Friday, January 28, 2011

Nelson Davenport's letter home

This effort to list and then track down Lucas County’s Civil War dead takes interesting twists some days. And also serves as a good reminder of how soon we forget (150 years isn’t that long after all).

Take Nelson Davenport, for example. Although among the 150 or so young men from Lucas County who died during Civil War service, there seems to be no explanation of why he was here in the first place. He was not listed in the 1860 census of the county and I’ve been unable to determine if any of the Nelson Davenports enumerated elsewhere might have been him. He did not own land here, nor did he marry here. He does not seem to have been related to anyone who lived here after the war.

Basically all official Civil War records tell us is that he was born in Ohio and was 24 and a Lucas County resident when he enlisted for service in Co. G, 34th Volunteer Iowa Infantry on Aug. 12, 1862. He was part of the regiment’s original muster at Burlington on Oct. 15, 1862.

The regiment, which moved through St. Louis to Helena, Arkansas, during late November and early December of 1862, had participated in a couple of engagements and escorted prisoners of war to Chicago before returning to St. Louis in early February 1863. Nelson became ill then with smallpox and died on the 20th of February.

Soldiers who died at St. Louis during the war were buried quickly in various locations and after the war, those scattered remains were disinterred and reburied in the newly-designated Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Most bodies by that time, however, were unidentifiable --- and that seems to have been the case with Nelson. He has no locatable grave.

That might have been all there was to know about Nelson if it weren’t for a rare survival --- a letter he wrote to his wife, Rebecca, then living in Oskaloosa, shortly after the 34th arrived in St. Louis en route to Helena during late November 1862.

That letter, nearly 150 years later, ended up for sale on eBay and was located there by Jim Miller of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who did not buy it --- but did download the images that accompanied the sale offering. He then posted a transcript and the images on his excellent “Civil War Notebook” blog, which is where I found them with a quick “Google” search. I’m reposting them here with his permission.

Jim, by the way, is a native of Murray just over west of here in Clarke County and lived in Osceola before moving to Murfreesboro some years ago.

The letter, in addition to providing the name of Nelson’s wife, offers a little insight into the very early history of the 34th Iowa. Here’s the transcript (images are at the end of this post).

Saint Louis Nov. the 25, 1862

Dear wife I take my pen in hand to let you know that I am well at present and hope that these few lines will find you and the children all well. We landed here yesterday morning after a long and tiresome ride on an old steamboat. We left Burlington on Saturday morning and come to Montrose and stayed there and expected to stay there until morning but all of the regiment but three companies was on another boat and they got to Keokuk about the same time that we got to Montrose and the boat was ready to start for this place and the colonel sent the cars for us about twelve o’clock at night and we had to get up and get on the cars and go to Keokuk. I must tell you now that our captain fell into the river at Montrose but he had good luck to get out again there was three or four boys fell into the river but there was none drownded, one man lost his gun. The thirty third reg. is here in St. Louis but I have not had a chance to see any of the boys that came from thare, but if we stay here long I will go and see them if I can. The thirty six will be here in a few days. There was a man come down on the boat with us that belonged to the company that the boys is in that come from Montrose and he says that Henry Andrews is dead he had the measles and went home and he took cold and died. No more at present but write as soon as you get this and let me know how you are getting along direct your letters to

St. Louis 34th Iowa regiment company G.
Nelson Davenport

The online index to pension records held by the National Archives shows that Rebecca Davenport filed for a widow’s pension during 1865 and that a dependent’s pension in the name of Samuel Shepherd had been granted a year earlier. Following up by ordering those files from the National Archives would no doubt tell us more about Nelson as well as clarifying the relationship between Samuel, Rebecca and Nelson.

I’m not going to do that because I really want to get this roster of Civil War dead done this winter and detailed research is beyond the scope of the project. But at least we know that a fairly amazing document somehow managed to survive to tell us a little more about Pvt. Davenport --- as well as providing a research route for anyone who wants to learn more.


Charles M. Wright said...


While reading your story about Nelson Davenport, I recalled that William Goltry, an older brother of my Great-Grandfather Jacob Fitzgerald Goltry, was 1st Lieutenant with Company G of the 34th Iowa Infantry. He has direct descendants yet living in Lucas County. Among my Goltry family records I have a transcription of a short diary written by 1st Lt. Goltry while he served in the Civil War, given to me by his late granddaughter Evelyn Goltry Friesz of Dallas Center.

The diary's first entry is December 29, 1862: "Half past nine o'clock a.m. Heavy cannoning commenced near Vicksburgh in rear of the Bluffs." On January 13, 1864 he wrote: "Marched down to river in accordance with orders to embark to guard Rebel prisoners to Cairo or St. Louis. After noon embarked aboard Samuel (unreadable). Remain with fleet all night -- Rain throughout night."

On January 14, he wrote: "Still remain with fleet at Arkansas post -- continued to rain. 2 o'clock Start down Arkansas River -- arrive in Mississippi River at 9 o'clock. Lay to all night."

On Thursday, January 15, he wrote: "At daylight start up the river with prisoners. 9 p.m. -- All well, sailing up the river with 500 prisoners." On January 17, this entry: "Arrived at Memphis -- 4 o'clock p.m. Take on coal and stores." January 18: "Start up the river at daylight -- 3 o'clock. Man fall over and drowned."

January 24, 1863: "Arrive at St. Louis without any serious accident."

And then this:
"Sunday the 25th - Laying to at a little island out of St. Louis. part of troops and prisoners on shore -- under orders to take prisoners to Chicago. P.M. Moved six cases of smallpox from boat from Co. G to hospital on island -- their names are R. M. Hester, James Summers, Nelson Davenport, Henry Christy, Jacob Easter, and H. Hutts. James Hanson died 7 o'clock p.m."

The original diary which contain these entries is now a possession of James Friesz, a great-grandson of William Goltry, who lives in Branson, MO. Jim also has the dress sword that can be seen in the photograph of Wiilliam Goltry in his Civil War uniform that I mailed to you for the museum last season.

William Goltry (1826-1903) and wife Cordelia Youtsey Goltry settled near LaGrange in Lucas County in 1853. William was then a young veteran of the Mexican War. The couple left their farm and moved to Russell in 1901. They are buried in the Russell Cemetery.

Charles M. Wright

Frank D. Myers said...

Charles ---

Thank you so much for adding this. With the possible exception of Hutts, all of these were Lucas County boys and they all died (isn't that incredibly sad?)?

I suspected that Nelson had died on what was called "Smallpox Island," but couldn't prove it until now. We know that all bodies were removed from the island to Jefferson Barracks, so this confirms the burial place not only of Nelson Davenport, but also for the others.

Thanks again!


Charles M. Wright said...


In light of your response about the other smallpox victims named in William Goltry's diary entries also being from Lucas County, I think I should have followed his January 25, 1863 entry with these entries:

"Monday 26th - a.m. Still lay at Island.

"Tuesday 27th - Still laying at Arsonal Island - St. Louis - Smallpox 9 or 10 new cases this a.m.

"28th - Loading prisoner in cars for Chicago.

"29th - All loaded - train moved off to Chicago.

"30th - Arrived at Chicago about daylight - entered Camp Douglas 7 p.m.

"31st - Remain in camp - nothing of importance occurs.

"February 1, 1863 - in Camp Douglas (unreadable). Nothing of importance.

"2nd - Still remain in Camp Douglas {unreadable}.

"Tuesday 3rd of February - Leave Chicago for St. Louis.

"4th - Arrive opposite St. Louis - remain on cars over night.

"5th - Arrive at Benton Barracks."