No battles were fought on Illinois or Wisconsin soil during the bloody Civil War, but many thousands of families in our region lost loved ones. Jon McGinty traces the journey of local soldiers on the sesquicentennial anniversary of our nation’s bloodiest war.
This year begins the four-year sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War. Ceremonies, parades, lectures, re-enactments, movies and TV shows will remind us of the tremendous sacrifices suffered by our forbearers to decide the fate of our nation. From April 1861 to April 1865, more than 3.5 million Americans fought each other (one-fourth were immigrants), and more than 620,000 died. The Union suffered more than 350,000 deaths, while the Confederacy suffered about 160,000. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. Nearly half of all Civil War battlefield graves are marked as unknown.
From an 1860 population of about 1.7 million, Illinois contributed more than 256,000 soldiers, ranking it fourth in the Union. This is especially remarkable given the divided loyalties that existed between northern and southern Illinois residents.
Most recruits were between 18 and 25 years old, and more than 1,800 were “colored.” Nearly 35,000 died in battle from wounds, disease or imprisonment. More than 100 earned the Medal of Honor.
Wisconsin sent more than 91,300 men marching off to war and suffered more than 12,200 casualties, almost 14 percent of its total enlistment. Many regiments were composed almost entirely of immigrants, primarily Irish or German. The 15th Wisconsin Infantry was mostly Norwegian, with 115 men named ‘Olle.’ The Medal of Honor was awarded to 21 Wisconsinites.
Many families in northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin need look no further than their own attics or family histories to find evidence of such sacrifice. Amateur historians all over the Old Northwest Territory have collected letters, photographs and other memorabilia testifying to their relatives’ roles in the epic struggle.
Horace Brewster Locke
James Locke Lyon I, Sycamore, Ill., is a member of the ancestral organization Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (see box on p. 121.) After his mother’s death, Lyon found a letter written by his great-great grandmother, Catherine Locke, to her brother, William Chatham, describing family news and her dilemma of sending her son, Horace Brewster Locke, off to war. Horace was Jim Lyon’s great-grandfather.
(Editor’s note: All letters in this article have been edited for spelling and punctuation to clarify their content)
Henry Winter and Wilbur Crummer
John Winter is a retired industrial arts teacher living in Winnebago, Ill. He has assembled an extensive collection of letters, documents and photographs of his family history, catalogued in about 40 huge volumes. Winter had eight relatives who served in the Civil War, including his great grandfather, Henry Winter. Like many soldiers in that war, Henry was foreign-born, from Prussia, and immigrated as a child, with his family, to a farm near Mt. Carroll, Ill. At age 20, he enlisted in Company A, 45th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, at Galena, as a bugler.
While participating in General Ulysses S. Grant’s assault at Fort Donelson, Tenn., on Feb. 13, 1862, Winter was struck in the head by a bullet and left for dead on the battlefield. He managed to crawl toward the rear area, where a surgeon discovered him and treated his wound.
“The army issued a report saying Henry Winter had been killed at Fort Donelson,” says John Winter.
Henry was an amateur poet, and penned the following verses around the time he was wounded:
The day was fine and beautiful
All nature seemed to help us on
Nothing but cannons’ distant roar
Came to our ears as we marched along
Softly we tread upon the sod
Knowing that blood would flow thereon
With anxious looks but steady nerve
We marched to Fort Donelson
Our Colts brave were both on hand
Our Major was never behind
Our soldiers brave and true were glad
The Murderous Enemy to find
After almost six months of convalescence, Winter rejoined his regiment, but because of persistent headaches, was reassigned as a drummer instead of a bugler. Sometime during the Union siege of Vicksburg, Miss., (May 18 to July 4, 1863), he was captured by Confederate troops, although he wrote nothing about it in his letters home. He was later paroled, probably in exchange for Confederate prisoners in Union hands.
On July 2, two days before Confederate forces in Vicksburg surrendered to Grant, Winter was working at the field hospital when he met Wilbur Crummer, who was severely wounded. According to Crummer’s own account, a surgeon examined Crummer’s wounds and told the men to “put him out there under that tree. He’ll die tonight.”
Winter and another soldier refused to accept the doctor’s pessimistic prognosis and attended to Crummer through the night. The next day, seeing that Crummer had indeed survived, the surgeon dressed his wounds and sent him on to recover.
“Musicians often served as medical personnel when they weren’t performing,” says Winter. “That’s how my great-grandfather came to save Crummer’s life.”
Private Henry Winter survived the war, returned to Illinois, got married and raised 11 children. When he died in 1919, at age 79, his children started a round-robin letter-writing tradition to share family news.
“Each sibling would write a letter about his or her family, enclose it in a packet of letters from the others and send it on to the next,” says Winter. “When the packet came around to them again, they took out their old letters and put in new ones.”
This tradition continued from 1920 to 1993 and became the basis for John Winter’s compilation of family history, including his great-grandfather’s wartime experiences. Winter recently began another project to document all the veterans who ever served in the military from Winnebago.
“I’m now up to 830,” he says.
Ray Schoenfield is an avid Civil War buff and member of the Rock River Valley Civil War Round Table. While researching his ancestors through the National Archives and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, he uncovered the story of his great-great uncle, Jefferson Coates, a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Coates was born in Boscobel, Wis., on Aug. 24, 1843, and enlisted in Company H, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, in August of 1861 as an 18-year-old. The 7th was part of the famous Iron Brigade.
Coates fought in several battles with the Army of the Potomac, including the Battle of South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862. In that engagement, he grabbed the regimental flag and rallied his troops to charge the Confederate lines. On July 1, 1863, Coates was severely wounded at Gettysburg, Penn., during the fighting in and around Seminary Ridge. He was struck in the right temple by a musket ball that passed through his head and took out both eyeballs.
A contemporary account of the events described it thus:
“…One brave reb, finding him sightless and defenseless, with blood streaming from his wounds, tried to capture his shoes; another gave him a terrible bayonet wound. Just then a rebel Captain came to his rescue…. A noble-hearted Georgian carried him to a compassionate shade tree and sat him up against its scarred and bracing trunk, and brought him a canteen of water, for which Mr. C. gave the Georgian half his coffee.”
Later records show that Coates recovered from his wounds and attended an Institute for the Blind, where he learned to read Braille. In 1866, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “unsurpassed courage in the War of the Rebellion.” He married, moved to Saline County, Nebraska, had five children and became a successful stock rancher. He died there on Jan. 27, 1880, at age 37.
During a trip out west in 1988, Schoenfield and family stopped in Boscobel to see if they might find Coates’ grave. An inquiry at the local Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) museum led him to Lois Rogers, press correspondent for the local chapter of the Women’s Relief Corps.
“She didn’t know about Coates or his medal,” recalls Schoenfield, “so when we returned to Beloit, I sent her copies of my information about him.”
One of Coates’ grandsons, Charles Coates, moved to near St. Louis and became a wealthy businessman. Before he died, Charles had a monument company in Washington, Mo., create and install a memorial for his grandfather in 1964.
“A University of Washington professor, also a veteran, drove past that monument for more than 13 years, and often wondered about it,” says Schoenfield. “At about the same time I stopped in Boscobel to tell Mrs. Rogers that she had a Civil War hero from her town, this guy became fed up with seeing that monument. He decided to check into who the heck was Jefferson Coates, and found out what I had found.”
Eventually, the professor notified Rogers at the museum in Boscobel. She arranged for the monument to be transported to Wisconsin, and on July 1, 1989 – the 126th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – the monument was installed outside the Boscobel GAR museum, amid great fanfare.
“They declared it Jefferson Coates Day and held a big parade,” says Schoenfield. “I was one of those who unveiled the monument during the ceremony. Our kids were in junior high at the time, and they were embarrassed at all the hoopla.”
Eli Vincent was a grand-cousin or grand-uncle to Dave Bond, another member of the Rock River Valley Civil War Round Table. According to records obtained by Bond, Vincent was from Rock County, Wis., and enlisted into Company G of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters from Milton, on Oct. 26, 1861. During almost two years of service, Vincent was involved in nearly 20 engagements, until he was fatally wounded at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.
The U.S. Sharpshooters were two regiments of marksmen organized by Hiram Berdan of New York, but drawn from all over the Union. The enlisted men were required to “put 10 bullets in succession within a 10-inch circle at 200 yards.” Original recruits were told to bring their own target rifles, but eventually, nearly all companies were provided with new, breech-loading Sharps rifles, giving them the nickname “Sharpshooters.” Today, we would refer to them as snipers.
Company G was composed primarily of volunteers from Wisconsin. All companies dressed in unique green uniforms, caps with plumes, and leather leggings, earning them the nickname the “Green Coats.” The Berdan sharpshooters were engaged in all campaigns of the Army of the Potomac from March 1862 to Sept. 1864.
While serving as part of McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsular Campaign to capture Richmond, Va., a tent mate of Vincent wrote a letter to his sister about a battle he and Vincent had survived just days before, the Battle of Hanover Court House, on May 27, 1862.
On the second day of the battle at Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863, Vincent and others in his unit were sent forward to reconnoiter some woods on Seminary Ridge. During the ensuing combat, Vincent was wounded in the shoulder and died 13 days later. At the dedication of a monument to Berdan’s Sharpshooters on the Gettysburg battlefield in 1881, a Captain Marble recalled the following:
And Eli S.B. Vincent, poor fellow, mortally wounded and taken back only to die of slower torture and suffer greater agony. I never can forget hearing the heavy thud and sharper crash as the bullet went through the upper portion of his right breast, crashing the bones as the bullet sped through and wringing a cry of agonizing pain from Vincent.
Vincent is buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, along with 3,511 other soldiers.
Frank Crawford is a retired teacher in Caledonia, Ill., with a lifelong interest in the Civil War. He has edited and published several collections of letters written by Union soldiers and their families, and belongs to several area Civil War Round Tables. During his research for a new book, Crawford discovered the story of Leroy Key, a southerner who fought for the Union after enlisting at Bloomington, Ill., as part of the 16th Illinois Cavalry Regiment. He was captured in Virginia and sent to the infamous Confederate-run prison, Andersonville, in Georgia.
While there, Key was instrumental in forming a group called “the Regulators,” a self-appointed vigilante group that tried to stop a gang called “the Raiders” from robbing, beating and murdering fellow inmates for possessions or food. Key got permission from the camp commandant, Captain Henry Wirz (one of only three soldiers later hanged for war crimes), to arrest, try and prosecute the offenders.
“Key organized a trial for almost 100 men,” says Crawford. “Several were sentenced to wear a ball and chain, others to run a gauntlet of fellow prisoners who beat them (one died) and six were hanged for their crimes. Key even supervised the building of the scaffold.”
After the war, Key returned to his Mississippi home, where he got married and raised four children. After his first wife died, he resettled in Springfield, Ill., and married a widow with three more children. In 1880, he applied for a medical pension of $8 per month from the federal government.
“I suspect he had throat cancer,” says Crawford. “After the second pension check arrived, Key committed suicide. He waited for that second check to make sure it would arrive to support his family.”
Key was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, in a plot for the indigent.
“I found the burial plot myself,” says Crawford. “It’s located about 100 yards from Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, and it had no headstone. When I called this to the attention of the cemetery curator, she said she could order a headstone, which she did. It was installed last November.”
This past Memorial Day, there was a large ceremony conducted at Oak Ridge Cemetery, to commemorate the unveiling of Key’s headstone. Dignitaries from the Illinois State Historical Society and the Lincoln Home National Park attended, as well as re-enactors from the 114th Illinois Volunteers and the 10th Illinois Cavalry. Key’s tombstone reads in part: “Organized the Regulators at Andersonville Prison, 1865.”
“If my book never gets published, at least Key got his headstone,” says Crawford. “I’m proud to have been part of the process. It seems that it’s our job to retell the stories.” ❚
Sidebar: Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Founded in 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the Union veterans’ organization after the Civil War. Its members numbered 500,000 in the 1890s. It established soldiers’ retirement homes, did relief work and lobbied for pension legislation. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) was formed as the legal successor to the GAR, to carry its legacy into the future when the veterans were gone.
Today, the SUVCW has about 7,000 members in 26 departments. The Illinois Department has eight current Camps, including Logan Camp #26, in Rockford. The Logan Camp meets on the first Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. in the Post Room of Veterans Memorial Hall, Rockford. This is the same room where the original Camp met from 1903 to 1957. A lineage connection to a Civil War veteran is not required for membership. For more information, see www.suvcw.org or www.logancamp26.com.
Civil War Roundtables
Civil War Round Tables are groups of persons interested in the study and sharing of Civil War information and traditions. Meetings usually involve a speaker or other presentation, but can also include meals, re-enactments and other activities. The Rock River Valley Civil War Round Table meets at Wesley Willows Retirement Home in Rockford, Ill., on the first Monday of each month. For more information about other groups, see www.civilwararchive.com.
How to Find Your Civil War Ancestors
If you’re interested in researching your own family’s participation in the Civil War, here are some Web sites you may find useful:
National Park Service (www.nps.gov/civilwar): This site will give you access to the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors system (CWSS), a database of 6.3 million names from both sides, covering 44 states and territories.
Find a Grave (www.findagrave.com): To help you locate the burial site of your relatives.
National Archives (www.archives.gov): You can request a search of its files, then have the results sent to you. A Pension Document Packet (8 pages) is $25; the complete File is $75.
Footnote.com and Ancestry.com are both subscription services. Footnote.com includes a nearly complete record of Confederate Soldier Service Records, as well as Union information. Ancestry.com includes a General Index to Pension Files of more than two million Union Army soldiers.
www.ilgenweb.net and www.usgenweb.net are free genealogical Web sites.
The Iron Brigade
The Iron Brigade was an infantry unit in the Army of the Potomac, which originally consisted of the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiments, along with the 19th Indiana. The nickname came from a comment made by Maj. Gen. George McClellan during the Battle of South Mountain, Va., in September 1862. As he observed the troops forcing the Confederate line back to Turner’s Gap, McClellan said to Maj. General Joseph Hooker, “They must be made of iron.”
The Brigade was also called the “Black Hats” because they wore the 1858 model black Hardee felt hats issued to Army Regulars, rather than the blue kepis worn in most other units. Proportionally, the Iron Brigade of the West suffered more casualties than any other brigade during the entire Civil War, losing more than 60 percent of its men at Gettysburg alone.