An Iowa lieutenant’s love interest… in Union blue

Posted on August 20, 2011 by


Always interested in expanding my knowledge of the world around my Washington County, Maryland ancestors, (as many regular blog readers here know) whenever possible, I spend a fair amount of time perusing the Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torch Light. While I have no knowledge of my ancestor’s opinions on these stories, I still find it fascinating to read through the same lines that they very likely read over… albeit my reading being backlit, via a microfilm reader, and from a very different perspective, some 150 years (give or take a few years, depending on when the article appeared) after the fact.

I wonder, for example, what they may have thought regarding the story that appeared on the front page of the paper, on September 4, 1861 (and yes, I know, this isn’t normally on one of the paths down which I travel in posts here, but…).

An Iowa Girl Discovered in Soldiers’ Costume – Romantic Story, Very.

The war now prevailing in this once great and glorious country has already given rise to many strange and romantic adventures, but nothing more interesting than the following has as yet been made known to us. The facts are these: Early Wednesday morning some of the police officers at the Central Station discovered a young soldier passing on the opposite side of the street. The young soldier’s step was very elastic, complexion fair, and hands small and rather delicate. These little circumstances excited the suspicion of the policemen; and following the young soldier a square or two, they deemed it proper to take him into custody. – He gave his name as Charles H. Williams, and seemed somewhat surprised, and not a little indignant at being thus interfered with. He explained that he was merely on his way to the Republican office to obtain a copy of that highly interesting newspaper. This fact the policemen were ready to admit was well calculated t show that the young soldier had excellent judgement and discretion, but nevertheless, they were of the firm conviction that the fair complexion, the delicate hands and various other interesting et ceteras which they had observed about the young soldier, where [were] not wholly of the masculine order.

I have to pause here, just a bit, because I felt the urge to grin, if not let loose a small laugh, when reading how the St. Louis Republican touted their fine newspaper. O.K., back to the story…

So they took the young solider to the police station, and there, blushingly and confusedly, he, she or it, admitted that the suspicions of the policemen were well founded – in short order, the young solider was a young lady. In company with Captain Turner, we visited the romantic young creature during the forenoon. On entering the room where she was temporarily placed after her arrest, we found her intently perusing the Republican, a policeman having been kind enough to purchase a copy for her. A finer looking soldier we have never seen. Her eyes were large and lustrous, her features regular, hair jet black and cut in the most approved masculine style, nose aquiline and mouth perfectly delicious, so to speak. In addition to these interesting particulars, her demeanor was modest and graceful, and extremely pleasing. She seemed to be in the enjoyment of excellent health, and on the while looked as though fat pork and solider life had been rather beneficial to her constitution.

She related the story of her adventures frankly and modestly. She was born in the town of Davenport, Iowa., where her mother at present resides. For several years she has resided in Lyons, Clinton county, Iowa, and it was from there she enlisted, not quite three months ago, in the Second Iowa Regiment, Col. Curtis. Her company was Company I, Capt. Cox. It was in this company she had a friend, who was a Lieutenant. She loved the Lieutenant, and so she clipped her raven locks short off, obtained a suit of boy’s clothing, packed her crinoline, &c., in a trunk, and presented herself in male attire to Capt. Cox, stating her desire to “go for a soger.” The Captain eyed her sharply and said, “You’re rather young, ain’t you?” “I’m twenty,” she replied, “and am anxious to serve my country.” So the Captain accepted the young volunteer, and she at once shouldered arms. She states, however, that Capt. Cox subsequently discovered her sex, but at her urgent solicitations permitted her to remain with her company, and particularly advised her not to go about the streets of St. Louis alone.

She followed the fortunes of her regiment from Iowa to this city, and from thence to Bird’s Point, and became exceedingly proficient in the use of Hardee’s tactics. A few days ago, the regiment returned to this city, but the young volunteer was unable to come along with it, having been detailed to attend to the sick in the hospital on the steamboat City of Warsaw. Yesterday evening (Tuesday) the Warsaw came up to this city, and brought along the young volunteer. She at once made inquiries concerning her regiment, but ascertaining that it was stationed at the barracks, she concluded to remain for the night in the city. She proceeded to the residence of a family on Seventh street, with whom she was formerly acquainted in Davenport, made herself known and was kindly cared for. She rose early, to obtain the latest and most reliable news, as already stated, and thus fell into the hands of the police.

Capt. Turner asked her if she would resume her proper dress if he would release her, and she faithfully promised she would do so, and she was thereupon  set at liberty, and conducted to the residence of her friends, on Seventh street. She regretted that she would be unable to draw her three month’s pay (the term of her enlistment having nearly expired), affirming it as her belief that she had earned $10 per month, and was as much entitled to it as any masculine soldier.

Having read through the story, my curiosity with my ancestors’ opinions no longer became my focus. Rather, my interest was now focused on the validity of the story. And so… I went looking for one Pvt. Charles H. Williams, of Co. I, 2nd Iowa Infantry, as well as her love interest.

I began first with the Web. Before I began trying to solve this mystery, I wanted to make sure somebody hadn’t already made the effort, and answered the questions. I found Larry G. Eggleston’s book, Women in the Civil War, and the story of Pvt. Charles H. Williams, therein, but… Eggleston shows the young lady in love with Col. Samuel R. Curtis (as shown in the article… the first commanding officer of the 2nd Iowa)! Hmmm… that’s not the way I’m reading this. Perhaps Eggleston saw a different version of the story. Yet, the connection between Curtis and the young lady seems quite unlikely, for quite a number of reasons. So, I’m sticking with her love interests being in a much younger lieutenant. In fact, in their book, They fought like Demons, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook appear to think the same way.

I next turned to the roster of the 2nd Iowa, via the Soldiers and Sailors program, online. Sorry to say, there is/was no such person listed in the ranks of the 2nd Iowa Infantry. Did the newspaper document the wrong unit? Nah… Co. I of the 2nd Iowa Infantry really did have a Capt. Cox (Hugh P. Cox), and, as we’ve already seen, the 2nd Iowa was commanded by a Col. Curtis (the same Samuel R. Curtis mentioned above); so that seems to shake out alright.

Perhaps the newspaper got the last name of Pvt. Williams correct, but not the first name and middle initial. As a matter of fact, there were  two persons by the name Williams in the 2nd Iowa… Francis W. Williams, and George M. Williams. Francis became a corporal, but George… he (she?) remained a private. Additionally, Francis received a pension, having applied in 1873 (and also having served in Co. H, 3rd Iowa Infantry), and died in Tacoma, Washington, on November 28, 1920. Yet… no such info for George. Was George actually our Charles H. Williams, and did the St. Louis Republican, being the excellent newspaper that it was < grin >, get the young lady’s alias wrong? At this point, I’m saying… “oh how I wish Fold3 (formerly had Iowa service records available, but… not yet. < sigh >

So, finding no joy in this pursuit, I turned next to those men in Co. I who happened to be (as of 1861) lieutenants. Who was this young lady’s love interest? Early lieutenants for the regiment included Thomas B. Snowden and William F. Hooper (2nd lieutenants); Clinton Dewitt and Noel B. Howard (1st lieutenants).

With a little work, I was able to figure out that Clinton Dewitt was married before the war (Maria). So, we’re down to three possibles. But wait, did others hold the rank of lieutenant in the first three months of the 2nd Iowa’s history? I don’t know when they were promoted, but I’ve also seen Henry P. Decow, William W. Stevens, Orange Langford, and William H. Lorimer listed as lieutenants, after initially holding enlisted ranks. Perhaps our mystery lieutenant was one of eight (seven) vs. one of the three to which I narrowed down.

But why stop there with the complications? To be quite honest, there are even more monkey wrenches that might make it impossible to figure out the two main characters in the story.

For one… not all of these lieutenants survived the war. Thomas B. Snowden, for example, was killed in battle at Corinth, Mississippi, on October 3, 1862. Perhaps the young lady mourned the loss of her lieutenant, inevitably creating more problems in unraveling the mystery.

Then again, what if both survived and married after the war? Take for example, the marriage of Lt. Noel B. Howard (who became colonel of the 2nd Iowa) to Elizabeth M. Howard. Was Elizabeth our Pvt. Williams? Perhaps there’s an obituary out there that might clear things up, one way or the other, regarding Noel Howard, and if he had any connections with Pvt. Williams. [Update… According to the 1870 census, Noel B. Howard’s wife, Elizabeth was born in Pennsylvania, yet “Pvt. Williams” told the reporter that she was born in Davenport, Iowa. So, it appears we can two lieutenant so far. Of course, who’s to say for sure!].

On the other hand, what if the mystery couple parted ways and left no paper trail.

In the end, I suspect I’ll just have to remain satisfied in knowing the story appears to be true, but that the names of the young lady and her lieutenant will remain a mystery… for at least a little longer.

Welcome to yet another historian’s puzzle…