The Nick Messenger Story  

University of Iowa Student, Iowa County Settler, Hero at Vicksburg, Master Mason, Marshalltown Businessman

"Hold the fort for Messenger, a soldier brave and true, and one who poured out his blood upon the altar of his country, that the Nation might live.”

 - The Marshalltown Statesman  1876

The accounts of Messenger’s bravery are well documented but not generally known by Iowans, even though a prominent historical marker honors his name and his comrades' actions on the exact spot of the battlefield at Vicksburg, Mississippi.  During the main assault and charge upon the fort on May 22nd, 1863, Sergeant Nick Messenger led a small band of Iowans to make a human ladder and scale the fortress wall to enter and capture the fort. 

 

 

 

 

At Marshalltown’s Riverside Cemetery, beneath a small and unassuming grave marker, lay the remains of the bullet-riddled and crippled body of Nick Messenger.  At the outbreak of the war, Nick was a student at the University of Iowa on a scholarship, one of two from Iowa County. He was also teaching school at Frytown.  When Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, Messenger wanted to enlist, but his parents said “no.”  Surely the war would not last, and he should stay in school.  But the war did go on, and he came of age, and on the 18th of August of 1862, Nick Messenger laid aside his studies, and along with a dozen and a half of his friends from Foote, enlisted in the 22nd Iowa Infantry Volunteers.

None of these boys knew what they were in for.  As they marched down the Mississippi they met with some of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the war, at places like Port Gibson, Champion Hills and Black River Bridge.  They won these battles, with substantial human loss, and brought success and national attention to General Grant’s Army.   Then they ran up against Vicksburg, the great Citadel of the South and the flow of supplies to the Confederacy.  General Grant determined a precise time and date for a surprise assault, at 10:00 AM on May 22nd, 1863. 

“In the awful din of a thousand cannon – a clamor fit to wake the dead – Colonel Stone stepped to the front of the colors of the 22nd Iowa, at the summit of the ridge, and gave the command in a stern voice that could be heard high above the din of musketry, and the roar of artillery: ‘Forward, 22nd Iowa!  Remember Colonel Kinsman!’  The regiment sprang forward to the charge, and through the ravine to the obstruction on the other side, hurling itself like a young hurricane again the most impregnable fortress in the entire Southern Confederacy.”   Samuel D. Pryce, Vanishing Footprints: The Twenty-Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War

After planting the Union flags, and capturing Confederate prisoners, Messenger and his men worked atop the parapet wall for nine long hours, during continuous enemy fire, and held possession of the fort. It was a daring feat almost beyond human capacity and imagination.   During the battle, dispatches were sent from the front each half-hour asking for reinforcements.  Support never came.  A historian later referred to the ignored requests as one of the biggest strategic blunders of the war.  Confederate soldiers and leaders from the battle remarked that if troop reinforcements had arrived, Vicksburg would have fallen on May 22, 1863, sparing many lives.  Following the battle General Grant determined that Vicksburg would have to be taken instead by siege, and it was not until July 4, 1863 when the fort finally fell.

"On the 22nd of May, 1863, the famous charge was made on the breastworks of Vicksburg, and Nick Messenger of the 22nd Iowa, made the record which made the name of a private of the Iowa regiment famous."  -  Daily State Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1899.

For some, the act of bravery and planting of the flags on May 22, 1863, provided the “Iwo Jima” moment for the Civil War.  Two separate paintings of the intense scene survive today to memorialize the moment.  There are many stories of Union men who were inspired by Messenger and his men fighting atop the fort and seeing the Union colors flying during those hours.   Colonel William Stone, Governor of Iowa, 1864-68, said, “Messenger deserves the honors due extreme heroism.”   Stone was on the battlefield that day to witness the event.  General Ulysses S. Grant promoted Messenger to 2nd Lieutenant for his bravery.

 In addition to the Mississippi campaign at notable battles such as Port Gibson, Champion Hill, Black River Bridge and Vicksburg, Messenger also took active part in the Shenandoah Valley campaign under Sheridan, at the battles of Winchester, (Opequon), Fishers Hill, and Cedar Creek.   After Winchester, Nick Messenger, along with a handful of other commissioned officers, was commended for “gallantry throughout the battle in encouraging and rallying the men to the colors.”  He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.  He was seriously wounded at Cedar Creek, taking three bullets in his legs.

"Sergt. Messenger accompanied Col. Graham on his homeward bound.  We understand that Sergt. Messenger won laurels in the late fight before Vicksburg...."

                                          - Iowa City Republican, July 8, 1863

 

 

 

 


Photo from Vanishing Footprints

Messenger was severely wounded twice in battle, hit several times by bullets that shattered his arms and legs, and ultimately turned him into “an invalid” by the age of thirty.   During civilian life he was completely immobile and had to be carried by a constant attendant.  He worked tirelessly in public office, humble yet proud about his military service to his country.  He kept his blood stained and bullet-riddled uniform throughout his life. 


Lieut. Messenger gravestone at Marshalltown, Iowa
 

 

 

 

From a Civil War historian of the period, and soldier of 22nd Iowa Infantry Volunteers:

“The 22nd Iowa Infantry was commanded by Col. Wm. M. Stone, and it led the Division commanded by General Carr in its assault on Fort Beauregard.  Steadily, and in splendid order, the Division moved forward….the final assault was led by Sergeant N.C. Messenger, of Company I, 22nd Iowa, who led eleven men into the fort, capturing the garrison consisting of a Lieutenant and twelve men.  Sergeant Messenger and his little band of brave soldiers- Iowa soldiers, held the fort until the army fell back on either side, when the rebels again rallied, and having concentrated their force, rushed to the attack and drove the captors out of the fort, inflicting heavy loss upon them.  This charge of the 22nd Iowa on Fort Beauregard, on the 22nd of May, 1863, led by Col. Wm. M. Stone, and the final capture of the fort by a mere handful of the regiment under the heroic leadership of Sergeant N.C. Messenger, of Co. I., was one of the greatest exhibitions of northern bravery to be found in the annals of the rebellion”.  - Benjamin F. Booth –Dark Days of the Rebellion, Booth Publishing, 1897.

Beneath a small and unassuming grave marker at Marshalltown’s Riverside Cemetery rests an unsung Civil War hero.  With the advent of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War it is time to retell Lieutenant Nick Messenger’s story and correct the history that overlooked him.

The 22nd Iowa National Flag that flew over Vicksburg on May 22nd, 1863 rests in the basement of the Iowa State Historical Building at  Des Moines, Iowa.  This flag is one of over 200 Civil War battle flags in the Civil War Battle Flag preservation project at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines.  Due to damage, the flag is not fully unfurled and represents only a portion of its original size.   Pictured above:  Flag preservation staff from Iowa State Historical Society (Sheila and Sarah), 24th Iowa Re-enactor, Terry Folkerts - Iowa Ghost Town Project videographer, Jeffry Burden - 22nd Iowa Infantry historian and editor of Vanishing Footprints, and Kathy Baker, Marshall County Recorder.  Lt. Nick Messenger was the Marshall County Recorder from 1872 through 1880.   See Full Nick Messenger Story from The Star  (DOWNLOAD PDF)

"The Union flags spread their folds to the breeze during the entire day, and were cheered in the rear for miles."  - Samuel D. Pryce

 

 

 

 

From Vanishing Footprints - Samuel D. Pryce, Capt. and Adjutant, Company I, 22nd.

"In all this babble of discord could be heard the yells and cheers of the combat.  Lieutenant Col. Graham and about forty others reached the fort, and many of these were wounded and bleeding.  Without scaling ladders it was difficult to enter the works, but (at least nineteen) of the 22nd Iowa entered by raising each other over the steep walls.  Up they went like steeplechasers!  (Srgt. Nick) Messenger and Trine went over the central wall, and (Sergt.) Brown assisted Jordan in planting the flag on the parapet.  Others entered further south.  The colors of the 22nd Iowa were planted in less than ten minutes after the regiment left the ridge.  In ten minutes it was knocked down by the fragment of a shell, and was instantly replanted again.  No other flag was planted on this fort for two or three hours.  Not on your sideburns!"

"When the prisoners were taken to the rear, and Burns had returned with the shovels, and not before, several came in the ditch from other regiments.  One of these was the color-bearer of the 77th Illinois, with its flag.  It was not planted by the color-bearer himself, but passed up to Messenger, and Trine, and it was planted by them.  There was not room on the slope for more men.  Neither was it an easy take to plant a heavy flag staff into the hard ground with bullets flying all around.  The Union flags spread their folds to the breeze during the entire day, and were cheered in the rear for miles."

 

 

 

 

 

APRIL 2011: Sash worn by Lt. Nicholas Messenger in battle is shown by staff member of the Iowa State Historical Society in Des Moines.  The sash was donated in 1920 by Edyth Messenger, daughter of Nick Messenger, and was noted in the description that it was worn by Messenger in battles of Port Gibson, Black River Bridge, Champion Hill, Vicksburg, Winchester, Fishers Hill, and Cedar Creek.

 

Vanishing Footprints: The Twenty-Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, Samuel D. Pryce and edited by Jeffry Burden, contains several personal stories and accounts about Nick Messenger.  Pryce was a fellow teacher, friend and battlefield comrade of Messenger.  Here's a sample story:  

"On April 15th, Lieut. Nick Messenger, Walter Lee, and the writer went in a row boat on the outer edge of the sand spit that separates Bogue Sound from the mainland, between the jade-green lagoons and the indigo sea, in search of recreation.  Also specimens of flora and fauna.  The former had been a student of the university, and was an enthusiast in this direction, a sort of floral and faunal “bug-house.” Built a fire and baked mussel shells on the sandy shore.  Late in the afternoon the party returned with a boat load of curios.  Among these were rare specimens of lace-brain, finger coral, seashells, red and white heliotas, silver abalones, starfish, sea cucumbers, and a monstrous big pink conk shell with hints of sea sunsets in its smooth inner convolutions."

"When the boat was within a mile of shore on its return trip, someone observed the flag at half-mast on the shipping in the harbor.  No one could understand it.  Then a big Negro who was fishing in an old punt cried out, “Linkum sassnated.”  No man who had ever stepped upon the earth was more beloved, and mirth and joy were changed to sadness.  For some time no words were spoken.  Nerveless arms had barely strength to row the boat ashore.  When camp was reached the men were standing around in groups talking in whiskers.  The voice of conversations was almost hushed.  It was more like a house of mourning.  It seemed as if a “chunk” of gloom had fallen out of the sky.   There was no direct communication with the capital, but the news had been received through the confederate lines, and yet no doubt was entertained of its authenticity.  It was one of the saddest nights ever spent in the camp of the 22nd Iowa.  The next morning the news was confirmed through official sources."

Defamed and clapper-clawed with obloquy and savage denunciation, such as no man had ever been called upon to suffer, still Lincoln manifested no resentment, and no vindictive spirit towards the south – during his entire administration.  No such patience under provocation was ever known before, but once in the world.  The trait which gave him greatness was that wise and extreme.  To give this nation a new birth of freedom, God touched the lips of a common “rail-splitter” and they glowed like living coals.  The words of the man of lowly birth, with love for his fellowmen, will be a priceless heritage in all the future years."

 

 

 

 


Vanishing Footprints can be purchased through Camp Pope Publishing, Iowa City.

           Attends the State University of Iowa

Nick Messenger settled in Greene Township, Iowa County, with his parents in 1854 when he was a young man.  His father was a farmer and Vice President of the Iowa County Agricultural Society.  Nick was a student in the Normal Department at the University of Iowa in the years 1860 - 62.  He laid aside his studies and enlisted in the 22nd Iowa Infantry Volunteers in August 1862.  During the war, and while home on leave, Nick Messenger joined the Farmers Masonic Lodge # 168 at Foote, Iowa.  He married Miss Sarah J. Boyd, a classmate at the University of Iowa in October 1865, shortly after mustering out from war.   Messenger moved to Marshalltown, Iowa in 1868. He was a popular County Recorder for several terms.  He was incapacitated from his many war wounds and had to be carried by a constant attended.  He died at the age of 53.  The county courthouse was closed for his funeral.  A large cortege of officials, friends, family and the G.A.R. followed his body from the ceremonies at his home to the Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown.   A research team of historians is collaborating on published and video documentary works about the life and times of Lt. Nicholas C. Messenger.  If you have information on Nick Messenger to share, please contact us!

 

 

 

 

   

Catalogue of the State University of Iowa 1860 - 61 From University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections

 

 

 

 

Catalogue of Students - State University of Iowa, 1861 - 62.  University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections

 

 

 

 

Left:  Field marker commemorating the site of the famous assault on Railroad Redoubt, also known as Fort Beauregard, Vicksburg, Mississippi,  May 22nd, 1863.  ABOVE:  Nick Messenger in later years.  Courtesy Historical Society of Marshall County, Iowa.

A research team of historians is collaborating on published and video documentary works about the life and times of Lt. Nicholas C. Messenger.  If you have information on Nick Messenger to share, please contact us!

See Full Nick Messenger Story in Special Edition, English Valleys Star

See Nick Messenger Story in Past Times Magazine, Marshalltown Times-Republican.

Copyright 2009 - Hinkletown.com, Historic Photo Archives, Klemme, Iowa, and English Valleys History Center, North English, Iowa.  Request permission to reprint or reuse.

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