March into History at Fort Donelson

Van Buren County native Voltaire Paine Twombly led a successful life after humble beginnings in Southeast Iowa. When the Civil War began in 1861, Twombly responded to the first call for troops. He enlisted in the Union Army in what became Company F of the 2nd Iowa Infantry and fought for four years in the Civil War. His most notable achievement during the war, the one for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, happened more than 150 years ago at Fort Donelson in February 1862.

Voltaire Paine Twombly, State Historical Society of Iowa.

Confederate soldiers and slaves spent seven months constructing Fort Donelson, a 15-acre fort constructed primarily of logs and earth on the Cumberland River on the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. The fort was built on the river to protect the Confederate supply lines which supplied bases in Clarksville and Nashville, Tennessee. Protecting the supply lines made Fort Donelson a key target for Union forces. If they could cut off the Confederate supply lines, the Union would have an advantage in the war.

After a battle between Union and Confederate gunboats on the Cumberland River, General Ulysses S. Grant commanded General Smith and the Union to “take Fort Donelson.” Smith and the Second Iowa Infantry led the assault.

Twombly was part of the 2nd Iowa Infantry and at Fort Donelson he served in the color guard. The men in the color guard carried the flags — both national and regimental — for each unit. These flags were very important during battle as it was a time before radio communication and soldiers kept track of where their units were on the battlefield by where the flags were located.

Colonel Tuttle describes what happened to his regiment’s color guard that day:

“I cannot omit in this report an account of the Color Guard. Color Sergeant Doolittle fell early in the engagement, pierced by four balls and dangerously wounded. The colors were then taken by Corporal Page, of Company B, who soon fell, dead. They were then taken by Corporal Churchill, of Company I, who had his arm broken (afterward amputated) just as he entered the entrenchments, when they were taken by Corporal Twombly, of Company F, who bore them gallantly to the end of the fight. Not a single man of the Color Guard but himself was on his feet at the close of the engagement.”
“Iowa and the Civil War” exhibit, State Historical Museum of Iowa.

For acting above and beyond the call of duty at Fort Donelson, Twombly was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Union troops won the Battle at Fort Donelson. The Confederates surrendered to the Union and General Grant. When Fort Donelson fell, the South also gave up southern Kentucky and most of middle and west Tennessee. The Cumberland River, an important supply line for the Confederacy, became an important supply line for shipping goods to Union troops fighting in the South.

The flag that Twombly carried at Fort Donelson is currently on display at the State Historical Museum of Iowa in the “Iowa and the Civil War” exhibition.

Civil War Battle Flag that Twombly carried at Fort Donelson, State Historical Museum of Iowa.

Young Voltaire Twombly was just a week shy of his 20th birthday during the Battle at Fort Donelson. He was born near Farmington on February 21, 1842, and his father died only seven months later. The next year, his mother moved her baby son across the county, to the county seat of Keosauqua, where Twombly was educated in private schools. He studied for two years with the Reverend Daniel Lane, a pioneer Congregational minister.

After four years in the Union Army, Twombly came home to Keosauqua to visit his mother. He went to Burlington and studied at Bryant & Stratton’s Business College for three months and then became manager of the Orchard City Mills flour mill at Ottumwa. After two years in that position, Twombly moved to Pittsburg and went in to the milling business with his father-in-law. In 1876, he moved to Keosauqua and opened a store in the building now known as the Twombly Building.

After about 15 years as a merchant, Twombly sold the business and served two terms as Treasurer of Van Buren County. He went on to serve three terms as Treasurer of State and founded the Home Savings Bank in Des Moines. When Twombly died in 1918, he was buried at the Pittsburg Cemetery in Van Buren County. You can visit the cemetery, northwest of Keosauqua, by locating it on the Iowa Culture mobile app.

Twombly Building, Keosauqua, Iowa.

The old stone building, now known as the Twombly Building, was built about 1875. The walls of the building are quarried limestone, with the largest blocks being 10” high, 18” wide and 8” deep. The building looks much like it did when it was constructed 141 years ago.

It is often said that Twombly had the building constructed, but based on historical records that does not appear to be correct. He was probably the first occupant. Newspapers from 1877 contain advertising for Twombly’s dry goods and grocery business in the building. These businesses were located on the first floor, and the Keosauqua Republican was printed on the second floor. Twombly sold the building in 1892. After that, the building housed a bakery and merchants that supplied Kelly’s Army, a branch of Coxey’s Army. These armies were unemployed men traveling to Washington DC to protest their unemployment during the economic depression of the 1890s. Kelly’s Army was considered to be a rowdy band of men, so they were not allowed to get off their boats at Keosauqua. Merchants supplied them food, which was delivered to the boats.

By 1912, the building housed the post office on the first floor and the Union Telephone Company on the second floor. For decades, the Keosauqua Post Office was located in the Twombly Building. In 1966, Keosauqua attorney Joseph S. Stong donated the building to the Van Buren County Historical Society for use as a museum.

Today, many of the commercial buildings in Keosauqua are brick, but there were several stone buildings in the 19th century. The Twombly Building is the largest remaining stone commercial building.

The Twombly Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Today, you can visit the Van Buren County Historical Museum at the Twombly Building in Downtown Keosauqua to learn more about the history of the county and the area. Find the Van Buren County Historical Museum and Twombly’s grave at the Pittsburg Cemetery by downloading the Iowa Culture mobile app for free from the Apple or Google Play Stores.