By David Wildman
In the summer of 1862, with the Northern army stalled in Virginia and popular European sentiment calling for the recognition of the Confederacy, it was widely believed that the North might lose the war. At this most critical moment in the Nation's history President Abraham Lincoln called for more volunteer soldiers to put down the rebellious South. In that grand but brief burst of volunteers that followed the President's call, the Thirty-Eighth Iowa Volunteer Infantry was conceived.
Volunteers came by the hundreds from Fayette, Winneshiek, Bremer, Chickasaw and Howard Counties. They were hardy, independent pioneers who had settled this part of Iowa over the previous decade. Only eight men could claim Iowa as their birthplace when they enlisted. The others migrated from all the eastern states, including eight southern states. Many others had recently emigrated from Europe. The Norwegians from Winneshiek County were the largest group of foreign-born recruits, but there were others from Bohemia, Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, and Robert Logue who was born at sea. The birth of the Regiment came just as this volunteer enthusiasm began to ebb.
The Regiment's organization, at Dubuque, was delayed when the original Colonel was removed for incompetence, and the government was unable to provide the needed uniforms, equipment, and pay until early November 1862.
December 15, 1862 the Regiment left Dubuque for St. Louis. They remained there for two weeks, gathering the equipment that would make them ready for the field. During their stay at St. Louis, men were assigned to guard prisoners, and as Provost guards in town. Originally ordered to go to Memphis to reinforce that city while General W. T. Sherman attacked Vicksburg, their orders were changed to report to Helena, Arkansas. On December 29, the orders were changed again sending the Regiment to re-occupy New Madrid, Missouri. At a stop at Columbus, Kentucky the Regiment was ordered to proceed to Union City, Tennessee to protect men working to repair the railroad after a raid by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. They spent New Year's Eve at that place. Before they returned to Columbus, musket fire was heard in the woods, a few shots at first and then rolling into a volley. The men were called into line of battle for the first time. They stood their ground, although some of the boys were sure they could see the rebels coming through the woods. The Regiment returned to Columbus on January 1, and the next day proceeded to New Madrid, Missouri reoccupying that place on January 2, 1863.
The Regiment remained at New Madrid until June 6. For the most part the men conducted their occupation of New Madrid without undue harshness toward the civilians in the surrounding area. They were expected to interdict military supplies such as whisky, salt and medicines going to the Rebels, establish federal control over the area, and capture any bushwhackers or confederates they came across. They spent much of their time patrolling New Madrid and Pemiscot counties, and guarding the roads around New Madrid. Although rumors and threats of attack were constant during their stay they were not bothered by the Rebels in the area.
On June 6, the Regiment joined the First Brigade under General William Vandever, of General Francis Herron's Division and headed for Vicksburg, Mississippi. On June 11, they arrived at Youngs Point, Louisiana. The next day they marched across the Desoto peninsula and camped while the Division was transported to Warrenton, Mississippi. On June 14, the Regiment arrived at Warrenton and camped for the night on the bluffs above the village. The next day the boys marched through some of the roughest country they had ever seen, and that evening they filed into the southernmost section of the line, 1200 yards from the enemies main line. By creeping out through the brush a short distance it was possible to see the confederate flags floating over their forts. The following evening Herron's entire Division advanced four hundred yards under a harassing fire from confederate sharpshooters and canister from the guns along the enemies main line. In the early morning of June 16, while guarding working parties along this new line, Corporal Bendick Bendickson was struck in the head by a musket ball that killed him instantly - the first man to fall. Later that same morning the Confederates bombarded Vandever's line and for the first time in its existence, the 38th Iowa lay under enemy fire. For four hours the Rebel shells rained down. The boys felt as if they could dodge the solid shot but the exploding shells were "decidedly a rough customer." They came in whistling and screaming then burst scattering the fragments furiously over the ground. No one was injured during the bombardment but the pieces fell all around the men. One man was completely covered by dirt kicked up by a piece of shell. "I can't say that I really fancy the music of the shells bursting around but there is no help for it but to make the best of it," Lieutenant Horace Baldwin told his wife.
Three days later while men were working on the fortifications above camp the enemy fired several rounds. The third shell struck the hill just above the working party and exploded showering the party with chunks of clay soil and jagged pieces of hot iron. A man in Company "K" was struck on the left side by a piece of shell, tearing his arm - a second piece struck him at the same moment shattering his left leg at the knee. Mortally wounded Evelyn Califf will suffer for nearly two weeks before becoming the second and the last soldier of the 38th Regiment to die as a result of combat. The other man injured by the same shell was 18-year-old Amos Babcock of Company "F," he was severely wounded when a fragment struck him on the head and knocked him senseless; he survived and was sent up the river where he was discharged on September 17.
After the surrender of the city the Regiment was assigned to guard Vicksburg, destroy the Union approaches, and collect the confederate battle flags. On July 12, perhaps 200 men, all that were healthy enough to go, were ordered on transports with the rest of Herron's Division and sent up the Yazoo River to chase the rebels out of Yazoo City. By the time they returned from the expedition only 100 men were fit for duty. Herron's Division was ordered to New Orleans shortly after, with a stop at Port Hudson, Louisiana. The Regiment remained at Port Hudson for three weeks. During their stay all the men became sick with a combination of diseases, dysentery, typhoid, malaria, and associated complaints until less than 20 men were able to report for duty. The men died at the rate of two per day, the bodies were buried by sick men, in shallow graves in the middle of camp. Colonel Hughes died there, as well as Captain Tinkham, and Lieutenant Stevens. On August 15 the Regiment moved to New Orleans, and camped at Carrollton. The Regiment was put into a convalescent camp but recovery came slowly and not before more than one hundred men had died there. The summer of 1863 will come to symbolize the Regiment's place in Iowa's civil war history, losing more men to disease than any other regiment, without ever participating in any of the great battles of the war, they came to be known as Iowa's Martyr Regiment.
By October 1863, the health of the Regiment had improved enough so that it traveled to Texas with Herron's Division under General Nathaniel Banks, and occupied Brownsville. The Regiment remained on the southern border until July 28, 1864. The Regiment returned to New Orleans, and two days later was sent to Mobile Bay. Assigned to the forces besieging Fort Morgan on the Mobile Peninsula, the Regiment was engaged in fatigue duty building gun and mortar positions. During the bombardment of Fort Morgan on August 22, the Thirty-eighth manned a set of mortars. Fort Morgan was surrendered the next day. The Regiment remained on the Peninsula for two weeks. On September 13, the Regiment arrived at Donaldsonville, Louisiana, where it remained guarding the camp until December 5. On that day word was received that the Regiment would be consolidated with the Thirty-fourth Iowa Infantry.
This notice was the first official word the officers received. None of them had been consulted or advised that the plan to consolidate was being considered. The officers immediately petitioned Governor Stone and Adjutant General Baker to stop the consolidation. But it was too late, Colonel Hudnutt, commanding the Regiment had earlier set the consolidation of the two regiments in motion. The Governor ignored their petition, and on January 1, 1865 the Thirty-eighth Infantry ceased to exist, becoming the only Iowa infantry regiment to lose its identity before its term of service was complete.
Although the Thirty-eighth was the larger of the two regiments, due to its seniority the title of the 34th Infantry designated the combined organization. Although several officers were mustered out of the service, some 531 officers and men continued to serve. These men will be sent to Kennerville, Louisiana on January 10, 1865, and suffer through a period of rain, mud, and hunger until January 23 when they were ordered to Barrancas, Florida to prepare for the final Mobile campaign. On March 11, the Regiment marched to Pensacola for final preparations. March 20, with the Regiment leading the Division, they marched out of Pensacola heading north toward Montgomery, Alabama. The direction north was a feint to confuse the confederates that it was intended to attack Montgomery, but in fact the column would move west approaching Mobile from the east. This march will cover nearly 120 miles. The longest march for the men of the old Thirty-eighth. They will struggle down muddy roads, pulling wagons, repairing roads, and guarding prisoners for twelve days, with little to eat, until they reach Fort Blakely, Alabama on April 1.
The men will participate in the eight day siege, and then on April 9, they will be placed on the right of the division's assaulting line in front of Redoubt #4. The men will charge across 500 yards of open ground, strewn with land mines and other obstructions as veteran Missouri confederates, who had seen service in twenty battles, poured rifle fire on them. During the twenty minute assault three men were killed and 12 wounded. Although credited to the 34th Infantry, Burton Adkins, an original member of the Thirty-eighth was among the dead, and of the twelve wounded, seven of them were men of the old Thirty-eighth. In this one glorious moment they proved that they too were gallant soldiers. Unknown to the men, Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House - the war was virtually over two hours before the charge was made.
Their final days of service will find them back in Texas. On June 20, 1865 the Regiment marched into Houston, Texas - the first Union soldiers to enter that city. As they marched through town headed for the courthouse, a shot rang out and William Ashby fell dead. William had joined the Thirty-eighth at New Madrid, as an escaped slave he was hired to cook for Company B. He followed the Regiment until June 9, 1864 when he was mustered-in as an Under Cook. He will be the last man of the old Thirty-eighth to be killed by a hostile act. The Regiment occupied Houston until August 15, 1865 when the men were mustered out of the service.