A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Exhibit Explores Veterans of the U.S. Civil War

Abraham Lincoln took office as the 16th president of the United States on March 4, 1861.  

The next month, the first shots of the Civil War sounded at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.  

The community of Spencer, Iowa is remembering the veterans of this deadly conflict.  

“This new exhibit it’s called “Boys in Blue, Grand Army of the Republic,” said Stephanie Horsley.  

Walking into a wing of the Clay County Heritage Center transports you to a time of turmoil for the United States starting in April of 1861.

“Well, we are getting really far removed in our current generation of what happened in the Civil War period and having an exhibit like this shows how that is a lasting impact for our county.” 

Stephanie Horsley, is the director of the center, located in Spencer, Iowa.  She shows us items on loan from a museum in Sioux Falls, plus some local additions.

“It highlights what the Grand Army of the Republic was.  It was the first veterans’ organization in our country for Civil War veterans.  We have a lot of Civil War veterans that came to Clay County in the 1860s and beyond into the 1870s and 1880s.”  

When the Civil War ended in April of 1865, Spencer didn’t exhist.  But, the men who moved here made a mark.

“So our area of northwest Iowa in Spencer was fairly young during the Civil War area.  I mean. Spencer was officially a town in 1871. So, it was still sparsely populated in Clay County  There weren’t a lot of men who left from here to go to the war.  There were a lot of men who came here from the war who settled in this area thanks to land grants.  They wanted to have a new start.  We have a lot of veterans buried here locally,” said Braden Falline. 

Director of Collections at Clay County Heritage, Braden Falline estimates the local cemetery is the final resting place for up to 115 soldiers of the Civil War.  The bloodiest conflict ever fought on U.S. soil.   

Five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, an assassin took the life of President Abraham Lincoln.

“Interesting enough we have two soldiers who guarded Abe Lincoln’s coffin during his funeral procession. One guarded him in Pennsylvania and one in Illinois.  They are both buried out in Riverside.  So, we have the neat story of two veterans who helped serve after the war for Lincoln on his funeral train,” Falline said.

A Civil War soldier’s chance of surviving the war, about 1 in 4.  More than 618,000 people died by the end of the conflict.  Many fallen from disease, others from fighting on the front lines.

“In this case we have a small cannonball that would have been fired.  And, then a 12-pound cannonball typical of what’s fired out of a cannon you might think of.  We have a bayonet, that would have been used at the time and a sword made in Germany and sold to the Army.  We have 40 second fuses and a caltrop, which they threw out to impede cavalry charges. They would throw it out and horses and they would rear up and buck off the driver.”

“We have Spencer Rifles that have no direction connection to Spencer, Iowa.  They were created by Christopher Spencer who was an arms developer during the Civil War era.  He actually took his 1860 model to the White House to show President Lincoln during the war. And, they were so impressed they put in a small order and they were typically carried by the cavalry.”

Boys in Blue, Grand Army of the Republic, also features biographies connecting generations.

“A few of our veterans we talk about we also kind of have who are their relatives now.  So, like for example like Joseph O’Brien his great-grandson is David Simington who is involved on the Clay County Fair Board and a banker locally.  Great community involvement from decedents of veterans.”  

“We have ribbon and badges from GAR gatherings.  We also have a pin from our local GAR post here in Spencer.  GAR is the Grand Army of the Republic, which is the group formed after the Civil War by Civil War Veterans to kind of keep them together. Because at the end of the war you had men from Iowa, Illinois, New York that were all fighting together in the same units. And, so they wanted to stay together.  They had built this comradery and wanted to memorialize and get together over the years.”

The Director of the Clay County Heritage, Stephanie Horsley, also shares a personal connection with this informative history lesson.

“My husband’s family has some personal artifacts and memorabilia from ancestors that were in the Civil War.  A few of them include two letters that were written by Van V. Reeves and his brother Manassah Reeves to their mother Lydia Sams Reeves.  They are ancestors of my husband’s mother, Marie Reeves Horsley. You can see their fancy penmanship and she was able to type them out so you can see  what they were talking about when they were fighting in the Tennessee area.”

A four-year period of strife and death, and new beginnings brought to life for a modern audience.

It’s a time period that our county and this area has kind of forgotten about and how divided it was for this country.  I think we can learn a lot of how that Civil War has affected our county because of the repercussions we see today,” said Horsely.

The “Boys in Blue; Grand Army of the Republic will be on display until May 25, 2019.