The Earp Brothers were among the more famous characters in the Old West, due in large part to the participation of three of the brothers in the October 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Two decades before that showdown, three of the six Earp brothers served in the Union Army in the Civil War. Wyatt Earp, the most famous of the brothers, turned 17 just as the war was ending in 1865 and was too young to serve, as were Morgan Earp and Warren Earp. Here’s a look at the Union Army service of the three older Earp brothers: James, Newton, and Virgil.
James was the first to enlist, doing so on May 25th, 1861, just six weeks after the war began. James enlisted in Company F of the 17th Illinois Infantry. The regiment left for Missouri on June 17th, and spent the next several months at various points in that state. On October 21st, the 17th clashed with Missouri Confederates of Brigadier General M. Jeff Thompson’s command at Fredericktown, Missouri. James Earp was wounded in this action.
Although the 17th Illinois went on to fight in many important battles, James Earp probably saw very limited action if any after he was wounded. On March 22nd, 1863, he was discharged due to disability from his wounds.
Like many of the Earps, James moved west after the war and served for a while as a lawman. He moved to Tombstone in 1879 with brothers Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil. However, he was not a participant in the OK Corral gunfight.
Newton was the oldest of the Earp brothers, and was actually a half brother to the other five. He enlisted in Company F of the 4th Iowa Cavalry on November 11th, 1861, and reenlisted on December 12th, 1863. He was mustered out on June 26th, 1865. During his time in the army, Newton received six promotions, and was mustered out as Fourth Sergeant.
The 4th Iowa Cavalry saw extensive action in a number of both large battles and smaller engagements. These included the Vicksburg Campaign, as well as the Battles of Brices’ Crossroads and Tupelo. Outside of Mississippi, the 4th Iowa battled General Sterling Price in Missouri in 1864 and fought at Selma, Alabama in April 1865. Since Newton was not wounded during his service, and received several promotions, it could be assumed he was present for duty for many if not all of his regiment’s actions, and fought well.
Virgil enlisted in Company C of the 83rd Illinois Infantry on July 26th, 1862 and served until June 26th, 1865. The 83rd Illinois spent most of the war involved in garrison duty in Tennessee, although they did venture out several times to pursue the Confederate cavalry of Generals Nathan Bedford Forest and Joe Wheeler. Virgil Earp came out of the war unscathed but, at one point, he was reported killed, and his wife and daughter moved out to Washington Territory where she remarried.
Virgil Earp became the sheriff of Tombstone in October 1880. A year later, Virgil, along with brothers Wyatt and Morgan Earp, plus friend Doc Holliday, cemented their place in Western lore by battling the McLaurys and Clantons at the OK corral.
The Truth About Wyatt Earp by Richard E. Irwin
Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, Volumes II and V
Roster and Record of Iowa Soldiers in the War of the Rebellion, Volume IV
The Story of a Cavalry Regiment: The Career of the Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteers by William Force Scott