‘No one had written a book about Iowa’s role in the war’

Humboldt native will return to the area for book signing

HUMBOLDT — A Humboldt native who authored an award-winning book about Iowa’s role in the American Civil War is returning to the area for a book signing.

Tom Baker, 1978 Humboldt High School graduate, will be at the Humboldt County Historical Museum on Aug. 25 to answer questions about the book “The Sacred Cause of Union: Iowa in the Civil War.”

Baker is a dean of students at the University of Iowa. He began writing the book in 2011, but had actually been researching the topic since the 1980s.

“I’ve always been interested in the Civil War and growing up in Iowa I always noticed a lot of Civil War books don’t talk much about Iowa or Iowa’s role in the Civil War and the more I read about Iowa’s role, it struck me that this state’s role was important,” Baker said. “In other words, people in Iowa gave more, sacrificed more than most other states. No one had written a book about Iowa’s role in the war. I undertook to do that and it was a challenge for me because there was so much material I had to compact it down into a standard-sized book.”

In it, Baker follows the stories of six Iowans involved in the war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.

One of persons Baker follows is C.C. Carpenter, of Fort Dodge.

“I intentionally selected families from different parts of the state, different backgrounds,” Baker said. “I also included as much information as I could about the experience of black Iowans and the experience women had.”

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, part of Baker’s decision on who to follow was determined by how much material was available.

“I selected families where there was a diary or records left, letters and things like that,” Baker said. “I followed these soldiers as the war progressed, so you can see how soldiers are reacting to war they thought would be over with quickly and how they deal with the longevity of the war and how they maintain their faith and optimism.”

Carpenter left behind “quite a few records,” Baker said.

“Mr. Carpenter at this point was a minor political figure after the war and, of course, became governor of the state of Iowa,” Baker said.

Carpenter was governor from 1872 to 1876.

During the war he was an officer in the quartermaster service, Baker said.

“He wasn’t a frontline soldier,” Baker said. “He was responsible for supplies, logistics. Many of his letters were archived. There was a lot of interesting material.”

Baker said Carpenter’s views on the war changed as time went on.

“Mr. Carpenter was transformed as a result of his war experience,” Baker said. “When the war began he was very racist, he did not believe the war was about freedom. He thought it was unifying the country, but by the end of the war, he was convinced it was a war about ending slavery. It became a very religious experience for him. It made him think much more seriously about what it meant to be a Christian.”

Baker also follows families from Keokuk, Council Bluffs, Oskaloosa, Muscatine and Manchester.

The role of women during the war cannot be understated, according to Baker.

“For women who stayed home, there was also a lot of work to do and today we think about writing letters and knitting socks and things like that, but what surprised me was how little was provided by the Army for what you and I would consider to be normal military facilities. There was no Red Cross at this point in time. To the extent improvements were made in Army hospitals, it was almost single-handedly women who led the reform effort.”

He added, “There were a lot of very courageous women who got paid nothing and risked their lives to help sick and wounded men. Then at home, too, the Army food was so bad, care packages from home were important.”

In order to get milk to soldiers, women arranged for cows to be shipped south to hospitals.

“This was before refrigeration,” Baker said. “They couldn’t milk the cows in Iowa and transport the milk because there wasn’t any refrigeration, so the women said, ‘well let’s take the milk cows to the hospitals,’ So they loaded them on boats, if you can imagine a cow on a steamboat. There were some very innovative things.”

Annie Wittenmyer is one woman highlighted in the book.

“The one person in particular in Iowa who deserves the most credit for the hospital reform is a woman named Annie Wittenmyer,” Baker said. “Clara Barton was another leader in the cause of hospital reform during the Civil War. Clara Barton is probably the most famous Civil War volunteer because she’s the one who founded the Red Cross later. But Annie Wittenmyer was essentially the Clara Barton of Iowa.”

Baker was surprised to learn that Wittenmyer had gotten a divorce.

“She did a lot of amazing things even though she had a child at home to take care of,” Baker said. “Her husband had divorced her. Her husband left her just before the war started. Her husband was broke, so she did not have much, but dedicated the next four years of her life for the cause of helping the soldiers.”

Baker’s book was published in 2016 by the University of Iowa Press.

In 2017, it earned the Benjamin Shambaugh Award, given by the State Historical Society of Iowa for the best new book on Iowa history. Then-Gov. Terry Branstad presented the award to Baker.

If you go

What: Tom Baker book signing

When: Aug. 25

Where: Humboldt County Historical


Time: 1:30 p.m.