Saturday, July 08, 2017

John Edwards and the Border Brigade (Part 2)

John Edwards in later years.
This brief series on a somewhat obscure footnote to Iowa's Civil War record began Friday with a post noting the "Border Brigade" service of three Lucas County men, Robert McCormick, Joseph Mitchell and Wilson King Larimer, ranging in age at the time of service from 33 to 66. All were Chariton-area pioneers; none served otherwise in that great war between the states.

In all likelihood many other Lucas County men were involved in this very early stage of Iowa's Civil War effort, but formal records of units organized to defend Iowa's southern border were not maintained until late 1862. The 1861 efforts were hastily pulled together and rather informal. Most likely, many if not most of the Lucas Countyans who participated in this home-guard effort went on to serve in regular military units as the war accelerated and it is that service that is remembered.

It's almost impossible to image now, more than 150 years later, how our southern Iowa ancestors reacted to the news of Fort Sumpter's fall on  April 12-13, 1861, and the rapidly accelerating hostility between Union and secessionist states. Early editions of The Patriot, published in Chariton since 1857, might have told us --- but no issues from the war years and earlier survive.

Iowans knew full well in 1861 that Missouri was a slave state, although strongly pro-Union in the north. Fortunately, Missouri never managed to secede, splintering instead. But had circumstances developed differently, the south of Iowa easily could have found itself forming part of the Confederacy's north border.

The fear in those early days of the war, which dissipated as the months passed, was not of invasion by organized military units --- but of depredation by loosely organized bands of southern-sympathizing guerrilla forces, sometimes called bushwhackers. Southern Iowans looked to Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood, a man without military experience, for guidance. 

And pro-Union residents of northern Missouri, knowing that full-scale invasion from the South was possible, looked to Kirkwood as a source of potential aid.

During mid-May, 1861, Kirkwood commissioned Chariton attorney, newspaper publisher and state legislator John Edwards as a lieutenant colonel in the state militia and directed him to lead the organization of Iowa's southern border defense, assisted by Cyrus Bussey of Bloomfield.


"Honest John" Edwards, in his mid-40s at the time, was a native of Kentucky, born Oct. 24, 1815, in Louisville. His father, also John Edwards, was an affluent and prominent Kentuckian who owned, in addition to considerable property near Louisville, a substantial tract of rich but undeveloped land in Lawrence County, Indiana.

When the younger John turned 18 in 1833, his father gave the Indiana land to him with the provision that he live upon and improve it. John Jr. did this gladly, in part it is said, because he hated the institution of slavery witnessed first-hand while growing up --- his father was a slave-owner --- and wished to live in a free state.

The senior John Edwards, who died in 1840, bequeathed to John Jr. among other property a slave family consisting of husband, wife and several children. John freed the family, brought its members to Indiana and gave them land upon which to establish a home. So his abolitionist credentials had been established firmly by the time he arrived in Iowa some years later.

John prospered in Indiana as a farmer and trader in livestock and grain, but also studied law and was admitted to the Indiana bar. In 1834, he married Eliza Jane Knight and they had a family of seven children during the next 20 years. During 1848, John was elected to the Indiana Legislature as a representative.

In 1849, seeking adventure and of course a fortune, John took four young men --- two of them employed on his Indiana farm --- across the prairie, plains and mountains by ox-drawn wagon to California in search of gold. He remained in California, experiencing mixed results from his various endeavors, until 1852 when he was called home to Indiana because Eliza Jane's health was failing.

Eliza died during 1853 and John, for reasons now obscured by time, uprooted his family almost immediately and moved from Indiana to Chariton. His youngest son was 5 at the time. During 1854, in Chariton, he married Catherine Whisenand and they would go on to have three children themselves.

In Chariton, John succeeded in becoming a very big fish indeed in early Lucas County's small pond.

He formed a law partnership with James Baker and, in 1856, was named Lucas County delegate to the convention that framed Iowa's Constitution of 1857. During 1857, he founded Lucas County's first newspaper, The Patriot, which continues to publish today as The Herald-Patriot.

He was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives during 1856 and 1858 and, upon re-election in 1860, was named speaker of the House. 

During 1861, as Gov. Kirkwood scrambled to prepare Iowans for war and to recruit the volunteer troops requested from the state by President Lincoln, he commissioned John a lieutenant colonel in the state militia, designated him as gubernatorial aide-de-camp and ordered him to secure southern Iowa's border with Missouri.

And so it was in this manner, that John began to rally and organize units of "minute men" from river to river along southern Iowa's border, including in those early days of the war some of the Lucas County men who knew him best.

Next time --- border defense in action

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