Iowa was very committed to the Union cause during the Civil War, both in fighting on the war front and in support on the home front.
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Iowa and the Civil War

The Causes of the Civil War

Iowan Civil War Prisoners

Iowa became a state in 1846. The United States at that time was dividing into two very different sections. In the Northern states most Americans were white. They owned small farms, worked in factories or ran small shops. In Southern states white and black Americans lived together, and farming was the major industry. Most African-Americans were slaves. They had no voice in making the laws that kept them in slavery. The law said they were the property of their white owners. Slavery was not allowed in the North.

Settlers from both North and South were moving west. The nation had to decide whether new states would allow slavery or not. In 1820 Congress passed a law that they hoped would solve the problem. The Missouri Compromise drew a line from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Slavery would be allowed south of that line but not north of it. When Iowa became a state in 1846, it fell north of the line, and therefore came into the Union as a “free” state, a state where slavery was not allowed.

Iowans were divided about the slavery issue. Like most white Americans of their time, most white Iowans believed that they were smarter and more civilized than African-Americans. They believed that the Unites States should be a country for white people only. They did not object strongly to slavery where it existed in the South, but they did not want to live next to slaves or compete with slave labor. Some joined a new political party, the Republican Party, that opposed the spread of slavery. A few Iowans were “abolitionists” because they wanted to “abolish” slavery wherever it existed.

In 1854 Congress passed a new law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law allowed the white settlers in each new state to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. Most Iowans opposed the new law. They already had a slave state, Missouri, on the southern border. Now there was a possibility of slavery in the territories to the west, in Kansas and Nebraska.

Kansas became a battleground. Settlers from both northern and southern states began moving there and fighting broke out. Because Iowa was the closest northern state, the little town of Tabor, in the southwest corner of Iowa, became a gathering place for groups of northern settlers moving to Kansas.

The tensions increased in both the North and South. In 1857 the United States Supreme Court ruled that slaves were property and did not have any rights. They could be taken anywhere in the United States, just like cattle or furniture. The North was outraged. Did this mean slavery could exist everywhere, Iowa included?

Tensions mounted even more when a fiery abolitionist named John Brown led a raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia on October 16, 1859. He hoped to lead a slave revolt to end slavery forever. He had recruited six Iowans, including brothers Edwin and Barclay Coppoc, and trained his army of 21 men in the little Quaker community of Springdale, Iowa. Browns efforts failed after he was quickly captured and hanged for treason. Edwin Coppoc was hanged with Brown, while Barclay and some others from the revolt escaped. 

The slavery question was the most important issue in the presidential election of 1860. The new Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to the spread of slavery into any new territories where it did not already exist. Because the Democratic Party could not agree on a candidate among themselves, they spilt. Northern and Southern Democrats each nominated a candidate. States on the border between North and South also supported a candidate pledged to finding a compromise. 

Abraham Lincoln won the election but with only about 40 percent of the vote. His support was entirely from the North. His name was not even on the ballot in many Southern states. The Southern states feared that the election of Lincoln meant the national government would now work against them.

Iowa voted for Lincoln, and the Republican Party won most of the state contests. However, even before Lincoln was sworn in as president, several Southern states decided to “secede,” to withdraw and form their own nation.

In 1861 the United States was falling apart.

Iowa in the Civil War

When Southern whites heard the news that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president in 1860, they feared that the federal government would take new steps to oppose slavery.  To prevent that, several Southern states decided to leave the Union.  On December 20, the South Carolina legislature voted to secede (to withdraw from the United States).  Within the next six weeks, six more states followed.  Eventually their Congressmen left Washington, and the states claimed that all federal property, including forts and army supplies, now belonged to them.  When Lincoln refused to order federal troops to leave Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, Southern soldiers opened fire on April 12, 1861.  With the news of open fighting, four more Southern states voted to leave the Union, and these twelve organized the Confederate States of America.

President Lincoln called for volunteers to enlist for 90 days to put down the Southern rebellion.  Most people, North and South, thought the war would be short.  Lincoln asked for a specific number of soldiers from each state, and volunteers quickly met his request.  After the first battles everyone realized that the war would not end quickly, and the army signed up men for three years. 

As the war began, Iowa was committed to the Union cause. Thousands of Iowans volunteered at the first call for soldiers. But the Union was not prepared for war. At first Iowans did not have enough weapons or ammunition. Governor Samuel Kirkwood appealed to Washington, but no arms arrived. He then sent Grenville Dodge to Washington to plead Iowa's case. Dodge was successful and returned with some supplies. Camp McClellan was built on the banks of the Mississippi River near Davenport as a training post for Iowa soldiers. Still, the first departing men were inadequately armed, clothed and trained.

There were no major battles between Union and Confederate forces in Iowa. Instead, Iowa soldiers fought mainly in the western Confederate states—Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. They also fought bravely with Gen. William Sherman in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. However, a different enemy threatened Iowa pioneers. In the frontier areas of northwest Iowa, Indian raids prompted hundreds of settlers to flee to more heavily populated areas.  Union soldiers were sent in to protect the settlers.

Gen. Grenville Dodge is perhaps the most famous Iowa soldier in the Civil War. He was put in charge of rebuilding railroads for the Union (North) army. He also hired talented spies to learn information about the Southern army. After the war he moved to Council Bluffs and helped to build the first railroad that ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

At first most Iowa soldiers were fighting to save the Union and to prevent the Southern states from leaving. In 1862 President Lincoln gave a new cause for the North. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared that the slaves would be free wherever Union armies went.  Not all soldiers in the North liked the law at first but most came to support it. With no slaves, the Southern army had much more trouble getting supplies. Former slaves and free blacks also volunteered as soldiers in the Union army. By the end of the war, most Iowa soldiers wanted to see an end to slavery.

Iowans at home also helped support the war. While their husbands and fathers were in the army, Iowa women, with the help of children and older men, ran the farms and the stores.  They sent food and medicine to wounded soldiers. Annie Turner Wittenmeyer of Keokuk was very effective in helping to improve the hospitals for injured Union soldiers. She organized shipments of supplies and demanded better medical treatment from army doctors. After the war, at the request of wounded soldiers, she established two orphanages to care for the children of Union soldiers.

The war brought other changes for Iowa women. Before the war most school teachers were men, but women filled these positions when men left to join the army. After the war women continued to teach school in record numbers and soon most teachers were women. Women also took over jobs running family stores when their fathers and husbands served in the army. 

After four long years of fighting, the Union armies defeated the armies of the South. The end came in April of 1865. Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the largest Confederate army, surrendered to Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The war was over, the Union was saved, and slavery ended.

By the end of the war in 1865, 76,534 Iowa men had served in the Union army. In relation to its population, Iowa sent more soldiers to the Civil War than any other state. Of those, 13,169 died. More Iowa soldiers died from diseases than were killed in combat. 

Iowa after the Civil War

When the South surrendered in 1865 and the Civil War ended, many things were different in Iowa. The Republican Party dominated state politics, black Iowans gained new rights, and economic development increased rapidly.

Iowa became one of the most Republican states in the nation. For the next 75 years the Iowa governor, Congressmen, state legislators and most local officials were almost always Republicans. Republicans reminded voters that Democrats in the South had supported slavery and led the nation into Civil War.

The Republican Party also favored granting more rights to black Iowans. With Republican support, Iowa approved three new amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These ended slavery everywhere in the nation, required states to provide equal rights to all citizens, and gave black men the right to vote. Iowa gave the vote to black men even before the national amendment. In 1868 Iowa voters (white men only because women and blacks could not vote) approved an amendment removing the word “white” as a requirement for voting in Iowa. The legislature also passed a law that allowed black children to attend public schools. In 1868 Susan Clark, a young black girl in Muscatine, was not allowed to attend an all-white public school. Her father, Alexander Clark, took the case to court and the Supreme Court declared that public schools are open to all, regardless of race. In 1884 the legislature passed a law that declared theatres, hotels, restaurants and other public services should not discriminate against blacks or any other race. The law was not always enforced, but it represented a major advancement toward equality.

The state’s population was increasing rapidly. The war slowed immigrants from Europe, but after the war, many new families poured into the state. Germans and Irish were the two largest immigrant groups, but Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden and Demark) also brought many seeking new homes. The 15 years after the Civil War also saw a boom in railroad building and new towns going up all over the state. Trains were soon pulling carloads of Iowa grain and livestock on their trips east and returning with manufactured goods. During the war many Iowa farmers bought new equipment drawn by horses to do the work of men serving in the army. As a result farms could produce more and farm production soared.

Iowa soldiers returned home to a different state than they had left. Those who returned were heroes. They often marched in parades on Memorial Day and many were elected to political offices. Their stories about their battles and their military service became local legends. The Civil War changed Iowa and the United States forever.


  • Sage, Leland. A History of Iowa. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1974.



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