Iowa's First Cavalry had been on the edge of combat during the Battle of Prairie Grove, fought in northwest Arkansas on Dec. 7, 1862. As 1863 began, Oliver W. Coffman and C Company still were camped at Prairie Grove awaiting orders that would take them northeasterly through rough territory and into southern Missouri.
These are the January entries made by Oliver W. Coffman, of Chariton, in a pocket diary he maintained while serving as a saddler with Co. C, First Iowa Cavalry, during the Civil War --- from Jan. 1, 1863, until he became too ill to write during December of the same year. This story does not have a happy ending, so be warned. Furloughed home because of his critical illness, Oliver died in Chariton on Dec. 26, 1863, age 32, and was buried in Douglass Cemetery, where parts of his tombstone survive. He left behind his wife, Elizabeth, a daughter named Dora and another very young child I haven’t yet identified.
Oliver was obviously intelligent and observant, expressed himself well and had a sense of humor. He also missed his family greatly. He didn’t spell especially well and I’ve tried not to correct that, but “spellcheck” keeps correcting me, unprompted, so that’s a challenge. I think we’re going to get to know Oliver fairly well by the time I’ve finished transcribing the earlier transcript of his original diary that I’m working with (which does present a few challenges). After 148 years, that’s astonishing.
As the year 1863 commenced, Oliver still was camped with the First Cav. at Prairie Grove, Arkansas. The Battle of Prairie Grove had been fought there on Dec. 7, 1862, resulting in a tactical stalemate that nonetheless effectively secured northwest Arkansas for the Union. The Union Army of the Frontier had fielded roughly 9,200 men to combat 11,000 troops of the Confederate First Corps, Trans-Mississippi Army. Because of the luck of the draw, Iowa’s First Cavalry had not been heavily involved in the battle, however. During January, the unit moved from Prairie Grove through northwest Arkansas and into Missouri.
Thursday, Jan. 1, 1863: Today I worked all day. The boys had plenty of whiskey & the artilery are making the old cannon roar. Part of the boys are on a scout. A happy new year to all.
Friday, Jan. 2, 1863: We are camped at Prairie Grove. This is a pretty place but the country around is mountains and hills covered with rocks & trees. The water is fine and pretty.
Saturday (and Sunday), Jan. 3 (and 4), 1863: But most of the farms are destroyed, the fences are burnt & the houses are torn down. Had to contemplate the honor of work. Most people rest. But there is no rest for a soldier. Be fearsley (illegible) when Sunday comes. If man is damned for misusing this day then all are bound for hell.
Monday, Jan. 5, 1863: Well at work again. I will make something extra now I think. I am glad that I have the position of sadler to keep me out of scout & gard duties which is considerable harder.
Tuesday, Jan. 6, 1863: I have been in the country some since I came to this place. I find the people quite ignorant & poor. I have seen but 2 or 3 schoolhouses in Arkansas. What a place.
Wednesday, Jan. 7, 1863: The citizens seem to no nothing about the big world outside and care less & hog & homany is all the go in Arkansas. I wouldn’t live here for the best farm I have seen in the state.
Thursday, Jan 8, 1863: Today I was in the country. I saw a picture of the Ark. Traveler. I tell you it was a nice picture. I saw some ladies that made me think of Lizz dear at home. Bless her and the babies.
Friday, Jan. 9, 1863: Well here we go for huntville (Huntsville). This is the one of 2 town of note in Ark. & is nearly all burnt down, farm and factories & houses. Luck is with us. The country is very nice and plenty of forage and water. Gen. Totter (perhaps Iowa's Gen. James M. Tuttle) takes command here now. We go bound for Careton , Mo. (The destination actually was Carrollton, Arkansas, en route to Forsyth, Missouri.)
Sunday, Jan. 11, 1863: All through this part of the country the mts. are covered with pine & cedar. The people live in little cabins & you see nothing but children.
Monday, Jan. 12, 1863: We stop at houses on the road & cook sow belley & crackers. They don’t like the looks of the feds & are much afraid.
Tuesday, Jan. 13, 1863: You see much distress along the road. Today a little girl hollered at us that (soldiers) had taken all our (their) things. Said I didn’t take your things. All laughed hearty, which is war.
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 1863: On the march still, cross a creek 75 or 80 times today. Pass some fine valley. I carried oats some 5 miles to feed my horse. Today the weather is nice and warm. Tomorrow I think we will stop.
Thursday, Jan. 15, 1863: Well on the road yet. We still follow westerly creek. Cross cross all the time. Well Lizzy, this journal is for you alone.
Friday, Jan. 16, 1863: We camped out all night laying on the ground. The night is pretty & we sleep warm. I have plenty of horse feed. But nothing but crackers for ourselves.
Saturday, Jan. 17, 1863: This morning we are drawing up in line of battle expecting a fite, but we don’t find many reble. 12 o’clock on the march over mountains and hills.
Sunday, Jan. 18, 1863: Sunday again. On the march all day. The country presents about the same face --- mountains & hills, rocks & streams.
Monday, Jan. 19, 1863: Stop at huntsvill(e). It is a small place nearly deserted. The country is fare & plenty of forage. We got up lots of oats & corn. Got to work in shop again.
Tuesday, Jan. 20, 1863: Good Lord. March at advance. Hurry, down comes the tents. Saddle up & off we go for Carlton (Carrollton). March, march along. Camp out all night. Cold but sleep warm.
Wednesday, Jan. 21, 1863: Carlton (Carrollton), hello. A little place with 2 families in it. Has been quite a little place. Nice water. Lots of Butternut (illegible) here.
Thursday, Jan. 22, 1863: About this time it snows hard --- 12 inches deep. Most of the boys are out on a scout. Dear Lizz, I wish I was with you & the babies --- no more would I rome away from home.
Friday, Jan. 23, 1863: 8 o’clock march and off we go for forging the rain & snow, ough. Hills and mountains to cross up & down. I am getting march dizzy.
Saturday, Jan. 24, 1863: Today we pass through a nice fine forace (forest). What mighty trees, 80 to 100 feet high & not a limb. All day going through. Camp in the edge of some.
Sunday, Jan. 25, 1863: Sunday again. Rain & snow all day --- on the march till come into camp on White River (in Missouri). West side. Camp on a hill. Shovel the snow away to get the tents (up). Cold.
Monday, Jan. 26, 1863: Today go to work. The weather cold. The country is hilly here. White river is a nice stream. Very high now. The roads are very muddy. We will cross the river in a few days.
Tuesday, Jan. 27, 1863: Still in camp. They are fixing up the ferry boat to cross. It is one curtus (sic) built. It had been sunk in the river some time.
Wednesday, Jan. 28, 1863: Well Lizzy we are still in camp. Some of the boys started to swim their horses over & one of them got drowned, poor fellow. He belonged to the (possibly Missouri) Cav.
Thursday, Jan. 29, 1863: Still working at the boat & have got it running. Some are crossing over. Propose to go over in a few days. The river too rapid here. Bad to cross.
Friday, Jan. 30, 1863: Today, Co. A undertook to swim over & one of the boys, a corporal, got drowned. Foolish man to run such risks.
Saturday, Jan. 31, 1863: Today we cross the river 3 miles above forest. I swam over horses & took our baggage over in a canoe all safe. Camp in town in houses. Strange to be in a house again.