Category Archives: Military History

My generation’s skewed view of the Civil War and Reconstruction still causing problems

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.

But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”

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Abolitionist John Brown lived up to his reputation as a murderous lunatic and was hanged for his troubles.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

1859 Underground Railroad

This map of the Underground Railroad through LaSalle and Kendall counties, was published in the 1914 history of Kendall County. It seems authentic in that the chapter’s author, Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam, interviewed county residents still living who had participated in helping escaping slaves.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

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Robert Lee in a March 1864 portrait taken the same month Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the armies of the United States. The war was about to enter its final phase; a year and a month after this portrait was taken, Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant..

Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out that the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better tactician) who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va. A good but not brilliant tactician, Grant saved his brilliance for grand strategy, that he used to destroy Southern armies and the Confederacy they propped up.

illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)

After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”

Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights. But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too. Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. For instance, his Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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Filed under Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Two soldiers’ stories as Veterans’ Day approaches

Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, was originally established as Armistice Day to honor the veterans of World War I. The armistice to end that war was signed on Nov. 11—the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day.

But in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the holiday’s designation to Veterans’ Day as a way to honor all of the nation’s veterans from all of its wars.

Every year at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, assistant museum director Bob Stekl and his crew of enthusiastic volunteers fills the museum’s main room with uniforms, photographs, and memorabilia of Oswego’s veterans, culled from the museum’s extensive collections. And every year, we seem to stumble across new facts and folks donate new veterans’ materials to the museum’s collections.

Maine explodes

After the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba the night of Feb. 15, 1898, tensions between the U.S. and Spain grew until the U.S. declared war on April 25.

This year, we thought we’d delve into the Spanish-American War of 1898 a bit in order to highlight information concerning Philip Clauser, our community’s only veteran of what Theodore Roosevelt called “a splendid little war.” In gathering information and memorabilia about Clauser’s service, we also recalled that his son, Frank, went on to serve in World War II, where he was killed in action when his B-26 was shot down over the Mediterranean near Italy in 1943.

The story of Oswego’s Clauser military family really begins on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, as the USS Maine was riding easily at anchor in the harbor at Havana, Cuba when, at 9:40 p.m., an explosion ripped through the ship, which then sank, still at anchor, with the loss of 266 of her 355-man crew.

At the time, it was determined the ship was sunk by a mine. Subsequent investigations, however, suggest that an internal explosion cause the ship to sink. But whatever the cause, the disaster whipped the war fever that had been raging in the United States into a positive frenzy. When the U.S. demanded they vacate Cuba, Spain declined. On April 11, President William McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, and 12 days later he sent a request for 122,000 volunteers to the states.

1898 abt Clauser, Philip

Philip Clauser in a portrait taken about 1898 when he became the only person from Oswego to enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then on April 25, 1898, Congress voted to declare war on Spain, a conflict that led to land and sea battles in both the Caribbean Sea and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Among the volunteers flocking to the colors was Theodore Roosevelt himself, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt resigned his office and eventually wangled command of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—later famously nicknamed “The Rough Riders.”

Also volunteering was Oswegoan Philip Clauser, the only village resident who decided to serve.

Clauser was born in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country at Tower City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania on Aug. 12, 1868. As a young man, he decided to head west to Illinois where his aunt and uncle, John and Mary Ann (Wolf) Minnich, along with several cousins, were living in Oswego.

He worked at whatever jobs he could find, probably working for his cousins, Irvin Haines and Ed Inman, at carpentry in the spring, summer, and fall, and in the winter finding work with the Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Company’s big ice harvesting and storage operation at Oswego. He also traveled for the company to their ice harvesting operations in Wisconsin, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reporting on April 2, 1890: “Charles Rieger, Alf Wormley Lars Nelson, John Peterson and Phillip Clauser returned Saturday from Wisconsin where they were employed in the housing of ice for Esch Bros. & Rabe. The firm is said to have gathered a full supply.”

By the time the war with Spain was declared, the nation’s two biggest newspaper barons, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, had used their media empires to whip up public enthusiasm for a war ostensibly fought to free the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from what Hearst and Pulitzer characterized as Spanish oppression. So when President McKinley issued his call for volunteers, there was no lack of men willing to go off to fight.

The President requested that Illinois supply seven regiments of infantry and one of cavalry.

Phil Clauser traveled up to Aurora on April 26, 1898, the day after Congress approved the declaration of war against Spain, to enlist in the Illinois National Guard’s 3rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was assigned to Company I, under the command of Capt. Charles M. Greene, volunteering to serve for two years or until the end of the war, whichever came first. The regiment was commanded by Col. Fred Bennitt, a prominent Joliet lawyer who had risen to the rank of full colonel in the Illinois National Guard.

Company I traveled by train from Aurora to Springfield, where the entire regiment was mustered into U.S. service at Camp Tanner—actually the state fairgrounds, renamed for the duration of the war—on May 7. The regiment entrained once again for Camp George H. Thomas on the old battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia, arriving May 16. The Georgia camp was fittingly named for one of the Union’s top Civil War generals who had been nicknamed “The Rock of Chickamauga” after he withstood rebel attacks during the battle in 1863.

USS St Louis

A passenger liner, the USS St. Louis was armed after war with Spain was declared. The ship transported troops to Puerto Rico and went on to disrupt undersea communication cables between Spain and Cuba.

At Camp Thomas, the 3rd Illinois was fully equipped and underwent combat training. Three days after the regiment arrived, Phil Clauser was promoted to corporal.

Training complete, the troops left once again, this time for Newport News, Virginia, arriving July 24, where they were marched aboard the USS St. Louis and sailed for Puerto Rico, where they arrived off Ponce on July 31.

The Puerto Rican campaign was under the direct command of Gen. Nelson Miles, the U.S. Army’s commander-in-chief. The 3rd Illinois was assigned to Brig. Gen. Peter G. Hains’ Second Brigade along with the 4th Ohio and 4th Pennsylvania volunteer infantry regiments, plus a few other attached units. Miles ordered Hains to take Arroyo, a small port that served the larger nearby coastal town of Guayama. The brigade handily took Arroyo with only light resistance.

Then on Aug. 5, Haines ordered the 4th Ohio and the 3rd Illinois, supported by a battery of Sims-Dudley Dynamite guns to take Guayama itself. The Americans advanced up two small hills where Spanish forces had entrenched, and after a half-hour firefight the Illinoisans and Ohioans took the Spanish positions, suffering only three wounded.

Other than small skirmishes north of Guayama on Aug. 9 and 13, that was the 3rd Illinois’ last combat as they went into camp near the city. On Nov. 2, they filed aboard the SS Roumania and set sail for New York, arriving on Nov. 9. They were sent back to Illinois by train where they were granted furloughs before being mustered out of federal service on Jan. 24. Their “splendid little war” had lasted three months, three weeks, and two days.

Cpl. Clauser returned to Oswego, where he told folks he hadn’t minded his military adventure at all.

“Phil Clauser, the returned soldier from here, is one that enjoyed the war; says that they had both rough and good times, but on the while he liked the service, that if the thing was to be done over again he would not miss it,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 23, 1898.

Clauser married Ella Wolf and settled down in Oswego to raise a family that included two sons, Sylvester and Frank, who went on to fight in World War II. Phil Clauser remained proud of his service for the rest of his life and was an active member of the United Spanish War Veterans.

It’s likely he told his war stories to his sons as they grew up, so that when World War II broke out, they were more than willing to serve. Theodore, the oldest son, had been two young to serve in World War I, and then found himself too old to serve in World War II. But Sylvester and Frank were just right, Sylvester serving in the U.S. Navy, and Frank joining the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Frank Clauser was born in Oswego in 1911. He grew up among a tight group of friends and relatives—often they were one in the same. A good athlete, he played basketball and was a letter-winner on the undefeated 1929 Oswego High School football team. As a teenager, he was able to find work around Oswego, especially with his friend, Earl Zentmyer, who owned the local Ford auto dealership and garage.

After high school, Frank worked around Oswego and continued to live at home until he married his wife, Dorothy, and the couple moved to Aurora, where Frank found work building steel lockers and shelving at Durabilt Steel, one of the city’s many factories.

1942 Clauser, Sgt. Frank abt 1943

Sgt. Frank Clauser in a military portrait taken in 1942. (Little White School Museum collection)

When World War II broke out, he joined the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Corps.

After basic and advanced training, Frank was assigned to the newly activated 438th Bomb Squadron, part of the 319th Bomb Group. When the 438th received its B-26 Marauder aircraft, he became an engineer-gunner.

Designed and built by the Martin Aircraft Corporation, the B-26 was termed a medium bomber by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Its two Pratt and Whitney engines gave it good range (1,100 miles) and an excellent top speed (310 mph) while carrying a potent bomb load of 5,200 lbs. It was also heavily armed with 11 .50 cal. machine guns.

The men of the 319th Bomb Group trained with their B-26’s as low-level raiders, and then flew their aircraft to England in September of 1942. From there, they flew on to North Africa where they operated against Italian and German forces. Besides engaging in tactical bombing against ground targets, the B-26’s of the 319th Bomb Group were also used as interceptors to shoot down German transport aircraft flying from Italy carrying supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa.

After the German Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were defeated in North Africa, the 438th turned its attention towards Sicily and Italy. Flying at low altitudes, Sgt. Clauser and the rest of the men of the 438th Bomb Squadron used their low level bombing to hit ground targets in Sicily and Italy, and also attacked Axis shipping in the Mediterranean using skip bombing techniques.

319th BG B-26

One of the 319th Bomb Group’s B-26 Martin Marauders, this one from the 437th Bomb Squadron, identical to the aircraft in which Frank Clauser flew.

But as might be expected when flying a demanding aircraft at low levels during combat situations, losses were high. In fact, they were so high the bomb group temporarily stood down in February 1943 and retrained to bomb from medium levels. When Clauser’s outfit went back into action bombing rail marshaling yards from medium altitudes, aircraft losses dropped sharply.

The men of the 438th Bomb Squadron woke up on the morning of Aug. 22, 1943 anticipating another mission against Italy. Based at DJedeida, Algeria since late June, the 438th and the rest of the squadrons in the 319th Bomb Group were assigned to cut the supply lines of Axis forces in southern Italy in support of the upcoming Allied invasion of the European mainland–what Winston Churchill called “The Soft Underbelly of Europe.”

On this particular morning, the airmen learned they’d be bombing the railroad marshaling yards at Salerno, just down the coast from Naples. The crew of Clauser’s plane included the aircraft’s pilot, Lt. William Brown, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Richard Lobdell, and the navigator/bombardier 2nd Lt. Charles McVaughan, along with Staff Sgt. Alfred Conz, the radio operator and waist gunner and Staff Sgt. Sidney Gibbs. Sgt. Clauser was the plane’s gunner/engineer whose battle station was in the B-26’s dorsal turret armed with twin .50 cal. Browning machine guns.

After the crew strapped in, Lt. Brown lifted the plane off the airstrip for the hour’s flight to the Italian mainland. They never returned.

Later that month, the Clauser family was officially notified by telegram that Sgt. Clauser was missing in action. A terse note appeared in the Record’s “Oswego” column on Sept. 22, 1943: “Mr. and Mrs. Philip Clauser received the sad news that their youngest son, Frank, is missing in action. His wife lives in Aurora.”

Clauser certificate

The Clauser family received this note signed by the President after Frank Clauser was finally declared dead. Shot down over the Mediterranean off Salerno, Italy, his body was never recovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although the Army Air Corps listed him as missing, they knew he was almost certainly dead. Second Lt. Clarence Kozenski was piloting his B-26 just off Lt. Brown’s wing about ten minutes past noon on Aug. 22 when Axis fighters attacked the formation. He reported that Frank Clauser’s plane was riddled with bullets. One engine was set on fire, and large sections of the aircraft skin pealed off the vertical stabilizer at the tail before the aircraft plunged into the Mediterranean. Lt. Kozenski reported no parachutes were sighted as the plane crashed.

Although the family held out hope for his eventual return, it became more and more likely Frank would never come home as the months went by and no word was received. Eventually, his status as a casualty was verified and a gold star, denoting “Killed in Action,” was painted next to Sgt. Clauser’s name on the “Honor Roll” billboard in downtown Oswego that listed the men and women serving in the armed forces. His family received a Certificate of Honor from Oswego Township reading: “Certificate of Honor. To whom these presents shall come: Greetings: Whereas Frank Clauser, who as a member of the armed forces of this, our great and glorious country, gave his life for the cause of liberty and freedom he had always loved. These communities, with God’s Blessing, pay tribute to our beloved hero.” It was signed by Oswego Township Supervisor Oliver Burkhart, NaAuSay Township Supervisor Hugh Christian, and A.M. Pierce, Oswego village president.

Because his body was never found, Sgt. Clauser’s name is carved on The Wall of the Missing in the North Africa Cemetery along with the names of 3,723 other missing U.S. servicemen. The cemetery is located close to the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia, near where Clauser and the rest of Lt. Brown’s crew left on their last flight. In addition to the honored missing, a total of 2,841 fallen U.S. servicemen are buried in neat ranks in the 27-acre cemetery.

This year’s “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit will be held from Nov. 4 through 12 at the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, and the two Clausers, father and son, will be among the hundreds honored for their service and, in Frank’s case, his ultimate sacrifice. You’re all invited, so stop on by; admission’s free.

 

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Filed under History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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Lewis, Clark, Boone, Earp, Wayne: Illinois’ entertaining historical coincidences…

Random coincidences are some of the things that make the study of history so interesting.

Daniel Boone House

The sturdy Daniel Boone home in Defiance, Missouri may come as a surprise to those who think he lived in log cabins all his life. A talented blacksmith, he handcrafted the home’s locks, hinges, and other hardware.

For instance, in May 1804, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark and their Corps of Discovery pushed off into the Mississippi River from Wood River, Illinois and headed up the Missouri River. The expedition’s goal was to explore the huge Louisiana Territory President Thomas Jefferson had bought from Spain and determine if there was a practical trade route to the Pacific Ocean.

Although just under way, Lewis and Clark decided to make a brief stop just a bit upstream from St. Louis. They had been told the old explorer, soldier, and settler Daniel Boone was living just a few miles away, and so they decided to stop by to see what the old pathfinder might be able to tell them.

So, the story goes, the pair visited Boone to ask about the techniques they might use and dangers they should be on the lookout for while exploring the West. The picture of the two eager young explorers conferring with the grand old man of frontier adventure is a fascinating one. But then Boone was a fascinating fellow in his own right, something you find right away when you visit his imposing three-storey Pennsylvania-style stone house (and you thought he lived in a log cabin!), which is still standing and lovingly maintained in the hamlet of Defiance, Missouri, just west of St. Charles. And thus did three of the three greatest explorers the U.S. has produced get together to chat.

Illinois history is sprinkled with such coincidences, and they are often the things that make reading about it so much fun.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp was a legendary lawman in the Old West. His father, Nicholas, a town constable in Monmouth, Illinois, didn’t get along with a faction in town led by Presbyterian Marion Morrison.

For instance, a 1997 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society had an interesting article about Wyatt Earp’s father, Nicholas P. Earp. We all know the story about Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil and Doc Holiday at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. But few of us know their introduction to law enforcement came from their father, Nicholas, who was the town constable of Monmouth, Illinois, located on U.S. Route 34 in western Illinois’ Warren County.

Just like his sons, Nicholas didn’t get along with the local power structure. He had continual run-ins with a band of local ministers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and officials from Monmouth College, at that time a strictly religious school. Nicholas not only had strong personal views, but was also distrustful of reformers of any stripe. His problems stemmed from his relative unconcern with enforcing Monmouth’s temperance ordinance, which was favored by local Republicans (the temperance party) and influential Presbyterian congregations. Liquor was supposed to be sold only by druggists for medicinal purposes, but Nicholas and his brother Walter Earp were in favor of a liberal interpretation of the law (including what “medicinal” really meant) and came down on the side of their friends, the drug store owners. One of the Earps’ antagonists was a fellow named Marion Morrison, a staunch Presbyterian and temperance man.

John Wayne.jpg

John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison, was the namesake of Wyatt Earp’s father’s political enemy. It is too bad Wayne never played Earp in one of his films or a historical circle might have been completed.

And that’s where the historical coincidence comes in. Marion Morrison, the political enemy of Wyatt Earp’s father, it turns out, was the great-uncle of actor John Wayne who made his name in western movies. In fact, the Earps’ enemy, Morrison, was the actor’s namesake. John “Duke” Wayne’s real name was, of course, Marion Mitchell Morrison. John Wayne never played Wyatt Earp in the movies, but if he had it would have made for some nicely symmetrical history.

The Illinois historical event that arguably had the most historical coincidences was the Black Hawk War of 1832. The unequal conflict was fought between a rag-tag band of Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomi Indians led by the influential Sauk warrior Black Hawk on one side and the Illinois militia and U.S. Army on the other. The coincidences abound in the roster of those fighting against the Indians, which appears to be a veritable Who’s Who of Civil War personages.

For instance, not only did Abraham Lincoln, future U.S. President during the Civil War, participate in the Black Hawk War, but so did U.S. Army Lt. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. Lincoln, a young Illinois storekeeper at the time, served in the militia, where he was elected captain of his militia

Abraham Lincoln

A young Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War, along with several men who would be his allies and enemies during the Civil War.

company. Davis served near the end of the war doing various administrative tasks. To add to the interest, both Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky, Davis to a moderately wealthy family and Lincoln to a very poor one.

In the aftermath of the Black Hawk War, one of the tasks Davis was ordered to undertake was to escort the Sauk and Fox prisoners, including Black Hawk, to prison. He was under the orders of another U.S. Army lieutenant named Robert Anderson. Almost 30 years later, Anderson, then a major, would be in command of Ft. Sumter when it was fired upon by South Carolina secessionist forces loyal to his one-time brother-in-arms, Jefferson Davis.

The aide-de-camp of Gen. Henry Atkinson, the U.S. Army commander on the scene during virtually the entire Black Hawk War was another young U.S. Army lieutenant named Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston later served in the army of the Republic of Texas from 1834-37, and was named the Republic’s secretary of war in 1838. Later, he moved back to the U.S., rejoined the U.S. Army, and served on the western frontier with the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment until the

Jefferson Davis

Lt. Jefferson Davis was one of the U.S. Army officers who served during the Black Hawk War, and who eventually turned their coats during the Civil War. Davis served as the Confederate States of America’s only president.

Civil War broke out. He resigned his commission, went home and was appointed a Confederate major general to fight against his old comrades. A friend and favorite of President Jefferson Davis (with whom he had served during the Black Hawk War), Johnston was killed in action at Shiloh in 1862.

The other major Civil War personage to serve in the Black Hawk War was Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott led the U.S. Army reinforcements who arrived (carrying the dreaded Asiatic cholera disease with them) in Chicago in the summer of 1832, and he helped mop up after the Black Hawk War. When the Civil War broke out, Scott was the U.S. Army’s commander. And while’s Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to squeeze the Confederacy into submission by dividing the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi River and attacking it all around the periphery came in for derisive criticism at the time. In the end, the basic points of Scott’s strategy were adopted piecemeal and became the eventual strategy Abraham Lincoln adopted to defeat the South.

Historical coincidences can sometimes offer important insights into the motivations driving historical events. Mostly, though, they’re just plain fun.

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William Walker: Miner, merchant, soldier, politician

When the Civil War broke out, one of the earliest volunteer military units formed in the Fox Valley was the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, comprised of men from communities up and down the Fox River.

Although some of the companies raised by well-known citizens originally carried such martial names as the Elgin Guards and the Wayne Rifles, when they were mustered into federal service in the summer of 1861 the companies were renamed with letter designations.

Here in Kendall County, Company D, originally named the Wayne Rifles, was raised in Lisbon by Dr. William P. Pierce; Company E in Little Rock and Bristol, by Charles D. Fish and Albert M. Hobbs; Company F in Newark, by Porter C. Oleson; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles, in Oswego, by Samuel C. Camp and William Walker.

Greusel, Col Nicholas

Col. Nicholas Greusel, commanding officer of the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, was not impressed with William Walker’s military qualifications.

Oswego was the county seat at the time, and Camp and Walker were two of the community’s solidest citizens.

Camp, a Connecticut native, was a prominent lawyer. Walker, a harness maker by trade and an auctioneer by avocation, was the kind of colorful character who knew everyone. According to the regimental history of the 36th, his persuasive gift of gab was primarily responsible for filling out Company I’s roster.

But after the companies arrived at Camp Hammond in Montgomery for training, arming, and equipping, the commanding officer of the 36th, 44 year-old Nicholas Greusel, decided neither Camp nor Walker—who was the company’s 1st lieutenant—were the people he wanted in command of Company I. He engineered Walker’s resignation in February 1862 and Camp’s in March.

Greusel, a native of Bavaria who immigrated to the U.S. as a youngster in 1834, and who went on to serve as an officer in the Mexican War of 1846, was apparently looking for officers with military experience, and neither Camp nor Walker, while popular with the troops, had any. And by all accounts, Walker didn’t get along with Greusel, either.

Born in Tompkins County, N.Y. in 1833, Walker came with his parents to Illinois when he was a child.

At the relatively young age of 16, Walker joined a party of 24 Illinois Forty-Niners and headed to the California gold fields. Things went fine until the group got to the North Platte River where Indians stole all of their horses, horse stealing being the national sport of the plains tribes. Losing their means of transport demoralized the party and they all turned back except for Walker and his friend Thatcher, who decided to continue west on foot.

After an arduous journey, they arrived at the new Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City, where they were lucky enough to find work to build up their cash reserves before heading to California. But when the good Mormon folks of Salt Lake City found out the two were non-Mormons from Illinois (where the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, had been murdered by a lynch mob in the Carthage jail), they immediately forced the pair to leave.

The two eventually found temporary refuge with a band of Maidu Indians (called Diggers by American settlers), where they were able to at least survive if not prosper on a diet of snakes, roots, and berries. But they kept their goal to get to the gold fields firmly in mind and after a grueling trip afoot, during which they met the famed frontiersman Jim Bridger, they miraculously managed to reach San Francisco.Vigilante justice in San Francisco

William Walker was one of the first to join the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance, which aimed to clean up the raucous city in the near-complete absence of organized law enforcement.

 

Walker took up mining at first, but then decided he could make as much, if not more, money selling miners the things they needed, and so went into the mercantile business. San Francisco was a lawless frontier town at the time, infested with the sorts of miscreants who turn up in boomtowns all over the world. Deciding to help put an end to the violence, he helped found the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance, which cleaned up the town without paying too much attention to legal niceties.

By then, Walker had also managed to make a fortune, but all of it was wiped out by a bank failure. And that was apparently the last straw for Walker because he left California, never to return. Sailing back around the Horn to the East Coast, Walker then headed overland back west to Illinois one more time, this time settling in Oswego. There, on Nov. 23, 1859, he married Philetta, the 19 year-old daughter of prosperous Bristol Township farmer Ansel Kimball.

In Oswego, the couple had two sons while Walker pursued his trade of harness-making and also become a popular auctioneer. Whether it was Walker or Samuel Camp who got the idea to recruit an Oswego company for the new 36th Illinois, with his connections through his own businesses and his wife’s prominent family, it was no surprise he was able to quickly recruit Company I to full strength.

1862 Murdock & Pooley

Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were both young Oswego men who served under Capt. William Walker in Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Both were killed in action after Walker relinquished command  during the Battle of Ezra Church. (Little White School Museum collection)

After Greusel orchestrated his removal from the 36th, Walker bided his time until, later in 1862, it was announced a new regiment—the 127th—was being formed in Chicago, with recruitment taking place up and down the Fox Valley. Joining this time with Oswego businessman William Fowler, Walker helped recruit Company A to full strength before it was mustered in at Camp Douglas in Chicago. Company A was one of three recruited in Kendall County, the others being Companies F and K, both raised in Little Rock and Bristol townships. In all, about 240 Kendall County men enlisted in the 127th.

As had been the case in the 36th’s Company I, Walker was elected 1st lieutenant of Company A in the 127th. And when Fowler resigned in December 1862 due to medical problems that would plague him the rest of his life, Walker was promoted to captain and command of Company A. He led Company A until Dec. 1864, seeing hard fighting with the 127th. During his service, he was wounded twice, once in the head by a shell fragment and again in the leg during hand-to-hand combat with a Confederate officer.

Walker transferred to the 23rd Reserve Corps in February 1864, and went on to serve for two years after the war in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to oversee the ordinance stores at St. Louis.

After he resigned his commission, William and Philetta moved west from Illinois to West Liberty, Iowa, and then on to Beloit, Kansas and finally to Scandia, Kansas where, in 1881, he built that community’s first grain elevator and got involved in Democratic politics. He served two terms as Scandia’s mayor, oversaw building the Scandia City Hall, and served as postmaster, but was never able to repeat the financial success he enjoyed during the Gold Rush.

Walker died on Aug. 20, 1906 in Scandia. In an Oct. 6, 1906 obituary written by one-time friend and Kendall County Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank, Walker was described as “positive in his opinions and erratic in the methods of their support, strongly Democratic and prominent in the councils of his party; always found plenty of opposition and thrived upon it. Enjoying life to the full, he liked to see others happy and many were gladdened by his unobtrusive acts of kindness; was incorruptibly honest, it is not believed that a tainted dollar ever passed through his hands.

“Intensely religious by nature, he studied the scriptures with ardor and persistency, but looked not for the light in them; passed the beauties of the Ecclesiastes and dwelt upon Solomon’s Song, made a mountain of David’s sins but missed the Sermon on the Mount. A free-thinker by profession, he strove to maintain his position by arguments with others.

“His heart was big and open and intensely warm, especially toward little children and these will miss him most. He was steadfast in his friendships but bitter in his enmity toward those who had offended,” his obituary concluded.

William Walker was one more of those fascinating, anonymous characters who stroll in and fade out of the stories of every community, playing parts in events great and mundane. They are the stories that make learning about local history so much shear fun.

 

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Hunters’ Moon welcomes in full autumn…

Don’t know if you have been watching the moon lately, but it’s been pretty spectacular, even though it’s not even full yet. We’ll see the full Hunters’ Moon rise on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

The guys (and sometimes gals) in the 42nd Regiment of Foot—the Black Watch—reenactment are annual participants down at Fort Ouiatinon State Park near Lafayette, Ind. for each year's Feast of the Hunters Moon festival.

The guys (and sometimes gals) in the 42nd Regiment of Foot—the Black Watch—reenactment are annual participants down at Fort Ouiatenon State Park near West Lafayette, Ind. for each year’s Feast of the Hunters Moon festival.

Got to thinking about the Feast of the Hunters Moon along the banks of the Wabash down near West Lafayette, Ind. the other day, and then last evening the full Hunter’s Moon rose, and it took me back a good many years when we used to head down to the feast every year. But then it became so crowded, it was no longer the fun event for some of us French and Indian War, Revolutionary War and fur trade reenactors it had been back in the mid-1970s. Even so, West Lafayette welcomes in some 40,000 visitors to each year’s Feast.

But back to the full moon. Officially, the Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon, which, in turn, is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox.

Ancient Europeans, Native Americans, and many other peoples had their own names for the full moons that rose roughly once each month in the night sky. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also are good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

The year began in January with the full Wolf Moon. Even here on the prairie, wolves were familiar animals (even if the local prairie and red wolves were smaller than their timber wolf cousins), and their howls marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling while families huddled around small but cheery fires in their lodges.

February’s full moon was called the Snow Moon, and, especially here in northern Illinois, for good reason. While February is felt by many to be a spring month, Native People out here on the Illinois prairies knew that it was the time of heaviest. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the full Snow Moon one of the most desolate during the year. As their food supplies dwindled, they saw more and more snow fall, forcing more than one family to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s food moon: the Hunger Moon.

January's Full Wolf Moon probably got its name from the howls the Native People heard on winter evenings as they gathered in their lodges.

January’s Full Wolf Moon probably got its name from the howls the Native People heard on winter evenings as they gathered in their lodges.

March finally marks the first beginnings of spring on the prairie. The Native Peoples called it the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Many also called it the full Sugar Moon. Each of those is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade nightcrawlers out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows forage among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of sap that was boiled down during maple sugaring that provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets, not to mention a tradable commodity, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the full Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon got its name because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory—April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the Native Peoples’ return from their winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the region.

May brought the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the derivation of the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, with May being the first.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this most important crop of the Native People. In late August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage.

In September, the Harvest Moon shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too.

October's Hunter's Moon has been spectacular during the past few evenings. It will be considered full on Oct. 27, before beginning to wax once again.

October’s Hunter’s Moon has been spectacular during the past few evenings. It will be considered full on Oct. 27, before beginning to wax once again.

October, as noted above, brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego was reportedly Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsite.

November marked the full Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats could be trapped. “Prime Winter Beaver” pelts represented the principal currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended ready only begin again with January’s full Wolf Moon.

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each October, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Hunters Moon is keeping watch over the Fox Valley’s farmers wrap up their harvest from its high vantage point.

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A terrible, honorable sacrifice finally memorialized

It’s been hot and humid here around and about the Matile Manse, and when that happens, I tend to hunker down and find things to do to procrastinate so I don’t have to leave my cool dehumidified confines and at the same time don’t have to get involved in difficult research.

What that means, in practice, is mining Ancestry.com for family info to fill in the gaps (which are many and wide) in my family genealogy. One way to waste a LOT of time is to delve, once again, into my Minnich clan. My great-great grandmother, Mary Ann Wolf, married Johan Minnich in 1846 back in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Wolf and Minnich are both extremely common names in that place and time, so there are dozens of blind alleys to go down, trips that waste loads of time, so perfect for procrastinating.

So the other day, I fired up my family database once again, and started looking through the Wolf side of Mary Ann’s family and I noted that not only was her father named Michael, but so was one of her brothers, which struck me as interesting. Brother Michael’s information was pretty thin on the ground—birth date but no death date—so I started digging to see if I could at least put Michael to rest.

And that’s when an interesting, tragic story began to unfold. Michael was born in 1840 in Schuylkill County, the fourth son and fifth child of Michael and Becky Shaefer Wolf. They mined lots of coal in Schuylkill, and the Wolf boys went into the mines. That’s what they were doing the Civil War broke out. Brother Isaac signed up right away, enlisting in Company A, 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, enlisting in August, 1861, and marching off to war with the regiment’s 1,000 or so newly recruited soldiers in September.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield.

The monument to the men of the 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment on the Antietam battlefield. (National Park Service)

As it turned out, the 50th Pennsylvania saw an awful lot of hard campaigning, from its very first commitment to action. Loaded aboard the sailing transport Winfield Scott, the regiment was shipped south to participate in the Union attempt to seize Charleston, S.C. On the way, a huge storm blew up and the entire regiment was nearly lost at sea off Cape Hatteras. From the inconclusive South Carolina campaign, the 50th moved back north to fight at Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg before being sent west to Kentucky and then to Mississippi, where they fought under U.S. Grant in the Vicksburg campaign. From there, they marched back east to Kentucky, through the Cumberland Gap to Knoxville, Tennessee where it mustered just 80 soldiers fit for duty, although even some of those were still suffering from the effects of malaria contracted in the swamps around Vicksburg.

Gradually, the sick and wounded returned to duty during the stay at Knoxville, which was fortunate because the regiment was hurried northeast to throw back a Confederate advance into East Tennessee, which the American army did at the Battle of Blue Springs. Back in Knoxville thanks to the advance of Confederates under James Longstreet, the 50th was heavily engages at the Battle of Fort Sanders during the siege of the city until Longstreet was finally forced to retreat.

It was at Knoxville on Jan. 1, 1864 that the three-year enlistments of the 50th’s men ran out. Nearly the entire regiment reenlisted for another term, after which they took an extremely arduous march east and then on to Harrisburg in their home state. There they were granted veterans’ furloughs and they headed home with orders to return in early spring. It’s likely Isaac went home and talked with his younger brother, Michael, about serving in the 50th. Whatever his motivation, Michael enlisted as a private in his brother’s Company A on April 6, 1864. He was officially mustered in the next day, April 7 at Pottsville in Schuylkill County.

On March 20, the 50th, veterans and new recruits alike, rendezvoused at Annapolis, Maryland where it was organized, the troops drilled, and then assigned to 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, IX Corps. With their corps, the 50th marched south to join Gen. U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Their route took them through Washington, D.C. where they were personally reviewed by President Lincoln and on farther south across the old Bull Run battlefield where they’d fought so hard three years before.

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

The Battle of the Wilderness was not only bloody, it was extremely confusing for both the Confederate and the American armies as they tried to fight in thick woods and underbrush. (Library of Congress)

Grant was aiming directly for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and was hoping to prevent him from reaching the fortifications around Richmond. As Grant attempted to force his IX Corps through a dense patch of woods and brush called The Wilderness, Lee struck in yet another of his ill-conceived offensives. Because the strategic fact was that while Grant’s American army could afford to lose men, Lee’s rebels could not afford to lose a single soldier.

The Battle of the Wilderness was a harbinger of bloody fights to come as Grant continually attempted to slip around Lee’s rebels to cut them off from Richmond. Grant had cold-bloodedly decided on a strategy of attrition after coming to the conclusion that the rebel armies simply could not withstand sustained combat due to lack of personnel. The close-quarters combat cost the Union 17,666 casualties, including 2,246 killed in action, which could be replaced. It cost Lee 11,033 irreplaceable, trained soldiers—1,477 of them killed. Although no one really understood yet, it was the beginning of the end for the South and slavery.

Not among the casualties were the Wolf brothers, even though the 50th Pennsylvania was heavily engaged. It must have been a sobering baptism of fire for Michael, but pretty much business as usual for Isaac.

Tactically, the battle was inconclusive, but strategically, it was one more disaster for Lee as he lost more than a division’s worth of priceless troops. Even more sobering for Lee was Grant’s tenacity. He was used to other American generals who, after a similar bloody fight, would have spent time reorganizing and licking their wounds. Not Grant.

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it's wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After Michael Wolf was greviously wounded, he was taken to Carver General Hospital where he was treated before he was mustered out in July 1864. One of it’s wards is pictured above during the Civil War. (National Archives)

After disengaging at The Wilderness, Grant immediately tried out-marching Lee, a futile hope—the Confederates were known for rapid marching. The rebels ended up beating the Union to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The 50th, along with the rest of Burnside’s IX Corps, moved southwest along the Fredericksburg Pike, encountering Cadmus Wilcox’s rebel division northeast of Spotsylvania at the Ni River on May 9. The 50th’s regimental history recounts what happened next: “With fixed bayonets, the Fiftieth, led by Lieutenant Colonel [Edward] Overton, charged up the up the steep ascent, and routed a force of the enemy greatly superior in number; but the success was gained at a fearful cost, losing in killed, wounded and missing, one hundred and twenty men.”

Among those who fell during that bloody assault was Michael Wolf, a soldier for just a month and two days. A Confederate Minié ball struck Wolf’s left arm just below the shoulder, shattering the humerus, knocking him out of the fight and the war. Brother Isaac again escaped without a scratch, and went on to serve for several more months before being mustered out on Sept. 29, 1864.

Michael was carried to a Union field hospital where surgeons, working as quickly as possible under grim conditions, amputated the arm at the shoulder since there was no sound bone left to form a stump. He was evacuated to Carver General Hospital at Washington, D.C., arriving there May 14. Not until July was he strong enough to travel. On July 6 he was discharged and sent home to Schuylkill County.

His sister, my great-great grandmother, Mary Ann, went to visit as soon as he arrived home and was shocked at the appearance of this once-hearty former coal miner. “I found him propped up in bed, his heart beating very hard and fast,” she recalled years afterward. Because of the way the amputation was done, there were problems with property routing blood vessels, creating heart problems. “From the time of his discharge to his death he was troubled all the time with heart disease and often had severe attacks of it so that he was confined to his bed,” Mary Ann recalled.

In 1868, my great-great grandparents decided try their luck in Illinois, first settling out on the Wheatland Township prairie where they farmed for a few years before moving to a place just north of Oswego in the old Village of Troy where Mary Ann maintained a boarding house and wove rag rugs on a loom Johann made for her while he found work on the railroad.

Michael, hearing reports of how nice it was in Illinois—and there being no market for one-armed coal miners—decided to move west, too. He settled with his sister and her family for a while, and then even found someone to marry. Elizabeth Orr was divorced with two growing children, but the couple apparently made a go of it on Michael’s slim $24 a month soldier’s disability pension. Elizabeth’s children married into local families and Michael dealt with the unnumbered health problems resulting from his short, disastrous, military career. He died in Oswego in 1884.

The Sept. 10, 1884 Kendall County Record carried his short, poignant obituary: “Michael Wolf, the one armed soldier who has been almost in continual distress—his arm was taken off at the shoulder joint, leaving no stump, which caused certain disarrangements in the arterial system and affected the heart—and who has been on the failing order for some time died the latter part of the week. The funeral took place Sunday afternoon from the house.”

He was buried with so many of his Civil War comrades in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Michael Wolf's new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

Michael Wolf’s new headstone as it looked immediately after it was installed by the Sons of Union Veterans this summer and before it was cleaned. (Stephenie Todd photo)

The family was too poor to provide a tombstone for Michael’s grave, so it remained unmarked. Until this year. The local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War decided to make a project of obtaining stones for the unmarked graves of Union soldiers in the Oswego Township Cemetery. My friend Stephenie Todd worked to find living relatives of the fallen soldiers—blood relatives must sign off on the efforts to mark soldiers’ unmarked graves in order to receive a U.S. Government-supplied tombstone. Earlier this summer, volunteers set the veterans’ stones, including one for Michael Wolf obtained thanks to my distant relatives Ron Moses and Ted Clauser.

As readers of this blog and my column in the Kendall County Record newspapers know, I am no fan of the Civil War. It was fought over the most depraved of causes—the enslavement of human beings—which was so essential to the world view of a large fraction of the nation’s population that they were willing to commit treason and attempt to destroy their country in order to perpetuate it. For uncounted thousands of soldiers who fought against slavery and for national union, the war never ended. Like Michael Wolf, they lived lives of unending and perpetual pain, both physical and mental. The very least we can and should do is provide the small recognition of a grave marker for those who gave so much of themselves to keep our nation united and free from such a terrible stain. Now, thanks to some who’ve never forgotten their sacrifices, at least a few more of those unremembered veterans can rest a bit easier.

 

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