1864-65: Wesley Fletcher Cowles to Elizabeth (McCowan) Cowles

These three letters were written by Wesley Fletcher Cowles (1829-1903), the son of Austin Cowles (1792-1872) and his second wife, Irena Hix Elliott (1807-1876). Wesley was born in New York State but moved with his parents to Navoo, Illinois, in 1839 where his father was a leader in the Mormon church. They remained there only a few years, however, as Wesley’s father could not support Joseph Smith’s doctrine of polygamy. Leaving Navoo, the nomadic family moved around in Illinois and Iowa until finally settling in Pleasant, Decatur county, Iowa, where he operated a grist and sawmill.

When Wesley was 21 years old, he married Elizabeth McCowan (1833-1902) in Iowa City, Iowa. At the time of the 1860 US Census, Wesley, his wife, and three children were enumerated in Greenbush, Warren county, Iowa, where Wesley made a living as a blacksmith. A year later, when Wesley enlisted in Co. M, 3rd Iowa Cavalry, he gave his residence as Leon. Putting his blacksmith skills to work, Wesley offered his service as the farrier of his company. His younger brother, Henry Austin Cowles (1841-1913), enlisted with him in the same company.

There are three letters in this collection. The first letter was written from Memphis where we learn that Wesley was attached to the Quartermaster’s department at the time of Lt. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest’s daring raid on the unsuspecting Union garrison at Memphis in which he attempted to capture General Cadwallader C. Washburn, commander of the District of West Tennessee. The letter is not fully dated, but the raid took place on 21 August 1864. Readers are referred to the following article for a description of Forrest’s raid on Memphis: Holmes, Jack D. L. “Forrest’s 1864 Raid on Memphis.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 4, 1959, pp. 295–321. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42621448.

The second letter was written from Paducah, Kentucky, just as the 3rd Iowa was preparing to board transports to go up the Tennessee River to Eastport, Mississippi, where they would join other cavalry regiments and participate on “Wilson’s Raid.” This raid left Gravelly Springs on 22 March 1865.

The third letter was written from Atlanta at the end of Wilson’s Raid while Wesley was awaiting orders to be mustered out of the service. He and his brother Henry were both mustered out on 9 August 1865.

Wesley’s Letter with Image of Sgt. John C. Gammill who served with Wesley in Co. M, 3rd Iowa Cavalry. Both troopers were from Leon, Iowa.


Memphis [Tennessee]
Monday, [August] 23 [1864]

Dear Wife,

I seat myself to write you a few lines. I received a letter from you last Saturday. I was glad to hear that you was getting better. You must try and not get down sick again.

I should have written yesterday but we had quite an exciting day of it and I thought I would wait until I got more news. Old Forrest made a raid with about 6 or 8 hundred men right into the city of Memphis. He came in Sunday morning [21st] about 4 o’clock. He charged into the center of the place and tried to take General [Cadwallader C.] Washburn prisoner but he could not get him but they got into his office and robbed it. They took about two hundred and fifty of our soldiers—mostly hundred day men—and about one hundred horses. They killed a number of our men but they had a good many killed before they got out of the city. One of our men counted 30 dead rebs. Our men are after them yet. We hear that they were about 20 miles from here at 7 o’clock this morning and our men was fighting and pursuing them.

I will send you a Memphis paper that has the whole account when it is published. It was a bold move in Forrest. A prisoner says he had 25 hundred men with him and left part of them near town. His object was to capture General Washburn and to release rebel prisoners that we have but they did neither. We have but a small force here now. General Smith is away with the most of the men but it would take a large force to take this place. We have forts and gunboats that they cannot take.

We no not get much news from Grant and Sherman but we look for news shortly. I think we will stay here some time. The cavalry is all gone but our brigade and we are digging wells and building bakeries. Some of the soldiers have sent for their wives, I wish you was here but I am afraid you could not stand the trip. If you was here, you might have better health but I don’t know what would be for the best. If you was healthy, I would want you to come by all means. I think we could live here as cheap as there but I would hate to leave here and leave you among strangers.

The quartermaster said he thought I could get a furlough if you did not get better. I had made up my mind to come home on a furlough if I did not hear that you was better soon. I heard by Henry’s letter that you was better. I lost so much sleep that the quartermaster thought I was sick and told me to stop work. I told him that my wife was sick and I had the blues. I shall have to close. It is getting dar and the mosquitoes are very bad. I shall have to build a smoke in the tent.

I hope to hear that you are still better in your next. Goodbye. — W. F. C.


Paducah [Kentucky]
January 10, 1865

Dear wife,

I take my pen to let you know where we are. We are at the mouth of the Tennessee river and expect to start up it soon for Eastport. I can only write a few lines for fear the boats will start and I cannot get it in the office. We will have a considerable fleet of 15 or 20 boats and two or three gunboats. I am well. It will take us a week to get to Eastport. With good luck, I will write as soon as I get there. I have not much news to write [even] if I had the time. Grant has attacked Richmond again and taking the rebel works according to yesterday’s paper.

I think we will be paid soon. If not, get what you want at Leon and pay when you get the money. I do not think we will stay at Eastport long. I think we will go to Sherman. I hope we will get our pay first and then I want to go while I am obliged to be in the service. I want to see all of the world that I can. I do not expect to be in the service much longer. This war will soon be at an end. Give my love to all. Keep good courage.

Yours truly, — W. F. C.

Arrived at Paducah about 10 o’clock a. m. & crowded in among the throng of puffing & screaming steamers. All A. J. Smith’s Infantry here from Eastport going down & our command going up the Tennessee [River]. I find river full as far as eye can see. Moved off [with] boats lashed together [  ] at 3 o’clock p.m. & enjoyed the ride fine. Playing games & watching the wild scenery on the shores.


Atlanta [Georgia]
July 16, 1865

Dear wife,

I take my pen to write you a few lines. I am well. I received two letters from you last Thursday dated 25th and 30th. I am glad to hear that you are all as well as common. We are at Atlanta yet but I do not think we will be long. Our pay rolls are made out and sent to Nashville. I do not know whether we will go there or the pay master will come here. There is all kinds of reports in circulation about the time of our being mustered out, Some say that we are going south about 2 hundred miles to stay awhile. Some think that when we leave here it will be for home. I am inclined to believe the latter. The First and 7th Ohio are on their way home and they belonged to our army.

It is reported that General Wilson has orders to have all of his volunteers mustered out immediately. I think that we will be at home before long. I think that we have cause to be thankful as it is Henry and myself come in the army 4 years ago and we have seen some hard times and have had some narrow escapes from death. ¹ But we are both alive and well and in a fair way to get home. But out of one hundred and twelve men that first joined Co. M at Keokuk, only twenty-three are left.

I have no news to write. Times here are very hard. Provisions and money very scarce. Citizens of Georgia are having a hard time now. The Colonel gave me three stamps so you are good for three more letters. I hope that I will not have to write many more. Excuse this short letter. Give my love to all. I remain yours, — W. F. C.

¹ I can’t find evidence that either brother was wounded during the four years they served in the 3rd Iowa Cavalry but Henry was taken prisoner at the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862 and held for a time before he was paroled.

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