Manuscripts Miscellany: William Rankin Civil War Letters

This post offers a peek at a new collection. In 2017, Special Collections purchased a collection of letters from William Rankin, a young Iowan from a farming family who appear to have lived in or near Waukon or Dundee in northeast Iowa. Rankin volunteered in the summer of 1864 for the Union Army as a “Hundred Days Man.” The Hundred Days Men were volunteer troops who served for 100 day enlistment periods during the height of the Civil War. They were intended to serve non-combat support roles in order to free up the veteran units for combat. Rankin served as a Corporal in Company F of the 46th Regiment, Iowa Infantry. His regiment was assigned to guard the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, located near Collierville, TN, a town just outside of Memphis.

The collection includes 30 letters addressed to “Folks at home.” He talks about daily life in camp, rumors from the front lines, news about fellow Iowa soldiers, and the area they were stationed in. He was apparently starved for news from home, as each letter ends with a plaintive appeal that his family answer every one of his letters.

In a letter dated “Coliersville Tenn July 6th 1864,” he describes his experience on picket guard on the 4th of July:

…it was my turn to stand on picket guard so all the fourth of July I stood under a big tree in Tennessee and at night I lay behind a log and watched for rebs but nary a reb did I see. About ten o’clock we heard two guns go off on the other side of the picket line, and in a short time the long roll was sounded. The we heard the officers yelling at the men to fall out and form into line. We could hear the colonel’s voice swearing at the men for not getting out quicker and we had (that is the pickets) to lie still. We lay for about an hour and then we heard the boys going back to bed.

In another letter, dated July 12th, he describes the punishment for some men that were caught sleeping while on guard duty:

Every night the officers of the day and guard go to every picket post to see that every thing is all right. It is called the grand rounds. The other night they found six men and a corporal asleep so they have to sleep in the guard house every night & every morning at four o’clock the guards wake them up. The corporal of the squad has to take a board that is fixed like a banner & on it is written “Sleeping Squad.” The guards then take them out of the guard house & march them to the different companies and they have to carry 6 pails of water for each Co. The corporal has to march ahead with his banner and they have to do this for 8 days.

“Sleeping Squad” written in Rankin’s letter dated July 12, 1864.

He also shares news from the front lines. His letter from August 22, 1864 contains this story:

Yesterday Memphis was attacked by about fifteen hundred cavalry. They dashed into the city and captured Gen. Washburn’s headquarters and about five hundred of our boys. They also took a battery. We heard the firing very plainly but could not find out what it meant for some time for the wire was cut on both sides of us. About ten o’clock they got the wire fixed & then we began to get the news. They were chasing them. They had recaptured the battery. Last night they were fighting at White’s Station which is about half way to Memphis from here. We expect them here about tomorrow morning. They will find us ready. We were called out last night about two o’clock and had to stay up till sunrise. We didn’t like it very well. We expect to have the same thing to do tonight.

The entire collection of letters can be read in Special Collections and University Archives: MS-0711, William Rankin Civil War Letters.

 

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