Peter Wilson

14th Iowa Infantry


by James Wilson
from the files of the, Star-Clipper of 1887

Peter Wilson is dead! This startling announcement spread rapidly over our town last Saturday evening. It circulatedthrough the community on Sabbath and into every part of the country. It was so unexpected and so painful that it brought a cloud of sorrow over the country as perhaps the death of no other man has caused.

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Peter Wilson was born fifty years ago in Ayrshire, Scotland. He came with his father's family to the United States about thirty-six years since, thirty-two of which have been spent in Iowa and Tama county. He was a representative of the neighborhood, a man who quietly takes upon himself the duties of life and deals faithfully and generously with his country and his neighbor. Should you ask Tama county people of his life they would tell you it was a great success. Beyond his county he was little known, as the men upon whom the Republic leans are not much heard of outside of the range of their life work. Within the sphere of their usefulness those neighborhood men are the marks set up by advancing humanity to see how far it has got.

When Peter became of age he was adopted by the United States and given all the privileges of a citizen. Up to this time he had his way to make among fourteen children, and his cases to look after in the family court where his mother presided. He was not reputed as a saintly little fellow in whose mouth butter would not melt, but was so sunshiny that he kept the nursery well warmed up. It is said that when his mother had company Peter was also likely to entertain in the orchard or haymow, and pies and cakes and jellies and fruits would be missing, and the burden of proof would be on him to prove what had become of them. The prosecution by brothers and sisters was always vigorous until conviction looked likely, when leading witnesses would modify and take back, and Peter would get clear. So family stories ran when he was absent and his life in jeopardy.

His majority had not long been reached when a terrible test was put upon him and his family. The country was threatened with dissolution. Tama county families were offering their best boys as pledges of patriotism. The native born American descended from revolutionary families and familiar with public affairs saw his duty as his fathers saw it a century sooner. The emigrant family to which Peter belonged considered the matter. Its family traditions were different only as the Covenanter differs from the Puritan, but they were cut off. The new relation with the United States had given shelter in distress, a home in adversity and citizenship with no return or equivalent unless help were given the country in national danger. Father Wilson was very clear regarding the subject in dispute and concerning the gratitude he and his family owed the protecting nation. The boys had to settle for themselves who should be the first. Peter enlisted in Company G, 14th Iowa infantry, in 1861, This was an Americanizing process for the family. It had more than ever at stake now, besides it brought fellowship and sympathy from other families that had made like offerings--and there were few that had not. Bonds of sympathy between families that had boys in the army became very strong. The father and mother of a soldier were venerated. Lifting one's hand to anyone was not a western habit in those days, but the whole-souled western man made his approval and gratitude evident to fathers and mothers of soldiers in other ways. Since 1861 the great magnitude of the war has seemingly blunted the correct sense of what is due to the survivors of the republic, but it was lively then, and it will revive when in the future we measure our heroes with common men.

Peter was at the taking of Donelson, in the battle of Shiloh, in the Hornet's Nest, was captured with the regiment, and being too ill to march to prison with the rest was left at a wayside hospital and paroled or exchanged soon. He was with Sherman in his Meridian expedition and up the Red river. He helped to capture Fort DeRussey, and fought under A. J. Smith at Pleasant Hills, where he was captured with most of his company. Orders had been sent to it to retreat, but the orderly was killed while carrying them, and the company surrounded. Peter observed afterwards that "the old 14th boys never retreated until they were commanded to do it." He was sent to Camp Ford, Tyler, Texas. The rations on the way consisted of one ear of corn each a day. He was kept prisoner fourteen months. Holes were dug in the ground for quarters. Texas beef and corn were the rations. The boys made saws out of barrel hoops with which they made combs out of the horns of the cattle. These they traded with visiting Texas farmers for vegetables. They generally had enough to eat at that prison--such as it was: Peter was liberated in the spring of 1865, at the close of the war. A lieutenant's commission had been made out for him, but he could not be mustered in under it. At the close of the war he returned to civil life and gradually assumed the duties and responsibilities, in all of which he has made the reputation that can be made in quiet life that is more enduring than public notoriety.

There are rewards in farm life if one makes the farm the prime object. It develops men peculiarly. Reflection is more prominent than activity. Purposes are only accomplished after sustained effort for years, and this gives power to intelligent minds Peter Wilson was not only an excellent farmer, leading in the improvement of his acres, the superiority of his animals, the success of his feeding and breeding, the public spirit he showed in associations that extended the knowledge of this field; the crop and the herd, but he was in demand in every laudable neighborhood undertaking. The Grand Army Post, where veterans plan to smooth: the downhill path of life to those in need of help among them, will miss him; the agricultural societies will miss him; the Sunday school, of which he was superintendent, will miss him; his neighbors who liked to meet him will miss him; needy people, who wanted little favors will miss him; his father, who has been so often proud of him, will miss him; orphan children he was raising will miss him; brothers and sisters, four boys and two girls of his own all under fifteen years of age, will miss him; and the brave wife, who must now fill her place and his at home and abroad, will sadly miss Peter.

The wide expression of sympathy with his family on his sudden death showed the place he filled in the hearts of his neighbors. As much as a death-bed can be robbed of his horrors his was robbed--family and friends about it, and the Christian's hope assured. The old metrical Psalm that tells of "the widow's stay and the orphan's help" came readily to his mind. It had been committed to his memory forty years ago against this trying hour, and was his greatest comfort. His life has been a joyous, sanguine, happy life. It has been very clear of selfish effort. He could have been a wealthier man. but not without being a narrower man. His period of army hardships curtailed his life many years. The veteran misses the nervous expenditure of army life after middle age. A year in the army shortens every man's life five years on the average. The lives of these good men are family and neighborhood heirlooms that act as object lessons. These lives do not cloud over and sink in oblivion like transient notoriety.

There is power in the influence of such a life, for whoever lives a life so notable as to hold the confidence and love of the people who mourn his loss, traces the marks of his own character on the characters of those by whom he is surrounded. There is promise in the end of such a life, for it has the pledge of all the blessedness which eternity is able to bestow.


James Wilson was Peter's oldest brother. Known as "Tama Jim" Wilson, he became a prominent figure in Iowa politics and served as a Congressman, and later as the Secretary of Agriculture for Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft.

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