An eccentric Iowa farmer raises a regiment of old-timers
with hopes of one dayleading them into battle.
BY BENTON McADAMS
The idea was a bold one: a regiment of old men in Union blue, risen from their comfortable parlors and front-porch rockers to rally ’round the flag. The sight of these ancient soldiers marching off to war would make young men blush with shame and send them running to the nearest recruiter. That was the idea, but the reality of the 37th Iowa Infantry was another story altogether.
The brainchild of a flamboyant, 50-year-old Iowa farmer named George W. Kincaid, the 37th Iowa Infantry seemed to be an answer to Iowa’s military leaders’ most pressing concerns. Early in 1862, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood and Adjutant General Nathaniel B. Baker fretted as Iowa’s once overwhelming recruitment numbers began to dwindle. Far to the east, the Civil War was entering its second year and showing every sign of becoming a long, costly fight. Kirkwood and Baker wanted the young men of Iowa to do their share and more to bring about victory for the Union. Even though the state was meeting its federal quota of volunteers, both men wanted higher enlistment figures. They favored conscription, but knowing that drafts–always unpopular–could have negative political consequences, they hoped for a better solution. Kincaid’s proposal for a regiment composed of men aged 45 years and up seemed to have promise, and Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton applauded the notion.
So it was that in the fall of 1862, Kirkwood named Kincaid colonel of the new regiment, the 37th Iowa–soon to be known as the “Greybeards” or the “Silver Greys.” Baker had every confidence the regiment would succeed in raising enlistments and in providing some level of service for the war effort. Like the eccentric Kincaid, Baker likened the soldiers of the 37th to children–their ages notwithstanding–and the colonel as their proud father. Baker wrote Kirkwood that Kincaid was “large as life, happy as a clam, and proud as a peacock.” Kincaid had reason to be proud; he had risen almost overnight from being a complete unknown, far removed from the action and glory of war, to holding a commissioned position of power in the Federal military. In his estimation, he was now half a step below God, and beholden to no one.
One of Kincaid’s first acts as an officer was to defy his commanders. As he began organizing his regiment, he ignored the age minimum, and allowed his officers to recruit any man willing to join. When the 37th was mustered into service in December, 86 underage soldiers took the oath, one of them only 15 years old. Citing the official age limits authorized for the unit, the mustering officer took exception, but in the end Kincaid kept the youngsters. This apparent victory did nothing to lessen his ego.
Recruitment began briskly for Kincaid. Every county in the eastern half of Iowa contributed men, as did a number of Illinois towns across the Mississippi River. Elderly would-be soldiers called the new regiment “a wonderful expression of loyalty and patriotism,” and despite a random sprinkling of youngsters, it was old men who made up the bulk of the unconventional unit. Many of the soldiers had served in the military before, some as far back as the War of 1812. Nearly 600 of the 914 officers and enlisted men in the 37th were more than 50 years old, 48 of them were 60 or older, and 9 of them, 70 or older. The oldest was Curtis King, age 80. (Perhaps he was considered hearty enough for duty because he had five children under 16 years old.) For many of the troops, however, age would be a hindrance; neither King nor any of the 70-year-olds would complete their three-year enlistments. Nearly 350 Greybeards would eventually accept disability discharges. But at the outset, they had the fighting spirit of youngsters. Sixty-four-year-old Allen Summer spoke for them all when he boasted he “would kill a rebel with as clear a conscience as ever I killed a wolf.”
Apart from the rare tailor or shoemaker, the 37th was a regiment of farmers. As a result, the men shared the same ideals: they were volunteers, citizen soldiers, and every man had the right to speak his mind. Military protocol and chain of command meant little–Kincaid’s “children” often bypassed the colonel and flooded Baker’s office with grievances. Some of their complaints concerned Kincaid. One letter accused the colonel of interfering with company elections. In the spirit of democracy, however, the aging soldiers also complained about each other. Company F wrote a group letter to Baker detailing the flaws of their fellow soldiers. One, they wrote, was “nothing more nor less than a walking bottle of morphene unfit for anything but eating, at which he cannot be beat.”
The soldiers of the 37th rendezvoused in October 1862 at Camp Strong, on a windswept island near Muscatine, Iowa, a few miles down the Mississippi from Davenport. They spent most of their time outdoors despite the weather, which grew more and more blustery as winter approached. It was an unkempt crew, and the island soon showed it. Private John Wagner wrote that the entire place was “covered in the greatest effusions of Snot that human eyes have ever beheld.”
While the troops underwent rudimentary training–which included both battalion drilling and corn husking–their proud colonel busied himself with what he considered more important matters. He arranged for more comfortable quarters for his officers and then dunned Kirkwood for the cost. Next, Kincaid appointed his 19-year-old son Charles quartermaster sergeant. Stanton refused to accept the boy, but Kincaid kept him anyway, at least long enough to land him a commission in a black regiment.
Finally, on December 15, the Greybeards mustered into Federal service. Given Kincaid’s ambition and his enlistment of youngsters, the colonel undoubtedly harbored visions of leading his rickety legion against the enemy. The troops even heard rumors that the 37th was bound for Washington, D.C., perhaps to face off against General Robert E. Lee himself. Such grandiose rumors proved untrue; Stanton and Kirkwood expected the men to do nothing more glamorous than guard duty.
In January 1863, the Greybeards left Camp Strong for St. Louis, Missouri, where they guarded arsenals, trains, and the Gratiot Street Prison. The bitter winter took its toll on the aging soldiers; desertions, discharges, and sicknesses mounted. By February, the effective strength of the regiment had plummeted from 900 to 700.
The Confederates imprisoned at Gratiot Street described the Greybeards as “old gentlemen–kind and fatherly.” Their colonel, however, enjoyed no such favor, and with good reason. Kincaid strode into the prison one day and announced to a group of Confederate officers that all Southern women, including their wives, “were prostitutes of the very lowest class.” Griffin Frost, one of the prisoners, wrote that Kincaid was a “disgrace to the military service” and that “nothing was too low, mean or insulting” for the colonel to say.
Kincaid did not confine his insults to prisoners. His “children,” who apparently failed to meet their “father’s” expectations, got more of his attention than they could bear. Desertion rates climbed, and a number of non-commissioned officers were demoted for drunkenness and disobedience. One lost his rank for singing while marching; others, disenchanted with their growing responsibilities, requested their own demotions.
Such chaos could not be tolerated, so Kincaid ruled harshly. According to one member of the 37th, Kincaid had a favorite remedy for malcontents. He would order the accused “to be placed…under a hydren and the water from same be let upon his face, eyes, and mouth until he was perfectly suffocated and apparently dead.” This unique brand of discipline was imposed on 13 men “for trivial offenses…[and] without trial.” Several members of one company later tried, unsuccessfully, to bring charges against Kincaid for such maltreatment.
Finally, in May, the troubled 37th was sent to guard the military prison at Alton, Illinois. There, the Greybeards refined their incompetence into an art. During a single month, the Greybeards allowed 23 Confederates to slip past them and escape to the South. Nevertheless, Federal inspectors beheld the Greybeards with the same reverence as did the prisoners at Gratiot Street.
Kincaid had no time for his “hydrant drills” at Alton Prison. By this time, something had to be done about his son, Charles. Kincaid managed to secure him a commission in the 3d Arkansas Infantry (African Descent), later the 56th U.S. Colored Infantry. Perhaps he should not have bothered; Charles eventually would collect three dishonorable discharges, and it would require a postwar act of Congress to get him a pension.
It was at Alton that the ambitious Kincaid found a way to exploit guard duty for financial gain. Newly arriving Confederate prisoners turned in their money, expecting to have it returned to them upon their release from prison. When they handed in gold, Kincaid repaid them in greenbacks. Meanwhile, the gold, along with any increase in its value, went into Kincaid’s prison fund. Colonel William Hoffman, the commissary general of prisoners, ordered Kincaid’s financial speculation to cease, and the Iowan, for a change, meekly obeyed the order.
As December arrived, Baker asked the War Department to send the Greybeards to the military prison at Rock Island, Illinois. The island sat in the middle of the Mississippi, only a few miles north of Camp Strong. Rock Island Prison also sat just across the river from Davenport, where Baker’s office was. Major General John M. Schofield, commander of the Federal Department of the Missouri, obliged Baker’s request and ordered the 37th to Rock Island. This way, Baker reasoned, he could keep a closer eye on the Greybeards.
It was a good thing Baker was nearby; the move to Rock Island prompted an all-out war of wills between Kincaid and Colonel Adolphus J. Johnson, the prison’s fiery commandant. Before the Greybeards even reached the prison, Johnson refused to acknowledge Schofield’s order. Kincaid’s military misfits were not welcome at Rock Island, Johnson asserted, and he would not waste supplies meant for his men on the 37th Iowa.
Kincaid, meanwhile, obeyed Schofield’s order. Denied admission to the Rock Island compound, the Greybeards spent two bitter winter days sitting in their railroad cars. Finally, the post quartermaster disobeyed Johnson and offered rations and shelter–all outside the military post–to the tired, hungry old men. It took a letter from Baker to Stanton to force Johnson to accept the regiment. Even then, Johnson quartered the 37th in a section of the prisoners’ barracks.
Strangely, although they were quite practiced in complaining, not a single Greybeard wrote to Baker about being forced to share quarters with the Rebels. Perhaps they took the opportunity to complain in person–after all, Baker’s office was only a mile away. If they did visit the adjutant general, they no doubt also mentioned that the tyrant Johnson refused to let them keep pigs, as they had done on previous assignments.
If the Greybeards’ failure at Alton had shown a chink in their armor, the entire suit rusted away at Rock Island. According to a report by surgeon August Clark, the 37th was “a regiment of decrepit old men and the most unpromising subjects for soldiers I ever saw.” What is more, wrote Clark, they had no idea of the value of discipline. One night, for instance, a drunken Greybeard, thinking he was being assaulted, shot a recently discharged veteran who merely wanted to embrace his comrade.
Kincaid, now the highest ranking officer at Rock Island, may have entertained thoughts of command there. A local newspaper editor suggested he would. But, like his dream of combat, command of a major prison would elude him. The same inspectors who approved his troops despite their many flaws called Kincaid “altogether too slow and easy…. Under no circumstances [should he] be placed in command.”
Kincaid himself came to agree. As 1864 wore on, he realized his men were old, sick, boisterous, and not battle-tested. The desire to command had gone out of him. His disenchantment apparently had begun even before he reached Rock Island. He had taken long leaves of absence while his troops were in St. Louis and Alton–20 days in April 1863, 25 in August, and another 20 in September. And while he remained with the regiment for most of its stay at Rock Island, he was no longer the hydrant-pumping fiend of a year before. He did nothing more outrageous than pester the quartermaster for horses for him and his field officers.
If Kincaid had grown soft, however, his officers had grown harsher. Two officers–identified in reports only as Captain Hogendoble and Lieutenant Graham–were especially noxious to the prisoners. Hogendoble, struck by a foul ball from a prisoners’ baseball game, approached the batter, drew his pistol, and threatened to “blow the d—-d rebel’s brains out.” Graham used his side arm more profitably. He often played cards with the prisoners, and if he lost he would draw his pistol, accuse them of cheating, and keep the money anyway.
After several months at the prison, the 37th left Rock Island for an assignment in Tennessee. Johnson received a 100-day regiment of half-trained boys as replacement guards. Even these youths, he believed, would be an improvement over the Greybeards. A prisoner put it more succinctly in his diary: “The Greybeards are ordered to Memphis. What for?”
What for, of course, was more guard duty, this time on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. And on July 5, 1864, a few of the Greybeards found what their colonel had been dreaming of since 1862: combat. While atop a train bound for La Grange, Tennessee, a detachment of Greybeards received and returned the fire of a gang of bushwhackers. Four of the Iowans were wounded, two mortally. Kincaid insisted that his men did the enemy at least equal damage, although he neglected to report how he determined this from the top of a moving train.
This was the only engagement the 37th would ever see. In August the regiment was sent east to Camp Morton in Indianapolis. There, the 37th was broken into two detachments; five companies stayed put while the other five continued east to Ohio, where they were parceled out among several garrisons–notably Camps Chase, Gallipolis, and Cincinnati.
Kincaid ended up in Cincinnati. Now he commanded not even a regiment of old men, but just a few companies. He passed the remainder of the war quietly, his ego deflated and the fire and defiance wrung completely out of him. Even though the establishment of the 37th had indeed prompted an increase in enlistments in Iowa, Kincaid considered his “children” nothing but a disappointment. When the “decrepit old men” were gathered in May 1865 and sent back to Rock Island to be mustered out, Kincaid could not bear to watch. As these “unpromising subjects” stood in the ranks as soldiers for the final time, Colonel Kincaid was not with them–he was once again on leave.
A lifelong student of the Civil War, Illinois native Benton McAdams is working on books about Rock Island Prison and the 12th Illinois Infantry. This is his first article for Civil War Times.