DAKOTA CITY, Nebraska | Sophronia Smith served in an Iowa Civil War regiment from Pottawattamie County. She dressed as a man and carried a rifle, one of an estimated 400 women to aid the Union Army cause in that fashion.
Once discovered she was a woman, Army officers ordered her off the front line. She ended up serving as a nurse in her late teens, getting to those injured in battle. Her husband, John Smith, had a leg blown off and died in the war. A grieving Sophronia returned to Iowa.
The details come from Shirley Sides, a historian who focuses on the people and places in and around Dakota City, Nebraska, her home. Sides' interest and pursuit helped get a headstone in place for this Civil War veteran on Veterans Day some 88 years after her death.
"They asked if the stone should say Civil War nurse," Sides said. "I said, 'Heck no! It darn well better say, 'Civil War veteran.'"
It does. The stone, courtesy of Luken Memorials in Sioux City, was put into place on Veterans Day with a number of local veterans present and a descendant of Sophronia, who left Iowa and married John Hunt, a corporal who fought for the Union side before returning to Nebraska to homestead 3 miles east of Jackson following the conflict.
Sophronia Hunt had eight children with John Hunt. She died at or around age 81. Sadly, only one of her children, a Mrs. Moog, of Seattle, Washington, was living at the time of her death. And that child didn't live nearby, so Sophronia was buried next to her husband, presumably in a gown she made in 1913 that would serve as a burial shroud. She didn't get a headstone, though.
The obituary Sides unearthed comes from the Aug. 9, 1928, edition of the South Sioux City Eagle newspaper. It notes that young Sophronia's use of a manly disguise in the Civil War hid her identity for one month of fighting.
"She carried a gun just as other soldiers did," Sides said with conviction. "But she didn't have a headstone all these years."
Sides began to unravel this mystery after an appointment at the Dakota City Cemetery was delayed 35 minutes. Sides was there to help reset stones one chilly March morning when the headstone of John Hunt caught her eye. She knew members of Hunt's extended family and their long history as farmers near Dakota City. It bugged her that his wife's headstone was nowhere to be found.
"I went to Dakota City Hall to get the records of the purchase of the burial lot and then the burial record itself," she said.
She then located the obituary for Sophronia and tracked down burial records, one noting the purchase of two plots at Lot 27, Block 2, West Addition of the Dakota City Cemetery. The last line of the 1928 obituary notes that Sophronia was buried in the Dakota City Cemetery "besides (sic) her husband."
It likely helped that Sides has a passion for history and an inclination to serve her community, as evidenced by her work as a member of the Dakota City Cemetery Board.
"There was no marker to tell anyone of her heroic effort in the Civil War, or even where her body lies," she said.
Sides changed all that by documenting all she had found and turning it over to Brigadier Gen. Judd Lyons, Nebraska Adjutant General.
Members of the Dakota City American Legion turned out for a short headstone ceremony last Friday. Scott Morgan of nearby Allen, Nebraska, a descendant of Hunts, showed up in his military uniform as well.
"And then we had a guy who was driving to Tyson pull in," Sides said. "It was a spur-of-the-moment thing for him. He was driving by, saw us gathered there and told us that this is how things should be!"