The Prairie State and the Civil War: Zeal, Heroism, and Dissent
by Larry House
To satisfy my own curiosity, fed by a life-long interest in the Civil War, I decided to do some research on the nature and extent of my native states involvement in that tragic conflictthe Civil War. What I uncovered was an intriguing story of conflicting views and loyalties, heroism, and an undeniable dedication to the great task at handpreserving the Union.
While Illinois may not immediately come to mind as one of the key states in the Civil War, the fact is Illinois was a vital part (for the North) in what was called the western theater of that conflict. In addition, Illinois sons were important players in a few key battles in the east and the south. However, Illinois was not without strong sympathies for the South, as was the case in other border states such as Indiana and Ohio, but the total number of volunteers for the Union Army from the Prairie State ranked fourth behind the enrollments from New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, all of which were states with much larger populations.1
Illinois gets the call
Washington was not concerned about the lack of state-held arms in Illinois. Because of the strategic location of Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers at the southern tip of the state, Secretary Cameron sent Governor Yates an additional order, only two days after the first request for volunteers. He ordered the governor to send four regiments to Cairo to secure it for the North. By April 25, only ten days after Illinois was asked for volunteers, Governor Yates advised Secretary Cameron that ten thousand men had come forward as volunteers; the six requested regiments were encamped outside Springfield, the State Capitol, and almost six hundred men had been sent to Cairo to secure it. Holding Cairo proved to be a significant move for the North. From that vantage point, the Union forces were able to disrupt the movement of war supplies and were even able to capture arms and supplies that were headed to the South along the major waterways.
The number of volunteers in Illinois continued to mount. The Illinois General Assembly, going beyond the authorization of the federal government, approved the mustering of ten regiments of infantry, one cavalry regiment, and one battalion of light artillery.3 However, Washington refused to commission these additional regiments and advised Governor Yates that only the requested six regiments would be needed. Hundreds of disgruntled Illinois volunteers then joined regiments from neighboring states.
Numbering the Illinois regiments in the Civil War began with the number seven, since numbers one through six had been used for regiments in the Mexican War. The Illinois regiments, of the seventh through the twelfth, were collectively called the First Brigade Illinois Volunteers, and numbered four thousand six hundred and eighty men.4
The flood of volunteers from Illinois was not to be stemmed, and after the North was shocked in defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), Governor Yates wrote to Secretary Cameron offering seventeen regiments in addition to the requested six. In no uncertain terms Governor Yates wrote:
``Illinois demands the right to do her full share in the work of preserving our glorious Union from the assaults of high handed rebellion, and I insist that you respond favorably to the tender I have made.''
Secretary Cameron did indeed accept the offer of additional regiments from Illinois on the condition that ``you can provide for and equip them.'' 5
In August, 1861, with Washington now convinced that this was indeed a war that would not be easily won, all federal restrictions on the number of volunteers were lifted. However, in December of that year, the unrestricted enrollment period was once again closed.
Arming the volunteers
Arming and outfitting the thousands of fighting men from Illinois was no easy task. In May 1861, Illinois sent certain commissioners east to buy arms for the Illinois militia. They found the prices so high and the available supplies so low that they made no purchases.6 To alleviate the shortage of suitable war arms, Chicago merchants cleared their stock of arms and related items in late spring of 1861. Also, in a bold military action to secure arms, Captain James Stokes of Chicago headed a night raid across the Mississippi River and seized ten thousand weapons held in the St. Louis Arsenal. The Missouri governor openly supported the South (even though Missouri did not secede), while Union forces feared that those weapons in St. Louis would end up in Confederate hands if they were not seized.
Governor Yates tried to help with the purchase of weapons for his native volunteers as well. He made several trips to New York and Washington to buy arms. In July 1861, he was promised seven thousand new guns, and in October of that year, he persuaded the federal government to send six thousand rifled muskets, five hundred rifles, fourteen batteries of artillery, and eighty-four James rifled cannons.7
Some of the Illinois volunteers armed themselves with what weapons they had or could get. One Illinois regiment, the seventh, took matters into their own hands. They became the only regiment in the entire war that purchased their own arms, and they chose wisely. The men of the seventh purchased Henry repeaters, which held a generous sixteen shots and fired a .44 caliber round. These rifles cost each man fifty dollars, while the monthly pay per man was only thirteen dollars. This regiment had superior firepower which enabled them, as part of a Union force of fifteen hundred, to hold off six thousand Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Allatoona, where the Union troops were successful in preventing millions of rations from falling into the hands of the Confederates.
Later, in the summer of 1861, the State of Illinois was able to make a modest purchase of nine hundred and ninety-nine Enfield rifles, five hundred Colt revolvers, two hundred and fifty Whitney revolvers, nine hundred and forty cavalry sabers, and forty-two sets of artillery harnesses.8
After a few months of short supplies early in the conflict, most Illinois regiments were well-equipped. In fact, the Illinois cavalry troops were considered among the best equipped in the North since they even had a new Colt Army revolver in .44 caliber. However, the quality of arms from one regiment to another varied widely. The fortunate ones carried 1861 Springfields or British Enfields. Those lucky regiments were so armed because their colonels went out and personally procured these highly regarded weapons.9
When General John C. Fremont came to St. Louis as the Commander of the Western Department, he purchased a large number of old European rifles, as well as a number of Harpers Ferry muskets. The old Austrian muskets often discharged while held at parade rest, and the fifty-fifth Illinois Regiment threatened to march on the State Capitol after a number of men in the unit were injured by the malfunctions of these poor quality arms.
Dissent in southern Illinois
As alluded to previously, the citizens of Illinois were not wholly united in loyalty to the Union, especially in southern Illinois. Illinois has always, from its entry into statehood in 1818, been considered as three distinct geographic regionsnorth, central, and southern. The people in each region have their own divergent perspectives and political opinions about state and national matters.
Reflecting this divergence, southern Illinois voted four to one for Douglas over Lincoln in the national election of 1860, even though Lincoln carried the state. The Democrats had great strength in the southern tip of Illinois.10 Also, southern Illinois had been largely settled by southerners from Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. While there was considerable opposition to slavery in southern Illinois, many of the residents wanted, at all costs, to avoid armed conflict with relatives, friends, and fellow southerners.
Sympathies with the South were quite strong in Williamson and Jackson counties in particular, which are located deep in southern Illinois.11 This led to the formation of one Confederate company of about forty-five men. They crossed the Ohio River to Paducah, Kentucky. There they were presented with a Confederate flag and were mustered into the fifteenth Tennessee as part of Company.
A semi-secret society was formed in southern Illinois, called the Knights of the Golden Circle, later called the Sons of Liberty. One of the purposes of the group was to arm themselves and, if feasible at some point during the conflict, to rise up in force and proclaim southern Illinois as a part of the Confederacy. Arms had to be obtained secretly, and the group once received a buggy full of revolvers from Alton (near St. Louis) for distribution to members.12
In spite of the bold plans of this clandestine group, their numbers were small, and their hopes never came to fruition. One of the main reasons the group never had a chance to exert its influence was the intervention of a very popular figure from southern Illinois by the name of John A. Logan. He was a Congressman from southern Illinois when the Civil War began. In the spring of 1861, he went to his home district and spoke passionately for the Union, urging his friends, neighbors, and admirers to stand with the North. He won the day.
The membership of the Knights of the Golden Circle crossed all social lines. Judges to farmers were proud to pledge allegiance to the South in any way they could. Some of the members found themselves under political arrest for voicing opinions against the Union or for criticizing President Lincoln. In fact, in a book entitled ``The American Bastille'' by John A. Marshall, one hundred ``illegal'' arrests during the Civil War were documented. Twelve of these arrests took place in Illinois, and four took place in southern Illinois. These four men were first taken to Springfield and then on to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. They were held for some weeks and were then released.13 The right of freedom of speech fell victim to the fears of a government under attack.
To put into perspective the amount of dissent in southern Illinois, it should be pointed out that thousands of men from the region proudly came forward to volunteer for the Union Army. Each county in the state was assigned a quota, based on population, of the number of men who should volunteer from that county. In spite of the split loyalties in southern Illinois, of the sixteen southernmost counties in the state, only two counties failed to exceed their quotas. Statewide in Illinois, fewer than four thousand men were drafted into service (over two hundred and fifty five thousand volunteered), and only fifty five men in Illinois took the option of paying three hundred dollars to be excused from military service.14
Illinois regiments played a vital role in many campaigns in the Civil War. Because of its geographic location, Illinois troops were involved in virtually every western action in the war. In addition, Illinois troops were significantly involved in several important battles in the East and in the South. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the participation of each Illinois regiment in each battle (one regiment, the fifty-fifth, is the subject of an entire book), but a brief synopsis will suggest the important role the Illinois volunteers played.
Illinois regiments were a substantial part of the Union forces in the Battle of Farmington and the Battle of Iuka, both of which took place in the Western Arena.15 At least seven Illinois regiments were involved in the three-day Battle of Pea Ridge. Also, between thirty and forty Illinois regiments, including infantry, cavalry, and artillery, participated in the Battle of Shiloh.16 One Illinois regiment was on the battle field at Gettysburg.
Illinois troops, under the command of Ulysses S. Grant, were greatly involved in the forty-seven day Battle of Vicksburg. The thirty-third infantry from Illinois was dug in outside Vicksburg during that siege in the summer of 1863. The nerves of the men were sorely tested by the long wait for the order to charge. One Illinois soldier, James Wilcox, recorded in his diary:
``Oh how my heart palpitated! It seemed to thump the ground (I lay on my face) as hard as the enemys bullets. The sweat from off my face run in a stream from the tips of my whiskers. My God, why dont they order us to charge!''
They eventually charged, and the fall of Vicksburg to the Union forces was a major blow to the Confederate war effort.
One of the largest concentrations of Illinois regiments was in the army of General William T. Sherman. No less than seventy Illinois regiments were a part of the various corps in Shermans massive force, and three Illinois regiments, the seventy-fifth, eightieth, and eighty-fourth were a part of the spearhead that made a frontal assault on Johnstons Confederate forces as Sherman moved into Georgia.17
Many Illinois volunteers distinguished themselves with heroic service in the Civil War, and it should be said that the state had its share of deserters as well. Space will permit only the briefest coverage of some of the heroic accomplishments. No fewer than fifty brigadier generals hailed from Illinois, and nine were promoted to major general. One went as high as lieutenant generalUlysses S. Grant.
John A. Logan has already been mentioned. He became a daring general in the war. As a Congressman from southern Illinois, he participated in a special session of Congress that began in December 1860, and ended on March 3, 1861. The following July, Logan was on the battlefield in the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).18 General Logan was wounded in battle more than once, and he compiled an envious military record in several campaigns. Only his brashness prevented him from rising higher in the Union Army.
An ambitious young General McClernand came from Shawneetown, Illinois. He rose high enough to be appointed Commander of the Mississippi Campaign. Before he could begin his vision of that grandiose campaign, friction with leaders in Washington, D.C. (And with General Grant) caused him to be relieved of his command.19
Two young Illinois volunteers became key leaders in the Union Cavalry. After floundering in inefficiency for two years, the union Cavalry finally found a leader in Benjamin H. Grierson of the Illinois volunteers. He led the first successful raid into Confederate-held territory. With two thousand mounted men,Grierson left La Grange, Tennessee, in April 1863. His men cut a swath through Mississippi, destroying Confederate war supplies and supply routes. They entered Louisiana and did not stop until they arrived at Baton Rouge. Griersons accomplishment gave the Union Cavalry new energy for the important cavalry campaigns ahead.20
James H. Wilson was another product of Shawneetown, Illinois. He was a West Point graduate, and he became one of the most notable cavalry leaders in the war. In fact, he was elevated to the rank of general, and in the Western Campaign, was equal in rank and authority with General Philip Sheridan, the commander of the Union Cavalry in the East.21
The young General Wilson led the most successful cavalry campaign in the Norths war effort. In March of 1865, Wilson, commanding a force of fourteen thousand, launched a raid through Alabama. Armed with Spencer repeating rifles, they were an awesome force, which the Confederate troops under General Forrest could not resist. The precision and professionalism displayed by Wilson and his men on this campaign have been described as the most ``splendid cavalry command...in the entire Western Hemisphere.''22
While not a native of Illinois (but rather Ohio), Ulysses S. Grant began his record in the Civil War with Illinois troops. He had settled in Galena, Illinois, working as a clerk in his fathers store. Grant knew Governor Yates by sight, and Grant was known by Yates as a leader and one who had some fighting experience. Governor Yates asked Grant to form a regiment, which became the Twenty-first Infantry. It was mustered by Grant himself at Mattoon, Illinois. Governor Yates then named Grant the colonel of the Twenty-first.23 The rest of the story on General Grant is well-known.
While just a few individuals have been mentioned by name, dozens of other Illinois volunteers served the Union just as well. One hundred and five men were awarded the newly-created Medal of Honor for their service with Illinois troops. Twenty-seven of these men were natives of the Prairie State. Five Illinois men received the Navy Medal of Honor.
A total of approximately two hundred and fifty nine thousand men from Illinois fought for the Union. About thirty-five thousand lost their lives in the Civil War.24 By December 1864, Illinois had mustered one hundred and thirty eight regiments of infantry, seventeen regiments of cavalry, and two regiments and eight batteries of artillery. In addition, thirteen regiments and two companies of three month volunteers had come forth from Illinois. With its diverse family lineages, loyalties were mixed in Illinois when armed conflict broke out, and Illinois sons, like sons from so many other states, died on both sides of the war.
On a personal note, this writer, hailing from southern Illinois, but a descendant of Carolina stock, can well understand the dichotomy of sentiment when the conflict began. If I had lived in those perilous times, then as now, my head would have been with the Union, but my heart would have been with the South.
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