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John Todd’s Civil War

posted May 13, 2018, 7:14 PM by James Nennemann
By Harry Wilkins

Not only was Tabor’s Reverend John Todd a dedicated abolitionist who wrote and spoke against the institution of slavery for many years, he also served for a brief time in the Union Army during the Civil War. Todd and his eldest son James volunteered for duty with military units known as “Hundred Days Men.” These regiments served in rear areas guarding rail lines, depots, and towns against Confederate raiders while the regular army pushed the fight south to its conclusion, or so it was hoped. The term of enlistment for the men was short, generally three to four months. In June of 1864, the 45-year-old Todd was appointed chaplain of the 46th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a position where he ministered to the spiritual needs of over 900 men and officers. His unit, composed of Iowans from across the state, deployed to Collierville, Tennessee, a small town near Memphis where it guarded several miles of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad against attack by southern guerillas operating in the area. 

Todd regularly wrote letters home to his family in Tabor, telling them about the routine of army life. He described the main camp where the men pitched their tents and cooked meals, as well as the nearby fort built of dirt and logs, surrounded by a ditch, which was to be used as a defensive position if a determined Rebel force attacked. Chaplain Todd earned $118.50 per month, the equivalent pay of a junior officer. The soldiers were fed bacon (called “sowbelly”), hardtack (an extremely dry flour biscuit often softened with grease in a frying pan), rice, hominy beans, coffee, and occasionally fresh beef.  Their diet was supplemented by gathering blackberries, peaches, and apples from the countryside.

Although not on the front line, the threat of attack was real. In one letter, Todd described hearing the firing of heavy cannons only a few miles away which were repelling a Confederate cavalry raid on Memphis. During the attack several men from the 46th Iowa were seriously wounded and at least four men were captured. Another deadly threat looming over all Civil War soldiers was disease, and the 46th Iowa lost men to typhoid, measles, and dysentery, among other maladies. Accidents also took a toll. The men, some of whom Todd described as “mere boys,” often became sleepy or frightened while on guard duty and fired their weapons at shadows and tree stumps; there were several deaths from the accidental discharge of weapons.

John Todd and his regiment mustered out at Camp Kinsman, near Davenport. In his final report he noted that attendance at Sunday services was “not always so good as it ought to have been,” due in part to regimental officers not compelling attendance. As for the moral tenor of the regiment, Reverend Todd felt that budding vices brought into the army by the men in some cases became “fully developed” under the “hotbed influence of camp life.” What the vices were, he didn’t say, but hastened to add that the 46th Iowa would certainly compare favorably with other units in active service at the time.