The Twelfth Iowa Volunteer Infantry had made a name for themselves in the Civil War. Formed in Dubuque in 1861, the company left Iowa in November to spend two months in St. Louis before taking part in battles all over the South. They saw action in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama. They proudly represented Iowa at Fort Donelson and the Battle of Shiloh.
Years later at an 1879 reunion of the Twelfth little Florence Dunham, daughter of Lt. Abner Dunham, recited a poem written for the occasion. A few months after the reunion, the Dunham’s held a birthday party for Florence; and shortly before the party, she received a curious birthday card in the mail.
On one side was the poem that Florence had delivered at the reunion. It was the hand-written inscription on the back of the card that caused a stir: “Presented to the little heroine, Florence L. Dunham by Helene Violet B., the only ‘Fighting Woman’ (so far as known) who carried a gun and used it in the Twelfth Iowa Volunteer Infantry.”
Many men of the Twelfth were at Florence’s party, and they were stunned when they learned about the card. “Who could this woman be?” they asked. The men let it be known that they were eager to learn the identity of Helene Violet B. They encouraged her to come forward.
The mystery intensified when early in 1881 a letter signed by “Helene Violet B.” appeared in a Dubuque newspaper. The writer claimed to have served undetected throughout the war with the Twelfth disguising herself as a man. Some readers believed the letter to be a joke, written simply to “fool the boys.” But others took it seriously.
As plans were made to hold another reunion, the Twelfth’s Capt. J.H. Stibbs was determined to find Helene Violet B. and introduce her to the men. In May 1884 the Twelfth gathered at Manchester, and Capt. Stibbs offered an explanation for the mystery that had baffled the men for several years. The first day of the gathering he addressed the audience.
“When I first learned of this mysterious person, I was a good deal surprised to think that a woman had served for three long years with the Twelfth,” he said. “It is a well-established fact that there are persons who honestly believe that they have a dual existence and that there dwells within them the spirit of another who accompanies them through life,” Stibbs continued.
Such a person had served with the Twelfth, and he sat in the audience listening to the words of Capt. Stibbs. That man believed he carried the spirit of his sister, Helene Violet, and that she acted as his “guide and counsellor.” The soldier knew that he would be ridiculed by many, so he wished to remain anonymous.
Capt. Stibbs concluded, “I ask that you will make no further effort to learn the name of the soldier who represents Helene Violet B.”
According to the official report from the reunion, the old soldiers “warmly applauded” Capt. Stibbs’ speech and “repaired to the banquet room” where they enjoyed an elegant meal prepared by the ladies of Manchester.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a columnist who writes about the history of Iowa.