In April of 1861, most Iowans were going about the business of building a young state. Farms and towns were being established. Railroads connected most settled areas in the eastern part of the state and were gradually being extended westward. The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter changed everything. Personal concerns were put aside, and the entire state became involved in the war effort.
The War Department issued a call for volunteers and asked for one regiment from Iowa. Governor Samuel Kirkwood was uncertain if Iowa could raise the number of volunteers necessary to meet its quota, but enough men enlisted to form ten regiments. By the end of the war, Iowa had the highest percentage of volunteer enlistments of any state, North or South.
In total, Iowa furnished 48 infantry regiments, 9 cavalry regiments and 4 batteries of artillery. Iowa also furnished one black regiment and a thousand replacement troops.
Iowa’s 76,000 soldiers conducted themselves with honor throughout the war. Twenty-seven received Congressional Medals of Honor. Thirteen thousand died. Many more died from disease than from bullet wounds.
Three Iowans became major generals during the war. Samuel Curtis of Keokuk was a graduate of West Point. He was also a member of Iowa’s congressional delegation. He resigned from Congress in 1861 and commanded Iowa forces at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Grenville M. Dodge, an engineer and railroad builder, had settled in Council Bluffs in the 1850s. He recruited a company of volunteers at the start of the war and served under General Curtis at the Battle of Pea Ridge. He participated in many major battles (including Vicksburg and Chattanooga). He was wounded three times. Iowa’s youngest major general was Francis Herron, a Dubuque banker. He served at both Pea Ridge (1861) and Prairie Grove (1862).
Iowans fought in many battles. Iowa soldiers first saw combat at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, and Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Early in the war, many Iowa units accompanied General Ulysses S. Grant in his campaign to gain control of the Mississippi River. They took part in the great battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh. At Shiloh, five Iowa regiments "saved" Grant’s army by holding the center of the Union line (called the "hornets’ nest" by attacking Confederates) until late in the first day of the battle. This campaign ended with the great Union victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863. Iowa soldiers then fought in Mississippi and Tennessee. Finally, in the spring of 1865, thousands of Iowans took part in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous "March to the Sea" through Georgia and South Carolina.
Although cannon balls and bullets had been fired across the Des Moines River into Iowa dwellings, the only actual fighting in Iowa occurred in 1864. Missouri "guards" raided Davis County, robbing, looting and murdering. Bloomfield’s county fair was in progress, and a posse was organized under Colonel James Weaver. Unfortunately, the raiders disappeared across the Missouri border before they could be apprehended.
Iowa’s first Civil War battle death was Shelby Norman of Muscatine. Norman was killed at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in 1861.
The youngest Iowan to serve in the war may have been Cyrus Lichty of Cedar Falls. Lichty was only twelve when he enlisted as a drummer boy in 1861. He survived until 1940.
Iowa also gained fame for a unique military unit known as the Graybeard Regiment. The unit was composed of men too old to serve in combat (over 45). Nearly all were over 50. Many were in their 70s, and a few were in their 80s! The Graybeards enlisted in spite of the fact that they had a total of 1,300 sons and grandsons on the fighting front. The elderly men were not expected to fight but were given duties of escorting trains and guarding railroads and prisoners. Near Memphis, a supply train they were guarding was fired on by rebels; two of the Graybeards were killed, but the rest got the train through. During their service, they guarded 160,000 prisoners. Iowa was the only state to have a Graybeard Regiment.
Like their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers, Iowa women performed heroic service during the Civil War. Many organized Soldiers Aid Societies to raise money to buy food, clothing and medicines for sick and wounded soldiers. Some, like Annie Turner Wittenmeyer, followed Iowa units across the South, setting up hospitals and "diet kitchens." Others, like Mrs. M. J. Upright, managed farms that continued to supply the needs of both the civilian population of the North and the thousands of soldiers fighting in the South. Mrs. Upright’s situation was especially interesting. She single-handedly operated the large family farm near Aplington, while her husband and twelve sons served in the Union Army.