William Holden, Second Iowa

by Fred Ray on February 18, 2012 · 2 comments

I have some letters from William Holden, a soldier with the Second Iowa. An ardent abolitionist who lived in Ottumwa, the 22-year-old Holden signed up at the beginning of the conflict and stayed on until the end, re-enlisting in December, 1863. Serving in the Western armies, he fought in almost all the major battles of that theater, ending up in the Carolinas with Sherman. Holden began as a private but rose to sergeant and was made first sergeant upon his re-enlistment, a rank he held until the end of the war. In late 1863 the depleted Second Iowa was reorganized into a battalion, then consolidated into a veteran regiment along with the Third Iowa.

Here Holden writes his father on April 26, 1865.

We did not march this morning as we expected. The rumor is current this morning that Johnson surrendered unconditionally yesterday, and as more of the troops move to the front I am inclined to believe it.

If he has surrendered the war is ended and we will now begin to think of home. After four years of desperate war we have triumphed. Not a star has fallen from our flag. We have a whole Union and a free Union. The stain of slavery is blotted out and the South may blame themselves for being deprived of it.

They have been terribly punished for attempting to destroy the government, and I believe it is a punishment sent upon them from God because they trafficked in human souls.

I feel proud that I can say that I entered the Service at the very beginning of the struggle and remained at my post until peace was conquered. I might say I was present when it was born, and was in at its death. We have proven to the world that a Republic established upon the principles of justice, right, humanity, and freedom can stand any shock. We have shown the crowned heads of Europe that man is capable of self government. They would have rejoiced to see us divided and ruined but now they see us emerging from the mighty struggle the grandest and greatest Nation of the world. We have crushed a Rebellion that would have dethroned any monarch in Europe. They are amazed at our great resources. They see a mighty Navy that has been put afloat in four years and vast armies that have been raised, equipped, and constantly paid and supplied, yet we had no money at the beginning, and have borrowed none from abroad. We have raised it at home. Our own people supplied the wants of the government, and they can hardly understand it.

Who would not be proud at having lived in this age, and have aided in bringing about such glorious results? Every true American will look upon the flag with feelings of joy and pride. But how will it be with the Copperhead? How mean, low-contemptible, insignificant and miserable those wretches must feel who aided and abetted treason in its attempt to ruin us and thereby prolonged the struggle, and were the cause of the death of thousands. Their consciences will never be at rest, if they have any. They will be remembered forever.

UPDATE: Holden’s letter, written right at the end of the war, makes a nice bookend to that of Sullivan Ballou, written almost four years earlier just before the war’s first big battle (in which he was fatally wounded). Having read hundreds of soldier letters I can tell you that Holden is an exceptional correspondent. He has a journalist’s eye for detail and a soldier’s knowledge of the war, and sometimes—as here—he can be quite eloquent. I hope to be able to publish a bit more of his writings.

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