Annie Wittenmyer helped Iowa soldiers wherever they needed her most during the first half of the Civil War. During the Vicksburg campaign, some of them returned the favor.
In 1850 Sarah Ann ” Annie” Wittenmyer and her husband William, an Ohio merchant, came to Keokuk, Iowa, a community in the midst of a decade of explosive growth spurred by Mississippi River traffic and westward migration. The Wittenmyers built an impressive home and mingled with the community’s elite, but Annie’s compassion for the less fortunate did not permit her to sit idly in her well-appointed parlor. In the spring of 1853, she established a free school for underprivileged children and soon after set up a Sunday school program for them, prevailing upon her affluent friends to help fund the ventures.
Annie Wittenmyer was, therefore, at the nexus of Iowa’s Civil War preparations in April 1861. As William J. Petersen describes in Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi, “Keokuk was a grand rendezvous for the army during the Civil War: scores of steamboats departed from this Iowa town for St. Louis and points below.” (They soon returned, carrying sick and wounded soldiers to the five major hospitals that would be established in the city.)
The women of Keokuk– many of whom had helped support Annie’ s schools– quickly organzied a local Soldiers’ Aid Society to provide basic supplies to volunteers pouring into camps around the city. Annie served as the society’s secretary, becoming so involved in the soldiers’ welfare that she called upon her parents to come from Ohio to care for her five-year-old son and oversee her business interests.
Visiting Iowa troops encamped in Missouri made Annie aware of the overwhelming need for food and supplies and prompted her to set up a statewide system for gathering and distributing supplies. In 1862, the 9th Iowa General Assembly recognized her organizational abilities and named her State Sanitary Agent. In 1863, she became President of the Iowa State Sanitary Commission.
Annie immersed herself in her work, spending time with soldiers in hospitals, writing reports, and taking supplies wherever needed, tasks that frequently placed her in danger. Her presence at Shiloh and other battlesites in the Western theater brought her in contact with General U. S. Grant, who would say of her, “No soldier on the firing line gave more heroic service than she did.”
During the winter of 1862-63, as Grant attempted to gain control of Vicksburg, Annie and her volunteer nurses tended soldiers in makeshift hospitals in Arkansas and Northern Mississippi. Annie knew, however, that other soldiers were enduring even greater suffering. They were troops Grant had sent overland down the west side of the Mississippi to a point below Vicksburg as he prepared for an infantry attack on the city from the south.
Wet weather had hampered the soldiers’ progress through the bayous as roads became quagmires and bridges collapsed. Conditions did not improve once the troops reached their destination, and incoming supplies slowed to a trickle. Grant knew he must send more troops and most of the military goods necessary for an overland campaign downriver, past the formidable guns mounted atop Vicksburg’s high cliffs.
On the night of April 6, Annie Wittenmyer was with Grant aboard his headquarters steamer watching as Admiral David Porter’s seven ironclads began escorting three transports towing barges past the Vicksburg batteries. She and the General heard the roar of the Vickburg batteries firing at the small fleet for two and one-half hours. They eventually learned that, in spite of the heavy fire, only one transport had been lost.
Grant immediately made plans for a second group of boats to carry supplies downriver. Annie also sprang into action, as she describes in her 1895 wartime memoir, Under the Guns:
I sent a note to the medical director, offering to ship a lot of hospital supplies, asking him to designate the boat on which I should ship them. My note came back indorsed– “Send supplies down on the Tigress.”
The Tigress was one of the many civilian packet ships hired by the government to transport supplies on numerous rivers. Built in 1858, she came into government service in 1861 and carried Grant between his headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee and Pittsburg Landing during the Battle of Shiloh.
Annie Wittenmyer was true to her word. At 11 p.m. on April 22, the Tigress, loaded with hospital supplies, led five other steamers and 12 barges toward Vicksburg. No ironclad gunboats escorted the small flotilla. The steamboats’ protection against gunfire consisted of bales of cotton and hay tied around their boilers and decks, and coal barges lashed to their port sides. As many of the steamers’ civilian crews declined this dangerous mission, the boats were manned largely by volunteers from the infantry. An experienced civilian pilot was at the helm of the Tigress, but men of the 7th Missouri Infantry comprised her crew.
The barge tied to the Tigress pulled her dangerously close to the Vicksburg shore and was cut away, making her more maneuverable– and more vulnerable to fire from the batteries that mercilessly shelled the steamers. All of the boats took many hits, but only one failed to reach its destination. A shell tore a four-foot hole through the Tigress‘s unprotected port side as she passed one of the lower (southernmost) batteries, forcing her to run aground on the Louisiana bank. Water filled her hull, but her hurricane deck remained above water, and her crew gathered there until rescused by another boat.
“Two days afterwards I received a letter from an Iowa colonel,” wrote Wittenmyer in Under the Guns. The officer, whose name she could not recall, was with a regiment encamped near the point where the Tigress had landed after drifting beyond range of the Vicksburg guns. The colonel told Annie “men of his command were willing to wade out neck-deep and secure the cotton about the engine of the Tigress . . . and that as he was coming up to Young’s Point with empty wagons for supplies, he would gladly deliver it there” so that she could use it for “sanitary purposes.” The colonel said he would, however, need permission from the commanding general.
Annie forwarded the letter to General Grant, who issued the appropriate order and sent it to her by a “special messenger.” She” immediately” sent it to the colonel who, delivered “a heavy lot [of cotton] in good condition verypromptly.” Annie shipped the cotton, a commodity in short supply in the wartime North, to St. Louis, where it sold for $1,950, enabling her “to more than double the amout of supplies” lost on the Tigress.
In 1895, when she wrote her memoir, Annie Wittenmyer regretted having forgotten the name of the Iowa colonel and the number of the Iowa regiment whose men took the initiative to help her in her efforts provide for their sick and wounded comrades. She hoped some of the men would read her book and make themselves known to her.
Did the soldiers respond to Annie’s plea? Perhaps, but I was unable to find that she made any other reference to the event in her writings. The Iowa soldiers who helped save the cotton would have been swept up in Grant’s 17-day overland march marked by battles at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and the Big Black River before reaching Vicksburg from the east on May 17. This activity superseded the retrieving of cotton bales from the Tigress in terms of drama and danger, but surely some accounts of helping Annie Wittenmyer must have been sent to Iowa in letters, been penciled into diaries during the seige, or been told to family members after the war.
Please post a message if you know who helped Annie at Vicksburg.