Wednesday, December 9, 2009



William H. Kinsman, the successor of Colonel Dewey to the colonelcy of the 23d Iowa Infantry, was born in Nova Scotia, in the year 1832. More of his early history I have been unable to learn, except that, when about twenty years of age, he went to sea, and passed some three years in voyaging. He inherited nothing from his parents; nor did he ever receive any pecuniary assistance from his friends; but, by his diligence and economy, he collected a few hundred dollars, and, with this to defray his expenses, he entered the Columbia County Academy, New York. In 1857, he left that institution, and went to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended one course of lectures in the law school of that city.

Early in 1858, he left Cleveland to seek a location in the West, and in May of the same year arrived in Council Bluffs, having crossed the entire State of Iowa on foot. In Council Bluffs he was a total stranger, and, what seemed worse, had no money; but he had energy, integrity and ability — a most excellent inheritance, and a sure guarantee of success. Soon after arriving at Council Bluffs, he obtained a situation in the law office of Clinton & Baldwin, where, passing his time as student and clerk, he remained till the fall of 1858. In 1858, he was admitted to the bar of the Pottawattamie District Court. For a short time after, he taught school in Council Bluffs, and at the same time wrote for the press of that city; for he had no means and could not afford to practice his profession.

In the winter of 1858-9, was the Pike's Peak gold mines excitement, and he resolved to visit that new region. That he was moneyless, by no means discouraged him: he could make the journey on foot. He therefore packed his scanty wardrobe in a knapsack made for the occasion, and, bidding his friends good-bye, left Council Bluffs for Denver, on foot. He made the trip, visited the mines and all the interesting and important localities of the country, and in the following Fall returned to Council Bluffs. If we except the experience he gained, he came back no richer than he went; but he lost nothing, and thousands were less fortunate than he. While absent in the mines, he corresponded with his friends through the Council Bluffs "Nonpareil;" and his letters, during this time, constituted a new feature of interest in that live and valuable paper.

Mr. Kinsman was in Council Bluffs at the outbreak of the rebellion, and at once volunteered. He also assisted in raising the first company that went out from Pottawattamie county. On its organization, he was elected its 2d lieutenant: I believe that General G. M. Dodge was its- captain. This company was afterward assigned to the 4th Iowa Infantry, and made Company B, of that regiment. At Rolla, Missouri, he was promoted to a captaincy, and with that rank fought at the battle of Pea Ridge. He was detached from his regiment in that engagement, and, with two companies (his own and one from the 24th Missouri Infantry) deployed as skirmishers, covered the left wing of the army. For his vigilance and firmness he was afterward handsomely complimented by Colonel, now General Dodge. Captain Kinsman was appointed by the President, in July 1863, assistant adjutant-general to General G. M. Dodge; but declining the commission he continued with his regiment until the 2d of the following August, when he was promoted to the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 23d Iowa Infantry. He joined the regiment at its rendezvous in Des Moines, and served with it till the death of Colonel Dewey, when he succeeded to the colonelcy.

During the winter of 1862-3, the 23d Iowa Infantry was attached to the Army of South East Missouri; but in the early Spring it broke camp and proceeded to Milliken's Bend, whence it marched on the exciting campaign that resulted in the capture of Vicksburg. The close of that campaign Colonel Kinsman was destined never to see. On this march the 23d Iowa was attached to the division of Carr, of the 13th Army Corps, which first crossed the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, and led the advance through the enemy's country to the rear of Vicksburg. Port Gibson was the regiment's first battle; and in that engagement its loss was thirty-one killed and wounded. Six were killed. Among the wounded were Captain Henry and Lieutenant Ballard.

With its division the 23d Iowa was in reserve at Champion's Hill; but at Big Black River Bridge, on the 17th of May, 1863, it most signally distinguished itself. It lost many brave officers and men, and among others its noble colonel.

How General Pemberton, under orders from Joe Johnson, left Vicksburg with nearly his entire army to strike and crush General Grant; and how Grant, divining his plans, turned back on him at Champion's Hill, and with a force less by one-half than the enemy's, not only defeated, but put him to total rout, is well known. On the heels of the battle of Champion's Hill was that of Big Black River Bridge. Its account will be read with interest. I will first quote from the official report of General Grant:

"At day-light on the 17th, the pursuit was renewed with McClernand's Corps in the advance. The enemy was found strongly posted on both sides of the Black River. At this point on Black River, the bluffs extended to the water's edge, on the west bank. On the east side is an open cultivated bottom of near one mile in width, surrounded by a bayou of stagnant water, from two to three feet in depth, and from ten to twenty feet in width, from the river above the railroad to the river below."

"Following the inside line of this bayou, the enemy had constructed rifle-pits, with the bayou to serve as a ditch on the outside, and immediately in front of them. Carr's Division occupied the right in investing this place, and Lawler's Brigade, the right of his division. After a few hours' skirmishing, Lawler discovered that, by moving a portion of his brigade under cover of the river bank, he could get a position from which that place could be successfully assaulted, and ordered a charge accordingly. Notwithstanding the level ground over which a portion of his troops had to pass without cover, and the great obstacle of the ditch in front of the enemy's works, the charge was gallantly and successfully made; and in a few minutes the entire garrison, with seventeen pieces of artillery, were the trophies of this brilliant and daring movement."

It is to be remembered that the direction of Grant's march was from the east. The general course of the Big Black River is nearly south-west; but, just above the railroad bridge, it runs nearly east and west. At the point where the bayou of which General Grant speaks puts out, the river bears round to the left, and forms a great bend, at the lower point of which the bayou again unites with the river. The enemy were behind this bayou, and had the river on their right and left, and in their rear. Near the middle of this bend, the river is spanned by the railroad bridge and on its farther side the high ground, which comes squarely up to its bank, was held by the enemy and defended by artillery.

Along the bank of the river on the side where the Federal troops were in position was a belt of timber, in which the right of Carr's Division rested: the 23d Iowa was the extreme right regiment. With this exception, the country in front of the enemy was open. The 21st and 23d Iowa regiments made the charge, supported by the 22d Iowa and the 11th Wisconsin.

The position of the two leading regiments just before advancing on the enemy's works was in the timber and nearly parallel with the river bank; and the movement was to be effected by a grand and rapid right wheel, which, as soon as the open field was gained, would throw the troops under a most murderous fire of musketry and artillery. Eighteen cannon were in position on the east side of the river, in addition to those on the opposite bluff. The infantry force of the enemy could not have been less than five thousand; for over two thousand were captured. Had they not fled like base cowards, how could there have been a survivor in the two leading regiments? This then was the position, and the determination and valor which carried it could have been scarcely less than that which sealed Fort Donelson.

Colonel Merrill of the 21st Iowa, and Colonel Kinsman of the 23d, were to lead their regiments, and, at the request of Colonel Merrill, Colonel Kinsman, who held the inner line, was to give the former notice of the moment to move. Soon all was in readiness, and notice was dispatched by an orderly.

Placing himself now in the front and centre of his regiment, Colonel Kinsman said: "Captains, lead your companies, and I will lead you." The shout was now raised, and the heroes started on the double-quick, with their guns thrown forward, as is usual in a charge. What a moment of agony was it till the enemy opened fire! But the storm of death was not long deferred. There was a sudden crash along the whole rebel line, and instantly a purple cloud of smoke enveloped the enemy's breast-works. All anxiety was now gone: the killed and wounded dropped upon the ground, while the others, closing up their ranks, pressed on to victory.

Colonel Kinsman had not advanced far till he was struck by a minnie ball in the abdomen, which felled him. Immediately rising, he said: — "They have not killed me yet," and still moved on; but he had advanced only a few yards further, when he was shot again — this time through the lungs. He fell, mortally wounded; but he said to his regiment as it passed him: — "Go on, go on, I can not go with you further."

Beneath a tree, and near where he fell, Colonel Kinsman died. "Bury me," he said, "on the battle-field, and tell my friends I did not falter." And thus fell Colonel Kinsman — of the Iowa colonels the third, who, at that time, had been killed in battle. The country was not his by birth, nor the cause by inheritance; and yet he gave his life in their vindication. What a lesson is his example and devotion to the base men who have struck hands with the Nation's fratricides! How they will covet the glory that will bear his name down to posterity! He died to save the country — his, only by choice.

But, though Colonel Kinsman fell, his regiment did not falter; for his last command had been, "Go on, go on." The enemy, apalled [sic] by such bravery, broke in confusion. They all had to cross the bridge, and before that could be accomplished two thousand of them were captured, Colonel Kinsman and Colonel Merrill each led their regiment in the charge: the former was mortally, and the latter severely wounded. Many other brave men fell. The loss of the 23d Iowa alone was more than one hundred. But the enemy had been routed, and a safe and unmolested passage secured over Big Black River. From that time forward, the history of the 23d Iowa has been made under Colonel Glasgow.

I never saw Colonel Kinsman, but learn that he was a man of middle size, erect, and well formed. He had fine, brown hair, blue eyes, a full, high forehead and regular features. The expression of his countenance was frank and pleasing. He was of a very sociable and sensitive nature, and made a fast friend. In civil life, he never bent his energies long in any one direction; some prophesied he would meet with great success at the bar. As a soldier, he stood among the first the State has sent to the war.

SOURCE: Addison A. Stuart, Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 383-8

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