This letter was written by 31 year-old John C. Hicks — a carpenter from Mechanicsville, Cedar County, Iowa. John was born in New York State in 1832. He addressed the first part of his letter to his sister younger Eugenia (“Genie”) Hicks whom I believe was residing with his cousin, Ellen Sherman, at the time.
John enlisted as a private in Co H, 35th Iowa Infantry and served with that unit until his death from disease on 20 September 1863 at Camp Wood, Mississippi. He is buried in the National Cemetery at Vicksburg in Section F, grave 654.
The 35th Iowa was mustered into service in September 1862 and left Muscatine, Iowa, for Cairo, Illinois in late November. By January, 1863, most of the regiment was in Columbus, Kentucky. In the first week of February, a portion of the regiment was sent to Island Number Ten where this letter was written.
The envelope is addressed to Ellen Sherman, Hick’s cousin.
[Island No. Ten, Mississippi River]
[February 15, 1863] ¹
How do you do this fine Sunday afternoon? Well, I hope. I am feeling fine since I took my dinner. I had something new for my dinner — some raw onions. I wouldn’t wonder if you and Ellen would get the scent of them for I eat them off this board I am writing on. I can smell them very distinctly & taste them & will for a week.
Genie, I don’t want you to dream any bad dreams about me for that will never do. You needn’t think you can get me shot by dreaming I was for I am coming home alright some day when you least expect me. Then I will thrash you for dreaming bad on me. Call tells me she has had bad dreams about me [too]. Some of you must try and dream something good in order to have the good equal the bad.
I got a letter from Cal since I came down here. She was well & all the rest are getting better. Mrs. Ramsey is dead. She died last week, I don’t know whether you knew them or not. He was the harness maker that had his shop in McClelland building where Lane Hart had his shop. John Onstott ² lost three out of his family — Willy, Sam, and the baby. The whole family were sick but the rest are getting better.
Bill Chapman’s wife had two children — a boy and a girl. I say hurrah for Bill if he don’t go to war. He is doing well for his country. Little Jake Onstott has got to die, the doctor’s say. He has the dropsy. He was just alive when Cal wrote. You know who I mean — Garret’s Jake.
I haven’t heard from Mose or father is some time. I wrote to father the next day after I came on the Island but I haven’t received an answer from him yet. I am looking everyday for a letter from him. You must write often and I will whenever I have time. You must give Ollie my love when you write to him. I don’t hear from him lately. So goodbye.
We perhaps will leave this Island soon — either for Cairo or Memphis. If we go to either, I think we will get our pay. Then I will send you my pretty and you will think so when you see it. Adieu.
From your brother, — J. C. Hicks
To James & Mary,
Well Jim, if you & Mary don’t want me to get after you with a cane & a brad in the end of it, you had better write me a few words. You must say something for there is nothing else you can say. Ginie says Mary & Ellen has written all the news but I didn’t see anything of Mary’s writing.
Well Jim, we have a great old time down on Island Ten. I wish you could take a peek onto the Island & see what the ten-inch shells done that were thrown out of our ten-inch mortars from the Missouri shore. Wherever one of them shells would strike the ground, it would tear the ground for ten feet around where it struck & from four to five foot deep. Pieces of shell & chunks of old iron that the shell was filled with lays pretty thick all over the Island. The timber lays every which way that the shell & shot cut down. They say there was some eight or ten thousand rebels on the Island at the time it was shelled. If so, they must have suffered bad for there isn’t half an acre of ground on the Island that one of hem shells didn’t strike on it. The Island has the appearance of being well fortified before the shelling began. I don’t see how any of them escaped death from all appearance.
The 15th Wisconsin Regiment has been her ever since — or rather, a part of the regiment — trying to get things in shape, but [Gen. Thomas A.] Davies sent a Major down here and raised hell with what they have done. Damn him. I would like practice on him for a target with my rifle a few shots until I him him a plum center ___ just to let him know how to take a joke.
Ellen tells me Uncle Orten is at Memphis. I wish I had of known that a few days ago. I had a chance to go to Memphis with a contraband boat [CSS Rowena] we took here the other day. She was a small boat but she was a big prize. She was loaded with quinine and other medicine. ³ She was prized at 48 thousand dollars at Memphis. The gunboat boys gets two-thirds of what she was prized at. She was agoing to the rebel army. She had run the blockade all the way down the river until she came here. She undertook to run here but one shot across her bow brought her to for the next shot would of been aimed at her boilers. She would have went up for ninety days and damn well she knew it. So she turned and came alongside the gunboat. They took them all prisoners and sent the boat down to Memphis.
Please give me Uncle Orten’s address & I will write to him.
¹ This letter is not dated but Pvt. Hicks mentions the capture of the Confederate Steamer CSS Rowena by the New Era near Island No. 10 on Friday, 13 February 1863, and he also mentions that he wrote the letter on Sunday, so it had to be written on 15 February if the envelope accompanying the letter, dated 19 February at Cairo, is the same envelope in which it was conveyed.
Another letter written by Pvt. Hicks dated [Sunday,] 15 February 1863 from Island No. Ten informs us that “we left Columbus [Kentucky] on Tuesday [February 3rd]…we expected to have a brush with the Southern gents when we left…but they got wind of our coming &…left for parts unknown…we found the Island in bad shape for defense. Our damn cowardly Gen. [Thomas A.] Davies had all the guns on the island spiked & dismounted…you saw by the papers the amount of property he had destroyed here & at New Madrid which lays…about six miles from here on the Missouri…he spiked some…one hundred of siege cannon…32 & 64 pounders…the last one…weigh 15 thousand pounds…they are pretty ugly fellows to handle. I have been helping to get them in shape once more so we can defend ourselves from our Southern friends that are on either side of the river…if it wasn’t for the gunboat New Era we would be at the mercy of the rebels …day after we came here [February 4th] Gen. Asboth…sent for five of our companies to come to Cairo…they packed up…leaving Companys C & H on the Island …there was two companies…here belonging to the Wisconsin 15th regiment — all of them are Dutch…but I guess them are all good fellows but we can’t understand them…there is very few of them that can talk English…when we are divided up and sent out in squads in the rebel’s country we are subject to be taken prisoners. Here we are without over three hundred effectual men…we haven’t but one cannon mounted…about twelve miles from here on the Missouri side…there is 5000 rebels & they intend to take the Island…on the Tennessee side about 15 miles from here is a town called Tiptonville [where there] is camped a lot of the cusses…the gun boat shells the woods every day or two to keep them from planting their heavy guns near…we keep close watch that they don’t ship men across to…the island…the gun boat would sink them before they could get across…we have had very good success in blowing the spikes out of some of the cannon. When we get ten or a dozen cannon in shooting shape we will mount them on different points…the island is about two miles long by one wide, partly covered with timber. The Island was well timbered before our army shelled the rebels off of it. The shells cut down the timber…you wanted to know what it would cost…to get my minature taken. I do not know…for there is nothing of that kind going on here…write soon. From Cousin J. C. H…”
² John H. Onstott (1844-1930) served as a sergeant in Co. H. 35th Iowa Infantry. He was also from Mechanicsville, Iowa. A grave marker in Rose Hill Cemetery contains the names of four Onstott children who died in 1863: Samuel N (1849-1863), William F. (1857-1863), Martha L. (1859-1863), and Andrew J. (1862-1863).
³ “Steamboat Captain Cass Mason, master of the steamer Rowena, on February 13, 1863, near Island Number 10, heading towards the Confederate controlled Tiptonville, Tennessee. Ensign William C. Hanford, acting commander of the U. S. gunboat New Era fulfilled his worst nightmare. The stop was routine. It was to check her papers and cargo.
Searching the Rowena, Union sailors found two ounces of quinine and nearly three thousand pairs of Confederate uniform pants. Ensign Hanford seized the packet and cargo. The Rowena became part of the U. S. Navy’s river fleet.” [Source: Southeast Missouri in the Civil War]