Marching to Vicksburg with the 31st Iowa

     “We feel confident in regard to two things, to wit: that Vicksburg will soon be ours, and that Grant is the right man in the right place.” ~ Captain Robert P. Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Infantry on May 29, 1863

    Through the months of June and July 1863, readers of the Cedar Falls Gazette could keep up to date with the progress of Grant's siege of Vicksburg through the frequent letters penned by Captain Robert Patterson Speer of the 31st Iowa Infantry. Speer, a 35-year-old native of Westmoreland Co., Pennsylvania, had moved to Iowa in the mid-1850s with dreams of opening a law practice, but found upon his arrival that his new neighbors didn't have much use for attorneys, so he used his two years of legal studies at Allegheny College and went into land surveying. In this Speer proved quite successful, and it was by building upon this success that he was able to pursue his first love of farming and running a fruit orchard. As a matter of fact, Speer would later serve as the president of the Iowa State Horticultural Society and Director of the Iowa Agricultural College Experimental Station.   

    The outbreak of the Civil War caused Speer to lay aside his business and agricultural pursuits to buckle on his sword to defend the Union. He was commissioned captain of Co. B of the 31st Iowa Volunteers on August 7, 1862 and would spend the next two years leading his company through seven Confederate states and take part in the fighting at Chickasaw Bayou, Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and the Atlanta campaign. 

    Captain Speer was truly an "accidental correspondent;" the editor of the local newspaper George Perkins had enlisted in Speer's company and for the first few months Perkins kept Cedar Falls up to date with all of the company news. But that winter, Perkins became so ill as to be discharged and Captain Speer rather reluctantly took up Perkins' task. The descriptiveness of his letters improved through the course of the war and as will be shown in this three-part series, Captain Speer offers some wonderful insights to live and death in the trenches around Vicksburg in that momentous summer of 1863. 

    I have chosen to present Speer's letters about Vicksburg in three parts as listed below. The first part concerns the marching phase of the campaign, covering the period from late April until around May 24th when the Federal army was firmly established around the city. The second part in the series focuses on the seemingly dull month of June where the two sides spent day and night hurling shells, bullets, and epithets at each other while waiting for the Confederates to surrender or for Joe Johnston to strike Grant's rear and lift the siege. The final part covers the surrender of the city and the immediate aftermath. 

    To help place Speer's commentary into proper context, it is worth noting that the regiment was assigned to Colonel Charles R. Woods' Second Brigade of General Frederick Steele's First Division of General William T. Sherman's 15th Army Corps. During the campaign, the regiment was under the command of Irish-born Colonel William Smyth then Major Theodore Stimming. 

Part 1: Marching to Vicksburg with the 31st Iowa

Part 2: Exhausting Pemberton’s Peas: The Siege of Vicksburg


Cedar Falls, Iowa in 1862 was a bustling prairie town of 1,500 located on the Cedar River in Black Hawk County just northwest of Waterloo in the northeastern part of the state. The Cedar Falls Gazette had only been in publication for two years, started up by brothers George and Henry Perkins to make "known all of the interesting events of the day whether transpiring at home or abroad." The Gazette became the voice for the Republican Party and during the war proved to be a tremendous soldiers' newspaper with frequent letters from men in the 3rd Iowa, 31st Iowa, and even an Iowa sailor serving aboard the U.S.S. Minnesota! The Library of Congress hosts a full wartime run of the Gazette through the Chronicling America site. 

Suburbs of Vicksburg, Mississippi

May 23, 1863

          We are situated at the present time in the suburbs of Vicksburg and on the banks of the river. We have the city completely surrounded. It may be some days, even weeks, before it falls, but it will certainly be ours in the end. Yesterday we witnessed a charge made by the 9th and 30th Iowa regiments against the enemy’s works. You cannot imagine how we felt to see those brave boys fall back after being almost annihilated. We expect no more charges. We will finish the fight with artillery and starve them out.

          Lyman W. Tondro of our company was wounded in the thigh by a musket ball on the 20th. I am afraid he cannot live. The other boys are all well. We have received no mail matter during the past 20 days and our friends need not expect any letters from us until after Vicksburg falls.

          We have been on three-fifths rations since we left Grand Gulf until yesterday. Hereafter we will have plenty to eat. We now receive supplies from the Yazoo River and have only seven miles to haul them.

          We had a big time in Jackson and destroyed the railroad for three miles around the city and at many points on this side. When I have time, I will give you a description of our trip from Grand Gulf to this place.


Captain Robert Patterson Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Volunteer Infantry (1828-1908)

Near Vicksburg, Mississippi

May 29, 1863

          About the 21st of April, we started from Greenville, Mississippi to Young’s Point. We had a pleasant trip down the river. We remained in our old camp one day and then moved up to Milliken’s Bend where we remained five or six days for review, muster, pay, to wash our clothes, etc. On the 1st of May our regiment and the 29th Missouri were ordered to repair the road over which the government supplies were being carried to Richmond, a small village eight miles from Milliken’s Bend.

          About the time our work was completed, we were notified that Steele’s division was coming up and ordered to join it and march to Grand Gulf, a distance of 35 or 40 miles below Vicksburg. In making this march, we passed near and over many splendid plantations and saw some very large, beautiful, and costly buildings. I was led by curiosity to enter and examine one resident owned by a French Dr. Boniea which undoubtedly cost $15,000. It was surrounded by the choicest shrubbery and near it was a garden in which was a large collection of the rarest flowers in bloom, and an orchard of the most valuable vines and fruit trees.

The proprietor of the house had removed everything which he had time to take away and yet there remained 17 of the costliest sofas, 14 mirrors with gilt frames from three feet to four feet wide and from five to eight feet high. Every room in the house was furnished with mahogany chairs and bedsteads. In one room I saw a splendid piano and melodeon. I judged that the chandelier in the main hall cost $500. In another room were two large portraits of the proprietor and his wife, certainly productions of some master painter. Side boards overlaid with Italian marble, the finest Brussels’ carpets, and much other furniture of which I made no note. How great and noble must that man be who can own such a plantation, such a residence and gardens, and such furniture. In one word, such wealth, and not look upon the poor man with contempt who is compelled to earn hi bread by the sweat of his brow.

Before crossing the river, I saw the most valuable specimen of “poultry” in America. It is the beautiful tame eagle carried near the colors of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. A thousand dollars have been offered for the bird and were refused. We remained one day at the Gulf, examined the enemy’s fortifications, etc. Behind the fort and on the hill is a graveyard. I noticed that one of our shells had passed into the ground and exploded directly under a large marble monument. From the appearance of the hole under the monument and the pieces of marble, I concluded it must have been a loud call for the body under the monument and that he must also have been a copperhead.

Colonel William Smyth, 31st Iowa

A part of General Grant’s army had a severe fight and won a glorious victory at Port Gibson, which is eight miles from the Gulf, before we arrived. On the 7th, General Steele’s division marched from the Mississippi River towards Jackson with Co. B of the 31st Iowa taking the lead. A hard day’s march brought us to a bridge on the Black River which we destroyed. On the following day we marched to the junction of three roads, a few miles from Black River, where McClernand’s and McPherson’s corps were waiting for our arrival. On the 10th, Sherman marched on the central road, McPherson on the right, and McClernand on the left. On the 12th, the Rebels endeavored to obstruct our progress by destroying a bridge and killing five of our men. But we soon cleared the road and caused an equal number of their men to bite the dust. On the same day General McPherson had a hard fight at Raymond. The loss on both sides was considerable, but the Rebels were badly whipped.

During the forenoon of the 14th, it rained hard and wet us to the skin. About noon, the leading brigade of our division commenced skirmishing in the suburbs of Jackson. We assured ourselves that the loads in our pieces were dry and then marched for the city and a hard fight in double quick time. But when near the enemy’s rifle pits, we met a civilian who said they were all gone. Sherman’s and McPherson’s corps entered the city about the same time. The double quick was again doubled. The Rebel capital was ours. And then cheer after cheer went up which made the city tremble. Before leaving the Rebels had burned the depot containing large quantities of sugar, pork, etc. The boys of the different regiments brought in enough port wine, Irish whiskey, apple brandy, and tobacco to last us over night and being wet and tired we rested until morning.

The 15th was a beautiful day and if you could have seen us you would have thought that we had lost the run of time and were celebrating the 4th of July with a determination not to be excelled by the people of any other city. The fireworks were grand, wines and other liquors excellent, and other things in proportion. There was a large number of stores and groceries in the city pretty well filled with goods, but by noon the soldier had helped themselves with the assistance of the quartermasters to what they needed and what they did not need was given to the poor of the city. A very large cotton factory in operation was put down as the first place on the program of fireworks. Then followed foundries, machine shops, and many other buildings in which articles were made for the Confederate government. We heated, bent, and destroyed railroad iron on three different tracks for three miles from the city besides half a dozen bridges, one of them being a very high and long one over Pearl River. In the evening a very large brick block weas accidentally fired by the Secesh whiskey in some soldier and burned to the ground. It was also evident that the Governor’s mansion and a large hotel styled the Confederate House were not fireproof as they burned beautifully.

On the morning of the 16th, we started for Vicksburg leaving a smoky city behind us. From the Mississippi River to Jackson, the soil is yellow clay. The face of the country for ten miles from the river is remarkably bluffy and towards Jackson from the point where we destroyed the bridge on Black River, gently rolling. A large portion of the land between Grand Gulf and Jackson is under cultivation and now producing a sickly-looking crop of corn. On this side of the Mississippi River there is a greater variety of timber than I have seen heretofore in the South. Here the beautiful magnolia grows wild in the woods. It is now in full bloom and towers as high as other forest trees. Some of the inhabitants through this section of country are very poor, but few are rich, the largest portion being men of moderate means. On the 17th instant, General McClernand met a large force of the enemy from Vicksburg at Black River Railroad bridge and after a hard day’s fight defeated them badly, capturing between 5,000-6,000 prisoners and a large number of field pieces. The railroad bridge over Black River was very long and has been destroyed.

First Lt. John W. Gilman
Co. B, 31st Iowa

On the 18th we arrived within three miles of Vicksburg and in the afternoon, there was considerable skirmishing. During the following night the enemy withdrew to the works which they now occupy. On the 19th like serpent we coiled around the city and during the day the cannonading was very heavy, accomplishing but little on either side. On the same day Lyman Tondro of Co. B was severely wounded in the thigh but the surgeons now think he will recover. On the 22nd, a part of our brigade and the 9th and 30th Iowa regiments were ordered to take the enemy’s works by assault. Before the charge could be made it was necessary to run two gauntlets, one of about 25 rods and the other 15 rods in length. In running them, our regiment lost ten men in killed and wounded, but Co. B went through without a scratch. The balls flew like hail and as many shells as were desirable. The 9th and three companies of the 30th Iowa along with the 12th Missouri attempted the assault but were repulsed with a loss of about 225 in killed and wounded. As they failed, we were not ordered up and under cover of night we removed to our original position immediately above the city and near the river.

General Grant says he wishes to save his men and that the enemy’s works are so strong that no more charges shall be made. He means to starve them out. Deserters say that they are now nearly out of supplies. During the entire march of 150 miles we were obliged to live on three-fifths rations. During the entire trip our army has been in the best of spirits. We feel confident in regard to two things, to wit: that Vicksburg will soon be ours, and that Grant is the right man in the right place. The rebellion will soon be crushed and the foulest and meanest of all animals (copperheads) receive the punishment they deserve. At the present time, it is very warm and very healthy here. We have now and will hereafter have full rations.



Letters from Captain Robert Patterson Speer, Co. B, 31st Iowa Volunteer Infantry, Cedar Falls Gazette (Iowa), June 5, 1863, pg. 2; June 19, 1863, pg. 1


Most Popular Posts

Bullets for the Union: Manufacturing Small Arms Ammunition During the Civil War

Dressing the Rebels: How to Dye Butternut Jeans Cloth

Arming the Buckeyes: Longarms of the Ohio Infantry Regiments

A Buckeye Remembers Scenes of Horror After the Battle of Corinth

Mauled at Resaca: Eight Fatal Minutes for the 36th Alabama

The Cannons are Now Silent: The Field of Death of Tupelo

Standing like pillars of adamant: the 61st Ohio at Freeman's Ford

Buckeye Rapid-Fire: The 21st Ohio and the Colt’s Revolving Rifles

Dedicating the Gettysburg National Cemetery

A Galvanized Yankee Executed at Tullahoma