What a joy to share this letter from David Patrick to his mother Laura.  I was on the Rally Bus heading home from the Women’s March in Washington DC and could not sleep. To pass the miles, I started searching for Civil War soldier letters and the 40th Iowa.  I never expected to find this genealogy gem. It was waiting for me in a manuscript archive in Arkansas.

Just got to poke around…

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Citation: David Patrick Civil War Letter to his mother, 29 October 1863, MSS.13-.14, Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Arkansas Studies Institute, Little Rock, AR.


I’ve been working for years on the story of David Patrick.  There are three known Civil War soldiers in my family.  David was our casualty.  His life is tragic to me. 

I am taking classes and workshops this year with the Family History Writing Studio.  Right now I’m enrolled in How to Write a Family History Scene.  I plan to blog my progress and assignments.

What follows is a first draft I worked on during the February Family History Writing Challenge


David’s belly had been empty for the last two days. It was cold coffee breakfast and a cold coffee supper as the soldiers marched out of Camden, Arkansas.  

The 40th Iowa and General Steele’s Brigade had been scurrying back to Little Rock for the past 10 days. The big plan had been to capture Texas, but hadn’t made it out of Arkansas. They had run out of supplies. The troops had been instructed to forage the countryside, but the countryside had already been thoroughly foraged. The supply trains had been captured. The Army skedaddled out of Camden at midnight and had been running for Little Rock ever since. 

With the Confederates in hot pursuit, the Union troops slogged their way through the mud, their wagons sinking up to their axels.  The weary soldiers dropped knapsacks, blankets, clothing, “property and plunder” along the military road.  When they finally made it to the Saline River the banks were overflowing and water rushing so fast the men could not ford across.  The troops deployed a pontoon bridge and commenced moving the supplies, artillary and soldiers across the water. 

To protect the retreating army, David’s company was holding the line in  a swale right smack in the middle of new corn just germinating. David knew all about corn fields, he never thought he would be running across a mucky field of baby corn during spring rains. It made no sense to him as a farmer, he was a soldier now. Yet, in his farmers heart he knew that any sensible person stayed out of a wet field so the soil didn’t get all mucked up. 

David had wanted to be a farmer and here he was laying in another farmers field. He knew all the toil, hopes and effort the farmer had put into plowing the cornfield. He knew the farmer would have to replant if he would have any crops that year. A farm boy can’t help but turn toward farm matters. Farmer knows.

There’s no reason for anyone to be in a muddy field. But now, in this field, there are 10,000 soldiers converging on the farmers fields right before Jenkins Ferry. 

This was where they would make their stand. The soldiers were ordered into defensive formation.  David crouched down in the standing water rising in the plowed furrow.  They were holding their line when they heard the call to fire. They had drilled in Iowa City and all winter in Columbus, Kentucky and in Little Rock for this day.  David started firing. They all started firing at each other. There was nothing to see but fog and gunsmoke mixed that hung in the air. The rain kept the air from rising.  The only sight lines were from stooping below to aim and fire.

The “firing, now incessant, was terrific and the struggle desperate beyond description…the severest fighting I ever witnessed.” 

With the rain beating down, soaking wet and hungry. David felt a sharp pain and fell. 

The battle continued on around him as he lay in the mud. The bullets cracked around him but he didn’t move or run anymore. 

The rain beat down as he heard the bugler call retreat. As he lost consciousness, the rest of the troops made a successful crossing over the river and were on the way to Little Rock, food and safety. 

The Union dead and wounded were left behind on the battlefield. They left a bloody mess of men in the cornfield.  The cries and moans of hurt and dying soldiers mixed with the hard rain soaking what was left of their clothes. Some were dead and blown apart. Many more wounded and laying in pain and terror. The rain didn’t stop and they were cold, wounded and hungry. 

Pain was everywhere the soldiers had fallen.

Finding the wounded men and getting them out of the rain fell to the surgeons who stayed behind. The men who were wounded and left behind enemy lines were prisoners of war. The were no hospitals to care for the wounded men. Hospitals had to be set up in the homes of the people where the battles had taken place. The supplies to care for the wounded were limited and had to be rationed. 

It kept raining. Collecting and protecting the wounded men took all day and night after the battle was over. The locals took care of their own boys first. David was just another wounded farm boy far away from home.  Finally, he was brought in from the rain and transported with the other wounded men to a local farmhouse. David was wounded but still alive. 

The horrors of the Rebel prison and lack of sanitary hospitals were well known to the soldiers. David was just a private, he didn’t rank for a prisoner exchange. David was transported to Tulip, Arkansas from Jenkins Ferry. It was a journey of about 20 miles, to a make shift hospital. But it was a temporary measure. The primary Enemy Hospital was set up in Camden. 
The 40th Iowa had just left Camden as occupiers and now David was returning as a wounded enemy soldier. 

There were few supplies and food in Camden  The area had been scavenged and foraged by the raiding Union armies. Everyone was hungry. The wounded might be fed, but their wasn’t enough nutrition to go around to keep healthy people healthy, much less to keep the wound ill soldiers enough nourishment for healing. 

David was far from home and hurt badly. He was wounded in April and nursed in the Enemy Hospital in Camden all through the summer and the harvest season. 

How long does it take to die from gangrene of wounds? At some point his wounds didn’t heal but became infected.  

Medicine was in short supply behind confederate lines. Pain relief was not readily available. 

At what point do you know your wounds are not going to heal, but are just getting worse?

As the harvest season came to a close, David knew he was not going to heal. In that Enemy Hospital 500 mile from his home and family, David faced that he was not going to hold his wife again. 

David would not own a farm, build a barn or teach his son to plow a furrowed field. 

He died alone, in pain and left behind.

He never saw his son. 

Photos from Civil War Daily Gazette

A farm boy joins the Union army 

Enlisting in the 40th Iowa Infantry was the most important decision of David Patrick’s life. It changed everything for him and his family. He  was on the path to becoming a farmer. His family was just starting to grow. David didn’t have his own land yet, but he was saving up and had hopes. 

There were no battles in Iowa, but Iowa farmers and men from all walks of life signed up and joined the Union army. Iowa had a large part of the eligible population enlist, and did not have to draft soldiers to meet quotas. 

War fever was everywhere, the Kansas compromise, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and a battle on Fort Sumter. The Iowa pioneers were motivated by patriotism, a call to duty, and the example of their grandfathers and fore bearers who had served in 1812 and the Revolutionary War. David’s family had settled in Ohio as part of revolutionary war grants. Military service was their duty as a self regulating citizenry to defend their country. 

Many in David and Mary’s family had already enlisted–cousins, uncles and his youngest brother Joe.  His brother had signed up when he was just 17. Joe joined in the first flurry of recruitments and died of disease in training camp in Iowa City during the winter.  Having his brother Joe die and not even leave Iowa must have hung heavy. David may have felt a longing to make his family proud. To go and fight. To be tested and found courageous is a desire nursed by young men through the ages. 

There was no promise of return or returning whole. By the time David joined, the Union had a number of spectacular defeats at Shiloh and Bull Run. Thousands of dead and wounded had been reported in the local papers. In the decision to join, David was risking his life for his country.

David left his pregnant wife and year old daughter. He was not drafted. He chose to enlist. Perhaps it was the incentive of bounty money. A soldier received cash money payment when he mustered in. A soldier also received monthly cash pay. In an area where cash money was seldom seen, it was a big incentive. A three year enlistment for cash money to add to their savings was a strong inducement to an ambitious young man just starting out in life. 

Did the decision to enlist happen all of a sudden.  If you are in town, looking for a buyer for your crops and all the talk is about war, it could set a man to thinking if maybe he should enlist too. Was David was in town, seeing his contemporaries enlisting? The desire to join up and be part of the war of his generation must have been a strong pull. The sentiment of the times made heroes of the young fathers leaving the family behind. To be a man had changed from being a farmer to being a soldier.

The call went out and David signed up. He joined in July. The crops had been planted, the spring wheat had been harvested and the mustering in didn’t start until November. As they worked preparing for David to leave, the land would appear more precious, his wife more and more beloved and his child more in need of having her papa home. He worked all summer knowing he was leaving for three years and might not return. 

As David watched  his daughter Hittie grow that summer, he would do so knowing that when he returned she would be five and likely not even remember him or recognize her daddy. The child Mary carried would be almost three years before old when David returned. 

But the decision had been made. David would leave the life he knew behind and become a soldier. 

Big Darby Plain

An extended family group in my tree traveled from Lower Canada/ Northern Vermont region to Union County, Ohio.

Patrick, Tarpenning and Bigelow families were original settlers on the Post Road Green Settlement.  I was able to visit Union County and hear the wind and bird song. I was amazed by the sea like landscape and held great respect for the labor My People poured into the land.

My ggg grandfather David Patrick learned to farm from his father, his grandfather, uncles, cousins and brothers. He likely learned most from his two older brothers, Levi and Ransom. The Patrick brothers worked together in their teens and twenties. They depended on each other because they had lost their father and grandfather.

With three strong young men as workers on a farm, they could bring in more wheat, oats and hay than a farmer on his own. They farmed before machinery was regularly used and cut down wheat and oats with hand scythes or sickles and bundled into sheaves. The grain was flailed and winnowed by hand.

Ransom, Levi and David grew their own animal feed and seedcrops. They grew food to get through the winter. The main crops were wheat, cattle and corn. All labor intensive and subject to the ups and downs of the weather and commodity markets.  Hail could take out your seedlings. Varmints could get get the corn before it made it to the corn crib for winter. The price could plummet and the year could be lost.  Frontier life is sustenance living. Cash money was scarce and little there was would be set aside for paying taxes. David grew up in a barter economy. A bushel of wheat could be traded for butter, a blacksmith repair, a bolt of cloth.

David learned to hunt, fish and trap in the tall prairie grasses and along the wooded banks of the Big Darby River. It was a big moment in a boys life to learn to shoot and taking proper care of a family fire arm. Farm boys learned to fish and trap small game long before they had a opportunity to shoot a rifle.

David grew up not just a farmer, but a citizen farmer responsible for self governance of town and state. In addition to learning how to work a scythe, he learned the Constitution and Bill of Rights. His Scots-Irish family was fiercely protective of their rights and liberties. Not only did you farm the land, you were also expected to defend the land and the Republic.


Moses Patrick b. 14 Feb 1772 Massachusetts; d. 23 Aug 1850 in Ohio. Married 5 Feb 1797 Vermont to Clarissa Geer b. 7 Jul 1773; d. 23 Feb 1850 in Ohio. Children: Harriet 1797-1876 ; Ira 1802-1848; John b. 1804; Levi 1811-1884.

Ira Patrick b. 13 Jun 1802, Dunham, Quebec, Canada; d. 11 July 1848, Union City, Union, Ohio.  Married Laura Tarpenning 15 Feb 1826, Union County, Ohio. Children: Ransom; Levi; Cynthia; David; Joseph.

David Palmer Patrick b. 1836, Union County, Ohio; died 23 Nov 1864 in Enemy Hospital, Camden, Ouchita County, Arkansas. Married Mary Hull 19 Jun 1860 in Benton County, Iowa. Children Mahitable; Ira.

Ira David Patrick father to Girtha Patrick, mother to Sarah Blanchard, mother to Sandra Montgomery, my mom.