The Hairy Nation Goes to War: Davis County, Iowa in the Civil War | HistoryNet MENU

The Hairy Nation Goes to War: Davis County, Iowa in the Civil War

By Robert B. Mitchell
4/11/2016 • Civil War Times Magazine

Shots fired in South Carolina are heard all the way in Iowa, and local boys sign up for the adventure of their lives.

ON APRIL 20, 1861, LESS THAN A WEEK AFTER the fall of Fort Sumter, an anxious crowd gathered at the Methodist church in Bloomfield, Iowa. The surrender in Charleston Harbor and President Lincoln’s subsequent appeal for 75,000 volunteers to defend the Union had jolted the little county seat near the Missouri border like nothing before. Within a day of receiving the news, horsemen crisscrossed Davis County, nicknamed “The Hairy Nation,” to distribute notices calling for a meeting on the crisis. The time for temporizing, organizers proclaimed in their handbills, had passed. “The STARS AND STRIPES must be protected and the laws ENFORCED.”

At noon, the proceedings began. An overflow crowd spilled out of the church as speaker after speaker rallied the throng in defense of the flag. “Every face present was white with the profound emotions of the hour,” noted one witness. “Sentiments of patriotism met with ringing cheers.” The meeting concluded with the formation of a volunteer infantry company that worked off its martial zeal by marching in formation on the northwest corner of the courthouse square. Almost one month later, Company G of the 2nd Iowa Infantry left Bloomfield for Keokuk, a staging post for troops headed into Missouri and points farther south. The Hairy Nation was at war.

Iowa joined the Union in 1846, but almost 15 years later, Davis County retained a reputation for the rough-and-ready frontier demeanor of its citizens. The hirsute appearance of settlers who made their homes along the Missouri border gave rise to the moniker “Hairy Nation,” which eventually came to be applied to the county as a whole.

In the late 1830s, a dispute over the boundary line separating Missouri from the Iowa Territory almost led to war. The governors of Missouri and Iowa mobilized militia to defend their claims, but the “Honey War” concluded without the forces actually exchanging any gunfire. Even so, a Whig congressman, Rep. Garrett Davis of Kentucky, introduced legislation to compensate the Iowa militia for its services. While the bill failed to pass, grateful pioneers who settled Bloomfield and its environs in the early 1840s offered tribute to Davis by naming their new county after him. The matter of the county’s name assumed new relevance in the 1860s, when residents were eager to demonstrate that it did not honor another politician of the same name—Jefferson Davis, who had been a prominent senator from Mississippi and secretary of war before becoming president of the Confederacy. After surveying various explanations for the county’s name and ruling out Jeff Davis as its inspiration, one local historian declared with relief that “ he is not the man!”

There was good reason for his defensiveness. Much like the rest of Iowa and other Northern states, the Hairy Nation followed a circuitous path to war with the South. Most of its citizens believed passionately in preservation of the Union but were divided on the underlying reasons for the conflict. While responding with ardor to the president’s call for volunteers, Davis County was far less enthusiastic about Lincoln or the Republican Party he headed. Cynics who watched Company G parade on the courthouse square in May 1861 dismissively “poo-hooed” the patriotic unity on display. They would be proved wrong, but their skepticism was not entirely unwarranted. In the years leading up to the war, the Hairy Nation was anything but unified.

By the end of the 19th century, Iowa’s reputation as a secure bastion of the Republican Party was so well established that wags joked the Hawkeye State would go Democratic when “Hell goes Methodist.” In Iowa’s early years in the Union, however, the Democratic Party stood as the dominant political force in the state. The white men who comprised Iowa’s electorate favored Democrats Lewis Cass and Franklin Pierce in the presidential elections of 1848 and 1852. But controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Ac t— and the prospect that slavery could be extended in to the western territories — roiled Iowa politics. Anti-slavery Democrats joined Whigs and abolitionist Free Soilers in a potent realignment that would eventually become known as the Republican Party. In 1854, James W. Grimes was elected governor at the head of the new party. As the decade continued, Republicans ascended to dominance in Iowa while the Democratic Party ebbed in strength.

Davis County in the Election of 1860

Davis County, however, remained stubbornly resistant to anti-slavery agitation and the rising new party. In 1856, Republican presidential candidate John C. Frémont carried Iowa, but Hairy Nation voters favored Democrat James Buchanan. The same year, voters in southern Iowa elected Republican Samuel Curtis—later famous as the general who led Union forces to victory at Pea Ridge in Arkansas—to Congress. Davis County, however, supported Curtis’ Democratic opponent, incumbent Augustus Hall.

Nevertheless, the anti-slavery cause slowly gained traction. James Baird Weaver, the son of a courthouse politician in Bloomfield, started his political life as a Democrat defending the Kansas-Nebraska Act but several years later reversed course to become an ardent abolitionist and staunch Republican. The square jawed, hot-tempered young lawyer took the case against slavery across southern Iowa, reveling in the give-and-take of stump speeches and schoolhouse debates. At one of these meetings, Weaver claimed in later years, he invoked a phrase that has since become synonymous with demagogic appeals to patriotism. Weaver recounted the experiences of a Davis County preacher who had been whipped and beaten in Texas for speaking to a group of slaves. The preacher returned to Iowa with the clothes he wore when he was assaulted, providing Weaver with an ideal rhetorical opportunity. “Under this bloody shirt,” Weaver declared as he waved the garment before the crowd, “we propose to march to victory.” A similarly histrionic note was struck in 1859, when Republican Samuel Kirkwood debated Augustus Caesar Dodge in Bloomfield as the two campaigned for governor. On the subject of returning fugitive slaves, Dodge said he would follow the law, but Kirkwood disagreed—vigorously. “So help me God, I would suffer my right arm to be torn from its socket before I would do such a monstrous thing.” Weaver recalled that Kirkwood carried the meeting with this rejoinder, but it didn’t help much in the county as a whole. While narrowly winning the gubernatorial election, Kirkwood fell flat in the Hairy Nation, where he was out-polled by more than 400 votes. The new party had made strides, but remained in the minority.

Undeterred, Hairy Nation Republicans mobilized for the presidential campaign of 1860, and Weaver accompanied the Iowa delegation to the Republican convention in Chicago. Between quaffing cocktails before breakfast and staying up all night to play cards—behavior that must have disgusted the abstemious Weaver — the assembled Republican politicos nominated Lincoln as their presidential candidate. Davis County Democrats also roused themselves. Bloomfield merchant Cyrus Bussey witnessed firsthand his party’s destructive split on the slavery question by attending both Democratic conventions—the Charleston meeting, which deadlocked over enforcement of the Dred Scott decision, and the second gathering six weeks later in Baltimore at which exhausted delegates nominated Stephen Douglas. A pro-slavery rump of Democratic delegates broke off to nominate its own candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, but the contest in Iowa would be fought between Lincoln and Douglas.

The stage was now set for the most fateful presidential campaign in American history. Then, as now, the election of a president blended solemnity with silliness. Hairy Nation voters attended debates, listened to speeches and looked on as Democrats and Republicans competed to see which party could erect the tallest flagpole in Bloomfield. Davis County Democrats and Republicans courted voters at rival partisan barbecues. In homage to Andrew Jackson, young Hairy Nation Democrats styled themselves “Hickory Sprouts” while their older comrades formed a “Douglas Guard” marching society, complete with elaborate uniforms. County Republicans formed their own “Wide-Awake” society to compete with the Douglas Guard and organized a parade at which one float featured 34 girls of various sizes, each standing for a state. The largest girl represented Texas, while the tiniest symbolized Rhode Island.

Beneath the festive pomp of the campaign, deeply held passions gripped Davis County. Weaver and a political ally, Bloomfield lawyer James Baker, traveled to a meeting in the proslavery southwestern corner of the county to speak on behalf of the Republican ticket. They had been warned that they would be tarred and feathered if they showed up, and the hostile crowd prevented them from making their case until a strapping stranger stood up and asked to speak “in the interest of order.” The anonymous spectator then urged the crowd to listen to Baker and Weaver and promised to “mash the head” of anyone who interrupted. The suddenly well-behaved crowd allowed Weaver and Baker to make their speeches in peace, but the episode illustrated the continued difficulties faced by Republicans in the Hairy Nation. While Lincoln carried Iowa and went on to the White House, Davis County voters favored Douglas by a margin of nearly 600 votes.

Joining the Civil War

The prospect of armed conflict between the states quickly overshadowed partisan political battles. With secession and the approach of war, Cyrus Bussey joined Kirkwood’s staff as an aide-de-camp and organized a rifle company that defended the state’s border against raids by Confederate guerrillas from Missouri. In August 1861, he formed a volunteer regiment that became the 3rd Iowa Cavalry and assumed the rank of colonel. Joining his staff as lieutenant colonel was another Bloomfield Democrat, Henry Hoffman Trimble. Trimble had fought in the Mexican War and claimed as a brother-in-law and law partner Weaver’s political ally Baker. With Republicans Weaver and Baker serving with the 2nd Iowa Infantry, Bussey’s cavalry made fighting for the Union a bipartisan enterprise.

Whatever their political affiliation, soldiers from Davis County saw plenty of action in some of the most important engagements in the West. At Fort Donelson, Tenn., Company G and the 2nd Iowa played a dramatic role in the Union assault that followed a stalled attack by Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow. Facing heavy fire, Weaver and his compatriots advanced steadily until reaching the Confederates. Then began what Weaver, not constrained by a just – the – facts rhetorical style, described in a letter to his wife as a “holocaust to the demon of battles.” The Iowans overran the Rebel position after bloody fighting, helping to win the Union victory that followed when Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant secured an unconditional surrender from Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner. When the fighting stopped and Weaver learned the Iowans would lead the Union procession in to the captured Confederate stockade, he wept. He kept his cap — pierced by a musket ball—as a memento.

Fighting in Arkansas with the 3rd Iowa Cavalry, Trimble also obtained a souvenir—but at a much higher price. On March 7, 1862, the cavalry found itself in the midst of the first day of fighting at Pea Ridge. Ordered to lead two companies to a posit ion from which they were to charge the enemy, Trimble’s troops were surprised by Confederate infantry. In the ensuing gunfight, a number of Iowans fell and Trimble suffered a disfiguring head wound that led him to resign his commission. For the rest of his life, one writer observed, the tall and gaunt Bloomfield lawyer “bore on his face the marks of that conflict.” Perhaps he counted himself fortunate. Bussey noted in his report on the battle that he discovered evidence “beyond dispute” that eight of his dead troops had been scalped. “The bodies of many of them showed unmistakable evidence that the men had been murdered after they were wounded,” Bussey reported.

For the 3rd Iowa, the fighting had only just begun. After Pea Ridge, the regiment fought its way across Arkansas and joined in the Union attack on Arkansas Post on September 20. Meanwhile, Bussey mounted a campaign of his own—to get his troops attached to Grant’s army as it lay siege to Vicksburg. His efforts paid off in early June 1863, when the 3rd Cavalry was added to Grant’s force. The regiment monitored the movements of Confederate forces under the command of General Joseph Johnston and remained in constant activity along the Black River until Vicksburg surrendered in July. “They were almost constantly in the saddle,” according to an official history of Iowa regiments, “scouting the country along the Big Black, guarding the fords and ferries and keeping watchful eyes upon the movement of the enemy.” After Vicksburg, the cavalry attacked Confederates defending Canton, Miss., 25 miles north, and forced the Rebels to evacuate at night. The next morning, the 3rd Iowa rode into town and destroyed rail cars and machinery used by Confederate troops. Bussey was eventually promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Iowa and Company G moved farther south after Fort Donelson and found itself in the thick of the fighting at Shiloh, where Weaver carried a wounded Bloomfield comrade from the field in the midst of what he described as a “continuous roar of musketry and artillery.” On the eve of the Battle of Corinth in October 1862, Weaver was promoted to major by his Bloomfield friend Baker, then in command of the regiment. In the subsequent fighting, Baker and his second-in-command both fell, leaving Weaver in charge. After the battle, the Iowans elected Weaver colonel of the regiment—a position he held until his three-year tour of duty ended in 1864. After the war, Weaver received a brevet appointment as brigadier general in honor of his record.

The Fate of Weaver

When Weaver returned to Bloomfield, he edited a local newspaper, the Weekly Union Guard, and zealously declared his implacable hostility to “treason” in “all its phases and forms.” He must have been dismayed by the election returns that fall, in which the Hairy Nation gave Lincoln a miniscule 53-vote majority over the Democratic nominee, former Union General George McClellan. But the balloting foreshadowed the return of the vigorous political battling that was a hallmark of Davis County in the years leading up to the war. While Bussey left Bloomfield to settle in New Orleans—and campaigned for Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884—Trimble stayed, remained active in the Democratic Party and ran for governor of Iowa in 1879.

As for Weaver, his post-war political career took a number of surprising twists. With concern mounting in the Hairy Nation and elsewhere in Iowa about the depressed economy and the political and economic clout of railroads, Weaver left the Republican Party in 1877 to join the insurgent Greenback-Labor Party. In 1878, he was elected to Congress as a Greenback and two years later ran for president at the head of the third-party ticket. He served two more terms in Congress before mounting a second presidential campaign in 1892 at the head of the Populist ticket. The Civil War had ended, but a new conflict over the contours of the postwar economic order would consume the country for decades to come—and one of the Hairy Nation’s most distinguished veterans would be in the thick of it.

Robert B. Mitchell is the author of Skirmisher: The Life, Times, and Political Career of James B. Weaver (Edinborough Press) and an avid but lousy golfer.

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