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A Duel to the Death: The suspicious death of an Iowa colonel catapults a subordinate to command before Iuka

By Brian Boeve 

In the late summer of 1862, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans moved his federals into Mississippi looking for Confederates. Brusque and argumentative, “Old Rosey” was under orders to link his Army of the Mississippi with other Union forces, and advance on the railroad town of Iuka, where enemy troops had massed.

At the vanguard of his army marched the 5th Iowa Infantry, full of fight, though, yet untested in full-scale combat. On the march, they sang patriotic songs and “felt the poetry of war.” Samuel Hawkins Marshall “Marsh” Byers, a literary-minded quartermaster sergeant in Company B, noted in his diary that he and his comrades were delighted “with anticipation of being killed.”

The leader of the Iowans, Charles Leopold Matthies, was regarded by his men as one of the best colonels in the Union army. University-educated and military trained in his native Prussia, he had served as a captain in the 1st Iowa Infantry before he became the lieutenant colonel of the 5th.

Col. Charles L. Matthies, left, 1st Lt. and Adjutant Robert F. Patterson, center, and Maj. William S. Robertson. Author's collection.
Col. Charles L. Matthies, left, 1st Lt. and Adjutant Robert F. Patterson, center, and Maj. William S. Robertson. Author’s collection.

Matthies had recently advanced to the colonelcy of the regiment after an unexpected event ended with the loss of its original commander, William H. Worthington.

A handsome Kentucky-born grandson of a frontier family who traced its ancestry to President James Monroe, Worthington was admired by his superiors as a highly competent drillmaster and disciplinarian—and reviled by his men for these same traits. During the wee hours of May 22, 1862, as Worthington inspected siege lines in front of Corinth, Miss., a nervous Yankee picket reportedly mistook him for an enemy and fired. The musket ball struck Worthington in the forehead and he toppled from his horse, likely killed instantly. His superior, Maj. Gen. John Pope, stated in formal orders to the army, “In the death of Colonel Worthington this army has sustained a serious loss, and his place in the regiment will be difficult to fill. Prompt, gallant, and patriotic, a brilliant career in the military profession was before him.”

Not everyone felt the same. Byers noted that Worthington “was a military martinet from some soldier school in Kentucky. His sympathies were with his native South. Why he was leading a Northern regiment was a constant mystery to his men.” He added, “There were many of us who believed that the colonel had been intentionally murdered. … More than once his life had been threatened by soldiers who regarded themselves as having been badly treated by him.”

The soldiers in the 5th were free to vote for a new leader after Worthington’s death. The rank and file unanimously selected the regiment’s popular major, William S. Robertson, a peacetime physician. The election, however, only nominated Robertson. His name would have to be submitted to Iowa Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood for approval.

Robertson worried that Kirkwood would kill his nomination because of an incident that had occurred a few months earlier in Cairo, Ill., where the regiment was quartered.

“As an officer he possessed that happy combination of faculties which enabled him, without relaxing the discipline of those under his command, to sympathize with them, and to make them feel that while he was above them in point of rank in the service, he stood on the same plane as a man and a patriot.”

Kirkwood happened to be in town on a visit, and invited the officers of the 5th to meet him in his hotel room. Robertson recalled, “I declined to go till he first, as governor of Iowa, had visited our men and at least shown them the civility of acknowledging the service they had rendered their country.”

As Robertson feared, Kirkwood overruled the will of the rank and file and awarded the commission to Matthies. Robertson put a brave face on his loss. He harbored no ill will towards Matthies, as evidenced by this portrait of him with Matthies and Adjutant Robert F. Patterson.

But privately, Robertson fumed. He eventually expressed his indignation in a letter to the governor. Kirkwood replied on Nov. 4, 1862, “Your non-appointment was no reflection on your merit which I have always acknowledged.” Kirkwood included a copy of a January 1862 circular that set down his method for commissioning officers. “In the case of vacancy on the office of Colonel, I would like to have the sense of the other field and company officers.” Kirkwood added that “In all cases I reserve the right of refusing commissions” to ensure harmony and effectiveness of the troops.

This was Kirkwood’s polite way of stating that Matthies was his preferred choice. The point was moot by the time Robertson had received the letter. He had resigned his commission on the grounds that his medical practice had been neglected by his absence in the military, and he had returned home.

While this drama played out inside the regiment, military tensions rose around them. And, Matthies would soon have an opportunity to prove the governor’s judgment on an obscure wooded ridge south of Iuka.

On Sept. 14, 1862, advance elements of Confederate Maj. Gen. Sterling Price’s Army of the West arrived in the Mississippi community. Price’s job was to keep Rosecrans and his army from reinforcing the growing Union military presence in the eastern part of neighboring Tennessee. Success here would support a larger Confederate offensive into Kentucky by Gen. Braxton Bragg.

Meanwhile, in nearby Corinth, Union Maj. Gen, Ulysses S. Grant moved with characteristic aggressiveness to take out Price. Grant planned to attack Iuka from the west with Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s divisions, while cutting off Price’s escape route south with two divisions under Rosecrans. This strategy would catch the Confederates in a pincer and potentially destroy Price’s army.

Five days after Price arrived in Iuka, the 5th and the rest of Rosecrans’ command executed its part of Grant’s orders. Union cavalrymen that screened the infantry column brushed aside small pockets of resistance. A skirmish line joined them, and eventually struck a full division of enemy troops about two miles outside Iuka. The Confederates, commanded by Brig. Gen. Lewis H. Little, promptly advanced on Rosecrans’ lead brigade, which included the 5th.

Matthies, who had just positioned his Iowans to the right of the 11th Ohio Battery, now changed fronts to meet the rebels. Just as he hastily moved the regiment along the crest of a hill, two enemy brigades of Mississippians and Alabamians attacked. The Southerners, according to Matthies in his after-action report, “came up in front and poured a terrible fire of musketry into my line, which was promptly returned. The firing continued without cessation on both sides for more than a quarter of an hour, when I found the enemy was pressing my left wing, near the battery, and I ordered a charge, which was excited in the most gallant manner, every officer and man moving up in almost perfect line, cheering lustily. The enemy gave way before us, when we poured a most deadly fire into their ranks, causing them to fall back down the hill.”

The stage is set for mortal combat: This detail of a map of the Battle of Iuka indicates the 5th Iowa positioned to the right of the exposed 11th Ohio Battery. Library of Congress.
The stage is set for mortal combat: This detail of a map of the Battle of Iuka indicates the 5th Iowa positioned to the right of the exposed 11th Ohio Battery. Library of Congress.

The Confederates soon returned and were driven back. Again they came, and the fighting grew more ferocious by the minute. The left of the 5th was particularly hard hit. Reinforcements from the 26th Missouri Infantry were ordered in to support it. “Charge after charge was made upon our little line, and the Eleventh Ohio Battery, which the regiment was protecting, was taken and retaken three times,” recalled Byers. “It was the Iowa, the Missouri, and the Ohio boys against the boys of Alabama and Mississippi, and the grass and leaves were covered with the bodies in blue and gray.” He added. “It was a duel to the death.”

The battle degenerated into a slugfest. Ramrods, revolvers and fists proved as valuable as muskets, as the battle lines hurled into each other, ebbing and flowing. The sides fought hand to hand in a desperate bid to control the field. Yankee infantrymen fell fast, as they frantically rallied to save the artillery and the bodies of Ohio gunners scattered among dead horses and artillery debris. A rebel soldier was shot down and bayoneted as he broke through the blue line and attempted to seize the flag of the 5th.

The rebels seized and held the guns on a final attempt. By this time, the left wing of the 5th was all but gone, its ammunition exhausted. Matthies ordered the remnants of his regiment to withdraw under a galling fire. By this time, sunset had arrived, and the roar of fighting gradually gave way to groans and screams of the wounded and dying.

An odd acoustic shadow prevented any sound from the battle or its aftermath from reaching Rosecrans or Grant, who were only miles away with thousands of troops that might have reinforced their outnumbered and outgunned comrades.

When the smoke cleared in the early morning hours of the next day, the federals discovered the ground clear of Confederates. Price and his Army of the West had left—headed south to link up with other forces. Rosecrans had succeeded in turning back Price, but failed to destroy the Army of the West.

The regiments and batteries began the grim task of counting casualties. In the 5th, 216 of 482 officers and men were killed, wounded or captured—45 percent of its number. The wounded included Adjutant Patterson, who suffered a gunshot wound in his right arm. He eventually recovered, and ended the war as colonel of the 29th Iowa Infantry. He lived until 1907.

Among those who came out physically unharmed was Byers. He went on to serve as an officer on the staff of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. The poetry of war that he heard before Iuka never left him, as evidenced by his verse “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” At his death in 1933, he was noted as the last survivor of the 5th.

Matthies proved himself an able commander, a vindication of Gov. Kirkwood’s decision. His actions at Iuka earned him a brigadier’s star. A year later, during the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, Tenn., Matthies suffered a serious head wound that prompted him to resign his commission in March 1864. He barely survived the war, dying in 1868 from liver disease, while serving as a state senator in his adopted Iowa. He was 44 and unmarried.

His death was widely mourned. Perhaps his finest tribute came via a series of resolutions passed by his fellow senators.

“The military record of Gen. Matthies is without a blot. As an officer he possessed that happy combination of faculties which enabled him, without relaxing the discipline of those under his command, to sympathize with them, and to make them feel that while he was above them in point of rank in the service, he stood on the same plane as a man and a patriot. Hence he was regarded by his soldiers as a friend whom they could trust, and on whom they could call in time of need with full assurance that they would receive not only his sympathy and counsel, but material aid, if necessary, to the extent of dividing the last dollar in the pocket of their beloved General.”

References: Samuel H.B. Byers, With Fire and Sword; Peter Cozzens, The Darkest Days of the War: The Battles of Iuka and Corinth; Jeff Daniels, History of the Fifth Iowa Infantry in the War of the Rebellion; Samuel J. Kirkwood to Maj. William S. Robertson, Nov. 4, 1862, Brian Boeve Collection; Circular from the headquarters of the Military Department of Iowa for the recommendations of officers to fill vacancies in regiments. Brian Boeve Collection; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion; Iowa Senate Journal; Daily Iowa State Register, Oct. 20, 1868.

Brian Boeve is a Senior Editor and member of the Advisory Board of MI. He is a longtime collector and frequent contributor.

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