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Geddes, James

Published onJul 30, 2021
Geddes, James

(March 19, 1827 – Feb. 21, 1887)

Quick Facts

James Geddes led the required military instruction at Iowa State through its early years. His influence was visible in students who became administrators.

Section 4 of the Morrill Act of 1862 establishing land grant institutions specifically stated to include military tactics in the instruction. An unpublished manuscript of the history of military instruction at Iowa State College written in 1921 highlighted a national policy depending on citizen soldiery for defense as a leading reason for including military instruction in the founding curriculum.

James Lorraine Geddes was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 19, 1827 to a British Officer Alexander Geddes[1] and Elizabeth Careless Geddes[2]. His family immigrated to Canada in 1837, when Geddes was 10. Geddes returned to Scotland in at the age of 16 in 1843 to live with relatives. In 1845, he moved to Calcutta, India to stay with an uncle and studied at the British military academy for two years. He was seven years an officer in the British Army. For his service, Geddes was awarded a medal and made a Colonel (1854-1857) of the Canadian cavalry.

He resigned his post in Canada and moved to a farm near Vinton, Iowa after marrying Margaret Moore on October 14, 1856. In addition to farming, Geddes taught at a country school and drilled the local company, what became Company D of the 8th Iowa Infantry. When the Civil War commenced and the company was mustered on Sept. 16, 1861, he was a commissioned Captain, then Lieutenant Colonel. He was given charge as Colonel of the Iowa 8th Infantry in February 1862. During the war, he fought at Shiloh and was wounded and taken prisoner (1862-1863) by the Confederate Army. After being released, Geddes went on to fight at Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. He was briefly sent to Brownsville, Texas and then to Memphis, Tennessee where he was the Provost-Marshall of the district. He was promoted to Brigadier General (1865) following his last major battle in Mobile, Alabama, where his brigade helped capture a Spanish Fort. He resigned from service on June 30, 1865.

Geddes returned to Vinton and became Superintendent of the Iowa Institution for the Education of the Blind (1867-1869).

Brigadier General James L. Geddes, treasurer, 1884-87; Professor of Military Science and Tactics, 1870-84, no artist. Oil on canvas. Gift of the decedents of James Geddes. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U99.21

Location: Iowa State University, Armory, Army R.O.T.C. Room

He then joined the staff of the Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). A year later, he was made Professor of Military Tactics and Engineering. His salary was “board and $1,400 per year” in the president’s report that year. His courses drilled in field artillery and included exercises in broad and small sword. He would go on to add engineering, gunnery and ordinance.

Despite the founders’ and state’s intentions for all male students to drill, other duties and departments on the working college farm took precedence. Geddes’ duties were also diverse and encroached on his military instruction time. The state provided muskets, rifles, cavalry sabers, belts and ammunition, along with one bass and three tenor drums, but no safe place to store them. Nonetheless, Geddes had a lasting impact on many of the school’s initial classes, and the military bearing from his instruction was noticeable in campus figures such as Hermann Knapp and O.H. Cessna.

During his time at the College, Geddes was also Acting President (1877-1878), Treasurer (1880-1883), and would retire from Military Instruction in 1882 to remain as Treasurer, Recorder, and Land Agent (1885-1887).

He married Margaret Moore October 14, 1856 and she passed away May 18, 1875. He then married Elizabeth Evans on April 14, 1876. He died at Ames, Iowa on February 21, 1887. He is buried in Evergreen, Cemetery, Vinton, Iowa.

A residence floor in Geoffroy Hall is named in his honor.

Selected Sources

Artifact and Preservation Blog, Parks Library, “1827 General Geddes Sword,” online.

James L. Geddes Papers, RS 13/16/11, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

Dictionary of American Biography Vol. IV Frances-Hibbard edited by Allen Johnson, etc. NY

Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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