The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Wilkie, Franc Bangs
(July 2, 1832–August 13, 1892)

—farmer, blacksmith, newspaper reporter, and author—was born in West Charlton, New York. He ran away from home at age 13, but returned two years later and worked at blacksmithing while pursuing his education. He completed his course work at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

    After college, Wilkie became the editor of the Schenectady Daily Star for a short time, then moved to Davenport, Iowa, where he established the Daily Morning News in September 1856. Financial difficulties forced Wilkie's banker to sell the newspaper in early 1857. Married in the spring of 1857, a penniless Wilkie searched for employment while his wife, Ellen, lived with her parents in Illinois. Finding jobs scarce, Wilkie penned a campaign paper for Stephen A. Douglas; studied shorthand, which would prove to be invaluable to him as a newspaper reporter; and wrote Davenport Past and Present (1858), the first of his 15 books. In November 1858 he took a job as the city editor of the Dubuque Herald.

    The beginning of the Civil War catapulted Wilkie to prominence. Assigned to the First Iowa Infantry as the regiment's newspaper chronicler, Wilkie departed Dubuque in April 1861. Writing a series of letters to the Herald, Wilkie detailed the First Iowa Infantry's Service through the Battle of Wilson's Creek (August 10, 1861). His letters attracted the attention of the editor of the New York Times, who retained Wilkie for $7.50 per column, with expenses. Unfortunately, the Times never paid Wilkie, prompting the Iowan to send his first scoop to the Dubuque Herald. His account of the Battle of Wilson's Creek became an instant success across the county, prompting the Times to send Wilkie a monetary retainer.

    After Wilson's Creek, Wilkie returned briefly to Iowa, where he discovered that he was a local hero and celebrity. At the same time, he published his second, and probably most famous book, The Iowa First: Letters from the War (1861). Sharing the hardships and privation of the Iowa First, Wilkie's epistles home were full of camp news that reflected the excitement of the times but never wandered from the truth, which at times was not pleasant. The Iowa First established Wilkie as one of the premier newspapermen of the Civil War. It is still read today by Civil War enthusiasts and is considered one of the best examples of Wilkie's writings.

    Returning to Missouri, the now famous Iowan continued to report on the war, using the pen name "Galway" (after a New York town where he had previously lived). In September 1861 Wilkie traveled to Lexington, Missouri, and reported on the siege of that city by Confederate troops; but this time he did it from the Confederate side as he was captured and held briefly as a Union spy. Released by rebel General Sterling Price, Wilkie again made a sensation with his firsthand account of the Lexington affair. As with Wilson's Creek, his story was retold throughout the country.

    At the close of 1861, Wilkie left Missouri and followed Ulysses S. Grant's Federal army southward, reporting on the battles at Forts Henry and Donelson, after which he returned to Iowa for the last time. In July 1863 Wilkie accepted a job with the Chicago Times as an editorial writer. During his two years as a war correspondent, Wilkie received only one wound, and that was from friendly fire while on an expedition to Forsyth, Missouri, in July 1861.

    Wilkie's postwar activities included establishing the London bureau of the Chicago Times (1877), becoming the first president of the Chicago Press Club, and writing 13 more books. His most important works, besides those mentioned above, were Walks about Chicago (1869), Pen and Powder (1888), and Personal Reminiscences of Thirty-five Years of Journalism (1891). His last book, A Life of Christopher Columbus, was published in 1892, the year he died in Chicago.

    Richard Martin, an ardent student of Wilkie's writings and himself a newspaperman, wrote of Wilkie: "War correspondent and journalist; his bright sarcasm and wit make him a man you would like to meet.... Franc B. Wilkie will surprise you with his journalism. He writes as though he were a man from our times thrust back into the Civil War. You will find Wilkie's writing... strikingly modern and refreshing."Wilkie made his mark as one of the principal newspapermen of the Civil War era.
Sources include Richard Martin, "First Regiment Iowa Volunteers," Palimpsest 46 (1965), 1–59; and Michael E. Banasik, Missouri in 1861: The Civil War Letters of Franc B. Wilkie, Newspaper Correspondent (2001).
Contributor: Michael E. Banasik