The Ottumwa Courier

March 27, 2013

Making history personal

Civil War historian gives a ‘first-person’ account of Iowan in battle

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — For 90 minutes Tuesday morning, it was October 1865. Thomas Goodfellow from Afton answered question after question about Iowa’s participation in the Civil War.

And he had an answer for all of them.

Well, O.J. Fargo had the answers. Fargo spoke to a room crowded with people who wanted to hear personal stories about the Civil War. The Ottumwa Public Library’s Reminisce Society and Humanities Iowa hosted the historian’s presentation, “Just Before the Battle, Mother.”

Those who came to listen to Fargo had many reasons for their interest — they are history enthusiasts, they had family members in the Civil War or they are members of the Civil War Roundtable. Fargo explained that there has to be a special reason to enjoy a topic like this.

“People are turned off by history — there are just too many dates,” he said. “The closer it is to the individual, physical or mental, the more involved they are, the more they’ll get into it. You can hear me talk and that’s one thing, but you interact with history and it becomes personal.”

Fargo recently retired as the director of media services and a social studies consultant for the Green Valley Area Education Agency in Creston. He has authored several books and booklets on Iowa history, the Civil War and U.S. history. He is also president of an Iowa regiment of Civil War re-enactors.

So the dialogue with the audience brought everyone in the library’s meeting room back to a time without cell phones, computers or television. Fargo spoke in first person as Thomas Goodfellow, so any reference to 21st century roads, technology or history meant nothing. For those 90 minutes, there was only 1865 and the war.

As Goodfellow, Fargo told the story of how he enlisted in Afton in April 1861. He knew all of the 100 men in his unit because they were all family and friends from the area. Many enlisted thinking the war would only last three or four months, so why not participate? Plus, they’d receive $13 each month, clothes and some travel. It didn’t sound a bad opportunity to earn three months of pay.

“Out west” in Iowa, the 4th Iowa Infantry was now dressed in two layers of black wool and headed for Missouri in the summer. They had shown up for muster with whatever they had — a knife from their uncle, a quilt from Grandma and whatever else everyone thought they needed.

After a 20-mile march, the soldiers discovered what was truly needed and what wasn’t.

This “awkward squad” of rural boys had a lot to learn about being a soldier, Fargo said. Many of them knew north, south, east and west but not left and right. The solution was simple — they were farmers and they knew the difference between straw and hay. Straw went in their right boot and hay went in their left boot. Hay foot and straw foot meant turn to the left or turn to the right. This was a concept they understood.

There were many questions about the weapons used by Iowa soldiers during the Civil War. Fargo had a 12-pound rifle to pass through the audience. At most, a soldier could fire and reload three times a minute.

“But you probably couldn’t hit anything at that speed,” he said.

The rifle had the power to kill at 800 yards but was accurate at only 300 yards. The sight wasn’t even useable until 100 yards.

“They’d say it took 920 pounds of lead and 240 pounds of powder to bring down one Confederate soldier,” he explained. “It was rare to pull the trigger and see someone fall. There was so much smoke on the battlefield that you could only see the two people on either side of you.”

Many were surprised that the soldier would be carrying this heavy weapon along with everything else they had strapped to themselves. The 40-pound knapsack had all the necessities, but there was also a canteen, ammunition, coffee and some food rations.

Audience members were also interested in hearing about hospital conditions (which were terrible), how the dead were cared for (they were buried after the battle, and their location was written down) and how long it would take a letter to get home to Mama (it was quicker than it took to get one back to the soldier).

The questions continued, and the conversation slogged through swamps, echoed with battle, dug into the trenches and eventually marched through Washington. Fargo said these are the moments that the magazines and newspaper dressed up for readers back home. It looked much rougher than the straight lines and shiny uniforms the pictures showed.

Following the presentation, those with anscestors in the Civil War also had the opportunity to research Fargo’s roster of Iowans who served in the Civil War. This brought out more information and lots of great stories.