With Sickles Dyed in Purple Gore: The 5th Iowa at Iuka

          The epicenter of the Battle of Iuka, Mississippi on September 19, 1862 was the fight for the guns of the 11th Ohio Battery, a story which has been shared before on this blog (click here). But as intense as the Buckeyes’ fight was, the efforts of their two direct supporting regiments, the 5th Iowa and 48th Indiana, are not so often noted. Looking at the casualty figures for the Union army at that battle, nearly one quarter of the total casualties were incurred by one regiment: the 5th Iowa Infantry. Supporting the battery on the right, the 5th Iowa was hit repeatedly and held its ground until the field was literally covered with dead and wounded Hawkeyes: a total of 216 out of the 482 who marched into battle were struck down, many of them repeatedly.

          The intensity of combat at Iuka ranks it amongst the most ferocious engagements of the war, especially for the small numbers engaged. Much like Antietam which took place two days before, the battle of Iuka showed that American soldiers of both sides had, by the end of the summer of 1862, been forged into hardened killers, and when the opposing armies got into close proximity, the results were horrific. Antietam in the east set the tone, but Iuka, Corinth, Perryville, Chickasaw Bayou, and Stones River would follow the same bloody pattern in the western theater. Today’s post features several accounts primarily from soldiers of the 5th Iowa that give an in-depth look at their experience at Iuka.


Colonel Charles L. Matthies (1824-1868) of the 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry would be given a brigadier's star for his actions at Iuka. He would lead a brigade of the 15th Corps through the Vicksburg and Chattanooga campaigns, sustaining a head wound on November 25, 1863 at Missionary Ridge. This, combined with declining health, led him to resign his commission in May 1864. The Prussian-born Matthies returned to his liquor business in Burlington, Iowa and entered state politics.

Colonel Charles L. Matthies, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

          The plan of battle was for each army to advance as near Iuka as possible without bringing on a battle on Friday, and engage the enemy at daybreak Saturday morning, but it seems that the enemy, not expecting an attack from the southwest, had their army posted five miles southwest of town to receive Grant and had posted their pickets but a short distance from the town on the Jacinto road. Rosecrans, not being familiar with the country, advanced his army a little too close Friday evening, driving in the enemy’s pickets and alarming old Sterling [Price] terribly, lest his retreat be cut off. This brought on the engagement.

Corporal Cyrus J. Reed, Co. E, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

          The duties of Co. E on the memorable 19th of September were most arduous. For four miles they went deployed on the right of the road as skirmishers, exposed to a murderous fire from the enemy who were ensconced behind every fence and outhouse. It tries the nerves of a man to walk across an open field when he knows that a score or more of wretches on the opposite side are trying their best to put a bullet through him. But the boys cared no more, apparently, than they would for so many yelping curs, walking straight through the timber, climbing over fences, plunging through swamps, and picking their way through clumps of briars. Every time a butternut was visible, up went a gun against a tree and taking deliberate aim, the marksman would blaze away, and then watch the effect of his shot with the greatest interest. The Rebels were scattered along the road and had every advantage which they were not slow to improve. For the last mile before the company was relieved, it was a continual fusillade along the whole line.

Private Addison Homer Gillette, Co. A, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Lurton Dunham Ingersoll

          The country was exceedingly difficult of passing, being but little better from Thompson’s Crossroads to within about two miles of Iuka an uninterrupted swamp, extending indefinitely on either side of the road upon which the column was moving. From the northern margin of this extensive bog to Iuka, the face of the country is broken into innumerable hills and ravines, the hills riding gradually higher and higher toward the north with southern slopes admirably suitable for the maneuvers of battle, or at any rate, admirably adapted to the posting of troops so that their fire could be simultaneously effective. If the nature of the country offered many advantages to an army facing south, it offered as many disadvantages to an army facing north. General Sterling Price was not the man to let slip his advantages. He attacked the Union column at the very place where it was impossible to use half the force. The head of the column had but barely penetrated the hilly region just described and was marching on the brow of a densely wooded hill, falling off abruptly to the right and left when our pickets were driven rapidly in, and announced the enemy just in front, drawn up in heavy lines of battle. The nature of the locality prevented deployments, but our troops moved hastily by the flank into position across the road which was here intersected by one running east and west. The 11th Ohio Battery with difficulty took position on the crest of the hill, commanding the road in front. The 5th Iowa was posted on the right of the battery, the 48th Indiana on the left. One wing of the 26th Missouri was just to the rear and right of the battery. The battle commenced on the Union side by these three regiments of infantry and the Ohio battery alone, it being simple impracticability to bring more troops into line at one time. As other troops came up, they were placed in position in reserve or on the flanks.

Colonel Charles L. Matthies, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

My regiment was ordered line on the right of the 11th Ohio Battery. I was informed that a large force was moving on my right which compelled me to change front and I had just got into position on the crest of a hill when the enemy in strong force (two brigades I learn under the command of Generals Green and Morton) made their appearance in front and poured a terrific fire of musketry into my line which was promptly returned.

Corporal William W. Dungan, Co. B, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry was wounded in the face at Iuka and was later commissioned as a captain in Co. E of the 49th U.S. Colored Troops. He had fought side by side with one of the commanding officers of the 49th USCT at Iuka: Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus Sears who commanded the 11th Ohio Battery. 

Corporal Cyrus J. Reed, Co. E, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

When the battle commenced, Co. E was on the extreme right flank, a place that was not so much exposed to the enemy’s fire as on the left, as we were more protected by a ridge in front. The enemy poured in terrible volleys along the whole line and the order was given to lie down. Some, however, were anxious to get a sight of the Rebels and stood up while the balls were rattling around them like hailstones.

Colonel Charles L. Matthies, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

The firing continued for about half an hour when I found the enemy were pressing my left near the battery, that having been silenced, and I ordered a charge which was executed in the most gallant manner, every officer and man moving forward in almost perfect lines. The enemy gave way before us and we poured a most deadly fire into them, causing them to retreat over the hill. But they soon returned with renewed vigor on my front and left, cheering, and were greeted by a steady fire by the gallant boys of my regiment, holding their position under the most terrific fire possible. I gave the command forward, and the enemy were again driven over the hill, but not until they had come so near as to boldly reach out for the colors of my regiment.

Corporal Cyrus J. Reed, Co. E, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

As soon as the enemy’s fire slackened a little, we sprang to our feet and were ordered to charge bayonets, firing as we advanced. Up to the crest of the hill, over and beyond, down into the ravine of flame and smoke with a cheer and a yell went the noble Independent Guards. Bullets fairly rained upon us, men were dropping every instant and the battery that was planted for our protection [11th Ohio Battery] threw its screaming shot and shell over our heads, but the boys showed no signs of panic. When the order was given to retire, they formed an unbroken line and fell back fighting as they went. But all this time, there was no fear, no disposition to retire from before the enemy; neither did the boys yield to a wild excitement and fire carelessly. They pressed the charges home, drew a good bead, and the bodies of the slain enemies that were found in front of them in the morning testified that they shots had awful effect.

Charles S. Hussey was a private in the ranks of Co. A of the 5th Iowa when he was severely wounded in the neck at Iuka. He survived, and later became brevet major of the 60th U.S. Colored Troops. 

Sergeant Eugene S. Sheffield, Co. D, 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

          The Iowa 5th were furnished with sword bayonets and when so pressed they took them off and used them as swords. They charged the Rebel lines with great fury, recaptured the battery, and drove the Rebels back in confusion and disorder. From this time, the musketry almost ceased, the two lines kept charging each other and fighting hand to hand with the bayonet and sometimes were so close and pressed each other so hard that bayonets were useless.

Colonel Charles L. Matthies, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

At this juncture, the left wing was suffering terribly from a cross fire coming from the left of the battery, nearly every officer being either killed or wounded. At this moment, four companies of the 26th Missouri came up to the support of my left and nobly assisted in holding the ground until I found the ammunition was exhausted; I ordered my regiment to retire by the right flank to a field about 100 yards distant which was done in good order and at which time the 11th Missouri advanced in line of battle. The casualties in my regiment were 4 officers killed, 11 wounded, 34 enlisted men killed, and 168 wounded out of 482 that went into battle. (A total of 217 out of 482, 45%) The long list of killed and wounded of both officers and men is ample proof of how nobly and well they stood at their posts.

This map from the American Battlefield Trust depicts Iuka laid over the modern highways in the vicinity. The 5th Iowa battled with the 3rd Texas, 3rd Louisiana, and 40th Mississippi for control of the ridge and lost nearly half their numbers in so doing.

G.W., Co. A, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

          We supported a battery on the right and Captain Dean behaved nobly. The first command he gave was uttered in that tone and in firmness and deep meaning that it carried an inspiration to the heart of every man of the company. But while the officers did all that the occasion required, it was the men in the ranks in front of the officers who had to face the music, and be it said in honor to them, they stood and fought like soldiers, facing the most furious fire and repulsing the repeated charges of several regiments amidst the shrieks and groans of the dead and dying. Many of the boys in our company after being severely wounded and ordered back refused to go, but continued the contest until they were wounded and fell a second time, unable to rise. Out of 47 of our company, only 11 escaped uninjured.

Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans

          The glorious 5th Iowa under the brave and distinguished Mathies, sustained by Boomer with part of his noble little 26th Missouri, bore the thrice-repeated charges and crossfires of the Rebel left and center with a valor and determination seldom equaled and never excelled by the most veteran soldiery.

Detail of the lock plate of an Eli Whitney-produced M1841 "Mississippi" rifle similar to those issued to the 5th Iowa. The Whitney rifles as they were called were superb long arms and proved particularly deadly in the hands of the Hawkeyes at Iuka; the 5th Iowa was also issued sword bayonets for use with their Whitneys. The Whitneys were originally produced in Connecticut as .54 caliber guns but many were bored out in the 1850s to accept a .58 caliber round. 

Captain William Dean, Co. A, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Regarding the death of Private James Edgar, the pet of the company. “Some 15 minutes after the battle began, a ball carried away the lock of his gun. He then got another and was soon wounded in the hand. He turned and showed me his hand and I ordered him to go to the rear, and in doing so he got a ball in his cartridge box which exploded all his cartridges and another in the back which passed through his body, coming out at the breast which must have killed him instantly. He was not found until the next morning. We were forced back a short time after he was killed and the Rebels rifled his person and pockets of everything. He was buried on the battlefield and his grave marked with head and foot boards. He did his duty nobly and fought bravely till wounded."

T.S.F., 10th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

The rough-clad Rebel in brown suit sank contesting the earth on which he lay against the Federal in blue garb stained with purple gore. Every conceivable form of mutilation could be witnessed. Before the battery lay bodies torn asunder and limbs scattered in profusion. One poor fellow lay full length with the upper part of his head cut away by a fragment of a shell which was deposited in the crown of his hat several paces distant. Another lay with his cartridge compressed between his teeth, killed in the act of loading. A wounded Rebel dragged himself into a cluster of bushes and opened a letter of recent date but death overpowered him and he held the missive in his grasp seemingly unwilling to part with the object of his dying thoughts. A young man of athletic frame lay with his brains in his hand, the vital spark not yet extinguished; when touched, he would moan piteously. He could not drink from our canteens and we left him, only to witness the same again and again. The horses were shot down still attached to the carriage, there lay the rider distorted and pale, his foot in the stirrup and his hand grasping the rein. Thus, they fell, another scene enacted in the drama of this unholy war.

First Lieutenant Samuel Steele Sample of Co. G of the 5th Iowa sustained a flesh wound in his leg at Iuka and later served with the Signal Corps in the Spanish-American War. 

Quartermaster Sergeant Samuel H. M. Byers, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

“Iuka-Inscribed to the Color Guard of the 5th Iowa”


‘Twas on that soft September day,

We gaily marched at morning’s sun,

But ‘ere the noontide swept away,

We heard the foeman’s signal gun.


The red vines pressed beneath our feet,

The joyous birds sang forth,

And vied in sweetest song to greet,

The reapers of the North.


Iuka’s field looms up before,

And well it seemed a field of death,

Still on we press, we share the gore,

And feel the very cannon’s breath.


And now through valley, copse, and glen,

We meet and fight them hand to hand,

And stepping stones are made of men,

On which to fight for fatherland.


But see there in the battle’s smoke,

Our banner bows before the blast,

And ‘mid the shot and saber stroke,

Are comrades falling thick and fast.


But quick as lightning speeds the sky,

A hundred freeman gather round,

And while our banner floats on high,

A hundred freeman kiss the ground.


With sickles dyed in purple gore,

The field is reaped, a human flood,

The valleys mock the cannon’s roar,

And flowers grow pale in human blood.


The darkest hour is just at day,

The pine swings to the palm,

On, may we weep, and watch, and pray,

That soon may come our day of calm.



Letter from Colonel Charles L. Matthies, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Burlington Weekly Hawkeye (Iowa), October 4, 1862, pg. 4

Official report of Colonel Charles L. Matthies, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Buchanan County Guardian (Iowa), October 7, 1862, pg. 2

Corporal Cyrus J. Reed, Co. E, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Buchanan County Guardian (Iowa), October 7, 1862, pg. 2

Ingersoll, Burton D. Iowa and the Rebellion. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1866, pg. 101

Sergeant Eugene S. Sheffield, Co. D, 15th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Ottumwa Courier (Iowa), October 16, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from G.W., Co. A, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Tipton Advertiser (Iowa), October 9, 1862, pg. 2

Captain William Dean, Co. A, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, “The Dead of the Iowa Fifth,” Tipton Advertiser (Iowa), October 9, 1862, pg. 3

Letter from T.S.F., 10th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Iowa Transcript (Iowa), October 16, 1862, pg. 2

Poem by Quartermaster Sergeant Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers, 5th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Burlington Weekly Hawkeye (Iowa), October 4, 1862, pg. 6


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