Cyrus E. Ferguson (1830-1918) was a 33 year-old painter from Linn County, Iowa, when he enlisted as a private in Co. A, 15th Iowa Infantry, on 24 July 1863. Given his age, the 1864 date of enlistment, and his comment that he “didn’t enlist to fight,” it seems probable that Ferguson enlisted not so much out of patriotism but for the bounty he would receive. He may have enlisted with the understanding that his duty would be limited to that of a musician in the regimental band though it does not appear he did so until after the Atlanta Campaign. He is reported to have been grazed by a musket ball in the abdomen at the Battle of Big Shanty, Georgia, on 16 June 1864 though he makes no mention of it in a letter he wrote to his wife on 4 July 1864.
It is clear that by the beginning of 1865, he was serving in the band which and was detached to duty in the Brigade Band by early 1865. He was mustered out of the service in July 1865. The letters in this collection include one that he wrote during the Atlanta Campaign in July 1864, just two or three weeks before his brother Amos, also of the 15th Iowa, was captured. The last eight letters span the months of June and July as Cyrus describes the final days of the 15th Iowa. Cyrus addressed all of these letters to his wife, Martha A. Bryant. Their children’s names were William Potter Ferguson (1857-1891), twins Fannie Lunette Ferguson (1860-18xx), Ella Luette Ferguson (1860, died infant), Myra Ferguson (1862, died infant) and Grace Geraldine Ferguson (1864-1921).
OTHER LETTERS NOT IN THIS COLLECTION
Many of Cyrus Ferguson’s letters have been sold on the internet lately. A synopsis of the content in these letters follows:
On or about May 1, 1864 Ferguson expresses his anguish at leaving his wife and their home. He describes the regiment’s arrival in Cairo, Ill. and subsequent departure by steamboat for Paducah, Ky. He writes they were ordered to Paducah due to reports that the town faced attack by Gen. Nathan Forrest’s Confederate cavalry. He adds, “Forrest was not there and had only sent in a flag of truce.” He reports that the 11th Iowa “came down on the same boat” and it appears “there is no danger of any general fight here anytime soon.” [Letter in Special Collections, Filson Historical Society]
[War-date Union soldier’s letter, 4pp. 8vo., written by Pvt. Cyrus E. Ferguson (signed C. E. Ferguson), Co. A, 15th Iowa Vols., [n. p. n. d., but Paducah, KY., ca. Mar. 8, 1864], in part: “My feelings condemn me for enlisting. I don’t know if I am wrong. If I am please forgive me…I can’t help it now…perhaps it was just what I ought to have done…but the bitterness of parting with my dear ones at home had not been felt…I know now how to prize home…I dreamed one night that you were sick…that I did not help attend to you & you died…I remember your tears when we parted, but I feel that we have not parted for three years…our tents are struck but we are not called in yet…went on board the John H. Dicky & landed at Cairo where we lay as thick as we could be stowed…when our boat was ordered to leave for Paducah…Forrest was threatening that place again. We got there about nine o’clock in the morning. The Ohio River was very rough…we were ordered to load our guns…Forrest was not there & had only sent in a flag of truce to exchange one of our surgeons that they had captured for one of theirs…we wait here until it comes up here [the boat] with more guns & ammunition…where we go is more than we can tell probably up the Tennessee River…the 11th Iowa came here on the boat with us & two other regiments on another boat…there is plenty men at Cairo…”]
June 8-21, 1864 “In the field in the rear of Sherman’s army (June 8, 1864) — “When I wrote last we were at Decatur, Ala. We took up our line of march for Rome Ga. Maj. Gen. F. P. Blair [is] in command of the 17th Army Corps hired a guide, gave him a horse to ride…equipped & armed with two good revolvers. He started on & the first thing he done was to take us off on to the wrong road & them leave us with horse and all the traps. We got back to the right road the next day…came to a town where we heard of our guide again. He had passed throe there in the morn & complimented F. P. Blair on his sharpness or rather on his stupidity…which has become evident to all who have been…in his command…let him hear the curses that are heaped on him…this war might have been over…had it not been for this political favoritism. These pimps at Washington must have office of some kind…no matter whether he is qualified or not or whether he is a blasphemous whore monger, drunkard or not which…F. P. Blair is most likely the former…we traveled over mountains & some of the worst country…we have been marching over 3 weeks & only stopped 2 or 3 days in all…we started on to join Sherman, Clem & sow others went in the cars to Kingston, the junction in the road with the Atlanta road. There we came together again…today we stopped about noon…we are in the rear of Sherman’s army, the advance being some 15 miles ahead…there is skirmishing going on every day…our corps will probably get a chance after we rest up…there is a railroad bridge destroyed over a branch of the Ala. river that must be rebuilt before much more will…[end here]…[June 9th]…Dear Willie, I am away down in Georgia. I have been marching over mountains that is something you cannot see in Iowa. A mountain is a great high hill, some places steep & rocky, all covered with trees of all kinds. Sometimes they were 8 or 10 miles wide on the top & people live up on them…Dear Fannie…I have seen a good many little girls, but they all looked dirty & as though they didn’t have much that was good to eat or wear. Fannie has plenty…so she must be a good girl…C. E. Ferguson…”.
The second letter (complete signed C. E. Ferguson) is datelined: “In line of battle front of left wing of Sherman’s army, 25 miles from Atlanta, June 11th, ,” in part: “…you may be surprised to see the heading of this letter, yet it is true…we can plainly see the rebel lines & the rebels themselves…they keep pretty hid, occasionally firing is going on…cannonading can be heard off to the right…our lines are…30 miles in length…there is an open field between us & the rebels & our forces are planting artillery here to drive them off…there is a very large force of rebels in front of us…they keep popping away at our lines with musketry…the artillery are making a strong line of defense. There is [an] order to hold the ground in case we are pressed…I do not think Col. [William W.] Belknap [brigadier general in two month!] has treated us…right…he may fall as far short of his ambitious desires…but we may slip from under his hands before that time…we will…let him help himself the best way he can…if more respect was paid the law of God we would certainly succeed better…our officers this morning while forming us…from our brigade commander down swore profanely. This may look brave to some but I was raised to think different…”.
The third letter begins while in line of battle at Kennesaw Mountain, in small part: “June 17th…we have lain still today…last night after we were relieved the rebels charged the line of works that we occupied & were driven off…we are laying back…in a safe place where only an occasional bullet whistles over us…men that have been blowing & blasphemousing & getting drunk, pale when danger comes. Others continue their swearing right in the face of danger. They seem to think that being soldiers frees them from all obligations whatever…but on the field is the place to show who are cowards & who are not…(June 18th)…there has not been much firing today…Thomas gained some ground yesterday…(June 19th)…our lines have advanced & we are to do the same…we fall in & march on towards the mountain…occupy the first range of hills [that were] occupied by the rebels. They had fell back. This we done at night. Co. A placed on picket where we remain 24 hours…(June 20th)…we got up early & advance still further…our forces planted batteries on the ground where the rebs had had theirs& are now shelling their works on the mountain…they crack pretty loud. On our right heavy fighting is going on. The cannonading is terrible…our batteries play fiercely all day to keep them from sending reinforcements to the right. The rebs only threw two or three shells at us…we have lost but one man…(June 21st)…there is no firing going on…except an occasional shot from the pickets…this mountain the rebs are in is called Kennesaw mountain…most of our company were skulking round putting in a shot when they could…some think that the rebs are evacuating the mountain…it must take time to get the rebels out of the mountain holds. They have to be flanked & shelled out. We cannot charge on them safely on account of the ground…C. E. Ferguson…”.
July 11, 1864 “In line of battle, front of left wing of Sherman’s army 25 miles from Atlanta”. He opens by saying that “we can plainly see the rebel lines, & the rebs themselves, but they keep pretty well hid,” followed by much tactical commentary: “our lines are said to be thirty miles in length so there might be fighting on the right we don’t know anything about…..We are not in advance today, the order of advance & reserves are changed every day to give every regiment & Brigade their turn……unless they [the rebs] mass their whole strength on one or the other of our wings or center, & that can result in no great good to them for Sherman’s army has rather too many men here for their comfort.” Ferguson goes on to damn Iowa Colonel Belknap with the following comment: “I do not think Colonel Belknap has treated us anything like right, but he may fall as far short of his ambitions desires as many another have done & I suppose in his good time every thing may come around right, but we may slip from under his hands before that time…” [Colonel Belknap would later serve as President Grant’s Secretary of War, and be impeached in disgrace.]
July 17, 1864 contains commentary concerning troops movements, including mention of Gen. Thomas ”gaining ground”, and heavy action all round, but not touching the 15th Iowa, which lost only one man. Then in the section of the letter dated July 21st, Ferguson writes that: “I am told that this section of the mountain the rebs is on is called Kennesaw Mountain. We were relieved from picket duty last night after lying in some old houses doing nothing all day. The most our company were skulking round putting a shot when they could get a chance, but me & S both happened to be on reserve, & as we didn’t enlist to fight we wouldn’t expose ourselves though there was little danger if a man was careful.”
August 7, 1864 “Near Atlanta, Ga., Aug. 7th,1864, — …last night we had a perfect carnival among the batteries, ours & the rebs…they shelled at each other & made a terrific din…they don’t do a great deal of killing. They knock each other works to pieces…their men fight just as well as ours. I never dreamed of their making such reckless…charges as they did on the 22nd & 28th July, right into the jaws of death. On the 22nd our men…were behind a line of breastworks & the rebels come in on their left so that the works din’t protect them…this gap had been left open throe the mismanagement of some of the officers…it was then that I felt [?] for the balls were flying thick. I couldn’t see any place to get between them, however I run with the rest & run pretty fast too till the regt was ordered to form in line again…it was then that I slacked up to a long walk for as long as one man runs they…all run…I squatted done…but I had to get up again & run…we had to…look after wounded men…on the 28th we kept more [?]…there is picket firing today also some artillery. No reply from the rebs only with musketry. It is believed they are leaving here & I shall not try to stop them…their commissioners propose a return to the Union letting what slaves [that] have been freed already go & hold what they now have….making their emancipation a gradual thing so that by 1900 all the slaves would be free…I believe they can be got to something better…this war will have to stop soon for everybody is tired of it…if Lincoln sticks for the total abandonment of slavery…I don’t think he will make the White House next term…he must wind this war up by presidential election…we are longing for this campaign to end…our men are getting worn out…for they keep crowding the works closer to Atlanta…till Atlanta falls…there seems to be some fighting going on to our right this afternoon…”
December 14, 1864 “Camp near Savannah, Ga. — …we are getting near the coast…we left Marietta on…Nov. 13th & marched to within 3 miles of Atlanta…the R. R. buildings in Atlanta are all destroyed & judging from the heavy columns of smoke…a great deal of the town was burned. The expedition is made up of the 14th, 15th, 17th & 20th Army Corps, each Corps traveling a road by itself…in line with the others. The 15th Corps was on the extreme right, the 17th next…then the 20th & the 14th on the left. On the third day the 15th Corps skirmished a little…we would hear a little cannonading on our left…it was the intention to avoid all fortified points on our march…at one point the rebs opposed our crossing a river but their forces was small…this was at the Oconee river. We struck the Macon & Savannah R. R. at Gordon & we destroyed this road nearly to Savannah…occasionally a lot of niggers would come along with us & they were put in the Pioneer Corps to work the roads when necessary, any amount of wrenches & children would follow if allowed to, but it is worse for them than slavery for we cannot take care of them & the children have to suffer for some of the nights have been very cold…we marched up to within 3 miles of Savannah where we come to the reb’s first line of works, which we reached on Saturday Dec. 10th. Our brigade formed in line of battle & commenced advancing but a swamp…prevented their further progress. We lay in the swamp until the next day…we moved further out to…open communication with the fleet at the mouth of the Ogeechee river…we had to run the gauntlet of a rebel battery for about 3/4 of a mile…the rest of us staid behind & waited till night. The moon rose full & clear. Our route lay across an open field with water on each side. The General always rides at the head of the Brigade. I march right behind him & his staff with the advance guards…about 8 o’clock we started out of the thick pine woods into the open field. All was silent, no talking was allowed. We passed safely over. The 32nd Ill. regt…was in the advance & was nearly over when the 1st Minnesota Battery moved up to cross & the rattling of their wheels told the rebs we were there & they opened on us…Ft. McAllister was taken from the rebs without much fighting…”
December 17, 1864 “Camp on Ogeechee river, 12 miles from Savannah — …I don’t know where our position will be yet for Sherman has not got his lines…established yet…you need not look for Savannah to fall right off…the rebs cut a canal & flooded the swamps round here…there is not…a hill anywhere within miles of here. It is a flat sandy country with plenty of swamps…the trees are covered with hanging moss…you take me to task for my Copperheadism. If you were here you would think as I do…our army is doing more to demoralize the negro race than the Southerners do. Wenches follow the army for no good & the obscene language that passes between them & our soldiers is disgusting & sickening…I have the highest position in the Brigade as musician…[General] Belknap is a great man to stick to…if he suits him & I have given no cause for complaint since I have been detailed as bugler. The 15th has a one horse bugler detailed since I was & I heard Belknap tell the commander of the regt. that he was of no account…[and] he had better take that other Ferguson, meaning Glen which he would have done had not this fellow crowded himself in ahead & he is a sort of a little puppy favorite with the major…we have a great deal of fun with our conscripts. The 15th got about 500 & or greener set of soldiers…as soon as Sherman gets his lines fairly drawn round Savannah another expedition will be fitted out against Charleston…we have not seen saltwater yet, but hope to one of these days for we are not many miles from it…Dear Willie…we have had a nigger boy to cook for us. He makes some fun sometimes & then again he is lazy. Last night I eat my supper in a nigger house they are clean tho’ & will do anything…for us. They have a boy & girl. Today we had a roost turkey & it was done first rate too…your mother can show you on the map where we are now…Dear Fannie…it is 55 weeks today since we left home & we are away down in Ga…it is so warm here the most of the time…little girls like you go barefoot & some of them have no shoes to wear…I don’t know whether our transports are in the mouth of the Ogeechee or on the coast. Savannah is 18 miles from the sea coast & we are working round it. We have got all the R. R. cut…they have in there…from 10,000 to 25,000 men. Sherman is confident of success. He has been along with the 17th Corps most of the time…”
22 January 1865 Ferguson describes a visit to New York to secure new instruments for his regiment, apparently from the renowned bandmaster Harvey B. Dodworth: “I have got my instruments selected & packed at Dodworth’s.. . . Our instruments, music & everything will cost us between 6 & $700.00. They are of the first class brass instruments, rotary valve except two second hand instruments that I got, one an A-flat base, the other a B-flat tenor which Dodworth had taken & repaired. I did not expect to get all rotary valves but find that the piston valves have played out & I could scarce have got them in the city. I have been to all the stores pretty much & find the prices to vary but little while the quality does considerably.” He also expresses his dislike of the residents in the city’s Soldier Home and the city in general: “the most of the soldiers are such stinking, lousy brutes that they don’t know how to receive decent treatment nor how to behave themselves otherwise than in their low vulgar profane way. . . . I had rather run a paint shop in Cedar Rapids than be one of the upper ten of NY.”