It has long been an untold story. Nameless boys with blank faces fighting for their country—and struggling for their lives. We’ve heard about the generals and the battles of the Civil War, but the millions of young men that served are often forgotten. But it’s the mission of senior history major Tony Pearson, a nontraditional student working on campus as a maintenance supervisor for Facilities Planning and Management, never to forget the soldiers’ sacrifices.
For two years, Pearson has been tracking information on Central College students that enlisted in the war, before being sucked down a “rabbit hole” of information on the Ruckman brothers; the two young men, John and Joseph, attended Central in the 1860s before giving their lives for a greater cause.
IT’S ALL RELATIVE
It didn’t take long for Pearson to discover a passion for history. With a minimal educational background, he was looking to get an education for his four children. Central provided the opportunity for Pearson to get his degree. And after taking a Civil War class with Mark Barloon, senior lecturer of history, he realized that he could do so much more than just research papers.
“For the class, we did some projects that were reviewed by the history department,” Pearson says. “They picked several of us to go in and do some special assignments. My assignment was to research five regiments in Iowa from the Civil War—the 3rd, 8th, 33rd and 40th infantries, as well as the 4th Iowa Cavalry.”
Spending hours researching at the State Historical Building in Des Moines, University of Iowa and in Mahaska, Marion and Jasper counties proved fruitful. The research he did led him to the Knoxville historical building, where fate would take over.
“When I walked in, I met a lady named Bev Jones, who asked if she could help. I gave her a list of things I was looking for, and I mentioned John and Joseph Ruckman,” says Pearson with a smile. “She stopped what she was doing, and turned to me saying, ‘Tony, those are my family members.’”
Stunned, Pearson talked with Jones, digging up information on the brothers. Weeks later, he met with Jones again and was introduced to a direct-blood relative, Wilma Becker. She is the great-granddaughter of Ben Ruckman, brother to John and Joseph. “From that point on, we started going through some of her stuff, and she had several letters and pictures that had never been seen by anyone but family,” Pearson says. “I was pretty excited—I had felt the bloodline.”
Things started to snowball—Pearson was soon caught up in the two brothers who attended Central College.
Before attending Central and enlisting in the war, the Ruckman brothers and family took on the rough journey from Kentucky to Iowa in the 1850s. It took them several days to cross the Ohio River, and after reaching their destination, they had no home. The family stayed with friends until the house was built, which stood until 1919.
As young adults, John and Joseph took education seriously. Their parents read to them every night by the fireplace, but the boys wanted to be “wandering adventurers.” Joseph accomplished that goal and began traveling. John spent his time getting his education at Central. Their letters back and forth for 16 months revealed tastes in books, parties and stories about stealing chickens.
As he delved deeper into his rabbit hole, Pearson found a lock of hair from an aunt and letters from home, old neighbors, a girlfriend and even a few from Albert Hobbs, John’s roommate at Central and captain of the 3rd regiment, Co. B of the Iowa Volunteer Infantry. (A statue in his likeness stands in Pella’s Central Park.) But it was letters about the state of the country that drew his attention.
News of starvation, illness and death from friends and family in Kentucky reached the Ruckmans in Iowa. After spending so much time researching Iowans, Pearson was touched by the letters from others struggling around the nation.
“It was interesting to feel what was going on in other parts of the country,” he says. “We spent so much time on the Iowa boys, but it was the same thing in other parts of the country—everybody was sick. There were no medicines to help these people.”
Sickness didn’t affect the Ruckmans’ immediate family, but something just as devastating rocked Central. As members of the class of 1862, neither of the boys would graduate. Just as Joseph returned to school in May 1861, Lincoln called for troops.
BEGINNINGS OF WAR
According to Pearson, Iowans overwhelmed the Union Army. Men were turned away because they couldn’t equip all the volunteers. Among those who joined up were 45 Central students and one faculty member.
The college was left with two men unable to fight, two administrators and professors and 40 female students. Faculty went months without being paid, and some offered classes from their homes to keep costs low.
It was the same all around the country—men fought against cousins and brothers, left wives and children alone. John and Joseph enlisted and served in the 3rd Iowa Infantry. The regiment had old weapons from the Mexican War and was highly inexperienced. They were restless, hungry and eager for battle, but the chance of seeing action seemed slim. Until chasing a few Confederate soldiers down a Missouri road turned into an ambush of 4,000 men. With only 500 men in the regiment, a swift defeat was inevitable.
John and Joseph survived the sudden battle, as well as the Battle of Shiloh, and were promoted to captain and 2nd lieutenant, respectively. However, the tone of their letters took an unnerving turn.
“After Shiloh, their letters home changed. It was kind of eerie. It wasn’t about ‘How are you?’ anymore,” says Pearson. “It was about the reality of what they saw and the death and destruction. It changed how they thought. It was almost robotic.”
On July 12, 1863, the brothers would march on Jackson, Miss. As the front line of the brigade pushed forward toward the Confederate Army, it wasn’t lost on the soldiers that they may perish. The smoke cleared after the futile front assault, and the men were lost. One of the conflicting reports say Joseph was never found—only his sword. John was wounded and died the next day.
“There were a million of these men,” Pearson says, shaking his head. “They were the flowers of our country. They asked for nothing and gave everything.”
BACK TO THE COMMUNITY
The Ruckmans were devastated. They had given up their sons to save the United States. And there were many more families in the surrounding communities with the same news. Central College was a fledgling school that could barely keep its doors open with few students and faculty to maintain it. Today, Pearson looks back at the history, hoping our community won’t forget their sacrifice.
“People need to look back at history and learn from it,” he says. “Don’t forget those women and men and those communities who gave everything they had, even their own family members to save our country.”
To make sure that doesn’t happen, Pearson recently exhibited an audio version of the Ruckman story at the Civil War exhibit at the Scholte House. He had actors read letters from the brothers and other soldiers to bring them to life. In addition to taking part in the exhibition, Pearson is creating a 30-minute documentary about his findings for his final project.
“I don’t like writing papers,” he says with a smile. “So a documentary was right up my alley. I want to let people know about the past in the community in which they live. I want people to remember this through a family, the Ruckmans, a family just like you and I have.”
To help reach this goal, Pearson has a bold idea to bring the Ruckmans back to campus—right outside the history department in Jordan Hall.
“I’m a dreamer, and I would love statues of John and Joseph standing side by side in the sunflowers,” says Pearson. “What better way to remember their Central legacy?
“I want to bring the boys home, to the college and the community. We as a community owe it to the Ruckmans to make their lives known,” he says with a smile. “We need to bring them home.”