George Washington Healey survived a head wound to end the war as one of Jefferson Davis’ guards.
The volunteer soldiers of the Civil War never fail to amaze. Men who were farmers, factory workers or shop clerks often eagerly joined the army as a lark, fueled by woodcut-illustrated accounts of war that emphasized glory over gore. When faced with bloody reality, some quailed, most managed to stick to their task and a few acquitted themselves so well that they earned the Medal of Honor.
George Washington Healey, a Dubuque, Iowa, native born on February 22, 1842, was among that last select group. When the Civil War broke out, Healey, a youth of 19 working as a clerk in a hardware store, enlisted in the Union Army. He served in the Fremont Hussars, which eventually became Company E of the 5th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry. Healey survived a head wound in combat and lived to tell of his time as a prisoner at Andersonville. He returned to Dubuque in 1865, married Mary Moser, raised three children and became a partner in a successful hardware store and a leader in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). He died on May 9, 1913. Between September 16, 1861, and August 9, 1865, Healey wrote 150 letters to his family, sharing his experiences as a soldier.
Healey first wrote home of journeying down the Mississippi River to St. Louis on the steamer Jennie Deans. On September 16, 1861, he wrote: “I have never enjoyed myself or had such a good time in my life as I do now.” He boasted he had “plenty to eat and the best place on the boat to sleep. We have all kinds of pies, cakes, meats—everything a person wants and we have the best officers—they treat us to anything.”
From Camp Asboth in St. Louis on October 15, 1861, he wrote: “I am enjoying good health and getting fat. I have gained eleven pounds since I have been here.” Delays in getting arms caused Healey to fear he would not get his “chance to fight.”
Healey and his company followed a very strict regimen. On November 4, 1861, he told his mother, “[we] get up at daylight, dress, call the roll, water horses, clean [the] stable, feed [the horses].” Then “go to breakfast, wash our dishes, clean our spurs and saddles, go to drill.” The remainder of the day was filled with sword exercises, more drilling and caring for their mounts. At day’s end, some would go to bed while others kept guard over the camp.
At Camp Benton, near St. Louis, Healey’s spirits soared in late January 1862. “I must tell you the good news. We received the swords Sunday—oh, golly wasn’t I glad—and we are going off!…I will try and do my duty if it is in my power. I have done my duty ever since I have been here.”
Healey’s encounter with the realities of warfare at Fort Donelson, Tenn., did nothing to diminish his conviction that the war would be short-lived. On February 25, 1862,he wrote: “I will tell you there was an awful fight and a great many killed on both sides. The fight lasted for three long days and the Secesh raised the white flag and lost the day….It was awful to see our men come in camp with their arms, legs, face, hands shot off. It was terrible!” Nevertheless, his optimism remained intact. He wrote: “The war will not last long. We are winning the day.”
By June 1863,Healey and his company had become a part of Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans’ army, which challenged Confederates operating in Tennessee and Georgia. Healey was involved in a skirmish on the Shelbyville Pike at Guy’s Gap in Tennessee, where he suffered a serious head wound. He spared his mother the details. But his account and the memoirs of Josiah Conzett, a fellow Dubuquer, agree on what happened.
On July 5, 1863, Healey reported his injury of June 25: “We drove the Rebels for nearly two miles. And then they made a stand. Our Co. were ordered forward. Just as we got in good shooting distance I was wounded on top of the head over the left eye—slightly. The shock nearly dismounted me from my horse. The doctor dressed the wound—now I am all right again and doing duty.” Conzett saw more drama in the incident: “I was riding about the center of the company when I heard an exclamation in back of me which was ‘My God I am hit!’ I turned around and saw Geo. W. Healey with his hands covering his face and the blood spurting through his fingers and running down pretty lively.”
Healey lost the sight in his left eye, but he was still an unflinching supporter of the Union cause. He maintained: “I am perfectly satisfied if I don’t lose my head, arm, leg. If I do, it will be the misfortune of war.”
Company E of the 5th Iowa Cavalry mustered out on December 31, 1863, at Pulaski, Tenn. Healey reenlisted on January 1, 1864, and rejoined his company after a two-month furlough in Dubuque. After a 10-day journey from Davenport, he hooked up with his regiment in Nashville. On April 30,he exalted, “Now I am with the boys again and you can rest assured that I am glad.”
Healey participated in Brig. Gen. Edward M. McCook’s cavalry raid, carried out during Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign in the summer of 1864.He and his regiment delighted in “going on a Raid down in Rebeldom” to destroy the Mobile & Atlanta Railroad. “We burned about 35 miles of the Railroad and a large Conscript Camp of the Rebs and a large amount of provisions.” They raided a warehouse full of bacon, hams, flour, meal and corn. He noted with humor, “Oh, yes [we seized] horses, mules, tobacco, whiskey, and you can bet we made good use of those articles.”
On July 29, 1864, at Newnan, Ga., Healey performed a singular act of valor: “When nearly surrounded by the enemy, [he] captured a Confederate soldier, and with the aid of a comrade [Oscar Martin] who joined him later, captured four other Confederate soldiers, disarmed the five prisoners, and brought them all into the Union lines.” The bravery of this deed lay in Healey’s willingness to risk his life and safety in pursuit of the enemy. Years later, in 1899,Congress awarded him the Medal of Honor, and the above text is taken from the official government citation.
Seven days after that brave act, Healey fell into the hands of the Rebels when he became separated from his company. In a letter written from Atlanta on September 21, 1864, after he was freed during a prisoner exchange, he described the circumstances of his capture and imprisonment. “I was taken the 5th of August, after traveling five days through swamps and wilderness. I had to go to the road to get something to eat and was grabbed by the Rebs.” Healey was taken to Camp Sumter Prison at Andersonville, Ga., on August 10.
Healey confided to his mother: “It is impossible for me to tell the suffering I saw while I was a prisoner….I would rather be shot dead than to be taken prisoner again. I have seen men…walk up to the deadline to be put out of existence and shot down by the Reb guards [rather] than to endure the awful suffering.” Years later he expanded on this account of his imprisonment: “Words cannot portray the horrors of this prison….There is no spot on the face of the earth where man’s inhumanity to man was more fully demonstrated than in this hell hole prison, and the name of Andersonville will be forever a dark spot on American civilization. I wish to God that a spear of grass would never grow or a drop of water ever touch that place for hundreds of miles around.”
The trauma of Andersonville haunted Healey throughout the rest of his life. Sometime after the war, according to Dubuque lore, Healey secured two posts of Georgia pine that were part of the stockade at Andersonville and displayed them in his hardware store.
After his release from prison, Healey was not yet done with military service. He rejoined his unit in Nashville, and around the time of the 1864 presidential election, he and a detail of soldiers requisitioned fresh horses in Kentucky. He came across a young lady, a supporter of former general and Democratic presidential candidate George B. McClellan, who provided him with dinner. Healey “asked her how much [the dinner] was and she said 50 cents.”
She asked who he was going to vote for. “I told her little Mc. She said bully for me and would not take anything for the dinner.” He wryly remarked to his mother: “If they treat me as good as that I will play off them until I get to Nashville. They are nearly all McClellan down here and it pleases them to death to have a soldier say he will vote for Mc.” Healey later wrote: “Our Regt. Voted over 600 votes for Lincoln and only 26 for little Mack…I voted for old Abe.”
The end of the war seemed just around the corner on January 25, 1865, when Healey and 20 of his regiment spent four days in a Rebel camp near Tupelo, Miss. They had orders to ride along as an escort for a flag of truce that brought Union soldiers into conversation with Rebels. “I saw a great many Rebels and talked with them and they want peace on any terms. That is the private soldier—and it is my impression that this war will come to a close by spring. This is what the Rebels say—they don’t think there will be another fight.” He noted that many had no shoes and little clothing. He surmised “such men will not fight.”
On April 9,General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. President Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14 and died the next day. Not knowing of these events, Corporal Healey, recently promoted, fought at Selma and Montgomery, Ala. He took part in his last fight in Columbus, Ga. Finally, Healey and his company learned the war was over, and the killing and raiding stopped. On May 11 he wrote his mother from Atlanta, “And now we are resting and the Bloody war is over and thank God we all expect to be Home very soon.”
Before his homecoming, Healey would have a significant encounter with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It is easy to imagine the pleasure he took in being among the 100 men from his regiment who escorted the president of the Confederate States, his wife and two daughters from Atlanta to Augusta. Healey took every possible advantage to look Davis over. “He seemed to take it perfectly easy for one which will suffer death,” commented the veteran corporal.
At the Augusta depot thousands of people greeted Davis. The Union soldiers separated the married couple and their servant from their two daughters, putting them in different carriages. “This, I think, was done to keep him from trying to make his Escape, and of course, it had its desired effect which brought tears to their eyes. I did not think the hard-hearted devil could cry!” Healey noted: “On our way down at every station were large numbers of Rebel soldiers and citizens to see if it was true that he, Jeff Davis, was our prisoner. The Rebs would then ask us what we were going to do with him and the answer they would get would be to hang him, and hang he will no doubt—the scoundrel, traitor, and rascal. Although he and his family were treated with Respect by us.”
Healey and his regiment mustered out on August 9, 1865, at Edgefield, Tenn. In his final letter home Healey declared himself “a Citizen of the United States once more.” He confided: “I’ve just been thinking of the length of time I have been in the service— which is three years, 11 months, and 7 hours exactly to a dot.” He confessed: “[The years] were long and dreary and many a day I was Homesick, but I would not say anything to anybody about it. Enough of this, and now I am a free man again.”