Monthly Archives: December 2017

A modest proposal: Honor the REAL Southern heroes of the Civil War

Almost in spite of myself, I’ve been reading a couple book lately that have given me some food for thought, especially given the recent controversy over monuments to Confederate officials and ideals.

In general, I am not a big Civil War fan. I find it one of the most wasteful conflicts this country has ever engaged in—and we’ve been part of some real doozies. I’ve just never been able to get my head around a large chunk of the United States, founded on the principal that all men are created equal, violently attacking the rest of the country in order to force the expansion of slavery on them.

Nevertheless, last fall, I read Ron Chernow’s Grant (Penguin Press, New York, 2017), his fine biography of U.S. Army general and former President Ulysses S. Grant. Then this past month in Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2008), I found that author Gary W. Gallagher (besides giving me a warm, fuzzy feeling by using the Oxford comma in the title) makes several good points about how everyone from Hollywood producers to publishing houses to artists have distorted the facts of the Civil War, from its causes to its basic historical facts to its effects on the country.

Some of the good points in both those books led me to wonder if there isn’t another way to solve the Confederate monument problem. My idea is pretty simple: why not erect monuments to the real Southern heroes of the war? Not the traitors that resigned their commissions in the United States Army and the U.S. Navy to serve in armed rebellion against their own country, but the Southerners who resisted the appeal to treason and remained loyal to their country and Constitution.

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Although Virginian Gen. Winfield Scott was unable to take the field when the Civil War broke out, he did help President Abraham Lincoln devise the strategy that eventually won the war while remaining loyal to his country.

Take Winfield Scott, for instance. Serving as the U.S. Army’s commander in chief when the war began, Virginian Scott not only remained loyal to the Union—unlike Robert Lee—but he also outlined the strategy that President Lincoln adopted that eventually won the war.

Or George H. Thomas, another Virginian, whose decision, again unlike Lee, to honor his oath to defend the Constitution cost him his family, which disowned him. Thomas rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army to become one of its most respected commanders, earning the sobriquet “The Rock of Chickamauga” for the stand his corps took during that battle that prevented the complete collapse of the Union army.

Or on the civilian front, maybe Sam Houston deserves recognition for his principled stand when he was pressured to betray his country. Houston, the governor of Texas when the war broke out, refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy and so was removed from office after which he retired to his home after a distinguished political and military career in Tennessee and Texas.

Or on the female side, how about Elizabeth Van Lew, an outspoken Virginian abolitionist who decided to stay in her home in the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond, Va., where astonishingly enough, she ran an effective spy ring throughout the war that fed information to the American government. She was even able to place one of her operatives inside Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s household. Certainly she ought to be entitled to at least a few monuments for that alone.

And we shouldn’t forget the largely anonymous, regular citizens and the escaped slaves from southern states who served their country against the pressures to transfer their allegiance to the treasonous Confederacy. Surely some of the 100,000 Unionist Whites who served against the secessionists in their own states, or a few of the 94,000 escaped slaves and free Blacks who fought against the Confederacy deserve monuments to their service and heroism.

Those Black soldiers who fought in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) regiments deserve special recognition if anyone does. When they were first mustered into federal service they were paid less than their White comrades, although that disparity was eventually rectified. In addition, they faced excessive cruelty from Confederates when captured in battle. It was not uncommon for Black prisoners to be summarily executed, while others were forced back into slavery and otherwise brutalized.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Nathan Hughes, shown in 1893 with his wife, escaped from slavery, traveled to Illinois, joined the U.S. Army and fought to free his people before returning to Oswego after the war to farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

Many of the Black troops who served in the USCT who enlisted in Northern states were actually escaped slaves from south of the Ohio River. A good example is Kendall County’s own Nathan Hughes who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and made his way to Illinois where he subsequently enlisted in the 29th USCT Infantry Regiment. Since slavery remained legal in Kentucky throughout the war until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December 1865, if Hughes hadn’t escaped, he would almost certainly have been prohibited from serving. Instead he had a distinguished career, being wounded twice, the first time in the hip during the infamous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., and the second time in the hand during a skirmish later in the war. The 29th, by the way, was on hand at Appomattox Courthouse when Gen. Grant accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Then there was Anthony “Tony” Burnett who was a slave during the war when Company C of the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment came to visit. Pvt. Bob Jolly apparently convinced Tony he’d have more fun riding with the cavalry, and he spent the rest of the war as a company cook. After the war, Bob and Tony came back to Oswego. Tony moved around some, apparently got married and had children, and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery here in town.

While about 5,500 Blacks from South Carolina—the state that initiated the Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter—served in U.S. regiments during the war, no Whites from the Palmetto State did. But 25,000 White North Carolinians did serve in the U.S. Army during the war, joining 42,000 Tennesseans, 22,000 Virginians and thousands of others from the rest of the Confederate states.

1st Alabama Trooper

Trooper from the 1st Alabama Volunteer Cavalry, one of the only integrated units to fight during the Civil War, was mostly comprised of White pro-Union Alabama residents. (miniature by an artist on the OSW [One-Sixth Warriors] website)

If one story of the Civil War was hidden over the years, especially by Southern historians and propagandists, it was this huge number of White and Black Southerners who declined to participate in the mass treason that was the Confederate States of America. I was about as guilty as anyone in failing to be aware of just how many patriotic Southerners there were between 1861 and 1865. It really didn’t click for me until our second visit to the Gettysburg National Battlefield when an exhibit in the on-site museum caught my eye enumerating the numbers of Southerners who fought for the Union.

A big fan of Western movies as a youngster, I was familiar with the nickname “Galvanized Yankees” given to captured Southern soldiers who agreed to fight against the Plains Indian tribes during the Civil War as a way to avoid the hardships of Union prison camps. But none of the history I’d learned in junior high or high school had mentioned that tens of thousands regular Southern citizens declined to fight against their country during the war and instead fought for the Union.

Certainly these men, Black and White, deserve to be honored with monuments to their heroism in marching against the historical tide of their home states, something that led to many of the White volunteers being disowned by their families and ostracized by their communities for their refusal to commit treason.

If the recent past’s arguments about who deserves a monument have taught us anything, it ought to be that erecting heroic statues to traitors is not a good idea. Nor is the puzzling practice of proudly waving the Confederacy’s battle flag. After all, you don’t see statues erected in honor of World War II German generals in Germany, and statues and other monuments to monsters such as Saddam Hussein came tumbling down as soon as people realized they didn’t need to be afraid of them any more. And flying flags bearing swastikas is a good way to get arrested in Germany.

So if people want to be proud of Southerners who fought during the Civil War, why not honor those who remained true to the Constitution and refused to do the popular regional thing and commit treason? Seems like it’s an ideal that’s been a long time—too long a time, in fact—coming. Unless, of course, the idea behind those monuments wasn’t to honor brave Southerners in the first place, but was rather to intimidate Black citizens and those who remained loyal to the Union. Right?

 

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Filed under Civil War, History, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Snowy winter days create their own sounds, smells, and memories

Despite the effects of climate change on our Illinois winters, it still gives me a warm feeling to sit here in my office, in the house my great-grandparents built as their retirement home, and watch the flakes drift down during an early winter snowfall.

Downtown, children and adults, all dressed in high-tech, down-filled, rip-stop winter clothing hurry along the sidewalks on their way to and from stores and doctors’ and dentist offices. Today’s clothing is lighter and more comfortable and autos and other pieces of necessary machinery are more dependable, but an Illinois winter’s cold, wind, and snow are constants that conjure up memories of winters and holidays past.

1914 Transition Wastington St. winter1914

You can almost hear the sleigh bells ring looking at this image of Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914 during an early winter snowfall. (Little White School Museum photo)

These days, I chiefly recall that era of decades past by its sounds and smells.

The sound of a small boy walking along a snowy lane with corduroy pants and five-buckle boots seemed unnaturally loud during a quiet early morning snowfall. Each step produced a “whoop-clink!” as first one and then another corduroyed leg noisily brushed against its brother with a rough-soft sound punctuated by the boot buckles’ musical jingle.

If the weather was right and the snowflakes were too, the tiny crackle each one made as it landed could be heard—if a sharp young ear was close enough to a winter coat’s arm.

Trudging along a country road, down a deserted village lane, or across a lonely farmstead, a winter day stroller had plenty of time to get off the road when traffic came from behind. The tire chains everyone used for traction in snow and on ice in those days before snowtires and front-wheel drive heralded each car and truck well in advance, as the chained tires squeaked and jingled and jangled through the snow.

1943 Oswego Winter

Snow’s building up fast in this photo snapped at Main and Washington in Oswego at the end of World War II. (Little White School Museum photo)

During a snowstorm, all the regular daytime sounds were muffled by the dense whiteness as it cascaded to the ground, allowing a keen ear to pick out familiar noises only now and then. Here the scrape of a shovel on a concrete drive or walk, there the joyful cry of a sledder on the way down a steep hill. But mostly, it was quiet as even the noisy English Sparrows sat hunched with their feathers fluffed for warmth, waiting for clear flying weather.

A snowstorm, if you’re paying attention, has a smell all its own. It is a sharp, clean scent that puts a person in mind of those stiffly white, freshly freeze-dried bed sheets our grandmothers once gathered in off their clothes lines in deepest January; an aroma that, I am quite sure, certain businessmen would sell their very souls for, could it be bottled and lined up on store shelves.

Out in back of the chicken house, large icicles hung down from the roof, looking for all the world like stalactites hanging from the ceiling of a prehistoric cave. There is a certain unique beauty in a clear, sharply tapering icicle. And nothing seemed quite so warm and wonderful as, while still grasping that freshly-born crystal clear icicle, going in the door of the chicken house, with its heavy smell of feathers and nesting straw complimented by the sounds of chuckling hens.

Heading back to the house pulling a brand new sled, magnificent in its varnished wood and red painted runners, that just the day before were carefully polished with a bit of steel wool and then waxed with the nub of an old candle, it was easy to imagine Arctic explorers or Eskimo hunters or even Sgt. Preston of the Yukon trudging alongside, sharing the adventures and hardships of a long, frozen journey fraught with all manner of dangers. Do you suppose a polar bear smells anything like a tail-wagging dog after she’s had a happy roll in the snow?

1945 abt Dobbin & sled

The Matile family pony, Dobbin, seems resigned to making the best of things after my sisters harnessed him to their sled.

After stamping and sweeping the snow from boots and snow pants, that wonderful kitchen all grandmothers seemed to possess, with all its special wintertime aromas, provided the perfect welcome. The cheery cookstove, all shiny white porcelain and dull black cast iron, warmed the room and provided, back behind and next to the wall, the perfect haven for a slumbering cat curled up in a cardboard box. Huge fresh-baked sugar cookies and fluted-edged molasses cookies, each with three small half-circles indented (creating dark brown smiley faces way before emojis were a gleam in someone’s digital dreams) cooling on the kitchen counter added a sweet smell of sugar and spice all their own.

The scarf was unwound, the hat and mittens removed, the thick winter coat unbuckled and unzipped. Damp mittens were put on the back of the cookstove to dry, adding a moist wool smell to the room.

Somehow, remarkable designs had appeared overnight on the kitchen windows, with mysterious, enigmatic, beautiful scenes outlined in shining frost. Who was this wintertime Picasso and why did he seem to do his finest work on the windows at Grandmother’s house? Jack Frost did it, was the unsatisfactory explanation.

In this day and age, a snowstorm’s quiet is punctuated by the muffled mechanized roar of neighborhood snowblowers and pickup mounted snowplows, but the delighted squeals of snowbound children, sentenced to frolic with sleds and snow saucers for the day, is still also there, provided you’re willing to listen hard and patiently enough.

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A winter’s snowfall erases all of Mother Nature’s mistakes, as this image of the Matile house proves.

The musical chinking of tire chains is mostly absent these days—at least in this part of the country—and the distinctive sounds made by walkers clad in corduroy pants and five buckle boots have given way to the sleeker sounds of nylon trousers and boots apparently modeled on those worn by Moon-walking astronauts. Unfortunately, our modern double-glazed windows have robbed poor old Jack Frost of his best medium; he must be content these days with fewer and fewer suitable single-pane windows—hardly what the old master deserves.

The constant, even after all these years, is the snow itself, creating a thick, soft white blanket that covers carefully manicured lawns and scarred construction sites alike after our infrequent blizzards during this era of warmer winters. But when those infrequent storms hit and for all our modem, efficient snow clearing equipment, the dense white of modern winter storms still slow our bustling suburban lives to an unwanted– but often secretly enjoyed–walk. The trick is to slow down and enjoy it for what it is.

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Farming, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

Ghosts of Christmas Past are sort of fun folks…

Christmas is creeping up on us, and nothing stokes the old nostalgia fires like this season of the year. I wrote this piece a couple years ago and just came across it again while looking for something else. So, I decided to hoist it up from the archives for another short run. Those were good times…

Listening to an on-line holiday music channel and looking out to see another frosty morning here at the Matile Manse leads me to the conclusion that there’s no time of the year that stimulates a person’s nostalgia gland like the Christmas season.

Just about everybody has at least a few, and sometimes lots more, wonderful memories of Christmases past.

For the declining percentage of those of us who’ve lived their entire lives in the Fox Valley, the warm memories of those days gone by are tempered by the shear amazement with which we’ve been watching so many changes in our little corner of northern Illinois happen so quickly.

As part of that change, folks who live in Kendall County towns along the U.S. Route 34 corridor can now reasonably expect to do their holiday shopping in their own communities (and thereby making sure the resulting sales tax benefits themselves instead of residents of neighboring towns), something that, for several decades, was not possible. With the construction of shopping centers up and down the corridor from Sandwich east to Montgomery, shopping without leaving town has become not only possible, but with the traffic, preferable.

The thing is, though, that back in the day, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano and Sandwich residents could once do their holiday shopping in their own towns before the advent of regional shopping centers siphoned off those areas’ shoppers.

1950 Shulers Drugs

On a winter day in the 1950s, paper boys and girls wait for the Beacon-News to be dropped off at Shuler’s Drug Store so they can start their paper routes. Shuler’s annual toy sales area was in the hall above the store marked by the second story windows in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, I always figured that Al Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Drug Store on Main Street, must have been a huge fan of Christmas. When I was a kid, he’d order up a giant supply of the latest toys, which were sold from the large meeting hall on the floor above the drug and dry goods stores. On the way home from school, we’d make almost daily stops at that toy display, tromping our way up the steep stairs to make holiday wishes, our four-buckle boots jingling and swishing.

I didn’t know then, in the mid-1950s,  that the tradition of Oswego’s drug store selling an elaborate line of holiday merchandise extended nearly a century into the past, back to when pioneer druggist Levi Hall began the practice. As the Dec. 18, 1874 Kendall County Record reported:

Santa Claus in Oswego: This fine old gentleman, the patron saint of the children, has his Oswego headquarters this month at the drug store of L.N. Hall, and he requests all who love Christmas to call there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week and see what beautiful goods Mr. Hall has to sell. In the evening of those days, a beautiful Christmas tree will be lit up at 7 o’clock for the admiration of customers and little folks.

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All the guys wanted a Fanner-50 under the tree. My buddy Glenn was the only one of my friends lucky enough to get one.

That was all fine, but from my point of view, as a confirmed television-watching youngster of the ‘50s, when the Christmas shopping season began the most wonderful place on earth had to have been Amlings Flowerland. Which might seem a bit odd, to the uninitiated, especially since I never actually went to Amlings. But Amlings (“conveniently located”) was a frequent sponsor of children’s TV shows like “Elmer the Elephant” and “Garfield Goose.” For about two months a year, Amlings’ commercials bombarded us with the lure of every wonderful new toy imaginable. Fanner 50 revolvers, lever-action carbines like “The Rifleman” used, dolls that walked, real two-way radios, —Amlings had them all. I made frequent requests to be taken to this magical toy shopping Mecca, but to no avail. I had no idea where Hinsdale or Ogden Avenue was, but it didn’t sound very far away. Of course, Antarctica wouldn’t have seemed too far for the chance to visit Toy Nirvana. But as far as my parents were concerned, Amlings might as well of been on the far side of the moon.

But while Amlings was definitely out, downtown Aurora was definitely in. Aurora was only about six miles up the river on Route 25, which turned into Broadway–downtown Aurora’s main street–once we passed the city limits. My family had considered Aurora our main shopping town for at least a couple generations.

Back then, Sears was located in the middle of the downtown area on Broadway. At Christmas, they’d open a special toy department up in what was apparently the attic. I remember taking the elevator as far as it would go and then climbing the steep, narrow crowded stairway to a huge room filled, mostly it seemed, with frantic parents trying to get the latest Hasbro doll or Tonka truck for their kids.

1972 Aurora

When this photo was taken in 1972, downtown Aurora still hadn’t changed all that much from the way it looked in the late 1950s. You can just make out the Korn Krib sign at right partially obscurred by Lyon & Healy’s sign. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was surprisingly similar to Al Shuler’s toy emporium—except I don’t think as many people visited Shuler’s toy display in an entire season as did the customers who shopped at the Sears display on a single frenetic Friday night.

And it wasn’t only Sears that was such a kid’s delight. Downtown Aurora as a whole at Christmas was a fascinating place for kids. There was The Book Shop on Stolp Avenue that not only sold books, but also had a wonderful selection of “educational” toys. Microscopes, real miniature steam engines, Erector sets, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets—The Book Shop was an always excellent place to while away a half-hour.

The dime stores, Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, had toy departments that were okay, but were nothing special. Grant’s, which wasn’t quite, but was pretty close to a dime store, had a passably good toy department, along with a truly excellent selection of comic books, including a good supply of Classics Illustrated, one of my favorite comic series. The Book Shop also had a nice selection of Classics Illustrated.

For model kits and the only place in the south Fox Valley that sold British-made Dinky Toys, you had to take a walk south on Broadway to Fagerholm’s. They specialized in model kits, including gasoline-powered model planes, and had all the special paints needed to get just the right effect on that World War II Fletcher class destroyer or the Cutty Sark clipper ship model under construction up in my bedroom. And every once in a while I’d have enough money to add to my collection of Dinky Toy military vehicles.

Right across the street was Main Surplus where military surplus clothing and equipment shared store shelves with—bowling balls. It was the best place in town to pick up a new ball, get your old one drilled out, or get a nice bowling bag, your private towel, or your own pair of shoes.

1959 Route 25

After a hard day’s shopping in downtown Aurora, driving back south to Oswego down Ill. Route 25 offered some of the area’s nicest winter scenery. In fact, it still does. (Little White School Museum collection)

Out the door and walking north to Downer Place, a left turn took the discriminating shopper to May Electric where Lionel trains reigned supreme—at least for us kids. Parents were more interested in boring stuff like washing machines, but in the upstairs loft was the most complete selection of Lionel trains and equipment in our area. New switches, bottles of those tiny pills that made your steam locomotive smoke, signal bridges, and freight cars with little guys that actually unloaded crates of who knows what were all there, along with the newest diesel and steam engines and other rolling stock. I had my eye on a great Santa Fe diesel switch engine one year, and was almost beside myself when I found it under the tree Christmas morning.

Looking back, the amazing thing is that parents during that era thought nothing of letting their kids roam around downtown Aurora all by themselves, even at night. It was a wonderful place: the Korn Krib for some great caramel corn; or Reuland’s for hot, fresh giant cashews; or the Fox Valley Snack Shop for cantaloupe à la mode for the sophisticated palate (or a Belly-Buster for the audacious); or browsing the coming attractions posters at the Paramount or the Isle theater.

It was a time of shared experience now long gone, but far from forgotten. We like to look back and believe it was a simpler time, but it really wasn’t. The challenges were just different and us kids didn’t yet have to worry about the kinds of things our parents did. It’s entirely likely modern kids will look back on today in exactly the same way. It’s the “Good Old Days” syndrome. Thing is, some—even if not all—of those old days actually were pretty good.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, entertainment, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego