One-hundred seventy-six years after James and Martha Littleton brought their children to southeast Iowa, the story of this pioneer family's profound misfortune is being honored for the first time. A monument is being dedicated next week in memory of an epic loss going back to the Civil War.
A gleaming 25,000 pound black granite monolith was lowered into place in April, along the Great River Road in the modest little town of Toolesboro. It revives bleak memories of a more famous wartime tragedy. Dan Lilli, who is with Watts Vault and Monument Company, helped design the memorial.
"In my lifetime, the only thing I've ever known was the Sullivan brothers, the family from Waterloo that lost their five sons in World War II," he said. "Now we have six boys from the small community of Toolesboro, Iowa, which is southeast of Wapello, and they gave their life during the Civil War, all six, so their entire family is wiped out."
The Littleton brothers all enlisted: George, John, Thomas, William, Kendall, and Noah. They died from battlefield injuries, disease, in prison, and in a ferry boat accident. The story gradually dribbled out two years ago after Louisa County historians began to connect the dots. It started with a forgotten newspaper clipping discovered by Tom Woodruff, a veteran of the Korean War.
"As far as we know, it's the largest loss of life from any one immediate family in the history of all U.S. wars," he said. "Occasionally you find a story that you don't have any choice, it's the right thing to do. To have this kind of heritage, I think it means a lot to the family."
The brothers left behind four sisters and today's descendants had never heard of the family's sacrifice more than 150 years ago. Jake and Jennifer Shoppa from Muscatine are the great, great, great, great grandkids of Permelia Littleton.
"No, we did not know anything about it. The story had completely died out," Jake Shoppa said.
Jennifer Shoppa added, "You know, they all worked the farm together and then one day they all left. Yea, there's a lot of pride there."
Jake Shoppa finds the story amazing.
"The context of being American and having the six boys who all went to serve for the Union in the Civil War to help end slavery, wow," he said. "That would be the first thing I would say, was wow."
This modern day headline from a war that ended in 1865 is getting critical recognition; documentary maker Ken Burns is aware of it and Des Moines historian John Busbee has been commissioned to write a book.
"As people hear about the story, it's not just so much about the Littletons, but I think it's about the legacy of what the Civil War privates and soldiers did, because that was the foundation of the Army," Busbee said. "It wasn't the officers, it was the boots on the ground front line people that so many families with their decedents connected to the Civil War can identify with."
The granite monument is sheared off at the top, symbolizing lives cut short. The design was conceived by Iowa City artist Will Thomson.
"The feeling that I want to try and impart has to do with, I guess, reverence for their valor and dedication," he said. "The drawing represents six soldiers who are disappearing into the fog of war. I think this particular monument has to be sobering and awe inspiring at the same time."
The newly-landscaped memorial is located next to another Louisa County landmark; a set of Native American burial mounds. Organizers expect a large crowd of Iowans on Flag Day, including dignitaries and Littleton family ancestors, when the monument is dedicated next Tuesday afternoon.