Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Month: October 2017

Hell hath no Fury like an Irishman Scorned

Artillery specialist P.J. Kelly had ten years of experience, serving His Royal Majesty.  When Kelly arrived in Iowa, he probably never imagined he would serve both sides in a civil war.

In 1859, young Iowa men had a “martial spirit” and formed paramilitary companies in many towns.  Besides practicing drills, the companies formed a social group that gave balls, held exhibition drills, and marched in parades.

In 1859, Kelly became captain of the Iowa City Artillery.  The next year, he left (or lost) his job as a postal clerk.[i]

At that time, Iowa was still struggling under the lingering financial Panic of 1857.  In contrast, Memphis, Tennessee, had bounced back rather quickly.

Heading South

Kelly moved to job-plentiful Memphis in late 1860 with his wife and their one-year-old son.  Shortly afterwards, voters elected Republican Abraham Lincoln as President. [ii]

Voices in the Cotton South and even the Upper South expressed concern and outrage about the “Black Republican” (supposedly abolitionist) President-Elect Lincoln.

In response, Iowans gradually became more determined to preserve the Union, according to historian Charles Ray Aurner.  Residents of Johnson County, Iowa, frowned “upon any attempts of sympathizers with the South to express themselves.”[iii]

When Southern troops fired upon Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, Iowans responded with outrage and condemnation.  The next day, President Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to put down the rebellion.

“An Iowa Renegade” ?

Border-state Southerners were alarmed that Union troops would likely cross their states to reach the Confederacy.  A week later, the Dubuque Daily Times (a Republican paper) quoted the Memphis Daily Argus that P.J. Kelly, “late Captain of the Iowa City Artillery,” was raising troops for the “Southern Rights Home Guard.”

Kelly placed a notice calling for every native Irishman in Tennessee to stand “against the attacks of the Black Republican despot of the North!”  He explained:

The Irishman is celebrated for his devotion and loyalty to whatever flag he fights under.  If we are called to defend our newborn and infant flag, let us show ourselves no less patriotic and faithful than the Irish at Bunker Hill.

The Constitution, according to Kelly, ” has been usurped and overthrown by the black-hearted infidels of the North.”  He called for his “fellow countrymen in free States not to take up arms to aid Lincoln and his black-hearted band to lay waste a fair country, and murder a liberal and generous people.”

With a nod to the Know-Nothing roots of many Republicans, Kelly claimed that Lincoln “stands at the head of a political party whose history is full of the grossest hostility to Irish adopted citizens in particular.[iv]

Making enemies in Iowa

In early June 1861, Kelly became 1st Lieutenant of Artillery, basically serving as a recruiting and mustering officer.  He enlisted as many as 50 men a day.[v]

5th Co., New Orleans Washington Artillery (Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War)

He later wrote:

This made more enemies for me in the north, so much so, that they erected a Gallows, for me in Iowa City, to give to the first Regiment who left there for the South & ordered them when they arrived in Memphis to hang me … They had another at Cairo, & detained several men of my name there for many days, thinking they might get me.

Perhaps Kelly had only heard a rumor of a gallows in Iowa City.  Nonetheless, it still reflects the emotional tenor in Iowa.

Unbearable insult

On August 5, 1861, Lt. Kelly enlisted in Co. K, 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery, commanded by Capt. Andrew Jackson Jr.[vi]

Capt. Andrew Jackson Jr. (

A month later, Kelly had a serious run-in with Captain Jackson, so Kelly wrote their commanding General Leonidas Polk:

I would like to see Jackson [Kelly’s superior officer] come out nobly & acknowledge his very ungentlemanly conduct towards me … I am disgraced in the eyes of the people …

I would put a stain upon my honor, my position & my character, to remain quietly in the same command with a man that greatly insulted my Person, character & worth in the most debasing & scandalous manner.  I would feel thankful to him if he shot me thro the heart at once.

Kelly floated the possibility of resigning and being reinstated at a different command.”[vii]

Waiting in limbo

In late October 1861, Lt. Kelly moved to Fort Pillow, Tennessee, waiting for Captain Jackson to apologize or be rebuked.[viii]  Nothing happened, and Kelly submitted his resignation in March 1862.

While Kelly waited to hear that he was out of the Confederate Army, he groused to General Polk:

I am being sick in body and mind to think after raising so many soldiers in Memphis, I had not the happiness of being present with them at any of our engagements … God will, I hope, attend to those who are wrongfully oppressed.  I consider myself one of this number …

I have a family to support.  All I have in the world is gone in defense of this country.  I am only 18 months in the South.[ix]

Within a month, Kelly left the Confederate Army, blaming his troubles on “a few petty enemies,” but he wanted another commission.  General Polk observed, “He [Kelly] was in my command, has no special merit as an officer.”

General Leonidas Polk
(National Park Service)

Kelly told a staff officer, “It seems that my services are not needed in this country … Should the Yankees find me here, I will be badly off as I am only 16 months out of their service.”[x]

Surprise, surprise

On July 13, 1862, the New York Times reported that Union authorities were organizing an artillery company in Memphis.  The authorities planned to raise 15,000 troops in Tennessee to suppress “guerrillas and home traitors.”

The Times noted, “Several of the most powerful and experienced men in the state are at the head of this most excellent movement … Capt. P.J. Kelly has also been commissioned to raise an Artillery Company.”

Kelly explained his new job in the Union service:

I accept the above appointment that I may have an opportunity of wiping out the stain that lies on my very soul in taking part in this unholy rebellion … Every one remembers the horrible treatment I received from Jailor JACKSON and his mob on the public streets of Memphis … No man, poor or rich, but will acknowledge that I have been badly treated for no reason whatever.  

I call upon all oppressed to rally to the support of that Government which always protects its subjects alike, let them be poor or rich, of native or foreign birth; let us return to our allegiance with a determination never to wrong, by word or deed, that noble country, which is now like a kind and indulgent parent, with hands stretched forth to receive and forgive his offending children.[xi]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] John E. Briggs, “Enlistment of Iowa Troops During the Civil War,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 15. P. 333; Charles Ray Aurner, “Johnson County in the Civil War,” Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Vol. I (Cedar Rapids:  1912), 507; 1860 U.S. Census, Iowa City, Iowa.

[ii] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 9/6/1861, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[iii] Charles Ray Aurner, “Johnson County in the Civil War,” Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, History, Vol. I (Cedar Rapids:  1912), 507.

[iv] “An Iowa Renegade,” Dubuque Daily Times, 5/7/1861, drawing upon Memphis Daily Argus, 4/22/1861.

[v] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 4/11/1862, Compiled Confederate Service Records, National Archives.

[vi] P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[vii] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 9/6/1861, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[viii] P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[ix] P.J. Kelly to Leonidas Polk, 4/11/1862, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records.

[x] P.J. Kelly to George Williamson, 5/16/1862, P.J. Kelly Compiled Confederate Service Records

[xi] “Recruiting for the National Service,” the New York Times, 7/13/1862.

Critically Thinkin’ Lincoln: Shrewdly seizing power

The presidency is a traditional American square dance, involving a second partner (Congress), sometimes a third partner (the Supreme Court), and occasionally many others (state and federal officials).  They all perform in front of a huge audience (the general public).

Said to be gawky and inept, Lincoln stunned the audience, turning the square dance into a solo interpretive dance.  He glided across the floor, with freewheeling moves, for two-and-a-half months, until Congress joined him on the floor – at his request – on July 4, 1861.

Lincoln (Library of Congress)

A way to think about Lincoln

Historian Phillip Paludan writes:

Lincoln is a giant in almost every respect.  If ever a man deserved admiration, Lincoln does.  But he deserves it as a man.  And that man made mistakes, [and he] was devious and oppressive at times even while he was insightful and honest and struggled to preserve ‘liberty and union, one and inseparable.’ [i]

Early views

Historian David Herbert Donald writes that when Lincoln was a congressman in 1847, “He [Lincoln] claimed that the Constitution gave the war-making power to Congress, not to the Chief Executive.”  Lincoln reportedly said that the Founding Fathers called the war-making power  “the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions,” and they “resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”[ii]

Lincoln completely reversed his position when he became President.

Calling Congress into session

Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher writes:

Coming as it did when Congress was not in session, the Fort Sumter episode gave Lincoln the opportunity to seize the initiative from the legislative branch—an initiative that he never relinquished.[iii]

On April 15, 1861, “the day after Fort Sumter surrendered, Lincoln issued a proclamation,” calling for 75,000 militiamen and summoning Congress into special session on July 4, 1861.

Fehrenbacher continues:

The very confusion of circumstances, the very uniqueness and urgency of the problems confronting him, amounted to a slate wiped clean, offering an extraordinary opportunity for the exercise of leadership. How did Lincoln respond? Decisively, beyond question.[iv]

Historian and Professor Eric Foner said in a lecture:

From Fort Sumter to July 4, 1861, when Lincoln calls Congress to meet in special session, for three months Lincoln runs the government all by himself.  There’s no Congress meeting, he doesn’t have to listen to the Judiciary, he appropriates money by himself, he raises troops by himself, he suspends the writ of habeas corpus by himself.

Key question

Foner asks:  “What authorized him [Lincoln] to do this?  He’s doing things which the Constitution says other branches of the government are supposed to do.”[v]

Envelope (Library of Congress)

Lincoln’s source of power

Legal historian James G. Randall notes:

The President’s sources of power must be found in the Constitution or in some act of Congress.  Yet the President has large discretionary power – a power which assumes great importance in times of emergency … latent powers which in time of war are capable of wide expansion. [vi]

Foner describes Lincoln’s idea of being a war-powers President:

War power justifies almost anything.  Lincoln understands that war power is this tremendous reservoir of presidential power, and he uses it, and he relies on it … If this is necessary for the war, then it’s unassailable.[vii]

A violation?

Foner states:

When Congress meets, he [Lincoln] says, ‘Well, I’ve done all this.  Have I violated the Constitution?’  He says, ‘No, I have not violated the Constitution.  I have gone beyond the Constitution …

With merit he [Lincoln] says the Constitution was not conceived for a situation like we face, and therefore, it [the Constitution] is irrelevant to the situation I faced when war began and Congress was not in session.  Of course, he [Lincoln] could have called Congress immediately, but he waited for it to meet on July 4, which was of course a very symbolic day.[viii]

Definitions of dictator

Foner said Lincoln wasn’t a dictator.  Undoubtedly, if one defines “dictator” by the examples of iron-fisted, murderous, 20th’Century leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, then Abraham Lincoln pales in comparison.  But in the context of the Constitution, jurisprudence, and the traditional balance of powers, surely Lincoln was, in William A. Dunning’s words, a “temporary dictator.” ”[ix]

Lincoln (Library of Congress)

Faustian bargain?

Lincoln later used his self-proclaimed war powers to emancipate millions of slaves behind Confederate lines, paving the way for abolishing slavery.  His action violated the very fabric of the Constitution as it pertains to the states, Congress, and the judiciary.  Nonetheless, emancipation was a noble, even a righteous deed.

Lincoln also used war powers as a basis for suspending habeas corpus.  Foner paraphrases Lincoln as asking, “Is it legitimate to violate habeas corpus in order that the entire edifice of the law survives?”

Foner states:

This is an impeccable argument, but it is also a loaded gun which passes down from generation to generation, which is seized upon by subsequent wartime Presidents, to justify egregious violations of civil liberties in wartime, such as happened in World War I, in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans, [and] has happened during the War on Terror.[x]

Somber warning

Andrew C. McLaughlin states in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Constitutional History of the United States:  “A president armed with the ‘war power’ may some day wreck the whole constitutional system … The dictator, if he ever appears, may discover precedents in the conduct of Lincoln.”[xi]

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Thank you for reading my blog.  Please leave any comments and questions below.

[i] Phillip Paludan, “Toward a Lincoln Conversation,” a review of Lincoln in Text and Context:  Collected Essays by Don E. Fehrenbacher, Reviews in American History, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March 1988), 38.

[ii] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York:  1995), 296.

[iii] Fehrenbacher, “Lincoln’s Wartime Leadership:  The First Hundred Days,” pgs. 2-18.

[iv] Fehrenbacher, pgs. 2-18.

[v] Lecture, “The Civil War and Reconstruction with Eric Foner: The Civil War, 1861-1865, Section 2, The First Year of the War:  Seeking a Union Strategy, CWR 2.2.4 Lincoln and Congress, Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning,

[vi] James G. Randall, Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln (New York:  1926), 35-38.

[vii] Eric Foner interview, CWR 2.2, Lincoln a dictator? , Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning,

[viii] Foner Lecture.

[ix] Foner lecture; Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty:  Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, 226, quoting William A. Dunning, “Disloyalty in Two Wars,” American Historical Review, XXIV (October 1918), 625, 630.

[x] Foner lecture.

[xi] Mark E. Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty, 230, quoting Andrew C. McLaughlin, Constitutional History of the United States (New York:  1936), 623.

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