Battle of Pea Ridge: The Battle from an Iowan’s Perspective

For almost a year now, events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (which began on April 12, 1861 with the Battle of Fort Sumter) have taken place.  Today marks the 150th anniversary of the pivotal Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as Elkhorn Tavern), which took place in northwest Arkansas on March 7 and 8 and decided the fate of the West during the beginning of the Civil War.  The Union won the battle on March 8, when General Van Dorn and his army retreated. The Battle of Pea Ridge was the largest battle in the West, and the battlefield today is the most intact battlefield in the United States.

The Special Collections Department is lucky to have a detailed letter describing the battle from an Iowan’s perspective (the letter is located in the Van Zandt Family Papers).  William Vanzant wrote to Henry and Nancy, his brother and sister-in-law, on March 14th from Arkansas’ Sugar Creek Camp.  William, who had lived in Kossuth, Iowa, had volunteered for the Union Army on August 11, 1861 and fought with the First Iowa Battery.  In the letter describing the Battle of Pea Ridge, William mentions that the last he heard of the confederate General Sterling Price was that “…he was on the other side of the Boston Mountins 20 miles from hear making his way toward Fort Smith as fast as his men could make their legs carry them…”  William describes his own exciting experience, including a bullet which “…pass my side through my canteen but not tetching the flesh…”

Towards the end of the letter, William asks his brother and sister to write often, and to send as many newspapers as possible.  In this day of smartphones and online news, it is hard to imagine what life must have been like for many Civil War soldiers.  They were making history, while at the same time having little to no idea of what was going on in the rest of the country!

The collection contains an ambrotype of William Vanzant (MS 213, box 4, folder 46).  It can be quite startling to view the rather clear image of a Civil War soldier who spoke so vividly in his letters one hundred and fifty years ago, and who you know died only a few years after the photograph was taken.

The cover of William Vanzant’s ambrotype has an image of the United States flag.

Interested in reading more about William’s experience during the Battle of Pea Ridge?  The letter and a transcription are now available online.  Additional stories of other soldiers (including another Iowan) who fought in the Battle of Pea Ridge can be found on the National Park Service’s website.

The Van Zandt Family Papers contains additional letters and a diary by William Vanzant describing his experiences during the Civil War. File 1/67 covers General William T. Sherman’s attempt and subsequent retreat at Vicksburg, December 29, 1862-January 1, 1863 and the Battle of Arkansas Post.  Files 1/68 through 1/73 all concern the Vicksburg campaign and more can be found in William’s diaries.  William died of an unspecified disease in the hospital in St. Louis on February 12, 1864.  His brother Henry collected his body, and apparently his effects, for there are letters to William in the collection also, from friends in Agency and Kossuth, as well as his colleagues in the First Iowa Battery.

More on the Civil War sesquicentennial can be found on many sites, including The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Iowa State’s Digital Collections has made a selection of our Civil War diaries, also written by Iowans, available online.  A blog posting by our department about this Digital Collection can be found here, and a blog posting from the Preservation Department describing preservation work done on the Civil War diaries during the digitization project can be found here.  And, finally, a subject guide listing our Civil War related collections can be found here.

Civil War Diaries Now Online!

One hundred and fifty years ago this morning, April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter.  A year ago Iowa State’s Special Collections Department and Digital Initiatives were excited to announce the launching of our Digital Collections library.  A number of collections have been added since then, and in honor of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial commemoration this year, six of our Civil War diaries and reminiscences have been digitized and made available online.  The diaries can now be searched by keyword through CONTENTdm, and eventually transcripts and metadata will be added.

A news clipping from the L. Stone Hall Diary (MS 587) about James Irva Dungan and his capture and escape from the Confederates.

The diaries reveal a variety of experiences of Iowans who participated in the Civil War: Cyrus Bussey, L. Stone Hall, Charles Chapman, James Robertson, John Chambers, and Celestia Barker.  Cyrus Bussey details his experiences as an officer with the Iowa Cavalry, his involvement in the Battles of Pea Ridge and Vicksburg, and the occupation of Helena, Arkansas.  Bussey’s reminiscence begins with a description of how the Civil War was brought very close to Iowans early on in the conflict:  “In July 1861, the rebels under Martin Green and Harris were organizing in North East Missouri.  Union men were driven out and much alarm felt by the citizens of the Southern border counties of Iowa.”  L. Stone Hall, who served in the Iowa infantry, spent most of the Civil War in the far south, and was a Confederate prisoner at Shreveport, Louisiana.  Charles Chapman’s diary contains brief notes concerning daily life as a private.  His regiment took part in the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, and the siege of Vicksburg.  James Robertson was taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh and hospitalized in Nashville, Tennessee’s University Hospital.  John Chambers was stationed in Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.  Chambers also took part in the siege of Vicksburg.

Cover page from the John Chambers diary (MS 159).

In addition to the soldiers’ diaries described, we also have a diary from the Iowa home front.  Celestia Barker’s husband served in the Civil War.  Barker describes her work on her family’s farm, social activities, attendance at church meetings, and visits to family throughout central Iowa.  Included throughout are reminders of the Civil War.  For instance, Barker describes (page 10) a time when she was baking with a friend, and her friend was “in the bread up to her elbows.  I had to laugh at a remark she made about killing chickens.  She said she hated to kill them and then she would think of our soldiers being killed so unmerciful and then she would be more courageous because the rebels kill the soldiers she spits her spite on the chickens.”  The diary primarily contains descriptions of daily life, but is interspersed with descriptions like this which show that that the Civil War was still on the minds of Iowans as they lived their life in Iowa far from the fighting.

Celestia Barker's journal (MS 246).

These online diaries and reminiscences now allow more people to read perspectives of Iowans who fought in and lived during the Civil War.  At the end of his reminiscence, Stone says “As you read please correct what errors you see.  I have not patience to do it now, am tired of the thing.”  Hopefully his efforts did not go in vain, and can be even more appreciated with the wider audience now made possible with the narrative’s digitization, along with the stories of other Iowans who lived during the Civil War.  The Civil War diaries can be found from the Digital Collections homepage.

The digitized diaries and narratives are only a portion of Civil War related materials held in Special Collections.  Check out our Civil War Subject Guide to find out about our other collections.  In addition, if you would like to find out more about the digitized diaries and narratives described above, you can find links from this page of our online finding aids for the Civil War diaries.