Historian tells of Keokuk’s role in Civil War


KEOKUK – As part of their regular educational programming, the Keokuk Public Library hosted Minnesota native and American History author Michael Eckers to discuss the role Keokuk played in the Civil War.

“The Civil War was not about railroads, it was about rivers. “

That was the message from Owatonna, Minnesota native Michael Eckers to more than 30 Keokuk residents that visited the Keokuk Public Library Tuesday night to learn about the impact this area had on the Civil War more than 150 years ago.


Eckers has become a renowned author of American History as he’s currently finishing up his eighth book with three of his books pertaining not only to the Civil War but the role Midwesterners played in that conflict. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, Eckers became a postmaster in the U.S. Postal Service for several decades before indulging himself in his love for American history.

Tuesday’s discussion centered on the Civil War and specifically the role Keokuk, the city, as well as its residents took part in. Michael Eckers explained that Iowa had a very significant role that it played in the western theater of the war, which Eckler described as “anywhere west of North Carolina”.

Rivers played such a pivotal role in the Civil War because they allowed one-way traffic from North to South at almost no cost. Iowa is home to a vast number of rivers as was displayed by the very first slide that Eckers showed which was a map of Iowa with all of its rivers and tributaries.

As such, Keokuk was a huge hub for the Union during the war due to the fact that it is the southernmost point of the state and it also sits along North America’s premier waterway; the Mississippi River. Eckers explained that more than 80,000 soldiers from throughout Iowa were staged at some point in Keokuk as they were shipped off to the various western fronts of the war which represented a vast majority of the total number of soldiers the state supplied.

Eckers broke his explanation of Keokuk figures and landmarks down into various slides to which he highlighted for the role they played in the war.

Estes House

“The Estes House was commandeered by the U.S. Government in 1862, shortly after the Civil War began, when fighting began out west. At about the same time as Fort Donnellson and Henry. This is when the western casualties began to overwhelm the Jefferson and St. Louis barracks and they began to send wounded soldiers north.”

The Estes House was located at the corners of what is now South 5th and Main Street in Keokuk and was expanded into a hospital with 16 wards and housed as many as 1,600 wounded soldiers.

Battle of Athens

“The only battle that took place within any reasonable distance of Iowa or Keokuk was the Battle of Athens. The battle actually took place in Missouri just across the Des Moines River but artillery shells landed in Lee County so it is considered part of the battle site.”

The battle of Athens itself was fought over a shipment of Springfield Rifles that were bound for Keokuk to be distributed to Union troops being sent to Davenport. The Confederates in Missouri intercepted intelligence pertaining to the rifles and fought to commandeer the bounty to distribute among Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. Three Union troops were killed in action while another eighteen were deemed missing in action.

During this part of the presentation, Eckers spoke about the Breon Brothers of Keokuk, who were members of the famed 36th Iowa Infantry Company H known as the “Greybeards”, as members of this unit were not allowed to enlist unless they were 40 years of age to 60. Hence, the moniker Greybeards. The two Breon brothers were both captured by the South and were shipped to Tyler Prisoner of War Camp in Texas where they died in Confederate custody about four weeks apart.

Samuel Curtis

“He actually had a very short military history as he resigned his commission two years after graduating from West Point in 1831…..Eventually he was appointed Colonel of the 2nd Iowa and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1861”

Samuel Curtis had become mayor of Keokuk in 1856 before being reappointed shortly after the Civil War begin in 1861.

General Samuel Curtis was tasked with “unionizing” locals and suppressing uprisings in Missouri. Eckers went on to explain that Curtis became very distraught with the fighting and the death that occurred by the summer of 1862 many of the West Point graduate commanders became distressed by the amount of their soldiers they had watched die.

Eckers displayed a poem that Curtis wrote that year after the Battle of Pea Ridge in which he laments the plight of so many men dying in vain.

“The scene is silent and sad. The vulture and the wolf now have the dominion, and the dead friends and foes sleep in the same lonely graves.”

Ezekiel Sampson

“Not exactly a household name but Company F of the 5th Iowa was raised right here in Keokuk and he was the one that enlisted that unit.”

Sampson was not a native of Keokuk but he was tasked with raising the highly decorated 5th Iowa and he enlisted troops in Keokuk. Sampson was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel after enlisting himself as a private and eventually became a member of the Iowa Senate, a judge, and then of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Annie Turner Wittenmeyer

“Wittenmeyer is the first one ever named in an Iowa legislative document, any Iowa legislative document. She was appointed as a sanitary agent in the Iowa Sanitary Commission.”

The Iowa Sanitary Commission was tasked with keeping soldiers safe not from enemy fire or artillery, but with saving them from the number one killer of the Civil War; diarrhea and related illnesses. Medicine was in its infancy, according to Eckers, and the Sanitary Commission taught soldiers to drink boiled water and keep from being infected by common diseases that abounded during the Civil War.

Annie Turner Wittenmeyer was also instrumental in the U.S. Christian Commission, which worked with soldiers to make sure they recovered from suffering the horrors of war. The Commission sent out blankets, shoes, and sanitary items to Union troops.

USS Keokuk

“The USS Keokuk was launched in 1862 and arrived at the Siege of Charleston, South Carolina in 1863 where it was the only Union vessel that was sunk by the city’s artillery batteries.”

Eckers explained that while the ship itself has been lost to the annals of time after being sunk, one piece of the ship has survived.

Confederate troops boated out to the ship in low tide in the port of Charleston and removed one of the Columbia Artillery guns. The gun was then added to the barracks’ artillery installation. As a result the turret gun from the USS Keokuk still remains in Charleston as a memento to the city’s Civil War history.

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