Finding a job was a common worry in Iowa as the Financial Panic of 1857 lingered. Many Iowans headed to the South where jobs were a-plenty.
For example, engineer William O’Day left Iowa and got a railroad job in Mississippi. After the firing upon Fort Sumter, some Iowans in the South joined military units to keep earning a living.
A month-and-a-half after the war began, Irish native O’Day enlisted in Company B, 17th Mississippi Infantry. His unit was near Richmond, Virginia, in summer 1862. After being hospitalized for illness, he rejoined his unit and was captured on November 6, 1862, in Hampshire, Virginia.
O’Day gave the following statement to Union authorities:
I was born in Ireland. I am 26 years old. I enlisted with Captain John McGirk of the 17th Mississippi Infantry Co. B and remained with him for the period of 17 months.
My reason for enlisting was because I was out of employment. I belong to Iowa and my Father lives near West Union, Brama [Bremer] County, Iowa. I had to leave home to obtain a living.
I served 17 months in the Confederate Army against my consent. When I left them, they were stationed between Winchester and Front Royal. Colonel Holder now commands the 17th Mississippi Infantry, numbering about 700.
Union officials moved O’Day to three different prisons: Atheneum (in Wheeling, Virginia, present-day West Virginia); Camp Chase, Ohio; and Cairo, Illinois.
He was slated to be exchanged – and returned to his Confederate unit – but it never happened. O’Day presumably convinced Union officials to let him take the oath of allegiance to the U.S. government. His Confederate company roll call listed him as a deserter.
After his release from prison, the trail runs cold. Some fifty years later, on August 11, 1910, William O’Day died and was buried in Bremer County.
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