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Column

From covered wagon to Civil War

He was eight years old when he came west in a covered wagon from Ohio with his family — his father and mother, two brothers, two sisters, and a two-year-old nephew — eight in all. Cholera had nearly wiped out the village in which they lived. “The people were frightened beyond measure ... A person would be in good health one day and die the next ... We heard a great deal at that time about the wonderful prairies of Iowa, their wealth of soil and the opportunities offered to make a home and fortune,” writes William S. Browning in his 20-page memoir, copied and sent to me by his great-great-niece, Jeanine Owens of rural Oskaloosa.

The family’s trip west was fair except for almost losing their lives in a prairie fire in Illinois. But they survived and crossed the Mississippi River by ferry at Burlington. Never had young Will seen so much wildlife: deer, turkey, prairie chickens, ducks, geese and sandhill cranes.

“A plank road had just been completed as far west as Mt. Pleasant, so we traveled on this road until we came to New London.” They settled on 80 acres, four miles north of New London and bought a yoke of oxen to break the virgin prairie.

After a year, they bought a 160-acre farm southeast of Winfield. Winfield consisted of “three houses and barely a dozen people” at the time — 1856.

In 1858, Will and his brother, Frank, took a load of grain to Mt. Pleasant in a wagon pulled by oxen. On their return trip, they were caught in a terrible rainstorm and could not see. It was getting dark and they gave the oxen their head, hoping the oxen would find their way home. Wolves howled behind them. At dawn, cold and wet, the boys found themselves up against a fence, about a mile from home. They turned the oxen loose on the prairie and swam a rain-swollen creek to make it home as their parents were getting up.

When the Civil War broke out, Will’s brother, Frank, enlisted in the 4th Iowa Volunteer Cavalry at Camp Harlan-McKean, just west of Mt. Pleasant. He was wounded and taken prisoner, but later exchanged and returned to his unit. Will enlisted in 1862, in the 25th Regiment, Iowa Volunteers, Company B, under the command of Mt. Pleasant residents: Captain, Allison Smith; First Lieutenant, J.B. Ritner; Second Lt., S.L. Steel; and Sergeant, B.H. Crane. Will’s regiment was composed of ten companies of 100 men each, under the command of Colonel George A. Stone of Mt. Pleasant. Shipped off to Helena, Ark., they met up with the 4th Iowa Cavalry, which included Will’s brother, Frank.

Will fought in Sherman’s Army and was involved in the infamous “March to the Sea.” All-in-all, he fought in 20 battles and sieges, including the Battle of Vicksburg; Champion Hills; Jackson, Miss.; Corinth; Lookout Mountain (“Battle of the Clouds”); Mission Ridge; Dalton Ridge (J.B. Ritner, now a captain, was severely wounded); Battle of Resacca, Ga.; the Capture of Atlanta, Savannah and Columbia (which burned); Bentonville; Ringold; Goldsboro; and Raleigh. While at Raleigh, the sad news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was received which grieved even the Confederate Soldiers for they thought they would be given better terms of surrender under President Lincoln.

More than half-a-million men were killed in the Civil War. Of Company B, eight were killed in battle, 15 died of disease and 10 were wounded. The deceased included Marion Swinford, Jake Whippo and Jim Stockton of Mt. Pleasant. Will’s bunkmate, C.W. Payne, carried their regiment flag for the duration of the war. That flag, full of bullet holes, is on display at the State Historical Building in Des Moines.

If you would like a copy of William S. Browning’s 20-page memoir, you may contact his great-great-niece, Jeanine Owens at jeanine.e.owens@gmail.com.

Contact Curt Swarm at curtswarm@yahoo.com

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