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Review of Not Till Then Can the World Know: Replacement Companies of the Fourteenth Iowa Infantry

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

A lot of us who are interested in Civil War have our favorite units and, although I cannot say that the 14th Iowa is one of my favorites, I seem to have spent a lot of time with them during my years of studying Shiloh and Pilot Knob (Missouri). One can't discuss the Hornet's Nest or Fort Davidson without mentioning this fine Iowa regiment.

As a bit of background, the original companies A, B, and C of the 14th Iowa were detached very early in the regiment's service and sent to Dakota Territory. The regiment served at Fort Donelson and Shiloh with only the seven remaining companies. Eventually, the three detached companies were permanently removed from the 14th Iowa, becoming the 41st Iowa Battalion and then later part of the new 7th Iowa Cavalry in mid 1863. The men of the 14th that were captured at Shiloh were formally exchanged in late 1862, and the regiment was reorganized in Davenport, Iowa, in early 1863. Three new companies were recruited to replace the ones detached early on.

The experience of the three new companies is the subject of author Laurel Spencer Busch's book Not Till Then Can the World Know: Replacement Companies of the Fourteenth Iowa Infantry in the Trans-Mississippi. She is a descendant of a member of the "new" Company C, Valentine Spawr, and has the diary that he kept for a few months in the summer of 1863. It is this diary that makes up the first third of the book. After reorganization back home, the 14th Iowa was stationed at Columbus, Kentucky, for much of 1863. Valentine Spawr's diary begins on June 28 and ends on September 15. Spawr was a twenty-eight year old native of Illinois and a carpenter in Clarksville, Iowa, when he was mustered into the new Company C in May, 1863. He had, in fact, enlisted in October 1862, but it took awhile to fill Company C which actually would be still accepting Kentuckians from the Columbus area after arriving there.

Spawr is a member of the regiment's color guard, so he's excused from much of the daily duties the men performed. He's observant, doesn't miss much, and dutifully notes in his diary all the happenings and rumors going around camp, often stating that he doesn't believe it. He almost always reports on the weather. He describes the chain that the Confederates had earlier stretched across the Mississippi River as an obstacle (part of which can be seen today at Columbus-Belmont State Park). He also mentions the wreck of the steamer Ruth, which burned while going south to Vicksburg with several paymasters and more than $2 million to pay the troops of Grant's army; more than 20 people died in the accident (I had never heard of this before). Obviously, the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson are noted. He witnesses the hanging of three blacks for murder. In addition, he often mentions the loss of men in the garrison to sickness. It was a sobering reminder that the quiet killers of dysentery, etc. took more lives than enemy bullets. We pick up on the loneliness, and sometimes a bit of irritation, when he goes without mail from home for days or weeks. Laurel Busch writes that, when she first found out about the diary and wanted to read it, her mother told her that it's boring; he was sick part of the time and wasn't doing much. I didn't find it boring at all. Yes, the regiment was on garrison duty and saw no action during that time, but it's a solid account of that time at Columbus and it's another reminder that Civil War soldiers didn't spend all their time fighting at places like Shiloh; most of their time was spent on routine duty occupying a place on the map. Ms. Busch's footnotes expand upon specific individuals and events that he mentions in the diary.

Spawr went on furlough, probably due to illness in the family, and evidently did not continue his diary upon return. Ms. Busch spends the rest of the book recreating his service using other sources, mostly from other 14th Iowa members and regiments brigaded with the 14th for the rest of its service. That service covers the Meridian Campaign, Red River, Tupelo, the movement to St. Louis, Pilot Knob (Fort Davidson) and the retreat to Leasburg. There is also a short section covering the near-dismissal of the 14th's Colonel William Shaw for his alleged public criticisms of superior officers during the Red River Campaign. It's not a full regimental history, nor a detailed history of any of their 1864 campaigns and it's not designed to be. It's a sketch of a regiment and what they did.

Almost all of the sources consulted for the rest of the book are primary (including letters from Iowans published in period newspapers). Many of the sources consulted are from other Iowa regiments brigaded with the 14th and men in other companies of the 14th. So, this part of the book is more of a "big picture" view than just the three replacement companies (at least to the regimental and brigade level) but it certainly does provide a sketch of the service the men in those companies would have experienced. A lot of these actions (Fort DeRussy, Pleasant Hill, Pilot Knob) may not be as familiar to some readers. The 14th Iowa musters out in November, 1864. Interestingly, the three replacement companies, whose three year enlistments began well after the other seven companies did, were mustered out at the same time, other than those who didn't enlist until the regiment was at Columbus.

The book concludes with a brief look at the rest of Valentine Spawr's life. It also has a full roster of the three replacement companies.

I enjoyed this book. Until I had first heard of it, I had no idea that the 14th Iowa had fought at Donelson and Shiloh with only seven companies. Complaints are few. A few more maps might have been helpful, but in a sketch like this, it's not a critical omission. The almost exclusive use of primary sources is quite creditable, but the use of some secondary sources might have fleshed out the narrative a bit. These are minor issues, though. The book is quite affordable and, if you are interested in the experiences of Iowans and/or these obscure 1864 campaigns, this is right up your alley. This reviewer had two family members at Pilot Knob as well (Company G, 1st Missouri State Militia Infantry) and, while reading that section of the book, I couldn't help wondering if my relatives might have crossed paths with Valentine Spawr inside of Fort Davidson or during the long, harrowing, retreat to Leasburg.

This title can be purchased on Amazon.

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