Thursday, January 27, 2011

Oliver W. Coffman revisited

This post pulls together information scattered haphazardly elsewhere in The Lucas Countyan in order to give a little coherent recognition to Oliver W. Coffman, a First Iowa Cavalry saddler distinctive because he is among the few Civil War fatalities buried here.

Although his grave in Douglass Cemetery, just southwest of Chariton along the Blue Grass Road, has been lost, a substantial fragment of his tombstone was located when the cemetery was restored some years ago and now is mounted with others in its memorial area.

The U.S. flag carved into the crown of the broken stone honors his service. The inscription below reads, "Oliver W. Coff(man), Died Dec. 26, 1863, Aged 32 ys. (age in months and years also was inscribed, but that portion of the stone is lost).

Oliver, born in Ohio, arrived in Chariton about 1854 and Lucas County records show that he married Elizabeth J. Ross here on 14 August 1855.

Oliver and Elizabeth were enumerated in the 1856 census as Chariton Township residents, probably living within the city. Oliver, 24, was by occupation a painter. Elizabeth, 21, also born in Ohio and a one-year resident of Iowa, was a milliner by trade.

By 1860, the Coffman household in Chariton included Oliver, now identified as a painter and plasterer, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Dora, age 3. Martha M. Ross, 19, perhaps Elizabeth's sister, was a boarder in the Coffman home.

Oliver enlisted on 31 August 1862 as a saddler for service in Co. C, 1st Iowa Cavalry. His enlistment came at a time when the 1st Cavalry was engaged in campaigns in Arkansas and southwest Missouri. His final engagement would have been the Little Rock Campaign, which ended when that city fell to Union forces on 10 September 1863. His unit, encamped near Little Rock during the following winter, sustained few casualties but was hit hard by illness. Oliver was one of those who became of ill.

A victim of “chronic diarrhea,” he was sent home to Chariton to recuperate or die. That seems a little odd today, but was a fairly common and well-intentioned practice during the Civil War. Unless the disease was communicable, military physicians felt quite rightly that if a soldier were able to travel better medical care  would be available at home and that even if a disorder proved fatal, the solder would prefer to die among family and friends. Roughly two-thirds of those who died during the Civil War did so because of disease or infection.

Oliver died at home in Chariton on 26 December 1863 and was buried by his family in Douglass Cemetery, then the principal burial place for residents of Chariton. Online database entries credit Oliver with "distinguished service," but it would be necessary to obtain his military records to determine why he is so recognized.

After the war was over, Oliver's widow, Elizabeth, then 35, married  John Alexander, age 52, on 9 April 1867 in Lucas County. Then John and Elizabeth disappear from Lucas County records.

Although a U.S. flag flies 24/7 at Douglass Cemetery now, Oliver has never had a flag-holder of his own, probably because none of his family remained in Lucas County to tell his story and Douglas Cemetery was virtually lost for more than a century. Perhaps that can be remedied before Memorial Day 2011.

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