Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Union barely had time to celebrate Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, before the nation was horrified by the assassination of its Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14 – a mere five days later.

One of Pekin’s pioneers was in Washington, D.C., during those days of sorrow: Seth Kinman, who formerly operated a hotel in downtown Pekin, claimed to have been an eye-witness of the president’s assassination, and contemporary newspaper accounts say Kinman took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege.

As a result of his assassination, Lincoln came to be revered as a martyr for the cause of preserving the Union and for the abolitionist cause. The people of Illinois in particular have held his memory in the highest esteem ever since. It is in the state capital, Springfield, where he is entombed, and in towns and cities throughout the state Illinoisans are still proud to point to buildings and locations where Lincoln once lived, worked, or stayed. This is especially true of communities in central Illinois.

One of our county’s Lincoln sites unfortunately was destroyed by fire in May 2014 – the approximately 180-year-old Lilly Inn in eastern Tazewell County, one of the county’s oldest buildings, was a local link to President Abraham Lincoln, who stayed at the inn while riding the circuit as an attorney in central Illinois from the 1830s to the 1850s.

The Lilly Inn was, of course, far from the only site in our area with ties to Lincoln. For example, his work as a lawyer sometimes brought to him Mason County, where he is known to have stayed in the home of his friend Samuel C. Conwell on Washington Street in Havana. Conwell’s home, which he built in the early 1850s, is still standing.

In Tazewell County, Washington also boasts of its connection with Lincoln. At the old Washington Hotel, which stood where a BP parking lot is today, Lincoln made a stump speech during a stop on the way to Galesburg to debate Stephen A. Douglas. Some years ago, Washington placed five Bronze footprints at locations in Washington where Lincoln is known to have stopped in his travels.

Lincoln’s work brought him to Tazewell County two or three times a year, and he represented clients at the county’s courthouses in Tremont and Pekin. Naturally this work produced numerous Tazewell County legal documents bearing Lincoln’s signature or handwriting or name, and most of these precious mementos of Lincoln’s life, while remaining the possession of Tazewell County, are now in the keeping of the state of Illinois in Springfield.

One of Lincoln’s more important cases was Bailey vs. Cromwell (1841), in which Lincoln appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield and won the freedom of Nance Legins-Costley (“Black Nance”) of Pekin, a slave of Pekin pioneer co-founder Nathan Cromwell. Lincoln successfully argued that Costley and her children had to be recognized as free under Illinois law since there was no legal documentation establishing that they had ever been the property of the principals involved in the case, or that Costley had ever agreed to a temporary contract of indentured servitude.

When he came to Pekin for court, Lincoln often stayed at the old Tazewell House hotel, which stood from 1849 to 1904 at the corner of Court and Front streets (Gene Miller Park today). After the Tazewell House hotel was demolished, its threshold was preserved at the Tazewell County Courthouse, and was inscribed with words commemorating the fact that “Hereon trod the great Abraham Lincoln – Stephen A. Douglas – John A. Logan – Robert G. Ingersoll – David Davis – Edward D. Baker and others.

Tazewell House presumably was the Pekin hotel in the lobby of which, according to Tom Wheeler’s article, “The First Wired President,” published on a New York Times blog in May 2012, Lincoln first saw a telegraph key in 1857.

Lincoln’s legal career created another tangible link between Lincoln and Tazewell County – Lincoln sometimes would purchase his clients’ land and hold it for them in his name, later returning it when cases were concluded. That’s how Lincoln came to own several parcels of land in Tazewell, including the land at the intersection of Allentown and Springfield roads (where Morton has held the annual Punkin Chuckin event).

This 2008 Pekin Daily Times informational graphic chart describes 22 sites in Pekin that have direct or indirect links to President Abraham Lincoln. The list was researched and compiled by Dale Kuntz.

In 2008, retired teacher Dale Kuntz of Pekin, who served on the Tazewell County Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission preparing for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, proposed that the city of Pekin create a historical “Lincoln Walk” in downtown Pekin to help visitors and residents learn more about Lincoln’s ties to the city.

Kuntz’s historical research had identified 22 sites along the proposed route that can be shown to have direct and indirect Lincoln connections, starting at the bank of the Illinois River where Lincoln had landed in 1832 when his oar broke while he returned from the Black Hawk War, then heading along Front Street south to Cynthiana, then east to Broadway, out to Sixth Street, then back west along Court Street to end at Gene Miller Park, the former site of the Tazewell House hotel.

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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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