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History of Iowa

Volume II

Chapter XXVII


The Gray-Beard Regiment


Pictures included in this chapter are: General John M. Corse and Lieutenant-Colonel. Jas. Redfield





            There were in Iowa large numbers of men past the age for military service who were anxious to serve the country during the War of Rebellion. They succeeded in obtaining authority through our State officials to organize a regiment of men over the age fixed by military regulations, for the performance of garrison and post service, which would relieve younger soldiers and thus add to the active army in the field. No purer patriotism was ever exhibited than that which prompted these men exempt by law, to thus serve their country in this great extremity. In the month of August, 1862, Secretary Stanton at the head of the War Department authorized the organization of such a regiment. The companies were soon raised, made up of men from forty-five to sixty-four years of age. It was officially known as the Thirty-seventh regiment but was universally called the “Gray-Beard Regiment.”


            Iowa alone of all the States in the Union raised a regiment of “gray beards.” Every Congressional District in the State was represented in the regiment. Stephen B. Shellady, who was sixty-one years of age, and had been Speaker of the House of Representatives, was a volunteer in its ranks. The field and staff officers were: George W. Kincaid, colonel; George R. West, lieutenant-colonel; Lyman Allen, major; David H. Goodno, adjutant; Prentice Ransom, quartermaster; John W. Finley, surgeon, and James H. White, chaplain. They went into camp at Muscatine but the regiment was not mustered into service until the middle of December. Early in January, 1863, it was sent to St. Louis, and as it marched through the streets General Curtis pronounced it one of the finest looking regiments he had seen in the service. The regiment remained in the city until the latter part of May guarding military prisons, when it moved out on the Pacific Railroad. In January, 1864, it was sent to Rock Island to guard prisoners at that place. In June the regiment was sent south to Memphis, Tennessee, where it was employed in guard and picket duty. On the 5th of July a detail of fifty men from the regiment, sent out to guard a supply train on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, was attacked by guerillas and Corporal Charles Young and Samuel Coburn were killed and two others wounded. From Memphis the regiment was sent to Indianapolis, Indiana, whence five companies were moved to Cincinnati under Colonel Kincaid, three under Lieutenant-Colonel West being stationed at Columbus, and the other two at Gallipolis, Ohio, where they remained until the middle of May, 1865, when the regiment was united at Cincinnati. On the 20th the regiment was united at Cincinnati. On the 20th the regiment started for Davenport, where it was mustered out of the service on the 24th. During the two and a half years of service the regiment had lost from death by disease one hundred thirty-four members; two were killed in battle and three wounded. The patriotic services were appreciated by the commander, as will be seen by the following letter from General Willich, the last officer under whom they served:


Head-Quarters, Cincinnati, Ohio, May 13, 1865

Brigadier-General L. Thomas, Adjutant-General U. S. Army


            General:--I have the honor to submit the following for your consideration: The Thirty-seventh Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry, called the Gray-Beards, now on duty at this post, consists exclusively of old men—none under forty-five years of age and many over sixty. After the men of this regiment had devoted their sons and grandsons, numbering 1,300 men, to the service of their country their patriotism induced them to enlist themselves for garrison duty, thus enabling the Government to send the young men to the front. Officers and men would cheerfully remain in the service as long as they are wanted, though they are very badly needed at home to save the next harvest, most of them being farmers. I most respectfully submit to you whether there is any necessity now to hold these old men under such heavy sacrifices. They have received the commendation of their former post commanders. At this post they have very heavy duties, which to perform would even have been difficult for an equal number of young men. The high patriotism displayed by these men in devoting a few years of their old age to their country’s service is unparalleled in history, and commands the respect of every true republican.


            I therefore most respectfully recommend that the Thirty-seventh Iowa Volunteers may be mustered out of the service immediately, with the honors and acknowledgments of their services due to the noble spirit with which they gave so glorious an example to the youths of their country.


Very respectfully, etc.

J. Willich, Brigadier-General, Commanding


            General Willich’s request was granted and the regiment was mustered out. The command was disbanded; the patriotic survivors returned to their homes. Many members of this noble regiment had broken down under the hardships of the field and camp and survived but a short time. Their superb patriotism can never be forgotten in the annals of Iowa. To the latest generation the story of the services and sacrifices of the “Gray-Beards” in the War of the Rebellion will be an inspiration to the young.


The Thirty-Eighth Iowa Infantry


            This regiment was raised in the old Third Congressional District; four companies in Fayette County, two in Winneshiek, two in Bremer, and the remainder in Chickasaw and Howard. They went into camp at Dubuque in August, 1862, numbering eight hundred thirty-two men. The regiment was not fully organized until early in November. The field officers were Colonel David H. Hughes; Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph O. Hodnutt; Major Charles Chadwick, and Adjutant H. W. Pettit. Having remained in camp some time for drill the regiment was first sent to St. Louis, where its equipment was received. On the 2d of January the regiment was sent to New Madrid with orders to rebuild the barracks and put the town in condition for defense. Her it remained undisturbed until June. On the 7th of that month it departed for Vicksburg, joining General Herron’s Division. On the 15th the command took a position on the left of the investing army and from that time until the surrender was engaged in the duties of the siege. The position of the regiment was on the borders of a cypress swamp, which proved to be a very unhealthy place, producing a great among of sickness, resulting in many deaths. On the12th of July the regiment embarked with General Herron’s forces on the Yazoo city expedition was later sent to Port Hudson, where it was in camp about three weeks during which time almost the entire regiment was prostrated by sickness. At one time only eight officers and twenty men were fit for duty. The encampment was for a long time merely a hospital filled with the sick and dying. Among those who died were Colonel Hughes, Captain Henry A. Tinkham and Lieutenant George H. Stephens, all gallant officers whose untimely deaths were a great loss to the regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Hodnutt being absent on sick leave the command was assumed by Major Chadwick. The remnant of the regiment was moved from Port Huron about the middle of August and went into convalescent camp at Carrollton, Louisiana, remaining about two months, regaining health and strength. When General Banks began his Texas expedition the Thirty-eighth joined Herron’s command and one the 23d of October embarked for Brazos Santiago. From there the army marched to Brownsville and there remained on garrison duty until the latter part of July when the town was evacuated by the Union Army. The regiment returned by transport to New Orleans and was from there sent to the army operating against Mobile. Here the command remained, taking part in the siege, until some time after the surrender of Fort Morgan. The regiment then returned to New Orleans and Lieutenant-Colonel Hodnutt was ordered to Donaldsonville, Louisiana. On the 12th of December, 1864, General Canby issued an order for the consolidation of the Thirty-fourth and Thirty-eighth Iowa regiments into the Thirty-fourth Iowa Volunteers and the Thirty-eighth Iowa is a sad and pathetic one, beyond that of any other that went from our State. Before it had been in existence two years more than three hundred members had died of disease in the unhealthy camps where it had been stationed or on the march, and more than one hundred had been discharge on account of illness. There were many long dreary weeks when disease and death brooded over the camp and there were not enough well to care for the sick and to bury the dead. Finally, with decimated ranks the regiment itself yielded to a hard fate, passed out of existence and sadly saw its survivors transferred to another. The Thirty-eighth was made up of as brave men as ever marched from Iowa, but fate decreed that it should achieve no heroic deeds on the field of battle, where amid shot and shell noble sacrifices are made and undying glory won; but in dreary camps devoted men were stricken with disease which carried them to a soldier’s lonely grave.


            While other more fortunate regiments have emblazoned upon their banners the names of historic fields where fame was won in fierce, deadly strife, the martyr regiment, deprived of these emblems, will not be forgotten by a grateful posterity.


The Thirty-ninth Iowa Infantry


            This regiment was made up of two companies each from the counties of Madison, Polk and Dallas, with one each from the counties of Clarke, Greene, Des Moines and Decatur, although other counties were represented in most of the companies. Nine of the companies went into camp near Des Moines in September, 1862, and began drill, but the regiment was not organized until November. H. J. B. Cummings was commissioned colonel; James Redfield, lieutenant-colonel; Joseph M. Griffiths, major and George C. Tichenor, adjutant. On the 13th of December the regiment started for the south, stopping for a few days at Cairo, Columbus and at Jackson, Tennessee, marching from there to Trenton. Here two brigades were organized to move against General Forrest. Colonel C. L. Dunham of the Fiftieth Indiana commanded the Union army holding its position with great bravery until General Sullivan came up with heavy reinforcements, when the Confederates were routed the Thirty-ninth was under heavy fire for several hours and fought bravely. Misapprehending an order at one stage of the battle, the regiment was four killed, thirty-three wounded and eleven missing. Among the wounded were Lieutenant-Colonel Redfield, Major Griffiths, Captain Brown and Lieutenant Rawles. On the 29th about one hundred men of the regiment, worn out on the march in attempting to return to Trenton, were captured at Shady Grove and suffered an imprisonment of nearly ten months. In January, 1863, the regiment moved to Corinth and was there assigned to the Third Brigade in the division commanded by General G. M. Dodge of Iowa. Headquarters were in Corinth for nearly a year, with an occasional march into the adjacent country. The regiment was with Colonel Streight in his raid into Alabama, returning to Corinth. Company H in April being sent a few miles from Corinth to guard a corral, was surrounded by several hundred of the enemy’s cavalry, the captain and most of his men captured. During the remainder of the year the regiment was employed in Tennessee guarding lines of railroad and similar duties. In the spring of 1864, the Thirty-ninth joined Sherman’s army at Gordon’s Mills, and from this time until it reached Kingston our regiment marched and fought on the right wing. It led the army in the flanking movement by Calhoun, which caused the evacuation of Resaca by the Confederates. Here it was engaged with superior numbers and was extricated form a position of great peril by the arrival of reinforcements. The regiment remained at Rome doing garrison duty until October when, joining the forces under General John M. Corse, it participated in the


Brilliant Defense of Allatoona


          General Hood in command of the Confederate army was now moving northward and sent a force of cavalry to cut Sherman’s communication near Marietta, while with the main army he crossed the Chattahoochee and marched on Dallas. A large force of the enemy, after destroying the railroad at Big Shanty, moved against Allatoona Pass, where there were immense stores of rations for Sherman’s army guarded by the Ninety-third Illinois under Lieutenant-Colonel Tourtelotte. General John M Corse was at Rome with his division. General Sherman signaled him to re-enforce Allatoona Pass and hold it at all hazards. Early on the morning of October 5th Corse was there with 2,000 men, including the Thirty-ninth Iowa under Lieutenant-Colonel Redfield. Soon after daylight General French had the works completely invested and sent Corse a summons to surrender, which was promptly declined. An assault was then ordered and the Confederate army rushed upon the outer works with the utmost fury. A deadly fire was opened upon them by the garrison making great gaps in their lines which were promptly filled, and one of the most deadly combats of the war ensued. The enemy charge by regiments and brigades and the struggle over the rifle pits and outer works was of the most desperate character. After three hours of hard fighting Sherman became anxious as to the result and signaled from mountain top to mountain top “Hold the fort, I will help you.” Corse signaled back his grim reply and the battle increased in fury. Having failed to break our lines by repeated charges of brigades the Confederates now came on in mass. Wrought up to the highest pitch of desperation on both sides the combat became of the most deadly nature. Men bayoneted each other over the rifle pits and officers thrust their swords into the bodies of their foes. Corse received a severe wound in his face and became insensible, when Colonel Rowell of the Seventh Illinois assumed command and directed the battle with skill and courage until he, too, fell severely wounded. Corse having revived, now resumed command and the garrison  was driven into two forts. At two o’clock the crisis of the hard-fought battle came. The garrison was weakened by long hours of the most desperate fighting and the loss of many brave men, but there was no thought of surrender. The Confederates now formed in compact masses for another assault. Our gunners double-shotted their field pieces and waited until the enemy was within a few paces, then opened upon the crowded ranks with grape and canister. Nothing could stand against the deadly missiles; staggered and confused they halted, then broke and finally turned and fled. The great victory was won but at a fearful cost. More than seven hundred of the brave defenders fell in the heroic struggle.


            No regiment at Allatoona Pass fought with greater gallantry than the Thirty-ninth Iowa. In the early part of the battle it was posted some three hundred yards from the principal forts which had been constructed for the defense of the place. Here the enemy made the most determined attacks which were several times repulsed. At length the regiment fell slowly back to cover of the forts, where it fought with courage and obstinacy never surpassed. The losses in killed, wounded and captured were one hundred and sixty-five and among the slain was the heroic commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Redfield. He was first wounded in the foot but retained his command; a second shot shattered his leg but he still refused to leave his post, and directed the fight encouraging his men by example and words to hold their ground. A third ball pierced his heart and Iowa lost one of its noblest and bravest officers. Lieutenants O. C. Ayers, A. T. Blodgett, N. P. Wright and J. P Jones were also killed and O. D> Russell was severely wounded. The Thirty-ninth was in the division with Corse in Sherman’s march to Savannah and participated in that wonderful campaign to the end.


            It was in the grand review at Washington at the close of the war and was mustered out of the service in that city on the 5th of June, 1865.


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