Here’s a chance to read again a somewhat revised version of one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in June 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .
Memories of Pekin’s Mexican War veterans
By Jared Olar
Following last week’s column on the Black Hawk War, and with Veteran’s Day coming up next week, let’s spotlight a few items in the Pekin Public Library’s local history room collection that can help us learn something of the role Pekin residents played in another conflict from earlier in our history – the Mexican War (1846-1848), a conflict between the United States and Mexico that led to the U.S.’s acquisition of vast areas of the Southwest.
Previously, this column has recalled the story of the old church bell of Pekin’s Methodist church, which soldiers from Pekin had looted from a Catholic convent or monastery in Veracruz, Mexico. Upon their return to Pekin, the soldiers presented the convent bell to trustees of the Methodist church. The Methodists made use of it until the need arose for a new church, which was built in 1867. At that time, the bell was sold to St. Joseph’s Parish and was installed in the tower of the Catholic church, where it remained until the construction of a new church in 1904.
According to Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” the soldiers who took the bell from Mexico and donated it to the Methodist church were Samuel Rhoads, Frank L. Rhoads, William Tinney and John M. Gill, all members of Pekin’s own Company G of the 4th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. (As previously noted in this column, “Uncle Bill” Tinney later became a hotel operator, police magistrate and justice of the peace in Pekin, as well as Tazewell County Sheriff.) Other trophies of war seized by Company G included the wooden leg of Mexican Gen. Santa Ana, which Gill brought back to Pekin and later donated to the State of Illinois – it is still displayed in Springfield.
Later, a Pekin World War I veteran named Lanson H. Pratt (1872-1939) was inspired to research and write a book about the Mexican War and Company G. Pratt apparently never finished his book and his manuscript has been lost, but in researching the book he gathered several old photographs and engravings which were inherited by his nephew, Edward Neumann of Delavan. Mr. Neumann graciously supplied the Pekin Public Library with copies of his uncle’s photos and engravings.
In his notes, Pratt identified his photos and engravings as portraits of Pvt. Frank L. Rhoads, Sgt. John M. Gill, 2nd Lt. William A. Tinney, Pvt. Thomas B. Briggs, Pvt. Abraham Waldon, Col. Edward D. Baker, Gen. James Shields (Illinois Brigade), Major Thomas L. Harris, and two portraits of “1st Sgt.” Samuel Rhoads (who became a member of the Pekin Methodist church choir after returning from the war). Also among Pratt’s collection is a photo of the old convent bell.
The 1870 Pekin City Directory’s history of Pekin mentions the convent bell on page 24, but does not name the soldiers who seized it and brought it back to Pekin. The directory also includes a muster roll of the members of Company G on page 23, naming Tinney as “2d Lieutenant,” Gill as “1st Sgt.” and Samuel Rhoads as “3rd Sgt.,” and listing Privates “Franklin Rhoads,” “Thomas B. Briggs,” “Abraham Waldron.”
According to the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial, Company G had been organized in Pekin under Capt. Edward Jones, an attorney, whose name heads the 1870 directory’s muster roll. “On the 7th day of June, 1847,” the directory says, “Company ‘G’ of the Fourth Illinois volunteers in the Mexican war, returned to Pekin, after one year’s service under General Scott. They were mustered in at Alton in June of the previous year, and formed a part of the regiment commanded by Col. Edward Baker, referred to elsewhere. The entire company survived the campaign except Lieutenant Leonard A. Knott, who died of yellow fever on board ship while crossing the Gulf of Mexico homeward bound.”
Knott had been a Trustee on the Pekin Town Board – Pekin was not to become a city for another two years.
Of the soldiers and officers whose images had been collected by Lanson Pratt, Baker, Shields and Harris were from Illinois but did not come from Pekin and did not belong to Company G. Chapman’s Tazewell County history briefly mentions them on page 124:
“Other bright names from Illinois that shine as stars in this war are those of Shields, Baker, Harris and Coffee, which are indissolubly connected with the glorious capture of Vera Cruz and the not less famous storming of Cerro Gordo. In this latter action, when, after the valiant Gen. Shields had been placed hors de combat, the command of his force, consisting of three regiments, devolved upon Col. Baker. This officer, with his men, stormed with unheard-of prowess the last stronghold of the Mexicans, sweeping everything before them.”
Shields, who once fought a duel with Abraham Lincoln, would later fight “Stonewall” Jackson during the Civil War and was the only Union general ever to defeat Jackson in battle. He was featured at the Old State Capitol in Springfield as the Civil War “General of the Month” for June 2012.
A final note on the old convent bell: What became of it after 1904 is unclear. Local historian William H. Bates said in his 1916 “Souvenir of Early and Notable Events” that, “The bell is still in possession of St. Joseph’s Society,” and the 1949 Pekin Centenary said only that it is “now no longer in use.” A May 16, 1978 Pekin Daily Times article says it was stored for a while in the church attic at St. Joseph’s Parish, and Mr. Neumann says the parish had talked of donating it to the State of Illinois. The 1978 Pekin Times article only says that “its current location could not be determined.”