Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Littleton brothers: Monument will pay tribute to 6 Iowa siblings who gave all for their country

Detail of planned Littleton Brothers monument (Courtesy Will Thomson)

Iowa's six Littleton brothers – George, John, Kendall, Noah, Thomas and William – stay together as they rush uphill into battle, their forms disappearing in the fog of the Civil War.

Their fate will become lost for nearly 150 years -- until the perusal of a scrapbook filled with old newspaper clippings gives hint to an incredible story.

A May 1907 article in the Columbus (Iowa) Gazette, cited this month in the Iowa History Journal, mentioned those in Louisa County who served.

“The Lyttleton (sic) family were less fortunate. Of the six brothers, only one lived to return and he shortly died of disease contracted in the service.”

This Thursday (Sept. 25) in Wapello, the Louisa County Historical Society formally launches its campaign to raise $250,000 to build a memorial to the brothers. A towering granite monument will contain an engraving of the six brothers going into a fight.

In doing so, officials and descendants are rescuing from obscurity the story of a family that moved from Maryland to Ohio and then to the small farming community of Toolesboro, in southeastern Iowa, not far from the Mississippi River.

Site plans call for six oak trees, other features in Toolesboro (W. Thomson)

Janie Blankenship, associate editor of VFW Magazine, told the Picket it is believed that with six deaths, the Littleton family had the most sons to die during an American war.

“It is a Civil War story that for some reason has been missed,” said Ed Bayne, a member of the historical society. “Any time you have six brothers who gave their life in conflict, it’s worth some mention.”

The young Federal soldiers fought in three Iowa regiments, with George serving with an Illinois unit across the river.

Kendall was killed in battle. John died of wounds. Thomas was captured and died at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia. William succumbed to disease. George was discharged for an illness after he was paroled from a prison. He is believed to have died within a few months.

And Noah, the youngest, drowned when he was washed away from a Union transport while crossing the White River in Missouri.

Magazine provides details of each man's military service

A comrade wrote of the horrible moment: 

“The river presented a scene I do not again wish to witness -- men and mules struggling in the water for life, many clinging to the sunken boat -- the water was icy cold & the current setting from the shore required a superhuman effort to reach it. While we as gazers … could render no assistance & be only witnesses of their death struggle.”

The monument won’t be paying tribute to generals or those who received medals. Rather, it is to six men who enlisted to fight for something they believed in.

It was designed by Will Thomson, who has an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. Thomson, a North Carolinian who works in Iowa City, is a member of the Quakers, a group opposed to war and violence.

“It is not about that for me,” he said. “It is about belief and sacrifice. It is about courage, unity and about simple, ordinary people.”

The new story begins with a scrapbook

About four years ago, Rosalee Thomas of Raleigh, N.C., gave a copy of the scrapbook to Tom Woodruff, her late husband’s boyhood friend. Woodruff, of Davenport, Iowa, is a member of the Louisa County Historical Society and chairman of the Littleton Monument Commission.

Thomas’ grandmother had kept articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s about people and events in Louisa County. One of two of those clippings made a reference to the “Lyttleton” brothers.

Members of the Louisa County Historical Society asked Janice Hoelhe (pronounced Hayley) to put her research and genealogy skills to work. She reviewed the short newspaper article.

“I looked at it and saw it could just as easily be Littleton,” said Hoehle, who found the Littleton family name in the 1856 census.

She did further research at the courthouse and on the Internet, giving Woodruff and Bayne a boost in tracking down detailed service records and more about the family’s background. Bayne and Woodruff later co-authored a booklet, “Brothers in War.”

At first, the society had little reference material from which to work. The State Historical Society of Iowa, while it has information on Civil War units and soldiers, had not published anything about the Littletons.

The local society, led by Woodruff, began its odyssey of discovery.

Permelia Vanlaningham (Nicewanner family)

Descendants of the brothers knew virtually nothing about their story before Woodruff and others began digging around.

The brothers had three, perhaps four, sisters.

One of them, Permelia S. Vanlaningham, was the twin of Kendall. She died in 1929 at age 85.

She apparently never told anyone about her brothers’ Civil War service, said Julie Wagner, whose husband Scott is a great-great-great grandson of Permelia.

“You would have thought Permelia would have passed that down, unless it was such a painful subject for her. Veterans sometimes don’t talk. She did not pass it on.”

Research on family's background

James and Martha Littleton, the boys' parents, moved to Louisa (Lew-I-zuh) County in about 1840, six years before Iowa became a state. The young Littleton brothers likely helped on a 200-acre farm.
Toolesboro used to be a busy hub, said Wagner, who lives in Illinois City, Ill.

The 1860 census that shows the family was listed as mulatto, which traditionally refers to a person with one white parent and one black parent. There's debate today on that point.

The Littleton memorial will have a panel saying James came from free slave roots. “Records indicate Louisa County abolitionists had helped the family get settled there.”

But oral history within the Nicewanner family, as descendants of Permelia, states that James actually had Native American roots on one side, said Wagner. 

Doug Jones, an archaeologist and Iowa Freedom Trail project manager for the State Historical Society of Iowa, said the little information he has on the Littletons is “quite intriguing.”

“There was a mulatto settlement, and we don’t know much about the settlement.” 

Nicewanners, at reunion, are descendants of Permelia's grandson, Dana

While some communities welcomed such families, not all did, said Jones.

It is believed that Toolesboro did open its arms, and the boys served in white units. “Despite shades of color, we believe they were given the same advantages as others,” Woodruff said of the family.

Wagner said there was nothing unique about the Littleton brothers, “other than their willingness to sacrifice for their country and to fight for it.”

She made a reference to the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, who died aboard the same ship during World War II. Their story has long been remembered.

“I would like for this story to be as well-known,” said Wagner.

They fought to save union, end slavery

Grave of Thomas Littleton, center, (Andersonville NHS) in Georgia

Only one of the Littleton brothers, John, had children, and that daughter died before having any of her own. James and Martha Littleton died before the war.

Here’s what is known about each of the brothers’ service records (thanks to the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum for much of the following information):

-- George Handy Littleton: George, 33, a cooper, volunteered from service from nearby New Boston, Ill., in March 1862. He is described as having brown eyes and dark hair and complexion. He was with Company B of the 65th Illinois Infantry. Captured by Confederates at Harpers Ferry, W.V., he was later paroled and discharged for disability in Chicago, according to official records, for a disease contracted before service. Woodruff said other material indicates Littleton got sick while in service. “We do not have the exact date or know where we died,” said Woodruff.  The Columbus Gazette indicated George died soon after returning home. His grave has not been found.

-- John Littleton: Enlisted in August 1862 with Company F of the 19th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. He suffered a severe thigh injury during fighting at Prairie Grove, Arkansas, on Dec. 7, 1862. He died in Fayetteville, Ark., of wounds on December 18. It’s possible he may be buried among 800 unmarked graves at Fayetteville National Cemetery.

-- Kendall Littleton: Also of the 19th Iowa, Kendall was killed in action on Dec. 7, 1862, at Prairie Grove, Ark. His remains were likely later moved to Fayetteville National Cemetery, and are marked as unknown.

(Courtesy Springfield National Cemetery)

-- Noah Littleton: Survived the fighting at Prairie Grove but drowned March 1, 1863, in the White River in southern Missouri. His remains were disinterred and he is buried at Springfield (Mo.) National Cemetery. He, too, served in the 19th Iowa.

--Thomas Littleton: A member of the 5th Iowa, suffered a head wound at Iuka, Ms. He was taken prisoner in Chattanooga, Tenn., in November 1863. The private died of chronic diarrhea at Andersonville on June 16, 1864, and is buried at the national cemetery there.

-- William Littleton: A corporal with the 8th Iowa, William was wounded at Shiloh in 1862 and died in December 1863 of diarrhea at Jefferson Barracks, Mo. He is buried at the national cemetery there.

Borden House was scene of heaving fighting (Prairie Grove BSP)

John, Kendall and Noah fought at Prairie Grove on Dec. 7, 1862. A National Park Service summary describes a Union strategic victory. The Confederates tried to destroy two Union divisions before they joined forces. A ferocious battle, including cavalry attacks and canister fire, ended in a Rebel withdrawal and the establishment of Federal control of northwest Arkansas.

Alan Thompson, museum registrar, at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, said the 19th Iowa suffered 55 percent casualties within 15 minutes. 

“They made the first Federal attack up the hill where the Confederates were.”

Commanding officer Lt. Col. Samuel McFarland was struck nine times and knocked out of his saddle. “Their color guard was entirely wiped out.”

The 20th Wisconsin also saw huge casualties in the same attack, said Thompson, who has done research on the Littleton brothers.

Map of Prairie Grove battlefield, features (PGBSP)

Thompson and Woodruff have paid particular attention to the tragic end of Noah Littleton, who survived the battle only to drown with five others nearly three months later.

“(That story) touched me more than any other,” said Woodruff. He traveled to the river bank in Missouri.

Infantry and cavalry crossed the river despite concerns, wrote J. Irvine Dungan in "History of the Nineteenth Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry.”

“The river was very high. White river has at all times the swiftest current I ever saw in a stream of that size, and the water was very cold. When the boat was near the middle of the stream the guy ropes became disordered in some manner, and one of them broke, letting the boat swing around and giving it such a jerk that it broke in the middle, the ends sinking several feet in the water. Men began jumping off, the teams struggled and got entangled in the harness, the force of the current sweeping over the partially submerged boat soon breaking the remaining rope, and they were at the mercy of the stream, with no boat or skiff to aid them. We, their friends, were forced to stand upon the shore and see one after another in their death struggle throw up their arms and go down. Long will we hear the bubbling cry of some strong swimmer in his agony, and the swollen river covered with the forms of many brave soldiers. …”

Cemetery log contains name of Noah Littleton

Will this be final Civil War monument?

Today, Louisa County – with a population of nearly 12,000 -- is still farm country, with a few small industries and recreational facilities for hunting and fishing.

“We are really a rural area,” said Bayne. “There is not a stoplight in the county.” 

Frank Best, president of the Louisa County Historical Society, said his group for years produced a quarterly publication and remains active in community affairs. 

“It has been a fun story, the kind of thing that came out of the blue and no one was expecting it,” Best said of the Littleton project.

Thursday night’s program at the society’s heritage center in Wapello will include a model of the monument, which is meant to have benches, six oak trees and markers, and a small parking lot.

Detail of planned monument (Courtesy of Will Thomson)

Woodruff said about $20,000 in donations have come in, with the goal of $250,000. Funds will be raised this winter, with construction eyed for 2015 and a dedication in May 2016.

“It is probably the last Civil War monument probably ever to be built. It is a tragedy that came out of Louisa County,” he said, emphasizing it will be American-built and entitled “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” a phrase used by President Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.

The 11-foot monument made of Mesabi Black granite and gray granite will tower over the fields on old Highway 99, next to the Toolesboro Indian Mounds and not far from the old Littleton family homestead.

The Hopewellian mounds at Toolesboro are among the best-preserved and accessible remnants of an ancient culture flourishing from around 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., according to a website.

Thomson, the memorial designer, said the monument will be chiseled off, in a Victorian motif, to symbolize lives cut short. The oak trees will be planted in an arc, supplemented by native Iowa vegetation.

Like others, he said the story of the Littletons needs to be remembered and publicized.

“They saw they needed to make some kind of contribution,” said Thomson.

For more information on the project or to donate, contact the Louisa County Historical Society at (319) 527-5247 or write Louisa County Historical Society, 609 Highway 61, Wapello, Iowa. 52653.


  1. I am a Great Great Grand Daughter of Permelia Littleton. My Grand Mother spoke often of her family, her Grand Mother and the family's sacrifice during the Civil War. I wish I would have paid more attention to the saga. As a matter of fact the original portrait of Permelia as used in this article is displayed with love and respect in our home.

  2. Thanks for sharing your comment, Sandra.

  3. Sandra she also is my Great Grandmother. I was born raised in Rock Island,Il If you see this would love to talk Your Cousin Ken Jones.