Captain Barney’s War


Over 76,237 Iowa men fought in the Union Army during the Civil WarOne of these, Captain Chester Barney, from Davenport, fought with the 20th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. After he resigned his commission in November of 1864, he wrote a book about his experiences and paid the job rooms of the Davenport Gazette to print it up. Two copies have found a permanent home in our collections.


The title says it all, and then some: Recollections of Field Service with the Twentieth Iowa Infantry Volunteers: or, what I saw in the Army; embracing accounts of marches, battles, sieges, and skirmishes, in Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and along the northern border of Mexico.

War is a serious business, and Captain Barney describes the daily life of Union soldiers, the aftermath of battles, and the hardships his company faced, including, at times, a lack of supplies as basic as food and footwear. Throughout the book, however, our Captain shows a wry sense of humor that probably helped him through the worst days and nights.

Here are two of our favorite examples:

“Resuming our march, we reached ‘Slippery Bottom Creek’ and 8 o’clock A. M.—the most appropriately named creek I have ever met with. A temporary bridge had been constructed by boards laid across, the ends joining and resting on large smooth boulder stones; in crossing on these, which many attempted to do, they were found better adapted for the purpose of a ‘plunge bath’ than bridge. Those who waded were no more fortunate, as the bottom of the creek was covered with large smooth stones on which we slipped, and were treated to as good a bath, but with less plunge.” (p. 105)

“One of my men brought me a fine piece of fresh beef, and while I was discussing a nice steak, [I] received instructions to arrest a number of men in Company K, which were charged with killing cattle. This produced a sudden decline in my appetite, as I felt assured that the steak I was then relishing was contraband . . .
“On arriving at Company K, I found a sergeant with a squad of men busily engaged . . . the grounds repesenting the appearance of a division butchering establishment. The first intimation these men received of this proceeding being discountenanced at headquarters was their arrest. I made some arrests from other regiments, but my rich steak at breakfast had been so well relished that I felt little disposed to make very rigid search, as most of the men seemed to think it was no crime to confiscate rebel beef to satisfy the cravings of hunger.
“Some of them seemed now to have frail memories, for they had forgotten not only the names of their regiments and officers, but even their own names. Strange freaks memory will play sometimes.
“[The men] were kept under arrest, but on being told that prisoners were not subject to duty, nor allowed to carry guns, they bore their misfortune with cheerfulness.” (pp.39-40)

Recollections (SC 973.7477) can’t be checked out, but you are welcome to spend the afternoon in a warm, comfortable library and read this account of the Civil War from a man who fought in it.

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5 Responses to Captain Barney’s War

  1. Jacqui Logan says:

    Some day I hope to travel to your library to read this book, (written by my great great great grandfather). Thank you for posting this on the web.
    –Jacqui Logan

    • Melanie Alley says:

      Jacqui – Chester Barney was my great, great, great Grandfather. I would like to read this book someday as well. Glad to find a new cousin. (


      Melanie Alley

  2. sjw says:

    Ms. Logan,

    Thank you for commenting!

    You are more than welcome to come in and read Captain Barney’s memoirs! He was a man of great intelligence and humor.

    We only wish that we had an image of him–the book doesn’t include one. If you have any family photos of the Captain that you could share with us, we would love to post them on our blog.


  3. Margie B says:

    I was reading a letter dated October 19, 1862, where E. Mercer, (camped at Pea Ridge, AR) tells of “last night our pickets fired at a cow, supposing it to be a rebel spy. Orders just came in from head quarters to cook up rations for one day and to have it in our haversacks & be in readiness.” Think it was the same cow?!! (E. Mercer was in the E Co., 20th Iowa Vols.)

    • swesson says:


      That wouldn’t suprise us at all!

      You have to wonder how many sources of much-needed protein were ‘accidentally’ fired upon during the war. . .


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