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The Waukon Standard
October 13, 2004
Ronald G. Harris

Lost & Found: Rediscovering the Civil War legacy of Waukon's John J. Stillman

On a warm spring day a few years ago, a turkey hunter came across a tombstone in a remote, wooded area near McGregor. It was an unusual place for a gravestone, some distance from any known cemetery. The engraving on the stone read "John J. son of John & Mary Stillman: Fell at Fort Donaldson while nobly defending his Country's Flag. Feb. 15, 1862. Age 22 Years. A Member of Co. B. 12 Reg. Iowa Volunteers." The hunter snapped a photo of the stone, and sometime later sent a request to the National Archives in Washington for the service records of John Stillman.

The file for Stillman showed that he had enlisted in Waukon October 4, 1861. He was born in New York and was 21 years old. His height was five feet six and three-quarter inches, complexion fair, with light hair and blue eyes. His occupation is listed as "Tinner." The Archive records include a "Casualty Sheet" that states John was killed in action during the siege of Fort Donelson in Tennessee. His personal effects turned over to his "heirs" included "1 Forage Coat, 1 Great Coat, 1 Flannel Sack Coat, 1 pr. Trowsers, 1 pr. Flannel Drawers, 2 Flannel Shirts, 1 pr. Shoes, 2 pr. Socks, 1 Blanket" at Benton Barracks, St. Louis, April 6, 1862. Captain Earle signed the report. The 12th Iowa Volunteers, made up of 926 men, mostly from eight northeast Iowa counties, were mustered in at Dubuque in November of 1861 and moved to St. Louis a few days later. The Iowa 12th was part of Colonel Cook's Brigade which was part of General Charles F. Smith's Division. John Stillman's Company B was made up of 68 men from Allamakee County - later in the War 78 more from the county would join them.

Erastus Soper of Company D, who survived The War and became a lawyer and banker in Emmetsburg, in his personal account of life in the 12th Regiment describes their St. Louis quarters as part of a 1200 acre area that was a part of the fair grounds, including barracks, parade grounds, and stables. He says that when the Iowa 12th arrived there was no room for them since 25-30 other regiments were already there, and so the Iowans stayed in the vacant cavalry stables for a week until quarters were available. Soper says that the camp was commanded by Brigadier General W. T. Sherman or "Crazy Sherman," as the soldiers referred to him, because of his frightful tales of the massive strength of the Southern forces. Half of the men would be sick with small pox, mumps, measles, or pneumonia during their stay at Benton Barracks, and 75 would die there. When the Regiment was given rifles from the St. Louis Arsenal, they refused to take them because they were so old and out of repair they feared they would not fire. They finally received somewhat better weapons, but still prompted this note from Captain Stibbs to Colonel Woods: "Received yesterday at St. Louis Arsenal, fifty-one (51) improved rifle muskets made by Adam in the year one, and changed by Noah a few days after the flood from flint locks to percussion. Cleaned and rifled at St. Louis Arsenal, Anno Domini 1861. J. H. Stibbs, Co. D."

Soper says that the holidays came and went that December and January of 1861-62 with no presents, no special meals, and a lot of homesickness. Their daily ration was salt pork, bread, and coffee with some occasional rice, beans, and potatoes. He says there were restaurants in camp where men could buy meals when they got some money sent from home or on payday.

In late January, along with other regiments, they moved to Cairo, and then Smithers, Kentucky.

In cold, snowy, February weather they moved up the Tennessee River where they helped capture Fort Henry, and then on to Fort Donelson, where the battle started on February 12. By the evening of the 14th the weather had gotten much worse. General Wallace said, "All night the tempest blew mercilessly upon the unsheltered, fireless soldiers, making sleep impossible. Inside the works, nobody had overcoats; while thousands of those outside had marched from Fort Henry as to a summer fete, leaving coats, blankets, and knapsacks behind them in camp. More than one stout fellow has since admitted, with a laugh, that nothing was so helpful to him that horrible night as the thought that the wind, which seemed about to turn this blood into icicles, was serving the enemy the same way; they too, had to stand out and take the blast."

John Stillman was killed the next day. Major David Reed, in his Campaigns and battles of the Twelfth Regiment recorded the events of the day: "At about 2 o'clock P.M. Saturday, 15th, the 12th Iowa, 50th Illinois and Sharpshooters were ordered to make a feint attack to draw the enemy's fire. The men went cheerfully to the work assigned them, and kept up a warm fire on the enemy, while Colonel Lauman's brigade on our left advanced on the enemy and got possession of a part of the enemy's out works and hoisted the American flag thereon. We were then ordered to their support. We moved rapidly by the left flank, and charged over the down timber which the enemy had cut for its protection. At this time a galling fire of grape from the enemy poured in among us, wounding eight or ten men. "On reaching the breastworks, some confusion was caused by the retreat of a portion of Colonel Lauman's brigade, who, having expended all their ammunition, were compelled to fall back. By some exertion our men were rallied, and we opened a warm fire on the enemy, who also poured a warm fire of grape upon us from their battery on the right, and of musketry on our front. In this cross-fire we fought the enemy two hours, advancing on them into a ravine inside their breastworks. At length we were withdrawn outside of the works. During this time we lost one man killed and twenty-seven wounded. "Co. B, Killed - J.J. Stillman, shot in right temple. "The loss of the regiment was light, when we consider the difficult grounds over which the attack was made and the severe fire to which it was subjected. This small loss is accounted for by the fact that the fire of the enemy was too high to be effective. . ." Fort Donelson was defended by a large number of Southern soldiers, but were overwhelmed by Union forces that attacked both by land and by ironclad boats from the Cumberland River. February 16, Confederate General Buckner responded to General Grant's demand of "No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender. . ." with this terse note: "SIR: The distribution of the forces under my command incident to an unexpected change of commanders and the overwhelming force under your command compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose." In all, 17,398 men were killed - 2,331 Union, and 15,067 Confederate. It was this victory that caused Grant to be promoted to Major General and to receive the name "Unconditional Surrender."

John Stillman's burial is recorded in the Iowa Burial records - lot 84 in Oakland Cemetery in Waukon. The family lot in Oakland has a military style marker for him as well as numerous headstones for other family members. There is a small broken base of a stone on the lot, but it is too small to be from the stone found near McGregor, so it is not known exactly where the stone was originally placed.

The Allamakee County Museum staff located a photograph of the funeral of John J. Stillman held in Waukon in February of 1862 (accompanying). The Waukon Standard of June 21, 1883 reported that G.A.R (Grand Army of the Republic) post #194, with 107 charter members, would be established with Major David Reed as Post Commander. It was Major Reed who would write a note correcting General Lew Wallace's account of the valor of the Iowa 12th Infantry. Wallace mistakenly gave credit to the Iowa 14th. Reed said the error was made in the official government records and was not the fault of Wallace. The Post was named after John Stillman since he was the first casualty from Allamakee County in the Civil War.

The Stillmans were a prominent family in Waukon. John's father, also John, and his mother, Mary, were farmers and strong supporters of the community, particularly the Methodist Episcopal Church (Now St. Paul's United Methodist Church). John's brother Linus served throughout the War in Company F of Iowa's 6th Cavalry and his brother Arthur was a dentist in Waukon. John also had three sisters.

The Fort Donelson National Cemetery was established in 1867 to reinter the Union soldiers and sailors who were buried on the battlefield and nearby cemeteries while The War was still in progress. A total of 670 Union soldiers were reinterred in the Cemetery - 512 are listed as "unknown," since most soldiers did not carry identification. There are now both Confederate and Union Soldiers buried in the cemetery as well as soldiers of later wars, their spouses and children. The only identified burial from Iowa's 12th is that of Charles W. Lyons. There is no record of when and how John Stillman's body was transported to Waukon from Tennessee. October 24, 2004, as part of the 150th anniversary celebration of St. Paul's United Methodist Church, a special dedication is planned at which John Stillman's rediscovered tombstone will be placed on the family lot.

It is not known why the tombstone was found so far from Waukon. It does appear that a design at the top of the stone was crudely sawed off, and it is surmised that someone who wanted the carved top part of the stone - perhaps a soldier or battle scene - took it from Oakland, sawed the top off and dropped the bottom section in the woods where it was found near McGregor. Iowa law has been strengthened over the years to better protect old burial sites and markers. Many Iowa counties now have Pioneer Cemetery Commissions that are hurrying to catalog abandoned or near-abandoned cemeteries and to restore them and the history and memories that go with them.

Author's note: Special thanks to Ada Marie Kerndt and Emily Bradbury of the Allamakee County Museum, Steve Story, Robert L. Harris, Judge John Bauercamper, the Veterans Affairs office in Waukon, John Kerndt of Kerndt Monument, Kevin Knoot and Kevin Burford of the Iowa Historical Society, and the turkey hunter who discovered the tombstone, for assisting with this story and the restitution of the John J. Stillman Memorial Stone.

Ronald G. Harris is a retired English teacher with degrees from Morningside College (Bachelors) and The University of Wisconsin (Masters). He grew up in the village of Giard, a few miles west of McGregor, and graduated from high school in McGregor. He has published a number of articles in regional papers on local history, and is currently working on the biography of Emma Eastman (1823-1905) of McGregor, who was called "Virgin Em" because of her nine marriages and scandals that were part of her life.

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