This is a reprint (with corrections and updates) of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in June 2015 before the launch of this weblog.
Bill Costley — Pekin’s link to ‘Juneteenth’
By Jared Olar
On May 2, 2015, this column featured a review of a new book by local historian Carl M. Adams about a notable early Pekin resident’s stalwart struggle for freedom — “Black Nance” Legins-Costley, who secured her freedom from slavery with the help of her attorney Abraham Lincoln in the 1841 Illinois Supreme Court case Bailey v. Cromwell. Adams’ book, “Nance: Trials of the First Slave Freed by Abraham Lincoln,” was recognized April 25 at the annual awards luncheon of the Illinois State Historical Society in Springfield.
This week, we will take another look at the family of Nance Legins-Costley in order to learn about Pekin’s historical connection to the origin of the celebration of “Juneteenth,” which is the oldest known public commemoration of the legal end of slavery in the U.S. “Juneteenth” refers to June 19, 1865, the day when Union soldiers under the command of Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston in Texas with news that the Civil War was over and all slaves were now free. Because Texas had been a part of the Confederate States of America, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not be enforced in Texas until then.
Juneteenth 2015 was celebrated on Friday, marking exactly 150 years since Union troops brought the news of freedom to Galveston. One of Granger’s soldiers in Galveston that day was none other than Private William Henry “Bill” Costley of Pekin (1840-1888), eldest son of Benjamin Costley and Nance Legins-Costley (though Union military records misspell Bill’s surname “Corsley”).
We will now lend this column space to Carl Adams so he can share the results of his historical and genealogical research which tell the story of Bill Costley’s adventures during and immediately after the Civil War. (It was only this month that Adams located Bill’s final resting place, with the help of Rich Apri of St. Paul, Minn.)
- * *
Bill Costley was the first male slave to be legally freed by attorney Abraham Lincoln as a result of the Bailey v. Cromwell Illinois Supreme Court case in 1841. He was an infant at the time. At age 23, Bill Costley decided to join the Union cause of the Civil War.
During the summer of 1864, the Civil War was going poorly for the Union Army on the Richmond-Petersburg front. Commander-in-Chief Lincoln was afraid he would not be re-elected president. To make matters worse, the Illinois 29th Regiment of Volunteers (Colored) had suffered more than 70 percent casualties at the Battle of the Crater — virtually wiped out, with all the officers either dead or wounded.
In spite of the fact they knew black men would have to fight with muskets at their front and bayonets held by white soldiers at their backs, 11 blacks from Tazewell County decided it was time to volunteer to reinforce the Colored Troops. Those brave 11 were William Costley of Pekin, his brother-in-law Edward Lewis, Thomas Shipman, George M. Hall, Wilson Price, Thomas Tumbleson, Morgan Day, and the tightly knit family of William J. Ashby, William H., Marshall and Nathan (who were likely acquaintances of Bill Costley).
At least two of them would not come home — Thomas Shipman of Pekin and Morgan Day of Elm Grove fell in battle, and their names are inscribed on the monument to Tazewell County’s fallen heroes outside the courthouse in downtown Pekin. And at least one of them was wounded — William Henry Costley. However, Bill Costley would participate in a historic event before he returned home: “Juneteenth.”
General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army, sensing a quick victory, were eager to get the spring offensive started in March 1865, but heavy spring rains made movements difficult for horses and men alike, and wet ammunition was also a problem.
Finally, in the last week of March, the Union Army awoke from winter sleep and started to move. A fair-skinned black private from Tazewell County, Private Thomas Shipman, was one of the first to go. Assigned to the sharpshooters under Captain Porter, Shipman was killed trading musket balls with the rebel skirmishers on March 31.
Around noon on April 1, General Sheridan beat General Pickett at Five Forks. Private Bill Costley’s unit, the 29th Regiment of Volunteers (Colored), held part of the right flank of the Union line at Hatcher’s Run. The breakthrough prompted Grant to order a full frontal assault all along the line, spanning miles.
As Bill’s infantry line moved forward on the Confederate breastworks nearing Petersburg, an artillery shell blew an air burst to the front and to the left of Bill, close enough to knock him to the ground with sharp pain to the front left shoulder.
Bill was evacuated to the Regimental Aid Station. Dr. Clarence Ewen later wrote in Bill’s pension file (No. 524296) that he remembered Bill’s wound as badly bruised, but no blood, so Bill was ordered back to the front and, bravely, Bill went back into the fight — only to return the next day with intolerable pain.
So Bill was evacuated again, this time to Division for Triage, then on to the “Negro Only” facility at Point-of-Rocks near the pontoon bridge across the James River, and from there to City Point for transfer to a hospital at Alexandria, Va. Bill spent about five weeks in the military medical system. During this time Bill learned his family’s old friend, lawyer Lincoln, was killed as one of the last casualties of the War of the Rebellion.
Juneteenth — Freedom Day, June 19, 1865, for all of Texas slaves, about a quarter of a million souls.
The scene is the Gulf of Mexico in June 1865. The Civil War was over and Private Bill Costley was recovering from a shrapnel wound to his left shoulder, according to his pension file. After a month in the hospitals at Point-of-Rocks and Alexandria, Va., Bill Costley was returned to duty with his unit.
Most of the white Union soldiers were discharged for home, but most of the black soldiers still had a year of service, and the French had invaded Mexico during the war. Lincoln was dead, so Secretary of War Stanton ordered General U.S. Grant to dispatch the black units to the Mexican border as a show of force along the Rio Grande.
At least two Navy ships, the USS Wilmington and the USS William Kennedy, were ordered to load 2,000 Union soldiers, including General Gordon Granger and the 900 men of 29th Regiment of Illinois Colored Volunteers, which was augmented with former slaves and dispatched to the Mexican border.
It was a rough ride. From Mobile, Ala., the ships were sent out into very rough stormy seas to disembark at South Padre Island near Brownsville, Texas. The weather was too rough to unload anyone and the Rio Grande was flooding. After two days, the Navy needed safe harbor, so they tried Aransas Pass near Corpus Christi for another three days, but it was still too rough to unload.
The senior Navy captain warned Granger they were running out of supplies and the nearest resupply was at Galveston. This would be a turning point of history for the state of Texas.
“June 18 — Arrived off Galveston, at Pier 21.” The sight was surprising, if not shocking, to see black uniformed sailors and soldiers working side-by-side with still enslaved longshoremen, who had never heard of an “Emancipation … what?” This discovery would travel up the chain of command very quickly.
So without further orders and under threat of martial law enforced by black armed soldiers, the entire populace assembled at Ashton Villa the next morning. General Granger stood on the second floor balcony to read General Order No. 3. At the last four words of the first sentence, “all slaves are free,” the entire throng was motionless. It seemed no one even breathed. While it took a while to sink in, the order soon turned into an explosion of emotion that has lasted now for 150 years — Juneteenth, Freedom Day, 1865.
Private Bill Costley of Pekin probably didn’t get much of a celebration when his mother was emancipated 24 years earlier, but he did not miss the joys of this party that lasted all day, into the night and again the next day. However, they were still under military orders. “June 21 — Put to sea.”
- * *
After the war, Bill returned to Pekin, where in 1870 the Civil War hero found himself indicted for murder. Bill had encountered a convicted rapist named Patrick Doyle brutally attacking a woman in the street. Bill intervened, twice ordering Doyle to stop, and when Doyle ignored him, he shot and killed him. (The records of Doyle’s inquest detailing Bill Costley’s actions are still on file with the Tazewell County Coroner.)
The people of Pekin knew Bill and his family, though, and they also knew who Doyle was and what he’d been sent to prison for — so after a two-day trial, the all-white jury acquitted Bill Costley, finding the homicide justifiable due to Bill’s having come to the aid of a woman in need. (Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 296, has a brief reference to Bill Costley’s trial and acquittal.)
Adams’ research shows that Bill later left Pekin, moving to 320 Main St., Davenport, Iowa, and then to 1134 N. Ninth St., Minneapolis, Minn., where it’s possible some of his family had also moved. Though the years wore on, Bill’s old war wound continued to plague him. Bill kept complaining of shoulder pain to his Pension Board, so he finally was admitted to Rochester State Hospital in Rochester, Minn., in May 1888, and there he died five months later, on the night of Oct. 1, 1888. The ward notes say he had “expired before he could be undressed.”
William Henry Costley, war hero and witness to the first Juneteenth, was laid to rest — under the name of “William H. Crossley” — in Rochester’s Quarry Hill Park, in the Rochester State Hospital Cemetery, located between 11th Ave. NE and Route 22, just north of Route 11.