“I’ll try, sir.”
With those three words, 20-year-old Calvin Pearl Titus, born in Vinton, answered a Colonel’s call for volunteers, and became the only chaplain’s assistant to ever earn a Medal of Honor. He earned the highest U.S. military honor in a conflict many Americans do not even associate with the U.S. military – China’s Boxer Rebellion.
That same year – 1900 – another Vinton-born man took a big step toward making military history. Everett Longley Warner joined the Art Students League of New York, a school for artists. Eighteen years later, as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves, Warner would create a camouflage paint scheme for ships so effective that it still bears his name. He later became one of the first to paint and draw from an aerial point of view; his artistic talents were also called back into service during World War II, when he again worked on camouflage schemes.
The year that Warner retired, two Benton County airmen died on the same day. One of them was Shellsburg native Mark R. Reynolds, a B-17 tail gunner who perished along with the rest of his crew on March 24, 1945. He was flying his 18th bombing mission and died just 45 days before peace came to Europe. The other area airman who died that day was Marvin Steinford, a young husband and father, whose B-17 was shot down over Hungary, and whose body would not be identified and returned to Iowa until 2011.
Titus, Warner and Reynolds are the three faces which now adorn the Benton County Freedom Rock, which was unveiled for the public to see on Friday.
The Benton County Freedom Rock represents the latest entry of the Freedom Rock Tour; the three men represent every soldier, sailor or Marine from Benton County who has served our country.
The Benton County Freedom Rock – located just east of the Shellsburg Legion Hall – represents men and women we know much about – like the three mentioned above.
Painted by Ray “Bubba” Sorenson II, the rock represents men like Marvin Steinford, who like Reynolds was shot down on March 24, 1945. Steinford’s body, however, did not return home to Iowa until 2011. He and other crew members were buried in an unmarked grave in Hungary before finally being identified and returned home.
The rock also represents every local veterans whose name we have never heard. It honors each man or woman who put on a uniform, completed basic training, and was shipped across the country or across the ocean to a far-off locale to help keep the rest of us safe at home.
While it would be impossible to name every veteran that rock represents, today I’d like to share with you a few names from a just one battle that was one when America desperately needed to win.
153 Septembers ago, Americans celebrated of one of the most significant events in American military history – an event in which many area soldiers with names still familiar to our community died.
First, these veterans deserve for you to know their names, and by what injuries they died. The following are the words from an August 1864 issue of the Vinton Eagle, which included a list of soldiers who died in the Battle of Atlanta during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War. Beware: Newspapers were more graphic in their descriptions a century and a half ago, so be warned that some of the next few words may be painfully graphic:
Major William A. Walker, shot through the head;
Robert Durand, 1st Sergeant, shot through the head;
Hiram Halleck, 2nd Sergeant, unknown;
Julius Jackson, head blown off by shell;
Benton Hoover, shot in the breast;
Joseph A. Roberts and James Green died the same way.
David D. Merchant was shot through the bowels.
The article continued to list several men who were injured: John Ridge, James E. White, E.P. Forsyth, H.N. Palmer, William Amburn, C.C. La Rue, A.H. Brown, L. A. Marine, G. W. Sells, W.W. Buck, John Ritchey, Jerome Hall, James Wallace and Ozro Small.
And the missing included: R. Worthen, Thomas Brown, Thomas Day, T. Amburn, William Merchant, M. Utley, Lewis Lord, David Robertson, John Cuer, John Gipe, William Fawcett and Thomas Smock.
Major Walker and the rest of the men who were wounded, KIA or MIA in the Battle of Atlanta made the difference in a situation that was so severe and desperate even though it is likely that they were not even aware that dilemma even existed.
Most modern Americans think of Abraham Lincoln as one of our best, most-loved Presidents.
But that was not always the case.
In the summer of 1864, after three torturous years of a war that would claim nearly 1 million American lives, even the people of the north were tired of war.
While in some areas (Iowa among them), the pro-Lincoln, pro-war sentiment remained strong throughout the war, there were several places where powerful people wanted him out of the White House.
“Lincoln is already beaten,” wrote Horace Greeley, the influential (although fickle) editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley recalled painfully, just a year earlier, and a week after the Union victory at Gettysburg, the New York draft riots, in which 1,000 people, including many police officers and blacks, were killed. He knew that pro-Union sentiment was not nearly as strong in parts of the country as it seemed to be in our state.
Greeley and several other newspaper editors and political leaders had begun organizing a convention to call for the removal of Lincoln from the Republican ticket – less than two months before the election.
“The people regard Mr. Lincoln’s candidacy as a misfortune. His apparent strength when nominated was fictitious, and now the fiction has disappeared, and instead of confidence there is distrust. I do not know a Lincoln man…” wrote Richard Smith of the Cincinnati Gazette.
The Iowa soldiers named at the top of this column all died in the battle for Atlanta, when William Sherman besieged the city for several weeks, and a long-grinding campaign claimed thousands of men on both sides.
But the sacrifice of many Union soldiers, including those area natives mentioned above, led to victory.
Sherman moved into Atlanta. Two days later, he sent a telegram to Washington, saying “Atlanta is fairly won.”
The Union victory in Atlanta was a major milestone, both in terms of military strategy and national morale. Taking that city virtually sealed the deal; when Atlanta fell, the demise of the Confederacy was seen clearly for the first time. Northern voters could see the end of the war; southern leaders realized that they could no longer hold out and hope for a new President who would make peace on Southern terms.
“Opposition to Lincoln within his party melted in the bonfires of celebration,” wrote historian William Harper.
Lincoln easily won re-election; the war ended five months later.
But if the North had lost the Battle for Atlanta – or even if the South could have held on to that city until the 1864 election – history could have turned out very, very differently.
So, when you drive to Shellsburg to see the Benton County Freedom Rock and remember how we like to say that our veteran “saved” America with their sacrifice, it’s not just a cliché. A century and a half ago, when the fate of the nation – both on the battlefield and at the ballot box – was in jeopardy, our ancestors did their part to preserve the United States. And since then, millions more have served, thousands more have died and many made huge sacrifices, so we can be free.
And that beautiful new monument on Main Street in Shellsburg is a tribute to the men whose faces we see on that rock, and countless more – many of whom we will never see or name.
Benton County is home to three Medal of Honor recipients
According to the Medal of Honor Society, there are a total of 3,515 Medal of Honor recipients in the U.S., which has 3,144 counties. Benton County, however has more than its fair share of Medal of Honor recipients: Three.
Along with Calvin Titus, Benton County can boast of 1st Lt. James M. Elson, who was buried in Shellsburg after his death in 1864. He was wounded twice in the Civil War, once while carrying his company’s flag.
The other Medal of Honor recipient with Benton County connections is Coxswain John Hayes, a Blairstown native who was honored for manning a gun on the USS Kearsage, helping to sink the feared and legendary Confederate raider known as Alabama.
See more photos of the Benton Co. Freedom Rock HERE.
See the Freedom Rock Tour page HERE.
Learn more about the three faces of the Benton County Freedom Rock by clicking the links below: