Known as the Civil War Greybeard, Curtis King is widely believed by most historians to be the oldest soldier in the war at the age of his enlistment. When he mustered into Company H of the 37th Iowa Infantry on November 9, 1862, Curtis was an astonishing 80 years old.
Born in Culpepper County, Virginia in 1783, Curtis was the son of Revolutionary War veteran, Thence King. His father’s father was an immigrant to Virginia from Ireland. When his father died at age fifty-seven from a copperhead bite, Curtis was the only son left living with his widowed mother, his only brother and two of his five sisters had moved to Ohio. He retained a lifelong hatred of snakes, as is understandable.
Once his three remaining sisters married, Curtis was left alone living with his mother, and she requested he marry, too. He married young, at only nineteen years old, to Hannah King, and moved to Ohio at twenty-two years old. He lived there for a little over a decade, then moved to Hendricks County, Indiana, where he bought property in the town of Danville. He began a career as an active farmer, owning two farms. One of them was eighty acres. Curtis and Hannah had six sons and three daughters together.
Curtis’s mother moved west with him, his wife, and children, and died in Hendricks County, Indiana at the impressive age of one hundred three years old. Curtis’s ancient mother’s name was Obedience, and she was a daughter of John Blackwell, who was descended from the Randolph family of Pocahontas fame. This made Curtis a direct descendant of Pocahontas on his mother’s side of the family
Curtis’s wife, Hannah, signed with an X on all documents relating to land the couple bought and sold until 1838. Curtis signed a document alone in 1841, which lead historians to believe for a long time that Hannah died sometime between her last known signature and that time. However, notes supplied by the family to the Iowa Genweb website show Curtis and Hannah divorced in Highland County, Ohio in March of 1840. In November of 1841, Curtis remarried to sixteen-year-old Matilda Sharp in Hendricks County. Curtis and Matilda had nine sons and three daughters together.
Shortly after marrying Matilda, Curtis and his new wife moved to Hancock County, Indiana, and finally moved to Wapello County, Iowa, where he continued his career as a farmer. After a long life of moving and farming, Curtis finally decided to answer President Lincoln’s call for military men for the Civil War on the Union side, when he was eighty years old.
He volunteered but was turned away from at least two other companies because of his age. Company H in the 37th eventually accepted him, and he mustered in as a Private. This particular regiment was unique because every man in it was more than forty-five years of age. The regiment was called the Greybeards.
Iowa was the only state that formed a regiment of much older men. It even received authorization from the Secretary of War to form such a regiment. The authorization was granted with the provision that Iowa promise these older men would only be used for guard duty. Yet, the Greybeards did see action in the war on June 5, 1864. This was when fifty men from the regiment engaged a group of Confederate guerrillas. During the engagement, two enlisted men were killed. It was the first real excitement the Greybeards had until that point in the war.
What is even more remarkable about Curtis’s enlistment into the Army is that, in addition to his age, he was also blind in one eye. He was still determined to fight, and able to do so. His discharge papers, signed on March 19, 1863, described him as one of the most efficient men in his regiment. His physical description listed him as being six foot two inches tall, of dark complexion, and blue eyes, and, not surprisingly, grey hair.
A newspaper article about him that was written during the war described him as having extraordinary stamina, and of enduring the fatigues and hardships of the war with much more vigor and cheerfulness than men who were younger than him by decades. The article also touched upon the remarkable longevity of his mother and claimed his grandfather King, who came from Ireland, lived to be one hundred fifteen years old. It said that particular grandfather was also six feet six inches tall and that several of Curtis’s uncles were over seven feet tall.
While his mother did live to be one hundred three years old, some of the claims in the article about his paternal grandfather and uncles may have been embellished to make Curtis seem like he came from superhero stock, which would explain to the public his ability to be a vibrant, energetic, and effective soldier at such an elderly age. The reporter wanted Curtis to seem like a mythical figure, and an extraordinary family history did this perfectly.
After being discharged from the Army, Curtis died later that same year at the age of eighty-one. At the time he crossed to the other side, this remarkable Civil War veteran was the father of an astonishing twenty-one children, the youngest of whom was only fifteen months old at the time. According to notes from his family supplied to the Iowa Genweb website, Curtis was illiterate, never learning to read or write. However, he had extraordinary powers of memory, and could easily retain a large amount of information for years or decades at a time. He claimed to be so good at memorization that he could recite every word of the Bible from Genesis to Revelations with the help of a daughter who read from the Bible and prompted him.
Curtis was buried in the former Williams Cemetery in Wapello County, Iowa. However, the cemetery is now known as the Curtis King Memorial Cemetery, in honor of this most venerable of Civil War veterans.