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The untaught stories of the Civil War

Re-enactor tells Iowa’s role in the War Between the States
O.J. Fargo, a Civil War reenactor from Creston, tells a first-person account of Iowa’s campaigns in the southern states Friday, Aug. 30, during the Seniors Connection lunch program at the North Liberty Community Center. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– The Civil War, also known as, “The War Between the States,” and still to some as “The War of Northern Aggression” or “The War of the Rebellion” was waged between 1861 and 1865 with 750,000 dead. According to www.americancivilwar101.com, Iowa, a Union state, sent 76,242 men, which totaled nearly 3 percent of the Union Army, and made up just over 11 percent of the state’s population. Iowa sent four artillery batteries, 10 cavalry regiments, and 48 infantry regiments along with five Sailors/Marines. Over 13,000 Iowans died during the war.
For most, lessons about the Civil War consisted of remembering basic dates, and perhaps a few key battles such as Gettysburg. Few, outside of historians and those who study the war, know the full scope of Iowa’s war effort and the battles Iowans fought and died in.
O.J. Fargo is out to rectify that situation by immersing audiences in a living history lesson.
Fargo, a retired teacher and former media director and social studies consultant for an area education agency from Creston, has traveled the state in conjunction with Humanities Iowa, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C., for 15 years. As a Civil War reenactor for 25 years (and president of an Iowa regiment of Civil War reenactors), Fargo brings a one-man show, “Just Before the Battle, Mother– A Visit from a Civil War Soldier,” to various venues throughout the year. Fargo brought his presentation, delivered in full Union Army uniform, to the North Liberty Community Center on Friday, Aug. 30, for the weekly Seniors Connection (55 and older) lunch program.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be 1865,” Fargo said as he opened his presentation. “I will have been gone for four years (other than a furlough in 1864), so I’ve spent pretty much the beginning of the war right up until the end, in the field. I stopped here, because they said they’d feed me,” a comment, which drew chuckles from the post-lunch crowd. To further the illusion of time, he asked they, too, think it is 1865, and that the gray-haired man before them was actually 35 years old. In addition, while he would gladly answer questions during the presentation, his answers would be in the context of 1865.
He introduced himself as Thomas Goodfellow, a 35-year-old from Afton (a few miles east of Creston on US Highway 34), who enlisted into the Army at the age of 31. A native of Rock Island, Ill., Goodfellow struck out west to find his fortune.
“I went west, but there ain’t no fortune out there,” he said. “In Afton, in the wintertime, I taught school, and the rest of the time I clerked in a store, but there really wasn’t any money in it.”
When President Abraham Lincoln put out the call for men to enlist, Goodfellow was all-in, along with about 15,000 others across Iowa.
But, he said, “Only 1,000 were needed, and only for 90 days, because the war was gonna be over in three months. The worst that’s gonna happen, we’re gonna go down into Missouri, we’re gonna poke somebody in the mouth, then we’re gonna come home and be a big hero. Worst that’s gonna happen, somebody’s gonna catch one (a bullet) right between the eyes, and they’re gonna put up a big statue of me, and I’ll be famous for the rest of my life. But, we’re gonna win. Everybody knows that.
“So, I’m raising my hand, you bet! Because I’m gonna make 13 bucks a month if I enlist. And they’re gonna give me a spiffy set of outfits, I’m gonna go down to Missouri and kick around down there for awhile, and all this pays better than what I’m getting back home. Thirteen bucks a month is pretty big money,” he noted, especially for a man with a wife and kids in Afton.
Goodfellow wasn’t among that first 1,000, as they were drawn from the larger cities. Several months after the Iowans’ first battle (the Battle of Wilson’s Creek), and their return home as heroes (despite losing), he finally was called up for duty. “It dawns on me after Bull Run, this isn’t gonna be any kind of three-month affair. Maybe it’ll last a year, but a year isn’t too bad, and it’s 13 bucks a month.”
After enlisting, Goodfellow and 99 other men (only 100 were taken from Afton) were sent back home for two weeks before being mustered in.
“The first thing they do is read you the 127 ways you can be shot, for the various infractions,” he said.
Election of officers followed, who then picked their sergeants and corporals. “It was a big popularity contest,” he added.
Uniforms and equipment were in short supply with Iowa units receiving what other states to the east didn’t want. So, he said, when Iowans entered the battle at Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862, in Tennessee), “They were handed the first gun they’ve actually held. The only guns I saw early on were bought from everywhere: Austria, Belgium… but the Brits, who were always at war with somebody, said, ‘Hey, you want guns? We’ll sell you ours!’ So they started selling to both sides.”
Goodfellow’s company, made up of soldiers from Union County, joined other units at Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), where they took a steamboat down the Missouri River to St. Louis. After moving through central Missouri, they engaged in battle with the Confederate forces under the command of General Sterling Price at Pea Ridge, also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern. “There we fought a two-day battle, and we beat that army. If we hadn’t beat them that day, you’d all have even more of a Missouri accent than I do.”
From there Goodfellow’s army moved into Arkansas as part of General Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy to take the Mississippi River, to separate those states from the rest of the Confederate States. They fought through the state of Mississippi and found themselves in a major battle at Vicksburg from March 29 through July 4, 1863. Chattanooga, Tenn., was next on the Union Army’s agenda. Not long after, Grant headed east, and Goodfellow’s army joined up with “General Billy Sherman, and he takes us down to Atlanta,” he recalled. After four to five months of slow, near-constant battles, Union forces took Atlanta.
South Carolina was their next destination, taking Charleston, among other cities, just before the end of the war.
“Lee surrenders, you’ve read the headlines?” he said. “Lee surrenders, the war is over. When they surrendered, we were in North Carolina, and there were 25,000 Johnnies (Confederates) on the other side of the line. That war wasn’t over by a long shot. It took us another two to three months (before) they surrendered to us. They then took us up near Washington City (Washington, DC), because now they wanna try and get rid of us.”
He had words of praise for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, saying Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States) told him to go into the woods and carry out guerrilla warfare on the Union. “Lee said no, war’s over, no statues, no guerillas, nothing, just go home. We got whooped, that’s how she goes. Had he not done that, I’d still be down there getting pot-shotted by everybody and their dog. I didn’t respect him at all being a Confederate General, but I respected that decision. Seemed like a pretty honorable man.”
In Washington, there was to be a big parade. However, Goodfellow was not impressed, as the press was more interested in battles in the northern states than the southern campaigns he and his army had gone through. “We took out nine of the 11 Confederate states,” he said. “Who did you read about in the papers all the time? Those guys out on the east coast. They didn’t win anything for two to three years.” By the time the northern army won at Gettysburg, a battle he called a “draw,” his army was in Pittsburgh.
“We didn’t get any credit for that, because we were all hayseeds from the end of the world. We won that war, and we never got any credit for it,” he said. “So when they had that big parade, we decided to show ‘em what hayseeds are all about. So all day long we’re marching throughout Washington City. And the next day the headlines said we looked like ‘lean marching wolves.’ We thought that was pretty hot stuff.”
Goodfellow slowly made his way back to Iowa riding steamboats and railroads, and noted, “The railroad stops at Iowa City, so I’ll be riding on stage coaches.”
Fargo/Goodfellow wrapped up his presentation by taking several questions about his clothing, equipment and life in the field.
Fargo brought with him an artifact display, including a reproduction musket, and an electronic Civil War database (15 years in the making) of over 71,000 Iowans who served. Attendees were able to meet with his wife Elaine and look up their family members’ history.
He is also the author of two books on Iowa’s history in the Civil War, and has also written 27 booklets on Iowa and Western US history.
“I like history. I see history as kind of a mystery,” Fargo said. “If we knew exactly why everybody did what they did, and when they did it, it would have no appeal to me. But I see history as a vital thing. You might have an idea why Grant fought like he fought, and I might have a whole different idea. The only guy who knows for sure is Grant, and he’s long gone.”
Fargo said history is like putting two and two together. “Sometimes you get four, sometimes you get five.”
A lifelong history buff, Fargo saw a newly formed Civil War reenactment group as a way to pursue his love of history.
“I thought the Civil War was stupid at the time,” he said. It was about that time Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war was broadcast, bringing the Civil War to the forefront in many peoples’ minds.
Fargo gained a new perspective based on living in Southwest Iowa.
“There’s a lot of little towns, and a lot of those little towns have inferiority complexes because if you read the history books, or the newspapers, everything happened in Cedar Rapids, or Davenport or Sioux City,” he said. “It never happened in Afton. So, how do you get a kid in one of those towns interested in a topic like the Civil War?”
He said his educational theory was the topic had to be close to the student to draw interest. “They had to have some skin in the game,” Fargo explained. “They’re never going to be a general, they’re never going to be president, so what’s in it for them?”
His database of veterans enabled kids (and adults) to type in their name, find their ancestor, and possibly spark curiosity as to who they were, what they did, where they went, and how they lived. “Now you get into geography. Now you get into math,” he said. “You can get them into all sorts of stuff, because the kid is interested.”

The lunch on Friday, Sept. 13, will be provided by Zio Johnno’s Spaghetti at 11:30 a.m. with “Adventures in Social Drumming” to follow. Joe Parrish will lead participants in a social drum circle. On Friday, Sept. 20, Hy-Vee will cater the meal with bingo to follow. For reservations or more information about the Seniors Connection lunch program, call Angela McConville, Special Projects Coordinator for the City of North Liberty at 319-626-5722, or email her at amcconville@northlibertyiowa.org.