FIRST COLONEL, SEVENTEENTH INFANTRY.
John W. Rankin was born on the 11th day of June, 1823. He is of Scotch Irish descent, his mother being a relation of Burns, the poet. He was educated at Washington College, Pennsylvania, where, graduating at the age of sixteen, he was complimented with the Latin Oration. After leaving college, he taught school for a few years, and then studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1844. Before coming West, he practiced his profession in Wooster, and in Ashland county, being, at the latter place, a partner of Judge Sloan. He settled in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1848. Since living in Iowa, he has been district judge, State senator, United States assistant quartermaster, and colonel. He was appointed Assistant Quarter-Master of United States Volunteers in the summer of 1861, and discharged the duties of the office with credit. In the winter of 1861-2, he was granted authority by the Secretary of War to raise a regiment of volunteers. He entered with energy upon the business of recruiting, and, in a little more than thirty days from the time he began active operations, the 17th Iowa Infantry was mustered into the United States service. Colonel Rankin received his commission on the 17th of April, 1862, and two days later, under orders from Halleck, left Keokuk with his regiment for St. Louis.
In what I have to say of the 17th Iowa, I desire to be impartial. That it was composed of as fine a body of men as ever went out from the State, is true, in proof of which I may state that, at the time it was enlisted, it was supposed, by both the State Executive and the Secretary of War, that it would be the last regiment furnished by the State for the war. Lieutenant C. J. Ball, mustering officer, and Surgeon S. B. Thrall, examining officer, both able and efficient in their respective departments, will bear me witness that no man was passed if he had the slightest physical blemish, and no man mustered unless, in size, he more than filled the letter of the regulations.
It was supposed at the time the 17th Iowa entered the service that the war was near its close. This was the opinion of the chief military men of the day; though nearly all of these men are fossils now. The resplendent victory at Fort Donelson threw the North into ecstasies of joy. That one was soon followed by the bloody triumph at Shiloh; and then it was declared that no more troops were wanted. It might have been so, had first reports been true; for the news of the battle of Shiloh, which was read to the 17th Iowa on dress-parade, declared that twenty thousand Union troops had been placed hors du combat, and that the enemy had lost more than double that number.
The regiment stared in amazement, and thought there were none left to kill. It was well for the enemy that the news was false; for, had it been true, he would have marched back to Corinth with hardly a corporal's guard. The war would have been near its close. "I can crush the rebellion in the South West with what men I have," a certain general in the West declared to the Secretary of War; and an order was even issued for disbanding the 17th Iowa, and was only recalled, after the utmost exertion on the part of Colonel Rankin. Many honestly believed that the 17th would never fire a gun: nevertheless, the regiment has fired more guns, and slain more rebels, than almost any other equal number of men in the field.
The first march of the 17th Iowa was from the St. Louis wharf to Benton Barracks: the debarkation and march was made in the mud and rain; and the regiment experienced a foretaste of soldier-life. Embarking on the steamer Continental, Colonel Rankin left St. Louis with his command for the front, on Sunday morning, the 4th day of May, 1862, and arrived at Hamburg Landing, on the evening of the 6th instant. Under orders from General Halleck, he reported to General Pope, and was assigned a position at the extreme left and front of the besieging army at Corinth. Here began the brilliant record of the 17th Iowa; for, though it was once disgraced on paper, and over the signature of a major-general, it was never disgraced in the eyes of its sister regiments. The regiment arrived at the front, on the evening of the 9th of May, the day of the battle near Farmington, where the 2d Iowa cavalry, and the troops of Colonel Loomis' Brigade deported themselves so handsomely. On the afternoon of that day, the 17th beheld for the first time terror-stricken cowards fleeing from the scene of action. Never present in battle, they are always the first to herald disaster. "Turn back! turn back!!" they said; "the whole army is killed and captured!" but on arriving at the front all was found quiet.
On the 28th of May, 1862, Colonel Rankin received orders to advance his regiment as skirmishers, and, having ascertained the character and strength of the enemy's works, to fall back. Accompanying the order were the compliments of General S. Hamilton in the following language: — "For gentlemanly and soldier-like conduct, your regiment has been assigned this post of honor." The reconnoissance was made in connection with the 10th Missouri, and resulted in a sharp fight. More than one hundred rebels were killed and wounded; and that same night Corinth was evacuated. Next followed the march to Boonville, Mississippi, in pursuit of General Beauregard, and on which General Pope captured thirty thousand stand of arms, and ten thousand prisoners. (?) These were splendid successes; but, though the 17th Iowa had marched near the van, it first learned the glad news while encamped in the woods near Boonville. Beauregard made good his escape, and Pope returned to Corinth. To new troops, this march was one of great hardships. It was made in the early days of Summer, when, in that climate, the days are hot and the nights cool. Uninured to the hardships, and ignorant of the customs of soldier-life, the 17th Iowa suffered severely; for they parted with nothing, and struggled along with burdens that would have broken down even veterans. They would not throw away even a cartridge.
Ordered into camp at Clear Springs, Mississippi, the 17th remained there until the latter part of June, and then joined the forces which marched out beyond Ripley. One incident on this march will be remembered by every member of the regiment who joined in it. It happened on the evening of the second day of the return to Camp Clear Springs. In the evening of that day, which had been cold and rainy, camp was made in a low bottom, and soon after the camp-fires were lighted, a dense fog arose, which was almost blinding. This proved the cause of the fright which followed. At about eight o'clock, sudden cries of alarm were given from the hill above— "For God's sake get out of there, or you will be all dead in half an hour." The regiment was filled with fright, and in ten-minutes' time every camp-fire was deserted. That night the poor fellows slept between corn-rows on the hill-side. Dr. McG– was a wag as well as a good surgeon, and, whether he perpetrated the above in sport or in earnest, I never learned. After returning from the Ripley march, the 17th Iowa remained at Camp Clear Springs until the middle of the following August, and then marched with its division to Jacinto, about twenty-five miles south of Corinth, where it remained till just before the battle of Iuka.
In August, 1862, Hon. Samuel F. Miller, Colonel Rankin's law-partner, was appointed to a judgeship of the United States Supreme Court. The business of the firm was large and complicated, embracing many cases of great importance, which required the personal attention of one of the original members of the firm. Indeed, I am informed that it was the understanding, when Colonel Rankin entered the service, that, in case Judge Miller should leave the firm, the colonel was to resign his commission. At all events, he tendered his resignation, which was accepted on the 3d of September, 1862. On the 19th of September, 1862, was fought the rough-and-tumble battle of Iuka; and Colonel Rankin had not yet left for his home.
Iuka was the 17th Iowa's first engagement, and by the fortunes of war the regiment was temporarily put in disgrace. It was gross injustice, and the fact that the commanding general who issued the order of censure was afterwards retired in shame from an important command affords us no satisfaction. And now I regret for the first time that I was a member of the 17th Iowa, for in stating the truth some may think me partial. How the battle of Iuka was brought on is explained in the sketch of General Matthies. Rosecrans either blundered or disobeyed orders, and it matters not which; for, in either case, he is equally censurable. The battle was fought on the afternoon of the 19th of September, and that morning the 17th Iowa, with its brigade, marched from Jacinto some twenty-five miles southwest of Iuka. Immediately after arriving at the front the regiment was hurried into the action. Its position was at the cross-roads and along an open ridge; and just across a narrow ravine, filled with dense brush, were the enemy. Hardly had the regiment come into line, when it was met with a terrible volley of grape, canister and musketry, and General Sullivan ordered it to a less exposed position. While Colonel Rankin was giving the proper command for the movement, that happened which was the cause of the regiment being censured. A portion of Rosecrans' body-guard, in reconnoitering at the front, came on the enemy's line. Surprised and alarmed by the terrible fire which met them, they rode hurriedly back, and finding the 17th Iowa drawn up across the road dashed through its ranks, knocking down and injuring several men. At about the same time, Colonel Rankin's horse was shot, and, becoming unmanageable, ran and threw him, his head striking the roots of a tree, which rendered him insensible. Captain Anderson of the 80th Ohio, supposing him dead, laid him by the side of a tree, where he remained till late that night. For months afterward, I am told, the colonel did not recover from the effects of this stroke.
Standing for the first time under a galling fire; overrun and its ranks broken by stampeding cavalry; its commanding officer disabled, and all happening in the same instant, is it matter of wonder that the 17th Iowa was thrown into temporary confusion, and partially disorganized? A portion of the left wing got separated from the right; but the greater part of the regiment was present throughout the engagement. Indeed, it may be said that, in all its hard-fought battles, the 17th Iowa never did better, all things considered, than it did in its luckless fight at Iuka. Go read the inscriptions on its battle-flags! go count its gallant dead, whose bleaching bones give additional sacredness to a dozen battle-fields! or, what you may more easily do, go ask those who know its history, if the regiment has not a gallant record. And it was not ingloriously begun at Iuka.
The losses of the 17th Iowa at Iuka, numbered about forty. Among the killed was Lieutenant Oliver H. P. Smith, a good man and a brave officer. He was shot in the midst of confusion, and doubtless by our own men; for the ball entered the back of his head, and he never turned his back to the enemy. Captain, now Lieutenant-Colonel S. M. Archer was among the severely wounded. He had just before assumed command of the regiment.
It was reported that Colonel Rankin was under the influence of liquor in the action at Iuka. If he was, and if the injury he received was attributable to that fact, I do not know it. I have been told by officers of the regiment (for I was not present in the engagement) that all the liquor was destroyed before the troops were marched out from their camps. In addition to this, I was told by Assistant Surgeon McGorrisk, afterward surgeon of the 9th Iowa Infantry, and still later, surgeon-in-chief of the 1st Division, 15th Army Corps, that, while the command of Rosecrans was en route for Iuka, General Stanly rode up to Colonel Rankin and asked him for a drink. The colonel, pulling his flask from his pocket, replied, "I am sorry, general; but you see I hav’nt [sic] got any." Lieutenant Delahoyd, brigade adjutant-general, was present, and confirms the above statement. I am no particular friend of Colonel Rankin, for he is the only officer who ever threatened to put me in arrest, and, as I think, unjustly. But then, it is my duty to give facts as they are. The truth is, the conduct of the 17th Iowa would never have been censured, had it not been for the malice of a certain brigadier, and the disappointment of a certain aspiring captain, who dared in no other way to strike at the reputation of Colonel Rankin.
Colonel Rankin is a small man, with light complexion, and a nervous-sanguine temperament. Before entering the service, he was unused to hardship and exposure, and, for many weeks after entering the field, suffered much from sickness. He is warm-hearted, generous and unassuming; and no man of his influence and standing, in the State, has fewer enemies than he. In politics, he is an ultra-Republican, though with both parties in his county he has always been popular. With an average democratic majority of five hundred, he was, in 1858, elected to the State Senate from Lee county. All were surprised, but only a few disappointed. The colonel is quick to invent, quick to execute, and has one of the best legal minds in Iowa,
SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 313-20