The Territorial Militia
History of The Iowa National Guard
1LT Stephen N. Kallestad
Many of us know some of the history of the Iowa National Guard: the 34th Division's role in WWII; how the 168th Infantry Regiment and the 42nd (Rainbow) Division fought together in WWI; and perhaps even something about the actions of Iowa regiments during the Civil War. But the Iowa Guard is older than this. One has to look back to 1838, the year the Territory of Iowa was established, to the Territorial Militia of Iowa.
Although the Territorial Legislature decided that a militia was needed, no appointments were actually made until 1839. On January 7 of that year, the first member of the Iowa Militia was appointed. Ver Planck Van Antwerp, a West Point Graduate and native of Des Moines, was named major general and Iowa's first adjutant general. By January 18, three division commanders had been appointed. By the time the 1839-40 legislative record was published, all other officers of the Iowa Militia had been appointed.
It is disconcerting, when looking at the records, how men were selected for their positions. The local community would decide, or the unit members would take a vote, and then petition the legislature for an appointment. The records are filled with letters that read, "We the people of ______ nominate John Doe as Captain of the _____ Infantry Company." (Each letter was signed by the mayor.) Upon receiving such a letter, the Legislature would put the matter to a vote and usually bestow the commission of captain, major or colonel upon the nominated individual.
The formation of units was equally haphazard. In a town, township or county, a group of men would form themselves into a company of infantry or cavalry, decide on a name, then send a letter of introduction to the governor requesting weapons and supplies. The unit names often were quite colorful: Kossuth Rangers; Wapello Cavalry Guards; Davenport Rifle Company; Mounted Dragoons; and, possibly the longest unit name, Captain Martin's Company for the Defense of the Northwest Frontier.
The Iowa Militia was first mobilized in late 1839--to go to war against Missouri! A border dispute over the southern tier of counties in Iowa, noted for their abundance of honey-bee hives, led to what now is recorded as the Honey War.
Throughout 1839, tensions had been building between the State of Missouri and the Territory of Iowa over the location of Iowa's southern border. The border was based on the "Sullivan Line," named for the man who had surveyed the border in 1816. Unfortunately, the "rapids of the Des Moines River" were used as a reference point. Iowa believed the rapids formed were the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers meet. Missouri claimed Sullivan was referring to the small rapids in the Des Moines River, nine miles further north. The respective governors called out their militias in November and December of 1839, after Missouri tried to collect taxes in the disputed region and Missouri officials were ejected by the sheriff of Van Buren County.
A rag-tag "army" immediately began to form up on the Iowa side. Each man dressed as he felt appropriate and supplied his own weapon. According to one account of men showing up for muster in Davenport, "in the ranks were to be found men armed with blunderbusses, flintlocks, and quaint old ancestral swords that had probably adorned the walls for many generations. One private carried a plough coulter over his shoulder by means of a log chain, another had an old-fashioned sausage stuffer for a weapon, while a third shouldered a sheet iron sword about six feet long." In all, 1200 men were mustered on the Iowa side.
Fortunately, before the opposing militia forces clashed, cooler heads prevailed. After delegates met from both sides, it was decided to defer the border decision to the U.S. Congress. It was not until 1851 that the official state line was established--by a ruling of the Supreme Court.
The Iowa Militia was called out only once more before the start of the Civil War--in response to the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857. While the Sioux Indians involved quickly fled over the Minnesota border to be hunted down later by federal troops, Iowans patrolled their side of the border to guard against further raids.
Casualties among Iowa troops were reported in the April 16, 1857 Fort Dodge Sentinel. The paper said that the bodies of Capt. I.C. Johnson, Co. C of Webster City, and William Burckholder, Esq., Co. A of Granger Claims, had been recovered. These men apparently had become lost in a snowstorm while returning from duty at Storm Lake.
While not all of the Iowa Guard's early history might be called illustrious, we can be proud that citizens were banding together in militia units for almost a decade before Iowa became a state.