Illinois in the Civil War

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Not even two whole generations had elapsed since Illinois’ admission as the 18th state in the Union when America split apart, divided between the industrialized and increasingly anti-slavery northern states of the Union and the agrarian, pro-slavery southern states of the Confederacy.

Leading up to the dreadful conflict was the collapse of the compromises and constitutional balances that had appeased the concerns of the pro-slavery and abolitionist elements. Thus, as we have previously noted, where an earlier generation had crafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820, by the 1850s that compromise had been scrapped, supplanted by the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was preceded by the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which sought to counter the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad by obliging citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and imposing stiff penalties on those who assisted runaways. While the act itself was a compromise between Southern slave-owners and Northern free-soilers, abolitionists found the law intolerable. Even more outrageous to the abolitionists was the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention in the controversy with its infamous pro-slavery Dred Scott decision of 1857 – but rather than settle the question, Dred Scott only fanned the embers that soon erupted in the flame of war.

In the presidential election of 1860, the Democrat Party broke apart into pro- and anti-slavery factions, a circumstance that helped make possible the election of the Republican Party’s candidate, a former Illinois Congressman of abolitionist principles named Abraham Lincoln.

Frustrated at their inability to elect a favorable candidate, and expecting Lincoln to curtail slavery, most of the slave-holding states of the South broke away from the Union, starting with South Carolina on Dec. 20, 1860. The states that seceded organized themselves as a separate country, the Confederate States of America, on Feb. 8, 1861, and elected their own president, former Mississippi Congressman and Secretary of War Jefferson F. Davis.

Lincoln was inaugurated as president the following month. Rejecting the legitimacy of the Confederacy, Lincoln insisted that the Union had to be preserved and declared the Confederate states to be in rebellion against the recognized federal government. Hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when the Confederacy, having demanded that the U.S. withdraw all troops and surrender all military posts, attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

So began four long years of bloodshed and sorrow in which Lincoln strove to bring the breakaway southern states back into subjection to the federal government. Usually known as the American Civil War, the conflict has also been called the War Between the States or the War of the Rebellion, while in the South it has been called the War of Northern Aggression. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” includes an account of the Civil War, which Chapman called “the War for the Union.”

A lone Union soldier stands and watches over the graves of his fallen comrades at Pekin’s Civil War Memorial in Lakeside Cemetery. PHOTO COURTESY OF CANDY REED

The different names indicate the cultural and political disputes over what the war was about. For the Confederacy, it was their Revolutionary War or a failed War of Independence, but Lincoln and Northern leaders at least initially said it was a fight to preserve the Union. As the war dragged on, however, Northerners began to see it as a holy crusade to end slavery in the United States. In his Tazewell County history, Chapman commented, “The house was indeed divided against itself, but [that] it should not fall, nor should it long continue divided, was the hearty, determined response of every loyal heart in the nation. The accursed institution of human slavery was the primary cause for this dissolution of the American Union. Doubtless other agencies served to intensify the hostile feelings which existed between the Northern and Southern portions of our country, but their remote origin could be traced to this great national evil.”

Two days after the Confederacy’s firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln requested the remaining Union states to provide 75,000 men organized in six regiments. Over the next few months, the president requested additional volunteers and the organization of more regiments, until in July 1861 he made his first request for 500,000 troops. From May to July, a total of 17 infantry regiments and five cavalry regiments were raised, with Illinois alone providing 13 infantry regiments and three cavalry regiments in July.

At the close of 1861 Illinois had sent to the field nearly 50,000 men, and had 17,000 in camp awaiting marching orders, thus exceeding her full quota by 15,000,” Chapman said. With Illinois having exceeded its quota, many of our state’s young men volunteered with Missouri’s regiments, so eager were they to fight for their country.

The following summer, Lincoln called for the states to provide 600,000 men, of which Illinois’ quota was 52,296. As war casualties increased, the president continued to call for troops. “On the 21st of December, 1864, the last call for troops was made. It was for 300,000 . . . . Illinois put into her one hundred and eight regiments 256,000 men, and into the United States army, through other states, enough to swell the number to 290,000,” Chapman said.

By the time Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, a total of about 620,000 American soldiers had died in combat or from war-related disease. The casualty numbers for the Civil War are vastly greater than any other U.S. war. Illinois alone lost 31,000 men, two-thirds of them from disease. According to the 1949 Pekin Centenary, Pekin alone had sent about 3,000 men off to fight for the Union.

The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection includes a great number of resources on the Civil War and Illinois’ part in it. To name just a few, Chapman’s account of the “War for the Union” is found on pages 125-141 and 336-383 of his Tazewell County history, with rolls of Tazewell County’s Civil War volunteers on pages 351-383. In addition, the Local History Room has three volumes of Illinois regimental and unit histories drawn from the Illinois Adjutant General’s Report. Our Tazewell County cemetery indexes also include a compiled list of all of the Civil War soldiers (whether casualties or veterans) who are buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Pekin’s Civil War heroes are listed by name on the Tazewell County War Memorial erected on the lawn of the Tazewell County Courthouse. Like vast numbers of cities and towns, Pekin also has a Civil War Memorial. In the years following the end of the Civil War, a monument of a standing Union soldier was erected in Lakeside Cemetery “IN MEMORY OF OUR SOLDIERS OF PEKIN ILL.,” like monuments of the Civil War fallen that may be found throughout the country.

A final curiosity regarding Illinois in the Civil War: the August 2018 issue of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s Monthly, page 2269, reprints notes from a talk by late local historian Fred Soady, in which Soady observed that “The closest the war came to Tazewell County was the Battle of Lake Peoria, April 16, 1862.” Further information on this obscure and apparently minor battle would be appreciated.

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