Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Politics

Tiptoe on the edge of an abyss: A review of The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War

A parable:  Joke-telling Abraham Lincoln (Republican) in a stovepipe hat; sober-minded Jefferson Davis (Ultra-secessionist Democrat); and diminutive Stephen A. Douglas (national Democrat) stood at the top of a cliff.  Davis threatened to jump off the cliff, and Lincoln scoffed at that absurd notion.

Stephen A. Douglas believed Davis and knew that if Davis jumped, he would drag Lincoln and Douglas with him in a horrible, bloody crash.  Douglas believed that only he could stop Davis from jumping.


Historian George Fort Milton describes the lead-up to the Civil War in The Eve of Conflict:  Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War.  Weighing in at almost 600 pages, and published in 1934, this book has forever changed how I look at the causes of the war.

Prior to reading this book, I thought that the war basically occurred because of disagreements between Republicans (led by Lincoln) and Ultra-Secessionists (led by Jefferson Davis).  Author Milton demonstrates that the national Democratic party, led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had a reasonable chance of holding the country together as late as March 1860 (about a year before Fort Sumter).

Bitter enmity

Milton describes how the Buchanan administration mortally opposed Stephen A. Douglas and the national Democrats.  The Buchanan machine naturally allied with the Ultra-Secessionist Democrats to defeat Douglas, thereby allowing Lincoln to be elected president.

The author describes the political strategies of all three groups as they engaged in hardball.  In retrospect, the gamesmanship was breathtaking.

Clash of Ideas

Lincoln had stated in his “House Divided” speech:

…A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free … It will become all one thing, or all the other.

Douglas responded that Lincoln actually predicted the following:

A war of sections, a war of North against the South, of the Free States against the Slave States – a war of extermination to be continued relentlessly until the one or the other shall be subdued and all States shall either become free or become slave.

Lincoln rejected Douglas’s claim and said:

There is no danger that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets, and, with a young nigger stuck on every bayonet, march into Illinois and force them upon us.  There is no danger of our going over there and making war upon them.

With hindsight, we see that Lincoln’s remark was recklessly confident.

A different view of “Honest Abe”

Douglas experienced Lincoln as a shrewd debater when they competed for a U.S. Senate seat.  This experience enabled Douglas to say the following:

When I make a mistake, as an honest man I correct it without being asked to, but when he, Lincoln, makes a false charge, he sticks to it and never corrects it.

A fresh look

In The Eve of Conflict, we see Douglas step out the shadows as a living, breathing, witty politician.  By the end of the book, Douglas has become a statesman, and I share Milton’s admiration of Douglas.

I found the over-arching sense of story, the quotations, the insights, and the analysis to be very compelling.   I highly recommend this book.

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The politics of pain: An 1871-style Iowa stump speech

Six years after Appomattox, the Civil War was an emotional “live wire” in Iowa.  Republican candidates for office tapped into the continuing agony, and they condemned Democrats with great vigor (just as they had done during the war).

I recently portrayed Livingston G. Parker, a Union Army veteran and candidate for the Iowa State Senate in 1871, at the Historic Livingston Foundation. I wrote the following stump speech (drawing upon Parker’s letters and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) to capture the spirit of Iowa Republicans.


Please read this speech in this context. I am not recommending any candidate in the current election.  To help get the flavor of this speech, I would suggest that you listen to my reading of the text.

My friends, I stand here on this august occasion to remember the price our boys paid, often in blood, to put down the great Rebellion.

My fellow soldiers, some of you were also in Springfield, Missouri in late 1861.  Gen. Fremont was there, Sigel and Sturgis also.  There were some 40,000 men already there and more arriving daily …  Who can forget the sight — white tents everywhere about the town … The drums were beating and the bugles sounding the evening calls and still the camp fires burned brightly.  It was a scene of rare beauty, and as they stretched far away over the plain and up the hillsides, reminded us of the quiet village where bright lights reflect the peace and felicity within.

We yearned for the day when the rebels would repent their great wickedness, return to the fellowship of kindly brotherhood, fall into the line of duty and forward march to the music of the Union.  We longed for “the banner of the free to float proudly over our land from lake to gulf and from ocean to ocean.”

But while we fought and bled, back home in Iowa, an enemy slithered through the cornstalks.  Copperheads!  Copperheads, those Democrats, said to be treacherous, cowardly, and venomous “above all other beasts of the field.”  Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, Copperheads seduced many citizens.  Those Democrats proclaimed loyalty to the Union, but they actually worked against President Lincoln and our nation as we engaged in a life-and-death struggle.

Disloyal Democrats used newspaper editors to spread their poison.  They used congressmen, too.  Clement C. Vallandigham of Ohio, Democratic Congressman, proclaimed that he was an Apostle of Peace.  My friends, Scripture teaches that Satan can appear as an Angel of Light, and that the time will come when even the very Elect may be deceived.  Fellow citizens, do not be deceived.  The Democratic Party is still the party of disloyalty!

Far, far away from our fair state, many of our valiant comrades fell on the field of battle or succumbed to disease.  The Good Book says their bodies lie sleeping, until the Final Trump.  Many of you know all too well the empty chair at the table that will never be occupied, the wise voice of counsel that will never again be heard, the hopes and dreams of marriage, forever sundered by death.

Out of the anguish that doesn’t stop, let us resolve, along with the martyred President Lincoln, “that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

My friends, this election, vote for the party of Grant and Lincoln!


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Gifted doctor, unpredictable man, Part 2

In Part 1, W.H. Farner left Iowa and became a Denver city councilman and physician to the 1st Colorado Infantry.  After he accused the soldiers of misdeeds in the field, he went to Texas.

Confederate service

W.H. Farner became an assistant surgeon with Riley’s Regiment, 4th Texas Cavalry, in April 1862.  He was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Bayou Teche

A year later, Farner was captured at Bayou Teche, Louisiana, and paroled on May 11, 1863, below Port Hudson.

Brazos County, here I come

Farner bought 20 slaves (possibly as a broker) in Caddo Parish, Louisiana.  Farner valued the slaves at $14,000, and “refugeed” them to Brazos County, Texas, far from invading Yankees.

(Library of Congress)

Now a slave owner (at least on paper), 42-year-old Farner married 24-year-old Sarah Swindler in Brazos County.  It is assumed that Farner and his wife, Mary, had gotten a divorce.


In 1864, a man arrived in Galveston aboard a blockade runner from Cuba.  He carried Yellow Fever.  No one knew that mosquitoes carried the disease to others.

Two weeks later, a resident died.  Fatalities climbed to 13.  Farner wrote that the disease began a “gradual, persistent, and fatal march from house to house.”

People panicked, leaving if they could.  Farner and other doctors stayed.  Fourteen of them got sick, and three died.

Reportedly, some 250 people died, representing about a tenth of the civilians and soldiers who remained in the city.

Divided family

While Farner battled Yellow Fever in Texas, his son and namesake, William Henri Farner Jr., joined the Wisconsin Infantry Volunteers.

Freedmen’s Bureau

The following year, Farner surrendered with other Trans-Mississippi forces at Millican, Texas, in Brazos County, on June 26, 1865.  Less than six months later, former slave-owner Farner worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Millican.  He served the Republican administration.  One of his goals?  To see that former slaves were paid and treated fairly.

Freedmen's Bureau (Library of Congress)

Historian Dale Baum (Counterfeit Justice:  The Judicial Odyssey of Texas Freedwoman Azeline Hearne) explains:  “Farner was too sympathetic to the planters and often too quick to administer cruel physical punishment to the ex-slaves.”

Some freedmen complained that Farner punished them, stringing them up by their thumbs.  In May 1866, military authorities ordered his arrest.

Ever resourceful

Farner wanted to be appointed “District Judge, or Chief Justice of the County.”  He cited his “year of sacrifice & toil for the present dominant party.”  Farner listed his Republican credentials:

I started the first out & out Radical paper ever issued in the State of Iowa [and] canvassed the State for Fremont and Dayton … Our efforts swept over the State like a whirlwind … revolutionized the State and forever fixed it a brilliant satellite in the galaxy of universal freedom.

He wasn’t appointed to the bench, but he became a Radical Republican newspaper editor.  In that role, he helped a former slave appeal for help from the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Thereafter, Dr. Farner moved to Illinois, practiced medicine, and died in 1878.

His co-editor’s view

Farner’s former co-editor Dixon recalled:

A sense of personal obligation never startled his conscience. He was without sympathy, and without affection, and without any grace which has its abode in the human heart; and yet he was hypocrite enough to seem to have them all in profusion.

Making sense of Farner

The Daily Iowa State Register commented:

Intellectually considered, he was rather a brilliant man … erratic, in all his ways, and yet there was the divinity of genius about him …

Naturally, he was not a bad man, but he was as capricious as April, and too lazy to resist temptation! He always kept half a dozen dogs frisking about his heels; and we never knew a man to turn out well with such barking associates.

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Gifted doctor, unpredictable man, Part 1

Politicians today are accused of flip-flopping, but Dr. William H. Farner fit the bill. He jumped careers and political parties with ease.

He first practiced medicine and was active in the Liberty Party (later Free Soil Party) in Wisconsin in 1848.  Farner moved his family to Lee County, Iowa, and practiced medicine.

Phrenological exam to "determine political principles"

Phrenological exam to determine political principles

In 1856, he left medicine to edit a Democratic paper, The Statesman.  He also served on the Democratic State Central Committee.

The next year, Farner rejoined the Free Soil Party, moved to Polk County, and co-edited a “Free Soil” Republican paper, The Iowa Citizen.   He gave speeches across Iowa for John Fremont, the presidential candidate of the brand-new Republican Party.


Co-editor J.M. Dixon described Farner as short with a large mouth, sunken cheeks, and thin lips.  Farner’s clothes, wrote Dixon, “were of the most slovenly and dirty character.”

Dixon continued:

[Farner] was a prodigious consumer of whisky. He drank early in the morning, and drank often [throughout the day] … [He drank] until every other man was under the table; and yet this little fellow … was never known to be unsteady in his gait …

He was a fine speaker … [with] a bold, dashing, impromptu style, always supported by a native impudence … He was the most remarkably sober drunkard.

Family life

Dixon continued:

When on the street, he was always seen with three or four hunting dogs at his heels, for which he provided more liberally than for his six children and his patient, broken-hearted wife, who were suffering in a dreary shanty.

The Iowa Citizen changed owners, so Farner jumped to the Democratic Iowa State Journal.

By 1860, Farner’s family was back to Wisconsin, and he worked as a doctor in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

New life in Denver

Three months later, he took a load of pharmaceutical drugs to Denver.   He was elected to the Denver City Council in April 1861, just before Fort Sumter.

First Colorado Volunteers

First Colorado Volunteers

Farner had a large medical practice among the 1st Colorado Infantry.  This unit was formed to defend the territory against Rebels in the wake of Bull Run.  The doctor was “a successful practitioner” among the soldiers.

When the regiment left Colorado en route to New Mexico (to fight Confederate General Sibley), they impressed vehicles and livestock.  Farner exposed their misdeeds in a letter to the editor of The Rocky Mountain News.  The soldiers were furious.

Farner quickly packed his bags and headed – where else? – to Texas to join Sibley’s Confederate forces.  One Colorado soldier hoped that Farner would be hanged “… to purify the atmosphere from the taint of secession …”

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Thanks for reading my blog!  I plan to post Part 2 on Tuesday, April 12.  Please leave any comments below.

Son of Former Iowa Governor goes bad: “Rebel Son” becomes Campaign Issue

Iowa residents who served the Confederacy were never completely forgotten, especially during campaign season.  One such man was 18-year-old Junius L. Hempstead, a Dubuque resident whose father had been Iowa’s second governor.  Junius’s mother was born in Maryland.  His parents were Douglas Democrats, a group that later produced many War Democrats.

HempsteadJL -- photo from GoogleBooks -- Some Notables of New OrleansJunius was a gifted sculptor who won prizes for his work.  A Dubuque arts patron offered to send Junius to Europe to study art, all expenses paid.  His father nixed the idea so Junius could receive a “good civil and military education.”  Former Governor Stephen Hempstead wanted to enroll Junius at West Point, but he settled for the Virginia Military Institute — nine months before Fort Sumter.

VMI had a good reputation, and Junius did well in class – reassuring facts for any parent.  Governor Hempstead might not have known that being a cadet meant taking an oath to “support Va. against all of her enemies.”  Junius later explained that he “believed in State[s] Rights, to the fullest extent,” and thought every “state is a sovereign power … privileged to withdraw at will.”   He quickly identified with Virginia and the Southern cadets.  After Virginia seceded, Junius wrote, “Her enemies became mine.”

Junius and other cadets entered the 5th Virginia Infantry.   His service became a campaign issue for his father, who was running for Dubuque County Judge.

Hempstead Stephen from 1880 History of Dubuque County and BiographiesA newspaper article stated that former Governor Hempstead “does not believe in the war to put down rebellion. On the contrary … he believes in the war begun by the South to destroy the Government, for he has a son in the rebel army, fighting against his country. Who knows but that some of our own citizens may have a relative shot by the hand of this rebel son of a disloyal father?”


In spite of the uproar, Governor Hempstead was elected County Judge.

Needing a Commission

Meanwhile, Junius’s superior officers asked Jefferson Davis to give Junius an officer’s commission.  They described him as “a worthy young gentleman” and a proficient drill-master who acted with bravery and coolness in two battles. The officers explained why Junius needed a commission:

“Mr. Hempstead’s father & friends are residents of the State of Iowa, and though southern in their feelings are unable to give him any pecuniary assistance, and as it would be unsafe for him to visit them, he is entirely dependent upon himself for a support.”

Governor Hempstead likely had fond memories of years spent in Missouri as an older teen and young adult.  But he didn’t side with the Confederacy.  Junius later told a fellow POW that his father was a strong Union man.

Visit from Dubuque friends

A month after the officers wrote Jefferson Davis, two of Junius’s Dubuque friends visited him in camp.  Junius made them feel welcome, and they “talked over Iowa matters.”  Both friends later entered the Confederate service.

Junius became a lieutenant in the 5th Virginia Infantry.  He was badly wounded in the shoulder at the Second Battle of Manassas.  The pain was intense.  He recovered and rejoined his unit.  At the Battle of the Wilderness, amid a flurry of bullets, he was wounded again and captured.  Junius and hundreds of other Confederate officers were moved to Fort Delaware.  All too soon, Junius would be tested to the edge of his endurance.

To Be Continued next week in Part 2

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