In recognition of the 160th anniversary of the Civil War in 2021, the following is part of a series highlighting my Civil War ancestors.
An urgent memo from President Abraham Lincoln to Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton on July 24, 1861, started with a request: “No man wanted for less than the war or three years. We take all that come for the war or for three years.” It ended with a plea: “Send them quickly.”
The Civil War officially began three and a half months earlier on April 12, 1861. At that time, the Union Army depended on volunteers to fill its ranks; drafted men would come later. Despite the obvious dangers and difficulties of a soldier’s life, men lined up by the thousands to volunteer for service. Devotion to their country called them to leave their homes and face the horrors of war.
Most of these brave men who fought in the Civil War ranged from 18 to 45 years of age. Boys around 12 years old could serve as buglers or drummer boys. Occasionally, people under 18 faked their age to enlist. On the other end of the spectrum, men over 45 years were generally considered too old, but from time to time men in their 50’s or 60’s joined the cause. Overall, the average age of a soldier during the Civil War was under 30. (1)
Stephen A. Powers, pioneer settler of Steuben County, Indiana, was one such man to answer that call to serve his country in the summer of 1861. He was a teacher, surveyor, husband, and father of 9 children.
On August 25, 1861, Stephen enlisted with Co. A, 44th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteer Infantry at Angola, Indiana.
He was 61 years old.
“When the war broke out, Stephen A. Powers was in his sixty-second year, and his hair was white with age, but his heart was strong and patriotic. He colored his hair black, so as to pass muster when he presented himself as a volunteer for examination. When the examining surgeon asked him how old he was, he replied, ‘I am old enough to help put down the rebellion.'” (2)
The Powers Family history described Stephen’s story as follows:
“When Company A, 44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry was being organized in Steuben County, he signified his wish to join it. He was the oldest man in this company and was at first afraid they would not receive him because of his age. When asked how old he was, he replied, ‘I’m not too old to battle for my country.'” (3)
Here was a man who valued his country so much that he was willing to leave the comforts of home and family at an advanced age to defend it, with his life if necessary! What strength, courage, fortitude, and determination he must have possessed! It is no wonder his family recorded this time of his life and this course of action in multiple places. What a stir it must have caused!
Did he really color his hair black in order to look younger? Did it work? He must have been in reasonably good health in the summer of 1861 to earn the doctor’s approval to go to war, no matter the color of his hair.
Like all the volunteers, Stephen A. Powers agreed to the President’s request to serve for the duration of the war or for three years. President Lincoln declared they would take all that would serve for the war or for three years, did he not? Even men of 61 years of age?
The 44th Regiment mustered in at Fort Wayne, Indiana, on November 22, 1861. Once there, doctors inspected the men for duty. “The appearance of the volunteers, and satisfactory answers to a few general questions, were all that were required at the time, and almost all that the burning patriotism of the people would patiently hear to. It was thought then that every man who wanted to defend his country, should have the privilege. Several men with black hair and beards, and apparently within the military limit as to age on the day of muster, became quite gray in a short time after, and before they had had an opportunity to be frightened.” (4)
At this point, one naturally wonders, was Stephen’s hair and beard died black at that time, or was it his natural gray? Did he appear “within the military limit as to age?” He was old enough to be the grandfather of many recruits, but was he too old to serve, being well over the age of 45? Regardless, once again he must have passed the doctor’s inspections and been cleared for duty.
During an address to the soldiers the next day in Fort Wayne, Mayor Randall declared:
I believe the spirit of our ancestors still lives among us, and that the loyal and patriotic people of the present generation will nobly protect and defend what cost our fathers so much to establish.
You are making history for yourselves and for our State. Already have the gallant deeds achieved by the Indiana volunteers made a brilliant record in the history of this war… You have cheerfully responded to the call of your country…
Do you solemnly promise to love this flag?
Do you promise to honor it?
Do you promise to obey it?
Do you promise to sustain and defend it, even unto death? (5)
In answer to each question, the crowd of soldiers answered in solidarity: yes.
What might Stephen have felt that day? Did he think of his grandfather, who, it is believed, served in the Revolutionary War? Was he prepared to make the sacrifices necessary as a soldier in the Civil War? Was he prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary?
One thing is certain – he was no stranger to hardship and hard work.
Stephen A. Powers was born on January 2, 1800, to Josiah Powers and Hannah Church. As a boy of 8 years, Stephen’s father died, leaving his mother a single parent to five young children. Stephen, the eldest child, and the next three brothers were sent out to live with friends and neighbors after Josiah’s death because Hannah struggled to support them all on her own. Hannah married George Jenks a few years later.
The Powers family lived in Ontario County, New York, which at that time “was almost a wilderness, and the Powers family were among its pioneers.” As Stephen grew, he worked hard to gain an education. His “master dying before Stephen was grown, he was thrown on his own resources, and by his individual, unaided efforts, he acquired a first-class English education. In his boyhood he went to learn the blacksmith trade, but, his mind running in another channel, he quit that business and learned surveying and navigation.” (6)
(Author’s note: The records are unclear as to how long the Powers boys lived outside their mother’s home. They must have been in contact, however, because later records show that the Powers family, including their mother, the Powers boys, and their half-siblings were a very close and tightly knit group.)
Nearly 30 years after the death of their father, Stephen and the Powers brothers would find themselves once again pioneers in an undeveloped land.
As some of the very earliest settlers in Steuben County, the Powers family (Stephen, his brothers, and their families), faced primitive accommodations until they could clear the land and build homes. Over time, the Powers family helped develop a thriving community and were well known as leaders in the area. Stephen, drawing on the education he gained in New York, taught school for over 40 years, and worked as a surveyor in Steuben County.
In 1890, Elias O. Rose, who married into the Powers family, described some of the living conditions of the early settlers. The Powers caravan left New York on May 23, 1837, and after a delay due to illness, they arrived in Steuben County on July 8. Upon first arrival, Stephen and his family lived in a shanty that had “neither floor nor doors, and the roof was far from water proof. It was the best that could be provided however, for there was no saw mill in all that region of country… Those early settlers had never seen a sewing machine, nor a kerosene lamp, and screen doors and mosquito nets were unknown… None of them had ever seen a mowing machine, to say nothing of the machine which loads hay, or of that which cuts grain and binds in as it goes along. Their only method of cutting grain was with the swinging cradle or the sickle and it was thrashed by pounding it with a flail.”
Perhaps Elias Rose thought of Stephen Powers when he concluded his remarks:
“There are several kinds of courage. One is that which enables men to brave the dangers of the battlefield. Another is that which prompts people to cut loose from the comforts afforded by an old settled community, and encounter the hardships and privations of pioneer life… They bravely undertook and heroically executed the herculean tasks before them, not so much for their own pecuniary advancement, as for the ultimate good and comfort of their children and grandchildren.” (7)
Indeed, Stephen A. Powers possessed both kinds of courage. He encountered the hardships of pioneer life not once, but twice, along with his large and closely interconnected family. Despite the hardships, he not only survived, but thrived.
Now, he was willing to brave the dangers of the battlefield in honor of his country. At his advanced age, could he survive the demands of war and the life of a Civil War soldier?
- For more information on the people who served in the Civil War, read the article “Who Fought?” at http://www.battlefields.org.
- Personal history of Stephen A. Powers in “Atlas of Steuben Co., Indiana.” Chicago, J.H. Beers & Co., 1880, page 54. An almost identical account is found in “History of Steuben County, Indiana.” Chicago, Inter-state publishing co., 1885, page 623. Both sources can be accessed via http://www.loc.gov.
- “The Powers Family,” by Lee Earll and Viola Powers Amidon, page 37.
- “The Forty-Fourth Indiana Volunteer Infantry,” by John H. Rerick. Lagrange, Ind: The author, 1880, page 10. Available at https://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/inauthors/VAB1849.
- See item 4, pages 18-19.
- See item 2, “Atlas of Steuben Co., Indiana.”
- “Forty-Five Years of Meetings of the Old Settlers’ Association as Published in The Steuben Republican,” by Kay Latier Lash, Page 29. Located at the Carnegie Public Library in Angola, Indiana. Date of newspaper clipping 13 Aug 1890.