These letters were written by Gaylord M. Cotten (1842-1901) of Shell Rock, Butler county, Iowa. Gaylord, or “Gay,” enlisted on 20 May 1861 as a private in Co. I, 3rd Iowa Infantry. He received a head wound in the fighting at Shiloh but recovered and completed his service with the regiment, mustering out on 10 June 1864 after three years. After the Civil War, Gaylord moved to Chicago where he found employment as a railroad clerk.
Gay was the son of hotel keeper, William R. Cotten (1813-1881) and Aurelia D. Harris (1810-1907) of Shell Rock, Butler county, Iowa, formerly of New York State. Gay’s father was a blacksmith by trade and brought his family west to Iowa in the fall of 1854.
On the 6th of September the Fourth Division entered upon another long and arduous campaign. It marched to Bolivar, Tenn., where it remained until October 3, 1862, and from which place Gay penned these letters to his former comrade and friend, James Winship, who was officially discharged from Co. I on 14 October 1862. Like Gay, James Winship was slightly wounded in the head at the fighting at Shiloh in April 1862.
[Note: These letters are from the private collection of Walter Slonopas and are published here by express consent.]
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER ONE
Near Bolivar, Tennessee
September 24th 1862
Your letter of the 7th came to me and rest assured we were glad to learn of your safe arrival at the famous City of Shellrock [Iowa], and in good health and spirits.
We left Memphis on the 6th, done some tall marching, arrived in this vicinity on the 14th, and went into camp until the 20th when our brigade, with several batteries, started for Grand Junction to reconnoiter. The first day we went 15 miles, next four, when we learned that a trap was in waiting for us. A counter march was immediately ordered and we beat them traveling, thereby saved our bacon. Our force was three thousand—theirs eight thousand. They tried to get around us but did not accomplish their object. In the course of the march, we tossed a few shells into their ranks to let them know that we were ahead. It had the desired effect and we saw nothing more of them that day. We arrived in camp in the course of the night and morning we were called up at three, got our breakfast, and was in line of battle by four but no attack was made. But the enemy reported ten miles distant. That afternoon and night, reinforcements arrived from Jackson. The next morning we went through with the same performance, one days rations in haversacks, tents struck and loaded, teams hitched up and every preparation made for a big fight. But in consequence of a rebel defeat near Corinth and out being reinforced, they retreated before daylight. All is quiet now. Probably we will move camp yet today.
We are on a very pretty creek. I think we will move east on the Hatchie. Yesterday the boys went out and brought in some very nice beef. You can guess how they got it. Now days our rations consists of flour and pork. We make slap jacks and when we have such living as that, you know how discouraging it is, so it’s no wonder that beef, cattle, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and young roosters have to suffer—and sometimes on half rations at that. It’s a wonder to me that all of us don’t get the scurvy. The other day when we marched, the first night we cleaned out a sweet potato patch in about an hour of five acres, and I believe it would be policy to get such things for the army regularly.
But what a sight of darkies come in our lines. We have six in the company but we have just about as much to do as ever.
The country about here is pretty fair. The town of Bolivar I have not seen yet.
Last night it rained. Today is quite cool with prospect of more rain. Now for a little news regarding promotions &c. Powers in here but there is something ails his legs so that he can’t travel. Henderson is here. Trumbull is Lieut. Colonel. Scobey is First Lieutenant. Dan Foote is 2nd. McClure is Orderly [Sergeant]. Reuben is Ordnance Sergeant. Crittenden is a sergeant. Frank Evans and Squire McKinley are corporals. Al Thomas drives ambulance. Colonel Williams is very sick at Memphis. Quartermaster Clark is a colonel of a new regiment. Lieut. Colonel Scott is now a colonel and Mix is Lieut. Colonel. Duanne of Company A is 1st Lieutenant and Franklin the fifer is 2nd. Co. B have received new officers. Co. C little Dutchman is captain. Sergeant Moe is 2nd Lieutenant. Burdick of Co. D is 2nd Lieutenant. Captain McColl yet remains with his company. Capt. Brown of Co. F has resigned. There has been a great change in officers all around since you left. A good many of the boys are detailed for service in a battery. Peppers went from our company. We have about 40 men for duty and a good deal of duty to do. One company and a half for picket every day besides other guards such as camp guards.
I hear that a good many who have been discharged, and those that are recruiting, are getting to be lieutenants, captains, &c. One fellow from Co. G—a private—is adjutant. Sam McKinley is 2nd Lieutenant and Eberhart is trying his best to get the office of Major. I hope that he will not succeed. A man that will leave his company for the sake of promotion had ought to stay at home. But so the world goes and how deceitful mankind is. How discouraging to soldiers when their officers leave them.
If an officer can’t stand it when they have every convenience, it seems strange a soldier can. You are well aware of the difference in all respects so I will not mention the comforts or hardships of either. Trumbull has forgotten that he ever knew Co. I or any of its members. I should like to say what I thought of our new officers but perhaps I had better refrain from so doing and let everything wag on as it will.
Well, just now a fight took place in Co. F. Well the one whipped the other is the best I can tell you. I will now close. Ike Henderson sends his best respects to you. Write often as convenient. So good day—Gay
My pen is poor and I am writing without a desk or anything so you can afford to excuse me. Direct to Hurlbut’s Division. — Gay
This letter provides an incredibly detailed first-hand account of the Battle of Davis Bridge which took place near Pocahontas, Tennessee, on October 5, 1862.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER TWO
In Camp near Bolivar, Tennessee
October 10th 1862
Well Jim, the weather today is very cool—about as it used to be while we were at Quincy—and I have nothing in particular to do so I concluded to send you a few lines though I have not received any communications for a long time from you. Supposing to commence with, I tell of a scrape we got into the other day.
Our division left this place last Saturday morning at three o’clock, marched down to Middleton on the Memphis Railroad, then on till we struck the old road we went last summer, and camped 26 miles from here on one of our old camping grounds. First I’ll tell the object of our march which was to intercept Old Price’s retreat in that direction. When about five miles beyond Middleton, we drove in their Cavalry pickets, and one of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry was shot at this place. Our regiment took the lead of the infantry that day and had just stacked arms and was preparing for a little rest, when Gen. [Jacob Gartner] Lauman rode up and called us into line and said the enemy was coming in from the east, but they came not that night.
Our company went on picket that night and you can guess that we got a slim ration of sleep. The boys say that Dutcher and Chickasaw Johnson got asleep right in the face of the enemy. Death would have been their portion had the General known it. All remained quiet until morning. The Second Brigade then moved ahead, drove the rebels two or three miles to the river and across, taking two batteries of six guns each and charged bayonet, drove them through the river—it being the Hatchie—and across the bridge. Then come the tug of war—the enemy being posted on a high hill and our men below along the river.
We were then ordered forward and was to take position along the river bank on the west side for the supposition was that our men would fall back shortly. But upon our arrival at the bridge and seeing that those ahead still held out, we went across in a hurry and fixed bayonet on the run, and would have charged up the hill and endeavored to take their batteries that was pouring a destructive fire upon us but our men kept up such a continuous fire—and a cross fire at that—so it was impossible for us to do so. We then filed off to the right along the river where the 53rd and 28th Illinois were and what a shower of canister shot came down there. It was a regular slaughter pen. After being engaged about an hour after our arrival, the enemy gave way and we immediately occupied the heights when an artillery fight ensued lasting an hour.
That night Rosecrans took them in hand and give them a flaxing and next day he followed them, taking prisoners, wagons &c. This all happened on Sunday while I guess you was at meeting or else off to see your girl. Our regiment had two killed and 55 wounded. Lieutenant Dodd and one of his company was killed before crossing the bridge by a solid shot. Others have died since from their wounds.
Dan Foote was shot below the knee and his leg has been taken off. Also George Parks. Dave Horner’s leg was broken above the knee. Jessie Beeler was shot through the fleshy part of his thigh, entering at or near the left hip bone and coming out at the bottom of the back bone. Hank Shaw was shot through the left breast with a canister above the heart and coming out close to the shoulder blade. At first we did not think he would live long but he is prospering now. Red Townsend had his big toe hurt and Chet Townsend was struck with canister right on the breast plate, breaking it nearly in two and making the flesh beneath black and blue. But for the plate, he would have been killed. Crittenden was slightly hurt in the hand. Capt. Weiser was shot in the leg, The captain of Co. C [Kostman] was wounded in the shoulder. Resa of Co. C had his leg amputated. ¹
Take it all in all, it was quite a skirmish. It was the worst place I ever was in for the fire of the enemy was concentrated upon us. We stayed upon the field until Tuesday when we started back. Came fifteen miles that day and 15 the next, back to our old camp. Day before yesterday [Leonard F.] Ross’s Division went south reconnoitering and have returned all safe and sound. I forgot to mention that two regiments of Ross’s Division was with us. We had 20 pieces of artillery and the Fifth Ohio Cavalry. We took 300 prisoners.
I would like to tell you about some of the boys just before crossing the bridge. One fell down and was run over. Another was taken sick very suddenly. Johnny was sun struck. Another had a particular fancy for the water’s edge, and other incidents of a like nature too numerous to mention. It all was done to avoid going into action. Some are in the guard house for so doing while others done so nobly that they received great praise. The Color Sergeant was taken sick just before crossing the bridge, handed the flag to [Anderson] Edwards ² and retired. We started in with 43 men but how many fell out, perhaps it would not be policy to say. At all events the Lieutenant has questioned some pretty sharply in regard to the part they took in the action.
[Charles E.] Turner ³ has arrived and is up in the hospital waiting on the sick. Also a number of others. What the loss on either side was, I know not. That same old bridge we built last summer and camped on the ground two days. Write soon and tell the news. Col. Pugh is in command of our brigade and Lauman of our division.
— Gay Cotten
¹ Gay’s letter indicates that the leg of Daniel W. Foote of Co. I (age 31 of Waterloo, IA) was amputated prior to the date of this letter though roster suggests it was not removed until 5 November at Matamora, TN; he survived the war. George Parks of Co. I (age 24 of Shellrock, IA) was wounded severely in the knee but died on 17 October at Bolivar. David Horner of Co. I (age 25 of Mitchell, IA) was wounded in the thigh and later discharged for disability in February 1863. Jesse M. C. Beeler of Co. I (age 20 of Marble Rock, IA) was wounded severely in the hip and was discharged in August 1863 and later reenlisted in the Marine Brigade. Henry (“Hank”) B. Shaw of Co. I (age 22 of Waterloo, IA) was indeed shot through the breast by grape shot but survived and mustered out with his regiment in May 1865. Henry (“Red”) M. Townsend of Co. I (age 29 of Quincy, IA) survived his wound and later transferred to Co. B, Third Infantry Consolidated Battalion. Chester (“Chet”) W. Townsend—who narrowly missed a fatal injury—was later taken prisoner at Jackson, Mississippi, in July 1863, but survived the war. Henry Crittenden of Co. I (age 18 of Waterloo, IA) survived his slight hand wound. Frederick Resa of Co. C (age 28 of Guttenburg, IA, lost his leg and was discharged on 7 April 1863 at Jackson, Tennessee.
² Anderson Edwards of Co. I (age 26 of Clarkesville, IA) was wounded slightly in the leg at Shiloh. He rose in rank to 4th Sergeant on 15 July 1863 and reenlisted for the war.
³ Charles E. Turner of Co. I (age 32 of Shellrock, IA) was a 3rd Corporal when he entered the service. He rose in rank to 1st Corporal in July 1862 and was wounded in the fighting at David Bridge on 5 October 1862. He was discharged for disability on 9 February 1863.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER THREE
In Camp 4rd Iowa Infantry Vol.
February 8, 1863
Your last communication I received some time since and am sorry that I have been so delinquent about answering said letter, but better late than never so here goes. I was taken sick at Bolivar [and] sent to the hospital. The regiment marched south next day. I was sent north with others to Jackson, Tennessee, [and] remained there nearly a month and started for the regiment. Arrived at La Grange but for some trouble on the road, was not permitted to go farther so I went to clerking in [the] convalescent hospital. Had first rate times until that hospital was broken up which was about the first of this month. Then came to the regiment.
Found quite a change had taken place. Supposing that you had not heard of them, I”l enumerate a few commencing with Co. A. [David J.] O’Neil is back and is Captain, [Daniel J.] Duane is First Lieutenant. [Abel A.] Franklin the fifer is Second Lieutenant and has joined the Signal Corps.
Next in docket is Co. B—the flower of the regiment—all 40,000 dollars men. The Old Captain and First Lieutenant have resigned and gone home. John Buckman, the wagon master, is Captain. His brother—once a famous corporal—the one that used to blab so much and has such an awful gait similar to Smalley’s—is Second Lieutenant. Not withstanding he has a commission, he does not alter his gait. Dick Baker ¹ and him had a row a short time ago, Dick knocked him down and he bit Dick’s finger so that I think amputation will be necessary. [Edward W.] Hall, the Quartermaster Sergeant, is their First Lieutenant.
Next comes Co. C. The little Dutch Sergeant [Karl Kostman] is Captain. [David B.] Moe, the doctor, is First Lieutenant. And [William F.] Hooper the Second. Capt. [Douglass] Leffingwell having retired to private life.
Co. D has not changed much. [E. I. Weiser is still Captain. [Abner H.] McMurtrie is 1st Lieutenant and [Charles W.] Burdick 2nd Lieutenant. [Samuel B.] McCall is still Captain of Co. E, their First Lieutenant [Gustavus H.] Cushman is our Adjutant, Crosby is First Lieutenant and on General Pugh’s staff. [Marquis A.] Hills is Second Lieutenant.
Co. F has for Captain the Hon. Jake Suanck, for 2nd Lieutenant is their old orderly. For First Lieutenant is the little flag bearer of Blue Mills notoriety. The Right Rev. Chaplain [Adam L.] Ogg has returned—also the big Lieutenant who was taken prisoner at Pittsburg [Landing]. Their 2nd Lieutenant—the one-eyed orderly—was wounded at Hatchie [Battle of Davis Bridge] and has gone home.
Next comes Co. H. Swearing Jim Tullis is yet Captain but is said to have been recommended for Lieutenant-Colonel. [Simon G.] Gary is First Lieutenant. The old orderly [James] McManus is 2nd Lieutenant. Now about the famous Co. K, [John B.] Smith is still the Captain. [William B.] Hamill is First Lieutenant. Their 2nd Lieutenant has resigned and gone home. They have several men in view for to fill the vacancy.
Now perhaps you would wish to hear something about Co. I. Well, [John P.] Knight is still here. [John G.] Scobey holds his old position and [Daniel W.] Foote holds his, but a vacancy is looked for shortly. We have five candidates in prospect. Would you like to know who they are? Well Jess McClure, Bill Burdick, Ike Henderson, Charley Schleiter, and Hank Crittenden are the men that will run. Some think Knight will be Major. [Aaron] Brown of Co. F is the present Major but in all probability will be Colonel. Some say that Leffingwell is coming back as Lieutenant-Colonel. Crawford of Co. A is Quartermaster. Joe McGinnis is one of his clerks. [Benjamin F.] Keables is our head doctor and ranks as Major.
While I am writing, the death march is being played by the 33rd Wisconsin—they being camped close to us. They bury on average about one every day. One day the buried four. They have their little dog tents to live in and being a new regiment and not having yet become acclimated, hence the cause of so many deaths. The is one of the poorest places on earth. There are one or two houses in town and no citizens and my stars, how dreary everything looks. No fences nor fine mansions to meet your gaze. And a good deal of duty to do. We get out every morning before daylight and stack arms in anticipation of seeing [Gen. Earl] Van Dorn and his motley crew some fine rainy morning before breakfast. Yesterday we were called into line by the beating of the long roll but he came not. The rebs frequently show themselves west of town hoping some time to find the boys asleep so that they may burn the bridge across Wolf River.
Mark [J.] Miller is discharged. Matt Toole is Corporal. We are looking for Charley Schleiter to return shortly. [Anderson] Edwards is flag bearer. Mell Marshall has returned—also Trowbridge & Livingston. Mc is yet orderly.
Well, Jim, the war is not ended yet, it it? and no prospect of its closing very soon. How do you get along with the girls? All right I hope. Write upon the reception of this and not delay as I have done. Squad No. 1 sends their best respects to Jim as also does the writer. Our regiment is generally quite healthy.
So farewell for this time. Respectfully yours, — G. M. C.
Mell Marshall has got him a violin and does a good amount of fiddling. My best respects to your wife and children. — Gay
Excuse the writing, mistakes etc. etc. — G M C
¹ Richard (“Dick”) Baker enlisted at age 28 from Mitchell, Iowa, but he was a native of Ireland. He later transferred to Co. B.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FOUR
March 30th 1863
Everything comes in its turn—so will an answer to your very kind and welcome letter. It is gratifying indeed to hear from an old friend and associate. To hear of their prospering, enjoying good health, and in fact partaking of the pleasures of this world generally. Well, my desire is that you may always lead a happy life. I was agoing to say get married and settle down but never mind, you will decide upon that in time. I have no fears but what you cold enjoy the company of a little wife (or a big one whichever the case may be). I for one think I could. And still further think that if ever I do, I’ll have to be making preparations shortly.
I am on extra duty in Gayoso Hospital and find it a very agreeable place—right on Main Street and all very convenient. [Hugh B.] Allison from Co. G and myself are the only ones from our regiment that’s stopping here. The regiment is encamped out about two miles. I see some of the boys every day. They are living fine and feel first rate. Squires McKinley started this morning for Helena [Arkansas] to see his brothers. They are in Preacher [Stephen H.] Henderson’s Company [Co. A, 24th Iowa Infantry]. Sim [Seymour J. McKinley] is Second Lieutenant. There is a good prospect of Henderson becoming Major of that regiment.
The 3rd Iowa is about the same as when I wrote you last—only Capt. [Adam L.] Ogg had a little fight with Chapman the fifer. Ogg was the under one and came out second best. Them preferred charges against the fifer and he is being court martialed.
The weather is very fine indeed and the city is quite lively—much more so that Shell Rock. I heard about Fitz[roy] Sessions, our Adjutant, giving the editor of the Dubuque Herald a tanning. Good for Sessions. I wish he could clean out a few more of the same sort in that vicinity. Then perhaps peace would reign in that locality at least. I was over to the Jackson Hospital and saw Bill Healis. Gust Hawley [Halley?] is here in town at work. I see him often. John L. Stewart and wife were here but have gone to Jackson, Tennessee. Jason Lockerby is here in this hospital and is looking for a discharge. He has been discharged once but was green enough to reenlist—just like Thede, foolish fellow that he was. I supposed he had seen enough of the Army to induce him to stay at home. I have full confidence that we will never hear of your going in again, as I believe your better judgment tells you better.
How I want to get where I can enjoy the privileges of a free man again. I feel as if I would like to drive a horse once more. I believe I could partake of the poor accommodations of Shell Rock for pleasures with the greatest delight. I long to be a free person again. What a lesson we have learned from this war. How we have studied human nature, noticed the faults, the causes of trials and tribulations of our race. Just think back to the times when we have been wandering or rather marching, of the lessons we then learned, of the thoughts that then and there occurred to us. But time changes all things—ourselves included. But I trust that as long reason lasts, I will not forget the experience of the past twenty months that that this unholy, horrid war may soon cease that we may be permitted to return to our respective abodes and dwell henceforth in peace and harmony.
All the boys are “right side up with care.” Write again as soon as convenient. My best regards to you. So farewell, — Gay
Pardon all blunders. It’s so seldom I write a letter that I am forgetting how.
TRANSCRIPTION LETTER FIVE
May 9th 1863
I am yet blessed with good health and good spirits. Received your letter in good season. Was pleased to learn of your well doing. Hope and trust you may always flourish. Was somewhat pained to learn of so many deaths happening. I can hardly believe that George Hawker is dead, but death comes to all. One day a man may be laboring hard for his future welfare, working hard for gain, but death often lays his cold hand upon man and says you are my victim. Then how it behooves us all to be prepared for the calling of our Savior. That all may be in readiness when called upon to depart this life is my prayer. I am one that would desire to see all gain the “Port called Heaven.”
The 3rd Iowa has orders to go aboard of transports tomorrow. They are bound for Milliken’s Bend this side of Vicksburg. Some regiments have gone aboard of transports this evening. Whatever may be their calling, I know they will give a good account of themselves. Company I and K have just returned from a trip up to Alton [Illinois] with Secesh prisoners.
Today Dick Baker was confined in military prison. From thence he will be sent to Alton to serve six months with ball and chain attached at hard labor. The offense was this. Lieutenant Ruckman, formerly a Corporal in Co. B—the one that used to talk so loud and always had his pants torn as far up as possible—well he had just got his commission. (Some three months ago this happened.) Dick was on a little bit of a tight [and] Ruckman was agoing to arrest him all by himself, so Dick concluded he should get a guard, hence would not be arrested. Then hauled off and knocked shoulder straps down. Shoulder straps but Dick’s finger nearly off and so the contest ended, until lately when Dick was tried by a court martial and his sentence was as I have stated/ Our officers have got up a petition and got most of the officers of the regiment to sign it asking for his punishment to be reduced or a reprieve granted. I hope it may be granted for it is depriving us of a good soldier for something that should never have been mentioned. If a few more shoulder straps could receive the same kind of chastisement, it would be of great benefit to them. You are well aware how shoulder straps will elevate some after getting commissions. One would think they were beings of another world when in reality they are still men as well as ourselves.
Johnson of Co. K got a furlough but instead of going home, he went to raising a company of niggers and has finally succeeded in getting a commission. I believe he is a Captain.
The citizens of Memphis are agoing to celebrate the 6th of June—it being the anniversary of the advent of Union troops in this place. That looks good, doesn’t it?
We are aware of the hard fighting going on in the East but our reports are somewhat conflicting. The telegraph is in poor condition but how anxious we are for Hooker to defeat the rebels. We look upon Gen. Stoneman’s raid and adventures between the rebel army and Richmond as the smartest of the war. Let Hooker whip them on the Rappahannock, Rosecrans drive them from Tennessee, and I am quite sure Grant will do all expected of him. Then hurrah boys—peace dawns in the distance. We are a nation once more and freed from that greatest of all our troubles—slavery. How many glad hearts there will be when this war shall cease. There will be such rejoicing on this continent as never was before.
I learn that my parents have moved to Waverly and that Henry Switzer has taken up his abode close to father Cummings.
Jim, does things look natural around Shell Rock? How about the girls? Look at them once for me, then let [me] know all about them. I am a great friend to girls as perhaps you know. How are your crops getting along? Tell me anything and everything that is interesting. Direct your letter to Gayoso Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee.
From your friend and well wisher, — Gay