George Washington Healey, Dubuque’s Civil War Medal of Honor winner, was a nineteen-year-old hardware store clerk when the war broke out in 1861. He immediately enlisted in the Union Army and was assigned to the Fremont Hussars attached to General Curtis’ Division. Later, in 1862, the regiment became Company E of the Fifth Iowa Volunteer Cavalry. Healey survived a head wound in combat at Guy’s Gap in the Chattanooga Campaign that would leave him partially blind in one eye. He also endured a seven-month incarceration at the notorious Confederate prison known as Andersonville before being part of a prisoner exchange.
Perhaps some of the most memorable of Healey’s wartime experiences occurred near the end of the war. On January 25, 1865, Healey and twenty soldiers from his regiment spent four days in a Rebel camp near Tupelo, MS. The men had orders to ride as an escort for a flag of truce, which brought Union soldiers and Rebels together. Healey wrote home to his family in Dubuque:
“I saw a great many Rebels and talked with them and they want peace on any terms. That is the private soldier – and it is my impression that this war will come to a close by spring. This is what the Rebels say – they don’t think there will be another fight.”
Less than three months after Healey’s letter, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, bringing the Civil War to a close. Unfortunately, recently promoted Corporal Healey and his regiment didn’t hear of the surrender and continued fighting at Selma and Montgomery, AL. They fought their last battle at Columbus, GA, before finally learning the war was over.
On May 11, 1865, Healey wrote, “And now we are resting and the bloody war is over and thank God we all expect to be home very soon.” But Healey and some 100 men from his regiment had one last important task ahead of them. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, was captured near Fitzgerald, GA, on May 10, 1865, and Healey and the others were ordered to escort Davis, along with his wife and two daughters, from Atlanta to Augusta, GA.
Healey found himself unable to take his eyes off Jefferson Davis and reported to his family back home, “He seemed to take it perfectly easy for one which will suffer death.”
Healey described the journey to Augusta:
“On our way down at every station were large numbers of Rebel soldiers and citizens to see if it was true that he, Jeff Davis, was our prisoner. The Rebs would then ask us what we were going to do with him, and the answer they would get would be to hang him, and hang he will no doubt – the scoundrel, traitor, and rascal. Although he and his family were treated with Respect by us.”
When the Davis family and their escorts reached the Augusta depot, they were met by thousands who wanted to greet Jefferson Davis. The Union soldiers separated Davis and his wife from their two daughters and put them in different carriages. Healey wrote, “This, I think, was done to keep him from trying to make his escape, and of course, it had its desired effect which brought tears to their eyes. I did not think the hard-hearted devil could cry!”
Healey mustered out along with his regiment on August 9, 1865, at Edgefield, TN. In his final letter home he wrote:
“I’ve just been thinking of the length of time I have been in the service – which is three years, 11 months, and 7 hours exactly to a dot. They [the years] were long and dreary and many a day I was Homesick, but I would not say anything to anybody about it. Enough of this, and now I am a free man again.”
When Healey returned to Dubuque, he joined his brother Edward in the firm of W.C. Chamberlain, and in 1876, the two formed a successful partnership in the hardware and seed business under the name Healey Bros. Healey married Mary Moser in 1868, and together they had a son, Edward, and two daughters, May and Maud. In 1896, Healey had an impressive duplex built at 701 and 703 Bluff St. near Washington Park. George, his wife, and daughter May lived on one side, and Edward and his family lived next door.
In 1899, Healey was awarded a Medal of Honor for an act that took place on July 29, 1864, at Newnan, GA. The citation read, “When nearly surrounded by the enemy, [he] captured a Confederate soldier, and with the aid of a comrade who joined him later, captured four other Confederate soldiers, disarmed the five prisoners, and brought them all into the Union lines.”
Healey became a leader in the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a fraternal organization composed of Union Army veterans. He never forgot his service with the Union Army and his suffering in Andersonville prison. Healey commented about the day he was released from the stockade, “When us Yankee soldiers saw our dear old flag, it caused many of the boys to weep for joy to think we were back in God’s country and under dear Old Glory again.”
To memorialize his incarceration, Healy had two Georgia pine stockade posts shipped from Andersonville to Dubuque sometime after the war. He planned to make them into furniture, but instead, gave slices to fellow GAR veterans and displayed the remaining relics in his hardware store window.
Healey suffered a paralyzing stroke at his hardware store in March of 1913. He died eight weeks later on May 9 at the age of 71. Following a well attended funeral in the home he had built for his family, George Washington Healey was buried in Linwood Cemetery.