowa regiments receive enough to fill an entire company, let alone three), but I'm interested in how the author's sources may have potentially spoken to the social relations between the two "classes" of volunteers.

    1. No, the book doesn't address that topic.


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