Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
THE SKUNK RIVER WAR IN IOWA
Iowans fought bravely in nearly every battle of the Civil War. The turning point of the war came in mid-summer 1863 when General Meade stopped Lee's army from advancing into northern territory and General Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. In the Vicksburg campaign thirty Iowa regiments took part and several Iowa units were prominent in the victory.
According to Cyrenus Cole (author of Iowa Through the Years,) while Governor Kirkwood and the citizens of Iowa were celebrating victories that the Iowa regiments were instrumental in winning, a serious altercation broke out in the southeast part of the state that threatened to embroil the entire state of Iowa in civil war.
Governor Kirkwood had reported to the Secretary of War that the Rebels had paid agents to foment trouble in the State. However real or unreal the danger was, the Governor took no chances and enlisted Home Guard companies, instructing them to patrol all roads that led from the Missouri border to Des Moines.
Disloyalists, or "Rebels" were Southern sympathizers and often wore copper colored badges. As a result, they were known as "Copperheads," which also inferred (to Unionists) that they were snakes in the grass.
George Tally, a Tennessee preacher, delivered a speech near South English in Keokuk County in August, 1863. After the speech, he drove along the street standing in a wagon, wearing a Copperhead badge, shouting to all that would listen. Shooting broke out and he fell dead from three bullet wounds, and his cronies vowed vengeance.
With the back up of the Home Guard companies and an Iowa regiment from Davenport, Governor Kirkwood delivered a speech from the courthouse steps in Sigourney that was so full of "fire and brimstone" that it scattered the disloyalists. After that, the episode became known as the Tally or Skunk River War.
Soldiers home on furlough joined with the Home Guard to suppress other problems caused by the disloyalists, and eventually all of the troublemakers returned to Missouri where they had wider support.