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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The First Iowa Volunteer Mounted Infantry

Social Media Head Shot Sean K. Gabhann 20150329When preparing the back-story for the characters in the Shiloh Trilogy, I found that I needed to identify a particular fictional Union regiment as the home for Jamie Harper, Josuah Featherstone, Gus Magnusson, Johnny Cooke, and the others.  I wanted to identify a unit which could plausibly have participated in most of Grant’s and Sherman’s major battles not only in the time period covered by the Trilogy, but extending from the earliest battles to the end of major operations in April 1865.
I had the particular good fortune to have chosen Sergeant’s Bluff, Iowa as Harper’s home town.  Using the constraint that Harper would have to join a unit from a state near his home town, this gave me the choice of Iowa, the states of Minnesota and Missouri, and the territories of Nebraska or Dakota.
Of these, Iowa proved to be the best historical choice having provided regiments for nearly all of the major battles in the western theater, from the First Iowa Volunteer Infantry at Wilson’s Creek, to the sixteen regiments of Iowans in the final battle for Sherman’s armies at Bentonville.   In particular, I wanted a unit which could plausibly have participated in the four battles described in the Trilogy: Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.

The Civil War Archive TitleUsing Wikipedia as a quick reference source, I discovered that there were just five Union regiments present at Belmont, four from Illinois and the Seventh Iowa Volunteer Infantry.  For a cross-check, I consulted the Regimental Index of The Civil War Archive website operated by Mike Northway.  Based on their regimental history, it seemed that the Seventh Iowa would serve quite well is a means for validating the feasibility of an Iowa unit participating in most of Grant’s and Sherman’s major battles.  Back to Wikipedia and a check of the Union orders-of-battle for the other battles confirmed this.

So, I now knew it was feasible.  But I didn’t want to use the actual Seventh Iowa because I didn’t wish to trivialize the accomplishments of the men who served in that regiment nor did I wish to be constrained by that unit’s known, recorded history and personages.   I also knew that I want at some time in the future to write a prequel which covers the campaign in Missouri during 1861.  So, I looked at the Union order-of-battle of Wilson’s Creek and discovered the First Iowa Volunteer Infantry, a ninety-day unit, whose only major battle was Wilson’s Creek – ten days prior to the unit being mustered out of service in August 1861.

I had my fictional unit.  What if, instead of returning to Iowa, a number of the veterans of the First Iowa re-enlisted for three years and they are permitted to retain their unit lineage?  Some of the officers would need to be changed and I still wanted to avoid using real soldiers' names.

Iowa Genealogy Project Logo
During an internet search, I had the great good fortune to find the Iowa Genealogy Web Project.  In these pages, I found the initial muster rosters for every Iowa unit in the Civil War, provided by Guy Logan.  Now I also had access to thousands of authentic soldiers’ names which I could (and would) manipulate to fill out the roster of fictional Iowans in Harper’s War Stories.

The story of Jamie Harper and the others begins with Harper's Donelson which was published in September 2015.

Harpers Donelson Front Page for Web 20150901
Harper's Donelson: A Novel of Grant's First Campaign


  1. I enjoyed your post, especially since I can relate to your research process for coming up with a Civil War unit for your fictional characters. It is difficult to manage the fine line between keeping the Civil War buffs happy by giving your story an authentic feel by not deviating too far from the known and well-documented Civil War regiment listings and battle reports and serving the needs of your fictional characters and their story.

    I followed a similar path to come up with units for both the hero and the scoundrel in my work in progress. It needed to be connected to Indiana. For my scoundrel, I found the Independent Indiana Scouts organized in Fort Leavenworth, KS in August 1863. The company history on Fold3, which only had a few more details than what I found on Wikipedia, was sketchy, at best. Their mission was to search for deserters and protect the borders. Think Missouri. Think Quantrill. Think guerrilla fighting. They didn't last the year of their enlistment being mustered out in April 1864, but many were absorbed into the 13th Indiana. Perfect for my needs. Then I had to find a unit for my hero pulling from the region where he lived, and which fought in the same area and could have come into contact with the 13th Indiana.

    The process you described is what makes writing about the Civil War both interesting and challenging.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

    1. Robin/Zina, The war along the Kansas-Missouri border was a true horror. The chivalric notions which held in place among the Armies east of the Mississippi where thrown away much earlier there than elsewhere.

      I'm excited that you elected to tackle it. Looking forward to seeing how you build your characters.