The passion and the tragedy of William Harkness

By late June 1862, it was becoming clear that the Civil War, begun the previous year when secessionist forces attacked American troops at Fort Sumter, was not going to be the brief conflict most thought. Instead, a series of reverses suffered by the Union Army was leading to deep concern on the part of military and political officials alike.

It was clear many more troops would be needed to put down the rebellion, and on June 30, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order calling for 300,000 additional troops.

Back in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, the large railroad companies based in Chicago hastened to heed the call for troops by raising regiment of infantry. Officially designated the 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the unit was nicknamed “The Railroad Regiment” in honor of its prime backers.

1862 William Harkness

William Harkness in a photographic portrait probably taken after he enlisted in Company H, 89th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but before he reported for duty. (Little White School Museum collection)

When a recruiting team for the 89th reached the Kendall County seat at Yorkville in August 1862, one of those choosing to enlist for three years or the duration of the war—whichever came first—was a well-known, and well-liked solemn young Scots farmer, William “Billy” Harkness. Short, at just 5’ 4”, Harkness had a luxuriant brown beard and calm, gray eyes. He was elected second lieutenant by the men of Company H, almost all of whom were his neighbors in the county.

Harkness was born Dec. 13, 1835 in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scotland, the son of Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1840, first settling in New York State. In 1850, Andrew and Janette moved their considerable family, less three grown children who temporarily stayed behind in New York, to Kendall County, Illinois. Ten years later, William married Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart, and the pair settled down on an 80 acre farm at the corner of modern Walker and Immanuel roads in Kendall Township that William had purchased three years earlier. Shortly after their marriage, the couple had a son, Henry Herbert Harkness.

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart Harkness and the couple's only child, Henry Herbert

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart Harkness and the couple’s only child, Henry Herbert “Herbie” Harkness. The photo was probably taken at the same time as William’s prewar portrait. (Little White School Museum collection)

William Harkness was a serious, religious man, active in his church. He attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and was reportedly well thought of by his neighbors. He apparently despised slavery and the culture that nurtured it, and so his decision to serve in the Union Army.

The 89th saw hard campaigning almost from the beginning. As soon as it was mustered, the regiment was sent south to Louisville and with the rest of the Union force, joined the pursuit of Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army. Having only been in service for four months, the 89th participated in the bloody Battle of Stone’s River, where the commander of Harkness’s Company H was killed in action.

The men of Company H appreciated Harkness’s steady leadership during the battle. According to a letter from Pvt. Joseph Buckley to his wife back home in the Kendall County village of Lisbon, “We have subscribed a Dollar each to buy Lieutenant Harkness a sword as a token of respect for the kindness and manly bearing he has shown to all of us.”

Stone’s River was the start of an extraordinarily tough stretch of campaigning as the men of the 89th fought first at Liberty Gap and then at the bloodbath that was Chickamauga, where a lieutenant colonel, three captains, and a lieutenant were killed in action.

After Chickamauga, the Union Army of the Cumberland was reorganized, and the 89th was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division, IV Army Corps. From there it was on to fights at Orchard Knob and then to the Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, the 89th was among the American troops that charged up the ridge’s precipitous slopes, driving entrenched Confederates before them. Although victorious, the 89th again lost two officers. But William Harkness was not among them.

In fact, he seemed to be leading a charmed life as he gained the respect of his military peers. When the 89th’s Company B needed a temporary commander, the regimental commander chose Harkness as its temporary commander.

Writing to his brother James from Strawberry Plains, Tennessee on Jan. 6, 1864: “I expect to go back to Company H in a few days as the officers of Company B are coming back.”

Lt. William Harkness, Company H, 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Little White School Museum collection)

Lt. William Harkness, Company H, 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the dawn of 1864, the 89th’s campaigning intensified as Union Gen William T. Sherman began the campaign to destroy Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and capture the Confederate rail and industrial hub of Atlanta, Georgia. And the 89th Illinois seemed to be in the thick of most of the battles as Sherman forced the rebel army back on its heels.

With the hard campaigning, Lt. Harkness’s favor only grew with the men under his command. On April 16, 1864, a letter from a soldier in Company H was published in the Kendall County Record commenting: “Lt. Billy Harkness, everybody’s favorite, is at home on leave of absence–and that he may have a glorious time is the wish of all.”

What the soldiers in Harkness’s company didn’t know was that he was on compassionate leave given the sickness of his only son. Just four days after the laudatory letter was published, Henery Herbert “Herbie” Harkness died at four years of age.

But there was little time to grieve as Sherman’s American army of which the 89th was part continually marched and probed against Johnston’s Confederate forces as he attempted to protect Atlanta.

From May 13-16, the 89th was in the thick of the Battle of Resaca. Although considered a tactical draw, it was a strategic Union victory that forced Johnston to continue withdrawing before Sherman’s advance.

On May 27 west of Marietta, Georgia at Pickett’s Mill, Sherman thought he detected a weakness in Johnston’s deployment, and he ordered Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps, which included the 89th, to attack. Unfortunately for the American forces, the rebels, under Gen. Patrick Cleburne, were well entrenched and awaiting the attack. The result was 1,600 casualties for the American army versus about 600 for the rebels. The 89th lost heavily, but again, Harkness came through without a scratch.

As the anonymous “Soldier H” observed in a letter to the editor of the Kendall County Record: “Capt. Hobbs and Lieut. Harkness, although in the heat of the fray, came off unscathed. These two officers have been in every fight in which the 1st Brigade has taken part and have done their duty as men; they must be ‘bullet proof.'”

As June 1864 arrived, Sherman was slowly but steadily closing the noose around Atlanta and the 89th fought hard at Pine Hill and Lost Mountain.

On June 14, although he didn’t know it, William Harkness was promoted to captain of the 89th’s Company A. At the time, Harkness was fighting in Company H at Pine Hill and then at Lost Mountain as Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, of which the 89th was part, moved toward the southern flank of the Confederates’ Kenesaw Mountain position. By June 21, after another sharp fight the day before, the 89th was busy digging field fortifications—work that Harkness, among other officers, was supervising—to secure the ground they’d just gained.

The Kerr Rifle was a sniper version of the standard British-made Enfield rifled musket used by Confederate forces. Kerrs were used by specially trained marksmen who concentrated on officers and other important targets.

The Kerr Rifle was a sniper version of the standard British-made Enfield rifled musket used by Confederate forces. Kerrs were used by specially trained marksmen who concentrated on officers and other important targets. (From the “Kentucky Sharpshooters” page of the First Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade RootsWeb site)

Opposite the American Howard’s IV Corps, Kentucky’s famed 1st Kentucky Brigade—nicknamed the Orphan Brigade—watched the Union troops strengthening their position. The previous winter, the brigade had selected a group of especially good marksmen for special training with precision Kerr Rifles. The Kerr looked nearly identical to standard British-made Enfield rifled muskets, which wasn’t surprising. Kerrs, produced in very limited numbers by the London Armoury Company, had been developed by company superintendent James Kerr. Using a standard Enfield as a base, Kerr improved the rifle’s long range accuracy by reducing the bore from the standard .58 caliber down to .45 caliber. He also introduced an innovative pattern of rifling inside the barrel. Although the new design did, indeed, prove far more accurate over long distances, it also required far more frequent cleaning and performed best with specialized, expensive ammunition, both of which were definite liabilities under combat conditions.

Although less than a dozen Kerrs made it through the Union Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports to the Orphan Brigade, they proved deadly in trained hands. A contemporary account describing the battles around Atlanta in May 1864 noted the success of the small corps of what were then termed sharpshooters, and what today we’d call snipers: “They were armed with Kerr rifles, English guns, I believe, brought in through the blockade. They were of long range and in the hands of good marksmen did dreadful havoc in the enemy’s ranks. There were but eleven in the brigade, three of them from out regiment (9th Kentucky), chosen for their expert marksmanship. They became a great terror..,for they could kill at much greater range than the infantrymen.”

On June 21, while William Harkness supervised Company H troops who were fortifying their position in case of Confederate counterattack, a Kentucky sniper took careful aim with his precision Kerr Rifle some hundreds of yards away. He waited patiently, and when two American soldiers were in line and exposed, he fired. The bullet entered Pvt. Joseph Buckley’s shoulder, shattering his upper arm before exiting at his elbow and then striking William Harkness in the abdomen.

It was clear from the beginning that his wound was fatal as Harkness was removed to a place of relative safety where he died a few hours later. Buckley survived the wound, managed to keep his arm, and survived the war.

In a letter in the Kendall County Record anonymously signed by “Corporal,” the death of Harkness was described: “I must add the name of Lieutenant William Harkness to those before sent you as among the killed in Company H, during the campaign. He was shot on the Twenty-first of June, the ball striking him in the abdomen and causing his death a few hours later. His usual fortitude sustained him through this last moments and enabled him to write a letter to his wife, although conscious of the nature of the wound and his rapidly approaching end…The ground had been won on which he was shot and he was superintending the erection of barricades to shelter the soldiers who were to hold it.”

Awaiting his death, Harkness scribbled a brief note to Maggie back in Illinois: “My dear Maggie. I am badly wounded, I shall soon be with our dear little Herbie. May God bless you my dear wife. —William.” He died later that day at the age of 29.

William’s body was taken back to Kendall County for burial and a memorial service was held July 24 at the Pavilion Baptist Church. The crowd assembled was far too large for the small church, so they moved them outside to the grove that adjoined the church.

Maggie, having lost both her son and her husband barely a month apart, sold the couple’s farm to other members of the Harkness family. She also fought for a widow’s pension. The Army assured William’s promotion to caption of Company A, although he never served in that capacity, and on Feb. 23, 1865 she received a captain’s widow’s pension, retroactive to the day of William’s death on June 21, 1864.

In September 1866 she married Isaac Wright, a widower 16 years her senior with four children. Two years later, the couple had a son, and soon after that the family moved to Missouri.

We throw the word “hero” around quite a lot these days to the point that using it indiscriminately to describe everyone from Medal of Honor winners to soldiers just doing their jobs, has debased its meaning.

But 150 years ago, during the struggle to save our nation, real heroes seemed to abound, men like William Harkness who did their duty in ways that earned the respect of both their superiors and the men serving under them and who, when he knew he was dying had the fortitude to reassure his wife that his thoughts were of her and their son during his last moments.

Information on the Harkness family came from excerpts of  “The Descendants of Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness of Roxburghshire, Scotland” by Elmer George Dickson, 1990, in the collections of the Little White School Museum. For the latest history of the 89th Volunteer Infantry, see “Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-Ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, The Railroad Regiment” by Phillip J. Reyburn, 2012, available on-line through Google.


Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

2 responses to “The passion and the tragedy of William Harkness

  1. susan maher

    Excellent story- thanks so much. One of my ancestors was also in Company H- enlisted in Chicago. No mention of my soldier in Reyburn’s book. Any more pictures of the company? I am trying to ID some unlabelled portrait photos.

    • RAM

      Susan, thank you for the kind words. We don’t have any other photos concerning the 89th in our collections at the Little White School Museum. You might try the Library of Congress web site, particularly the American Memories collection. You might also try writing to Reyburn to see if someone or some museum might have a collection of 89th related photos.

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