Elizabeth Cope vs. Col. Benjamin Crabb – 1862

Elizabeth Cope lived in Chequest in Van Buren County, Iowa with her children, William, Ephraim, and Levi.1 Her husband, John, died sometime between 1850 and 1860. William H.H. was 20 in 1862, and on August 14 he enlisted in the United States Army.2 He joined the 19th Iowa Infantry, who were organized at Keokuk, Iowa and sent to serve in Southwest Missouri. The home front of the Civil War remained markedly absent of male figures, with most “fighting age” men either armed for the Union or the Confederacy, or operating as a partisan bandit. Facing violence, managing a home without a secure network of support, raising a family in the midst of disease and deprivation, tending to crops with a diminished workforce…all combined to make hardship an everyday reality. Elizabeth Cope, being a widow, probably needed her son at home in order to take care of the farm.

In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln announced that boys under eighteen could enlist in the Army with their parents’ consent. The following year, Lincoln prohibited enlistment of those under eighteen.3 Heavy casualties, however, led recruiting officers to look the other way when underage boys tried to enlist. As a result, an unknown number of soldiers—probably around five percent—under the age of eighteen served in the Civil War. Although, Williams was over eighteen years old, his mother claimed he was still a minor and did not have her consent to enlist in the army. Elizabeth filed a lawsuit against the enlisting office, Col. Benjamin Crabb, citing her son was still a minor under the age of twenty-one, and that Crabb was unlawfully detaining William in Greene County, Missouri. Crabb refuted the charges and denied he had custody of William. Crabb claimed he was a captain in the 7th Iowa Infantry on August 14, and was not a mustering officer for the 19th Iowa Infantry.

The results of the lawsuit are not known, but the case highlights the extreme lack of men on the home front and how desperate women were to have support in trying to survive through the war. Mrs. Cope may not have wanted her eldest son to be involved in combat. If William died during his service, Elizabeth would be left totally alone to raise her two younger boys Levi and Emphraim. She had already lost her husband and the fear of losing another family member may have driven her to try and get her son out of the military. There are a many unanswered questions surrounding this case and the individuals involved. Further research and evidence is required to reach any definitive conclusion.

Contributed by the Greene County Archives and Records Center

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  1. 1860 United States Federal Census; Census Place: Chequest, Van Buren, Iowa; Roll: M653_342; Page: 320; Image: 561; Family History Library Film: 803342.
  2. Elizabeth F. Cope vs. Benjamin Crabb, 1862. Box 27. Greene County Archives and Records Center, Springfield, Missouri
  3. Mintz, S. (2007).Child Soldiers. Digital History. Retrieved 29 October 2010 from