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W. G. Donnan Speech 1871
27th Iowa Top Banner

History of Floyd County, Iowa
By Inter State Publishing Company, Inter-state Publishing Company (Chicago, Ill.)


One of those joyous occasions which commemorate the glorious achievements of the Union Army, which excelled that of all previous ones, was held at Charles City, Sept. 6, 1871; on that occasion the Hon. W. G. Donnan delivered the ablest and most telling speech we have seen; its depth, its pathos, its satire, its logic and eloquence are incomparably, grand, truthful, deep and convincing. We make the following extracts:

Comrades! Who that have endured hardships, suffered privations, overcome obstacles and braved dangers, in behalf of any cherished object in life, but loves, after its successful attainment, to frequently revert to the trying scenes through which he has passed, recall the sentiments of devotion which pervaded him, recount the obstacles he has overcome and rehearse oftentimes the story of his success?

Who, having been associated for a time with others in dangerous travels and perilous adventures, but loves to meet again in after years the companions of his wanderings and his hazards, to renew the closely-formed friendships incident to such circumstances and with them recall the toils and dangers they have together experienced? And who, forsaking all of friendships and associations which become so precious to one in the various walks of civil life, has gone forth with the many hundreds who composed the roll of a volunteer regiment, and, side by side with them has periled all for the nation's defense; with them has been called by war's stern duties to stand, time and again, where the terrible tempests of death have swept over and all around him--lives there one among such who ought not, and who will not, in after years, love to embrace an opportunity to meet his old comrades of tent and field, recall the thrilling scenes through which they unitedly have passed, the privations and hardships of camp and campaign, relate their hair-breadth escapes, replace in vivid memory the virtues and the heroisms of the absent, bravely fallen, and tell again how they bore, in direst battle, their country's standard on to victory?

Under such circumstances, my old comrades of the Twenty- Seventh Iowa Infantry, you are assembled to-day

In such gloomy days, recognizing the dread necessities of the nation, and aroused by its contemplation, yourselves, in common with multitudes of men all over the loyal North, leaving every variety of employment, permitting nothing to deter, sprang to arms, and filled the quota of that marvelous aggregate (300,000) which oftentimes afterward, on the tented field or on the march you used to shout in general chorus, ' "We are coming, Father Abraham, six hundred thousand more.

Gathering in from the counties of Allamakee, Buchanan, Chickasaw, Clayton, Delaware, Floyd and Mitchell, nine years ago to-day, saw a round thousand men rendezvoused in camp at Dubuque, awaiting ' muster in ' as a distinct regimental organization. Let me retrace with you today, briefly as I can, some of the pages of its history. The hours upon hours each day during which you were put through the positions, the facings, the wheelings, the guard mountings, the guard duty, with sticks for guns, the corporal drill, the company drill, and the battalion drill, will not be sooner forgotten by you all than any other seemingly preposterous and irksome duty. Have you, even at this late day, forgotten the loud complaints which followed if the new, soft baker's bread wasn't the very best the city could afford, or if the ice in the pure spring-water gave out? Ah! how you were being mistreated. Surely no other soldiers suffered such privations as these!

And when that distinguished personage arrived, who rumor said was to wear the regimental eagles, walking so erect that the boys declared he leaned backward, what great doubts arose whether a mere civilian could be capable to command a thousand such men as well an ordinary man might do for a Lieutenant, possibly for Captain, but how unfortunate that any other than a trained military genius should be assigned to command such a fighting regiment as ours was about to be! For had not our own Company H, with inexpressible appropriateness and modesty assumed the name of 'Tigers;' and let our stalwart men but get to the front and oppose the enemy, how we should strike daylight through the rebel hordes! Nor is this much overdrawn. Oh! the ardor with which the young soldier enters upon the service of his endangered country! If, in some respects, it smacks of the ridiculous, in others it was none the less bordering on the sublime.

A few days later, in obedience to orders, but with many an exclamation, more forcible than polite and reverential, the command embarked, not for ' the front,' but for the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the Mille Lacs of Minnesota. Short service awaited the regiment there, however, and in a few weeks you gladly turned your faces southward, and the latter part of November reported to Gen. Sherman. * * *

Up to this date, covering one half of your three years' enlistment, the regiment had seen varied service; hard service, dangerous service, through privation and exposure, as decimated rolls only too sadly proved, but had, as yet, seen but little of that heroic service of which the young soldier dreams, for which he donned his country's blue, through which he gallantly lives or bravely falls. But your line of march was henceforth to be direct to 'cannons' roar and muskets' rattle.' Your future pathway was to lead to ' glory or the grave.' March 14 witnessed your first contest with the enemy in the Red River campaign, your first charge upon the enemies' works, and saw it most gallantly made and completely successful, in the capture of Fort DeRussey, with its entire garrison and munitions of war. * * * * It was under such circumstances, not as the foremost of an advancing, fighting army, but as the rear of a retreating one, that on the morning of the 9th, the grand old Second Brigade, under the command of the rough, but gallant, grim old Col. Shaw, of the Fourteenth Iowa, moved into its assigned place, farthest of any, advanced toward the already coming foe. Not long it waited. On came the impetuous enemy, and that day's sanguinary work began--Hour after hour stood those gallant men and received the concentrated fire of the rebels. Musket ball, nor shot, nor shell, nor desperate charge could move it. There they stood, whilst officers and men, thick and fast, fell around them.

There they stood, and in return, hurled back death, if not damnation, to hundreds of the rebel foe. Unflinchingly they stood, and a valor unsurpassed and unsurpassable rolled back the tide of disaster of the previous day, which had threatened to engulf the entire command. The conflict ceased as darkness settled down upon the field, leaving our troops in its entire possession, except the advanced position of the Second Brigade, from which it had retired to the main line, in obedience to orders, late in the afternoon.* * * *

I hope to be forgiven for telling a little incident, just as the staff reported it. We had received orders to form a strong, compact line. A general charge was to be ordered in perhaps half an hour. General Thomas and staff rode along the rear of the line. When he reached our corps, surprised and perhaps provoked, he approached General Smith, when the following colloquy ensued: "Gen. Smith, where are your reserves, sir?" "B-b-by God, I haint got any, sir." "Your lines are too light! Your lines are too light, sir! They will never carry these works in the world, sir!" "Wait till you see! Wait till you see 'em go, sir! These G--d d--d sons of b--s of mine, would take the tops of them mountains if I should order them to." With a smile of incredulity, disdain and perhaps contempt, Gen. Thomas turned away, with extreme dissatisfaction, for the charge was to commence here and if it was successful in carrying the works in their immediate front, it should extend from right to left along the entire line. A few minutes later saw the entire right of Gen. Smith's forces advanced upon the hill where rested the rebel left. Gradually they swept on, and although the rebel fire was severe, and the resistance most resolute, their advance was irresistible and in a few minutes our first flag was upon the intrench- ments of the enemy. Knowing the general order, Colonel Gilbert, without waiting the command of Garrard, the division commander, wheeled his horse and gave the regiment the looked-for command to advance. The men sprang to their feet. There was a moment of silence then they took the long-drawn, continuous yell of the Union Charge, and dashed forward; then a screeching of shell, the cracking of grape and canister, and the prolonged roar of musketry, and intermingling with the whole, the Union yell; then a sudden cessation of musketry and artillery in our front, and old A. J. Smith's entire single line of men had carried everything: before them, carrying the enemy's artillery upon that part of the field and thousands of prisoners. A few moments later sent back answering shouts of victory, and the remnant of the rebel army, hopelessly shattered, were fleeing in utter confusion through Brentwood Pass. Oh, it is worth a lifetime to have participated in such an action, fighting in behalf of a just and noble cause! The result of this victory was the capture of eighty serviceable cannon, scores of battle flags, seven generals, 100 staff and line officers, 13,107 prisoners of war, besides 2,207 deserters who came in and took the oath of allegiance.

Colonel Gilbert was promoted to full grade of Brigadier-General as a recognition of your energy and his bravery. Your last battle was the besieging of Fort Blakely, the last defense of Mobile, April 9; the main line was distant over eleven hundred yards from the fort, the distance being filled with fallen timber. Torpedoes were planted in front of the works, wires stretched from stump to stump, a double line of abates, and in the rear of all a strong line of earthworks. Men have said to me, 'how we ever got over that space, I cannot tell.' But somehow you did. From the command, ' Forward,' the line raised that yell and kept it up over trees, over wires, over torpedoes, through abates, and over the works in gallant style; our brigade captured nine pieces of artillery and nearly six hundred prisoners. This action occurred on the day that General Lee surrendered. * * * Since your enlistment, three times the sun had gone to his winter solstice and returned to cast his perpendicular rays upon your sultering, marching column. Three times the fathers and brothers at home had gathered the harvest's golden grain. If you were not among those who earliest went to their country's call, you went forth in the gloom of rebellious night, and fought until the dawning of the blessed daylight of peace. If your first unwelcome campaign was into the cold winds of Minnesota, you were in the last fighting, and vour last marching was upon Montgomery, the hot-bed of secession, and the early capital where first unfurled the insulting emblem of confederacy.

In these three years you traveled more than half the distance around the globe. You participated in some of the hardest marches, endured great privations and exposures, and took gallant part in some of the greatest battles of the war. So active in the skirmish, so firm in the solid line to resist and hurl back the iron storm of treason's hosts, so true and irresistible in the wild, dangerous and thrilling charge, that you became, deservedly, with many others, a synonym for gallantry. Are the battle-fields of Little Rock, Fort De Russey, Pleasant Hill, Yellow Bayou, Lake Chicot, Tupelo, Old Town Creek, Nashville and Fort Blakely inscribed upon your regimental colors? They are more indelibly written elsewhere. The record of the fields you have fought, and nobly fought--of the victories you have won, and nobly won, will not perish with yourselves, for they have become a part of the eventful history of the country; and letters have rendered history more enduring 'than monuments of brass.' You went out to defend your country's flag, its glory dishonored, its power defied, you turned not homeward your steps until its worst enemies were compelled to bow in allegiance and acknowledge its invincibility, until once more--

Over old Sumter, blackened and seamed,
Over our land now twice redeemed,
Over our veterans, scaled with scars,
Flutters our flag, with its glorious stars.

But heroic deeds, in the dire arbitrament of battle, are not performed without peril. [Names of the wounded we give in another place.]

Hitherto I have spoken to you as though the rolls of the round hundreds are all filled with living, returned soldiers, now again engaged in the pursuits of civil life. Alas! did I produce here the original rosters, around what numbers of names must we draw the heavy black lines of mourning. I have no words to speak of the burdened sorrows of fathers and brothers, when compelled to realize that the soldier son or brother could never again come home; of the never-to-be-healed heart-wounds of sisters and wives, when they knew that those dearer to them than life itself, were wounded unto death; of the woe-swept heart of the mother who sent forward her eldest and her youngest when there came the dread certainty that her country had required the sacrifice of him for whom she had prayed:' Protect him, Father! Bless my boy.

The pleasures of re-union with you to-day, are not for such as the mild and genial Captain Haslip, the stern, patriotic old Captain Drips, the exemplary, good Christian, Brush, and all the others

Whose silent tents are spread, On fame's eternal camping-ground.

If it be true that the spirits of departed friends may hover near congenial scenes on earth, then are our comrades near us, whilst we mingle here in pleasing associations, and with love and reverent esteem we call the muster roll of our heroes dead." [We give the list elsewhere.] "These, all, with the others whom disease since mustered out--have paid the highest tribute that patriot can pay to his endangered country--his life--his heart's blood. These, all through disease, exposure, or gathering into their heroic bosoms the bullets of treason,

On field or redoubt
They were mustered out
And mustered into eternal life.

These, all, are a part of that vast hecatomb piled four hundred thousand high--a sacrifice--oh, an inestimable sacrifice, for the preservation of our country and its liberties! Think you the fathers, who upreared and maintained the standard of freedom in this republic, will be forgotten in history and song? No more will these. History, co-extensive with time, will recount their valorous deeds, and every coming generation that shall look upon yon star-spangled emblem of liberty, will sing paeans in their memory, as to America's truest, bravest and best.

Oh, unreturned and unreturning comrade! In memory of thy costly sacrifice, anew we swear allegiance, and by our best efforts as citizens pledge the preservation of that grand republic for which thy noble life was given.

Ye more fortunate comrades, who scathed, maimed, unharmed, have survived the dangers of the red fields of war, have lived to see the old flag triumphantly vindicated, to see white winged peace alight, and find a resting place on the staff bears the ' stars and stripes,' and to return to your inviting homes, and to your loved ones there. You have, I doubt not, obeyed your Colonel's parting injunction, ' Be as good citizens as you have been soldiers.'

And ye happy boys, who went out leaving those sad sweethearts with a sigh in the heart and a lock of your hair close to it, which they had just clipped with the scissors as a remembrance. Did you on your return find them 'so glad when Johnny came home from the army?' Are you sure that none of them have since helped themselves to your locks without the aid of scissors? * * *

Surviving soldiers of the Twenty-seventh Iowa Infantry, your hard service in the ranks has doubtless given you a higher appreciation of the value of that excellent Government for the preservation of which you imperiled your lives. You have lived to see it become what the fathers intended it should be, an edifice of freedom whose corner stone should be the personal rights of the individual citizen, guaranteed and secured by the fundamental law of the nation. The bitter sectional spirit once so prevalent is becoming obliterated. The different States are more nearly united in interest and in sentiment than ever before. Recovering with unexampled rapidity from the terrible scourge of war, the country appears entirely upon an era of prosperity, unsurpassed in its own, or in the history of any other nation. Equality of civil rights before the law of his country, is now the heritage of every citizen, in every station, from ocean to ocean, and from the lakes to the gulf. The republic stands on better foundation, and is to-day stronger than ever in the past. Decay cannot reach it whilst the intelligence and virtue of its citizens are maintained.

As your past performance of military duty has liberally contributed to this grand result, so in the performance of your civil duties, and in the exercise of your political privileges, defend and maintain such principles as will tend to the continued unity, purity and permanency of our institutions. And may the God of nations perpetuate those highest civil blessings, which your instrumentality has helped secure and preserve, to the latest generations of men."