Saturday, October 30, 2010

“Vicksburg is the Key” – Part 2: Iowa and G. Oliver

Go read the story of thy past. Iowa, O! Iowa
What glorious deeds, what fame thou hast!
           Iowa, O! Iowa
So long as time’s great cycle runs,
Or nations weep their fallen ones,
Thou’lt not forget thy patriot sons, Iowa, O! Iowa
– from The Song of Iowa by S.H.M. Byers

Dad and I were hastily skimming newspaper articles and assorted letters and documents, trying to get through the file folders in all five boxes of George Landers’ papers before the Iowa City branch of the State Historical Library closed for the day.  It was June 2007.  Just like in a movie, it was in the last file folder I searched that I found a document of importance: a list of 23 names, with a notation written in cursive at the bottom that appeared to say “Band - South”  Included on the list was the name of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, solo cornet player, with an x indicating that he had paid.
G. Oliver is No. 9 on the list; Landers is No.23.
I might have overlooked the piece of paper if I hadn’t already known some important pieces of information: 1) Landers had directed a band, the 51st/55th Regimental Band, that traveled to the South  in 1906 to dedicate battlefield memorials to Iowa soldiers; 2) G. Oliver was a longtime friend of Landers and occasionally played cornet with Landers’ band; and 3) the Riggs family scrapbook contains a 1906 article from the Vicksburg newspaper about the Iowa delegation’s visit.
An article from the Nov. 15, 1906, Vicksburg (Miss.) Daily Herald.
Once I’d found out that Landers took his band on this trip, I had a hunch that G. Oliver had gone, too.  He was living in Crookston, Minn. at that time, directing bands.  His father, Jasper Riggs, had fought at two of the battlefields, Shiloh and Vicksburg, so it would have had personal significance for him, but a Des Moines Register story about the trip didn’t mention the names of the band members.  I was looking for more concrete proof.

This “Band South” list was the first piece of evidence I had to back up my theory.  My heart raced with excitement as Dad and I gathered our things and left the library with a copy of the list.  It was a find that made all the digging worthwhile.  When we returned to Minnesota, I scanned the Crookston Daily Times on microfilm at the Minnesota State Historical Library in St. Paul for any mention of the trip.  I found this article:
The Crookston Daily Times, Nov. 28, 1906, p. 7
A 150-member Iowa delegation, led by Gov. Albert Cummins, made the two-week trip by train.  Along for the ride was a Cedar Rapids newspaperman named Ernest A. Sherman.  Sherman wrote a number of articles about the trip for The Saturday Record that later were published as a book, Dedicating in Dixie.  My friendly local bookseller, Jerry Bilek of Monkey See, Monkey Read, helped me track down a battered copy that once belonged to the Algona (Iowa) Public Library.  Since G. Oliver left behind no writing about his experiences in Vicksburg, I was thrilled to read Sherman’s account of the visit.

I found another source of information about the trip in the library at the Iowa Gold Star Museum at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa, Dedication of Monuments to Iowa Soldiers: Vicksburg, Andersonville, Chattanooga, Shiloh, published in 1908.  This book includes text of all the speeches given at the memorial dedications (boy, were some of those guys long-winded!).  It also listed all the names of the people in the delegation, including the 23 band members.

I know from all these sources that G. Oliver and the rest of the group arrived in Vicksburg on Nov. 14, 1906, and toured the park and the national cemetery, where nearly 17,000 Union soldiers are buried (the largest internment of Civil War dead in the country).  That evening, the band played at a formal reception for the Iowa delegation, hosted by Vicksburg citizens.  Mississippi Gov. James Vardaman, known for his white supremacist views, bypassed the reception to attend a Daughters of the Confederacy event in Gulfport. 

This is how Sherman described the reception:
“… The ladies were beautifully attired, there was gold braid in plenty worn by the Staff to relieve the sombreness of the men’s evening dress, the 55th regimental band gave an exquisite concert program, and the punch bowl, after the receiving line had done its duty, was the center of attention.  That punch bowl, presided over by two of Vicksburg’s society leaders, assisted by a bevy of Vicksburg’s most charming young women, was a revelation to many of the Iowa party.  They do not use water in their punch at Vicksburg.”
The next day, the delegation did more sightseeing and processed to the Iowa State Memorial at 1 p.m. for the official dedication.  Gov. Cummins and Gov. Vardaman were among the speakers, and a chorus of about 100 Vicksburg schoolchildren sang “America.”  The band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,”and “Dixie,” and the famous Iowa poet, Maj. Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers who’d been a prisoner of war at Andersonville, recited a piece he’d written for the occasion, appropriately titled, “Vicksburg.” (Byers also wrote the official state song, “Song of Iowa.”)

The Iowa State Memorial is built of granite and bronze.
Massachusetts sculptor Henry H. Kitson created six bronze panels depicting scenes from the Vicksburg campaign.
When the dedication ceremony began, Sherman was not with the rest of the group.  He was sitting directly across a valley from the Iowa Memorial, on the parapet of the Railroad Redoubt, a Confederate stronghold that Iowa soldiers attacked on May 22, 1863.  Sherman had climbed the hill to copy the inscriptions on the bronze tablets erected to the Iowa 22nd Regiment, led by Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler. 
We don’t think Steve is a direct descendant of Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler, but we like to think they’re related somehow.
Sherman sat enjoying the silence and pondering what had occurred there forty-three years earlier, when the sounds of the ceremony drew him out of his reverie.

“I heard the commands given as the Vicksburg Light Artillery fired the salute.  I heard the opening words of Captain Merry, chairman of the Iowa Commission.  I heard the prayer by Chaplain Frisbie, the music by the band, the singing of the schoolchildren, the reading of Colonel Rood’s report as secretary of the Commission, and the magnificent address by Governor Cummins.  It was wonderful.  Such a demonstration of peculiar acoustic conditions!  And marveling, I sat for an hour, absolutely alone, yet in touch with the world across that valley where once the North and South struggled for the mastery.”

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! And I always thought the Iowa Corn Song was the official state song. I happily stand corrected.