Tag Archives: Civil War

End of another era, this time in Kendall newspapering…

Eras have been ending right and left during the past few years of political upheaval and the on-going worldwide pandemic.

The most recent era to end is the recent closing of the last physical newspaper office in Kendall County. For the first time since 1852, there’s no place to go to drop off news items, give news tips, and generally kibitz with the staff. Instead, the entire KendalCountyNOW staff that publishes the Shaw Media subgroup’s four local weeklies is now working wherever they can find a WiFi connection instead of in a newsroom.

This is not an entirely surprising development. After Shaw bought the Kendall County Record, Inc. group, they closed both the Ledger-Sentinel office on Main Street in downtown Oswego and the venerable Kendall County Record office on Bridge Street in downtown Yorkville. The two offices were combined and moved to a second floor office suite in a Yorkville bank, a location that did not invite casual visitation. Now the withdrawal from the communities the group’s papers report on is complete.

You’d think that having a visible presence in towns located in the fastest growing county in Illinois, and one of the fastest growing in the nation, would be a good move to advertise the brand, but apparently modern bean-counters are more in tune with today’s economic and marketing realities than old retired editors like me.

Time was, of course, there were newspaper offices in virtually every community in the county. It took a while after Kendall County’s establishment in 1841 for its first newspaper to open, but in 1852 Hector Seymour Humphrey began publishing the weekly Kendall County Courier in Oswego, then the county seat. Then, as now, local government legal advertisements were the lifeblood of local papers, and locating in the county seat made it easy to pick up those public notices from property tax assessment lists to new county ordinances.

Humphrey was born in Tompkins County, N.Y. Jan. 29, 1828. Early in his life he got into the newspaper business at the Ithaca Chronicle and News where he learned the trade. He headed west to Chicago in 1848, where he worked as a journeyman printer on the old Chicago Journal.

H.S. Humphrey’s Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego’s first newspaper.

Then Humphrey moved west to Naperville where he worked in the newspaper business and got married. And in 1852, he and his wife packed up their press and type and moved farther west to Oswego where he started the Courier. It advertised itself as neutral in politics, and was apparently just barely successful. Humphrey ran the paper himself as both editor and publisher until the fall of 1854 when he sold it to Abraham Sellers. Humphrey agreed to stay on as the editor. That arrangement lasted until the summer of 1855 when Humphrey bought the paper back from Sellers.

Then during the winter of 1855-56, Humphrey sold the Chronicle to the cantankerous and combative William P. Boyd. Boyd, a pro-slavery native Kentuckian, writing under the pen name of Niblo, made the mistake of changing the Chronicle from a neutral paper to a Democratic sheet.

That didn’t go down very well in Oswego or the rest of Kendall County, which had been fairly strong Whig country before the Republican Party was established. After the Republicans organized, Kendall County, driven by its heavy population of New Englanders and New Yorkers, leaned heavily towards the new party.

As Humphrey recalled the era in a 1903 letter to Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall: “In the spring of 1856, the Republicans desiring an organ, called a meeting of the leading men of the county, decided to establish a paper, and requested me to take charge of it. Subscriptions were made for the paper, for advertising and job work, for which money was advanced for about two-thirds of the cost of material, which was purchased at once and ‘the Kendall County Free Press’ was out soon after for the campaign of 1856.”

At the behest of local Republicans, H.S. Humphrey established the Kendall County Free Press in the years immediately prior to and during the Civil War.

You may remember that the campaign of 1856 was famed in Illinois for the series of debates the Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senator held throughout the state. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates introduced Abraham Lincoln to a statewide audience for the first time. While Lincoln was unsuccessful in that campaign, he was able to parlay his name recognition—and his considerable political skills—into winning the Presidency in 1860.

The Republican hold on Kendall County only grew more pronounced following the 1856 campaign. Boyd’s Chronicle was soon out of business, his printing outfit sold to an Iowa newspaper. A cutthroat businessman, land agent, and lawyer known for his pugnaciousness, Boyd was murdered on Nov. 24, 1859. His assailant was never identified.

Humphrey’s Free Press was successful, and he continued publishing it through the Civil War years until the county seat was moved back to Yorkville in 1864. At that point, Humphrey decided to move on to Vandalia.

In May 1864, John Redmond Marshal, a young Chicago newspaper man and Civil War veteran of the Sturgis Rifles, decided to start a new county seat paper in Kendall County. Naming it the Kendall County Record, Marshal located his office and printing press in space above a store in downtown Yorkville, moving it to a new one-story brick building on busy Bridge Street in November 1867—where it stayed until the paper was sold to Shaw in 2015.

The flag from John R. Marshall’s Kendall County Record, which started publishing as Kendall County’s newspaper of record in 1864.

While the Courier was Oswego’s first paper, it was hardly the last. In fact, Oswego has seen far more than its share of newspaper start-ups. Besides the Courier and The Free Press, papers published in Oswego included the Bald Hornet, 1855; Oswego Vidette, 1873; Oswego Daily Times, 1877; Oswego Reporter, 1892; Kendall County Press, 1884; Oswego Herald, 1904; Oswego News, 1948; Oswego Ledger, 1949-1980; Fox Valley Sentinel, 1974-1980; Ledger-Sentinel, 1980 to 2015; and now the Oswego Ledger again after the name was shortened, supposedly for marketing purposes, a few years ago.

As I noted above, virtually every other town in Kendall County has had its own newspaper, no matter how briefly, over the years.

Yorkville, of course, had—and still has—its Kendall County Record as well as in the mid-20th Century the free distribution Fox Valley Shopper, the 19th Century Kendall County Clarion, and in 1872, the Yorkville News. That paper eventually moved to Plano and became the Plano News in 1876, changing its name again in 1881 to the Kendall County News. Plano was also served by the Kendall County Journal, the Plano Pivot and the Plano Standard. Two religious newspapers were published in 19th Century Plano, The True Latter Day Saints Herald and Zion’s Hope, both by Joseph Smith Jr.’s Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints.

The Ledger-Sentinel was formed by the merger of the Fox Valley Sentinel and the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. The name was shortened back to Oswego Ledger by it’s current owners, Shaw Media, Inc. It’s still Oswego’s award-winning weekly newspaper.

The stagecoach hamlet of Little Rock in extreme northwestern Kendall County was briefly served in the 19th Century by The Little Rock Press, and Millington by The Millington Enterprise. The Newark Clipper was organized in 1872, and The Lisbon Comet was published early in the 20th Century.

It’s also worth noting that back in the late 20th Century, the daily Aurora Beacon-News had a bureau in Kendall County.

Nowadays, though, the whole idea of newspapers, even local weeklies, not maintaining a visible presence in the communities they serve has become the norm, especially with papers owned by large chains thet really seem more interested in profits than in community service and keeping their fingers on the pulse of the communities they serve. Most independently-owned weeklies still think that’s not only important to the places they cover, but also figure it’s good business—Cheryl Wormley’s successful Woodstock Independent up in the northern suburbs immediately comes to mind.

When I was the Ledger-Sentinel‘s editor, we had a lot of news stories just walk in—or past—the door of our Main Street office. For instance, there was the day a sheep galloped past the window, followed by another, followed by one of our former sports writers. Turned out he was working for a local farmer whose load of sheep got loose when they stopped at the gas station just up the street. Or the day a nicely-dressed white-haired woman walked in up to our counter, held her hand out to me and said, “Hello, I’m Jean Simon. What’s happening in Oswego we ought to know about?” Turned out she was Sen. Paul Simon’s wife, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Or the day Sen. Chuck Percy stopped in to chat about the I&M Canal Corridor legislation he was co-sponsoring. We had a nice chat, but I don’t think he ever figured out we were some miles outside the corridor he was so enthused about.

But while there will no longer be a physical newspaper office presence here in Kendall any more, that doesn’t mean the KendallCountyNOW staff won’t be getting and printing as much local news as they can.

Because, really, when it comes to finding a source for local news you need and can actually use—where your property tax dollars are being spent, what various local governmental boards are really up to, and what’s happening in local schools—weekly newspapers are the only serious game in town.


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It seems I’ve been doing microhistory all these years…

After all these years, I finally find out that I am apparently a microhistorian.

Not that I’m that small, of course. Just like you, I could stand to lose a little weight. No, I’m talking microhistorian as a person engaging in a specifically narrow kind of history.

According to biographer Jill Lepore, microhistory can be defined as the history of “hitherto obscure people” that “concentrates on the intensive study of particular lives” to reveal “the fundamental experiences and mentalités of ordinary people.”

And what, I imagine you are wondering, is a mentalité? Well, according to Wiktionary, it’s a French word meaning “A person’s feelings about the wider society and world they live in, and their place within it; a worldview, outlook.”

From my point of view, microhistory is all about telling the stories of mostly unheralded people and how those people’s stories fit into the overall flow of the rest of history. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do on this here blog since my first post back in early March 2010—not to mention the local history column I started writing for the old Fox Valley Sentinel back in 1977, and continued after the creation of the Ledger-Sentinel in 1980.

Local history is replete with people who slogged their way through exciting times, made their contributions, and then faded from view after making their presence known, sometimes locally, sometimes statewide, and sometimes nationally. Those are the stories that fascinate me. And there are a lot of those stories to tell right here in our own Fox River Valley of Illinois.

A July 1893 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. The descendants of Hughes, an escaped slave and Civil War veteran, went on to become educators, jurists, and other professionals. (Little White School Museum collection)

There were, for instance, the African American farm families that moved to Kendall County after the Civil War, settling out in the Minkler-Reservation Road area south of Oswego. Almost all were former slaves who, for one reason or another, decided to settle amongst an entirely white neighborhood after the Civil War to farm and raise their families. The Lucas, Washington, Hughes, and a few other families eventually made their mark, not only on the Oswego area, but also on the nation as a whole.

One of those settlers, Nathan Hughes, not only escaped from slavery in Kentucky, but also volunteered to fight for his own freedom against the south during the Civil War, where he was wounded, recovered, and then went back to fight and be wounded again.

His son-in-law, Robert Ridley Smith, likewise escaped enslavement and then fought for the Union during the war before coming to Kendall County, where he married one of Hughes’ daughters. After the war, Hughes went back down to Kentucky to find his family and bring them north. He brought his children, although his wife decided to stay in a place that was familiar to her and not come north to the strangeness of the Illinois prairies.

Smith’s children became the first African Americans to graduate from high school in Kendall County, Ferdinand with the Oswego High School Class of 1903 and his sister, Mary, with the OHS Class of 1904. Their descendants went on to contribute to the nation as they carved out careers as public school educators, college professors, and, for at least one of them, as a federal judge who eventually served on the FISA Court.

Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam in a 1914 portrait. (Little White School Museum collection)

Strong women made their marks in local history as well. Sarah Raymond began her educational career teaching in one-room Kendall County schools during the Civil War and ended it as the superintendent of schools down in the normal college town of Bloomington. She was the first female school district superintendent in the nation when she was appointed in 1874. After her retirement in 1896, she moved to Boston for several years where she married and hobnobbed with such luminaries as Jane Austin, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Emily Murdock lost her brother, Alfred, to a rebel bullet during the Civil War Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. She went on to become a mystery novelist, writing several bestsellers under the pen name of Lawrence L. Lynch, the name of her first husband. This was at a time when women simply didn’t write mysteries, so she adopted the subterfuge of writing using a male pen name.

Emily Murdock Van Deventer wrote mystery novels under the pen name, Lawrence L. Lynch. (Little White School Museum collection)

Other local historical heroes include Alfred Browne, who came and went in Kendall County’s history, first as a young soldier in the Union Army. He was tapped as one of the honor guards for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral car at Springfield after the President was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After the war, Browne, a strong believer in emancipation and racial equality, joined the Freedman’s Bureau in Montgomery, Alabama during Reconstruction to help educate former slaves. He found the struggle against the violent racism and terrorism turned against the South’s former slaves too much to bear, and returned to Kendall County. Taking up agriculture on the family farm outside Newark, Browne taught himself Norwegian so as to better communicate with his numerous Norwegian immigrant neighbors.

Maggie Shepard Edwards and her husband pose with her bicycle outside their Oswego home and millinery shop about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

Margaret “Maggie” Shepard started out teaching country school before moving to Oswego to open her own millinery business. It proved so successful she became a major property owner in the village as well as a businesswoman. She also bucked the odds to adopt a daughter while still an unmarried single woman, before later marrying Oswego hardware retailer Tom Edwards.

Indefatigable educator Nancy Hill.

And we can’t forget Nancy “Nannie” Hill, a Yorkville girl who went into teaching Kendall County rural schools before moving to Aurora to eventually become principal of Oak Street School on the city’s West Side. While she and one of the school’s female teachers toured Europe in the summer of 1914, World War I broke out. That required Hill and her companion to display large helpings of both pluck and luck to make their way through war-torn Europe to England and then back to North America despite the dangers of armies clashing on land and the threat of German submarines on the sea voyage home.

In April 1892, Florence K. Read became the first woman office-holder in Kendall County when she was elected to the Oswego School Board, which was quite an achievement.

But she wasn’t the first Kendall County woman actually nominated by a political party for a countywide office. That honor goes to Nettie Chittenden. She was nominated by the New Party in 1873 as the nation was beginning to suffer from one of its longest financial depressions. Called the Long Depression and the Panic of 1873, economic conditions didn’t improve for a decade. Farmers and laborers, desperate for change and fair treatment from railroad and other monopolies, formed the New Party in 1873 to elect candidates sympathetic to their issues. Chittenden, 26, was nominated for the office of county superintendent of schools, running against the GOP’s popular candidate, John R. Marshall, publisher and editor of the Kendall County Record, the county’s newspaper of record. Although they managed to elect a local circuit court judge, the rest of the New Party’s candidates, including Chittenden, did not fare well in the November election. Even so, a few New Party candidates were elected to the Illinois General Assembly as well as to local offices elsewhere in Illinois.

So, yes, there’s plenty of microhistory around these parts. Sometimes, those whose stories I’ve told realized they were having an impact beyond their small community on the wider world. Most did not, as they just kept on living their lives as best they could given the circumstances in which they found themselves. Their stories, and how they fit into the great mosaic of the history of the region, state, nation, and world continue to offer plenty of interesting grist for a microhistorian’s mill.

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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.


Filed under Architecture, History, Illinois History, Military History, People in History

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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The tale of the high private in the rear rank…

I’ve been working on a news feature for the Record Newspapers commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, and its effect on Kendall County. In fact, I’ll use that as an excuse for not blogging for a while (even though it was more due to a combination of laziness, lack of inspiration, and fixation on finishing the Oswegoland Heritage Association newsletter).

When I started looking back at 1865 in Kendall County, I was reminded of stories I’d run across before, but piecemeal, not as a coherent whole. For instance, there was the county’s series of long-standing connections with Abraham Lincoln, albeit somewhat peripheral ones, from Henry Sherrill’s carriage to Lorenzo Rank’s adventure during the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Ottawa. You’ll have to wait until the Record folks publish the article for those stories.

There were hundreds of stories that revolved around the end of the Civil War around these parts, and one of the most interesting is that of Alfred Lincoln Browne. When the war ended, ALB, as he signed his many letters and other articles that appeared in the Kendall County Record back in the day, was serving in the 146th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, one of the regiments recruited near the end of the war to serve inside Illinois, freeing veteran combat troops for other duties.

ALB was a native of Kendall County who joined up at age 19, following his three brothers into the service. His family was fairly remarkable. One of those brothers serving during the Civil War was a doctor, and his sister was the redoubtable Anna Brown Lester.

He volunteered with a group of his young Big Grove Township neighbors and was mustered in at Springfield. ALB’s Company D was assigned to guard and other duties at Quincy, then a hotbed of Copperhead sentiment in Illinois.

From the young man’s standpoint, his military service was a lark, a lot like an extended trip to Boy Scout camp with his neighborhood buddies. Shortly after he arrived at Company D’s camp at Quincy, he sat down and penned a letter back to Henry C. Cutter, a fairly prominent resident of Oswego Township.

We have no idea what the connection between ALB and Cutter was, but from the tone of the letter, they were good friends. Cutter and his brother, James, had a rousing adventure of their own when they left their native Massachusetts in 1849 to head for the California gold fields. One of these days, I’ll get around telling their remarkable story.

Downtown Quincy, Ill., close to the location of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, as it looked the year of the debate. Quincy became a hotbed of Copperhead sentiment during the Civil War.

Downtown Quincy, Ill., close to the location of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, as it looked the year of the debate. Quincy became a hotbed of Copperhead sentiment during the Civil War.

But today, we’ll stick with ALB, and his letter back to his friend Cutter in Kendall County. It’s a great letter, written in two parts, the original of which is in the collections of the Little White School Museum here in Oswego. In it, he reveals his generally high spirits, and a sense of self-deprecating humor that makes a historian wish (for the umpteenth time) for access to a time warp to make a conversation with ALB possible). And so, for your edification and enjoyment, here it is:

Camp Dean, Quincy, Ills
October 11 th AD. 1864

Friend Cutter

You have doubtless heard before this, that I have volunteered for one year, in the 146th Regiment. Ills Infty. which was authorized by the War Department to do duty only within the state

On the 4th of September I bade farewell to home and started for Springfield. About half past seven oclock PM we arrived in Joliet and having taken supper at the Auburn House got aboard the cars, and next morning at 7 o’clock found ourselves in the renouned capitol of the State. I remained in the city all that day (Monday) and next day about noon Sept. 6th I was sworn into the service and sent immediately to Camp Butler about 7 miles northeast of the city.

After being there a few days we had an election of officers. Our capt is an Englishman and he is troubled with a disease which it is impossible to cure— I mean the Big Head. He does not like the idea of associating with us boys, and therefore we have all turned against him.

The first page of Alfred Lincoln Browne's October 1864 letter to Henry C. Cutter. Browne, then just 19, went on to live a full and interesting life. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first page of Alfred Lincoln Browne’s October 1864 letter to Henry C. Cutter. Browne, then just 19, went on to live a full and interesting life. (Little White School Museum collection)

Well, to go on with my story, on Sunday the 18th Sept we received our uniform, and $33.33 1/3 (being a part of out $100 Government bounty.) On the 19th we received our knapsacks haversacks Arms and soforth; and on Wednesday the 21st, Sept about 3 oclock P.M. we received marching orders. Got on board the cars and next morning about 3 oclock we landed in Quincy, and after remaining on the Public Square several hours, we were marched to our present camp about a mile south of the city. We remained here till late in the evening without anything to eat. But now we get plenty rations and there is a good spring of water in camp We have fine times here. Today for dinner we had a good kettle of boiled cabbage, potatoes, beef, beans, bread &c Now dont you think we live pretty well on this kind of fodder? We dont receive from government all the things which I mention such as cabbage potatoes &c. We get them on our own hook. For instance, we very often have a surplus of soap, pork &c on a hand and we go out to some of the neighbors and trade them off for something that we are more in need of. The company consists of 101 men.

Two of our boys were let sick in the hospital at Camp Butler. About six or seven & more have gone to the Quincy Hospital. But I keep well right along. The tents in which we are quartered are about 10 feet square, about large enough for eight men. A pole is suspended overhead on which we hang our equipment. A Box is in one corner in which we keep our provissions, and we use our knapsacks for pillows. This may seem a hard way to live, but when I consider all the hardships which brother John has to endure down in the front near Atlanta, I can not complain.. I think myself at home so long as we remain in Illinois.

We expect to remain here till after the election: we may be then be sent away, we dont know where, probably to Rock Island or Chicago

Well I have filled one sheet of paper but I must write a a few lines more. I presume you have heard about the rebel raids in Missouri. They have caused considerable excitement in this camp. About ten days ago, a train on the Hanibal and St Joseph R.R, was attacked & captured by eight or ten Guerrilla bushwackers. They also robbed the train of $10,000 in greenbacks and then went about their business. We thought at one time that we would be taken across the River to persue them. The city of Quincy is filled with rebel spies, but I tell you they are watched pretty close. A man was arrested a short time ago, attempting to smuggle a large box filled with guns across the River. Two or three other spies have been lodged in jail. Our Regiment is divided up and stationed in different sections of the state. Some in Chicago, some in Jacksonville, others in Alton & two Companies here.

Our camp,, has been named in honor of our little Colonel H. Dean. He is about as high as my shoulder, but every inch a man.

Last night about midnight we were aroused from sleep, and ordered into line. The officers heard the report of three guns a little way outside of the camp and it was supposed that the rebels had crossed over from Mo to attack us,

We were all up and ready for the fight in less than three minutes and after having marched a short distance scouts were thrown out but nothing could be found so we marched back to our tents and slept soundly during the remainder of the night. You see Mr. Cutter that I have been in the army just long enough to become initiated into all the joys and glories of a military life. I enjoy the camp very well—have not yet become homesick.

We load our guns every evening, in fear that we need might have to use them during the night. We always get up in the morning about 6 oclock and after sweeping around our tent and hanging out our blankets we cook our breakfast. Then comes drill, and so forth. We have plenty time to spend in reading & writing I received a letter from Anna today. She tells me all about her visit at Oswego. A few days ago I sent her my likeness in the blue uniform. Today I received a letter from father and Mother. They are all right and intend before long to send me a box of things. I have to go on guard duty this evening at 8 oclock.. The duty of the guard is to keep all soldiers within the limits of the camp and if they see any suspisious person hanging around to shoot him down. When in camp Butler I tried to find Frank, but could get no not find him out. Where is he at present I would be glad to hear from you soon. Let one know all the news from Oswego. Remember me to Mr Fox’s folks. Good night to all

Alf. Browne
High private in the rear rank


Wednesday Oct. 12th 1864

Every Sunday we have preaching here in camp. But many of boys get passes and go to church in the city. Last Sunday our chaplin preached us a good sermon from Romans 14th chapter, 12th verse “So every one of us shall give account of himself to God”

All kinds of persons may be found here in camp. Soldiering always exposes the true character of an individual This is a good place to study Human Nature—to apply the science of Phrenology.

Our wages are now $16 pr month We are to be paid off every two months and expect soon to receive some money Many of the boys glory in spending their money but I send mine home and expect that by the time my term expires I shall have $500.

A short time ago I was in Quincy and had the pleasure of hearing speeches from Gen Oglesby, candidate for Gov., Senator Doolittle of Wis. and other distinguished gentlemen Last Friday a Copperhead meeting was held in the city. The candidate for Gov., Jas. C. Robinson made a speech.

The great Northwestern Sanitary fair commenced yesterday in, the city. It will last all the week. I will try to get a pass today if possible and go to the fair— admittance 25 cts.

It is now Wednesday morning, 12th, Last night I filled two sheets of paper with my interesting harangue and this morning thought I would scribble off a few lines more I never become tired of the pen. But as I have soon to go out on drill. I close. Write soon. Write everything to.

Alfred S. Browne
Co D. 146th Ill Vols
Camp Dean

Alfred Lincoln Brown continued his adventures after his stint as a soldier, earning a degree from Oberlin College, teaching in freedmen’s schools in the South, teaching in Kendall County schools, farming, and teaching himself to read and write Norwegian so he could better communicate with his Scandinavian neighbors. He never married. He died died July 27, 1920, and was buried in the Millington-Newark Cemetery after a full, well-lived life.

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African American History Month…

February is African American History Month. I’ve always wondered why January wasn’t selected as the month to honor the history of the nation’s black residents since, to me, at least, January seems to make a lot more sense. After all, it’s the month of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. But February it is.

Every year about this time, I hear folks wondering how come we need a African American History Month at all. After all, blacks are citizens like everyone else and other ethnic groups don’t have their own history months. Except they do. For instance, May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month, September is National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month, October is National Italian American Heritage Month. And November honors American Indians.

And there’s one major historical difference between African Americans and all the nation’s other ethnic groups: blacks are the only ones who were brought here involuntarily.

Black slaves were first imported into Illinois during the French colonial era. The first 500 blacks were brought from Haiti in 1720 to work mines and when that didn’t pan out, to grow crops in and around the colonial towns of Cahokia and Kaskaskia that were exported downriver to New Orleans. Slavery continued in Illinois throughout the colonial era and after the Revolutionary War secured Illinois for the new United States. When the Northwest Ordinance was passed in 1787 establishing the Northwest Territory (which included the eventual states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana), slavery was prohibited, with the major loophole that slaves owned by the territory’s French residents were permitted. Illinois was first settled by Southerners coming up from Tennessee and Kentucky. Because of the pro-slavery stance of so many of Illinois’ earliest residents, turning it into a slave state was narrowly avoided during a contentious political campaign in 1824, thanks to the strong anti-slavery views of the growing number of settlers from northern states and England.

Kendall County’s black history began a decade later. Among those arriving in the county in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray, and Elias Dial. The group decided to settle around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area in Fox Township.

The group was notable for a couple of reasons. First, they hadn’t moved west in gradual stages via the Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Illinois route most Southerner settlers took. Instead, like the flood of pioneers from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, they came directly from the South. But unlike those other settlers, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 history of Kendall County, the Rev. Edmund Warne Hicks noted the South Carolinians “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is highly unlikely, however, that either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when the Carns and Murrays brought them to Kendall County. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. With state government still heavily in the hands of slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who insisted on owning their fellow humans.

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County's black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes' daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day.  (Little White School Museum collection)

The student body of the Grove School, a one-room country school that served the neighborhood where many of Kendall County’s black farming families lived. The Lucas kids, children of Edmund Lucas who married Nathan Hughes’ daughter, are in the front row of this 1894 photo apparently taken on a dress-up day. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the next 35 years, few other blacks lived in Kendall County, at least according to the dectennial censuses. But after the Civil War, the county saw a flood of former slaves arrive and settle on farms. Others moved to the county’s small towns where they established businesses or worked for white residents.

The heyday of the county’s black farming community was in the 1880s, after which many of the families left the land to work in factories in the Kendall County community of Plano and in nearby Aurora, whose industrial base was booming. The descendants of those families still live in and around Aurora, while others who grew up in and around Oswego have moved on and up, parlaying their small town roots into a wide range of careers including service as educators from public schools through university. (For a more in-depth look at the African American community in Kendall County, follow the link to one of my recent Ledger-Sentinel columns.)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes' grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Ferdinand Smith, Nathan Hughes’ grandson and a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903, was the first African American to graduate from high school in Kendall County. His sister, Mary, who graduated in 1904 was the first female African American high school graduate in the county. (Little White School Museum collection)

Interestingly enough, these new residents to this small corner of northern Illinois seemed to fit in pretty well. Their kids went to local schools, and out in rural areas they participated in the farming culture. In town, some of them became integrated into community life. The big question, for me and for their descendants who are now working on their family histories, is why did they choose to move to Kendall County? What was the lure? No one living apparently knows. It seems an odd choice. Yes, the county had a rail line running through it’s northern tier, but most of the black families that came in the wake of the Civil War settled several miles away from that line.

There was no existing African American community here in Kendall County, and those families who had left the old slave states could not be at all sure what their reception would be. And for many reasons, those receptions turned out to be reasonably affable. It didn’t hurt that some of tho African American men who came after the war were veterans of the conflict like so many of their white neighbors. The Grand Army of the Republic, the politically powerful Union veterans’ organization, normally did not welcome black members. But here in Kendall County they did. Private Nathan Hughes, badly wounded in the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Va., was not only welcomed into the Yorkville GAR post, but also served as an officer. His grandchildren became the first black people to graduate from high school in the county, and his great-great-great grandchildren went on to become college professors.

Interestingly enough, during those early years,it was often impossible to tell from the local weekly newspaper whether the subjects of local news articles were black or white. It wasn’t until the post World War I xenophobia kicked in that widespread racism and ethnic bigotry gained a foothold in Kendall County. The slide was so complete that the once-color blind local press joined in and in the 1920s the KKK even had some affiliate groups in the county.

Today, in the early years of the 21st Century, in terms of racism and ethnic bigotry, Kendall County has largely gotten back to where it was a century ago. Whether progress or regression, that seems like a good thing.

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

The Civil War: A fascinating factoid

(See update below)

As I have mentioned before, I’m really not a Civil War fan. I’ve thought for years that the war was a colossal, criminal, waste of time, treasure, and the lives of far too many young men.

Here in Kendall County, nearly 10 percent of the total population served in the war and around 2 percent of the total 1860 population died or was killed during the war. Hundreds of those who returned home were disabled , both mentally and physically, to a greater or lesser extent.

In addition, the war apparently created a sense of wanderlust in those who served. Kendall County’s population in 1860 stood at 13,074. After the war, it underwent a steady decline over almost the next entire century. The county’s population did not rise above it’s 1860 level until 1960 when vigorous post-World War II economic and population growth accelerated.

So the war had a substantial, and long-lasting, effect on us here in the North. The effect on the South appears to have been even worse.

Historian David Oshinsky has a fascinating piece in the Washington Post looking, in part, at the impact of the Civil War on the State of Mississippi. As pointed out by Eric Loomis at one of my favorite blogs, Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Oshinsky writes:

More than a third of Mississippi’s 78,000 soldiers were killed in battle or died from disease. And more than half of the survivors brought home a lasting disability of war. Visitors to the state were astonished by the broken bodies they saw at every gathering, in every town square. Mississippi resembled a giant hospital ward, a land of missing arms and legs. In 1866, one-fifth of the state budget went for the purchase of artificial limbs.

Did you get that? A third of Mississippi’s soldiers who marched off to fight for slavery and slave owners died. But even more astonishing, 20 percent of the state’s entire budget in 1866, the year after the war ended, was spent on artificial arms, legs, hands, and feet.

The Civil War was an abomination. That no one was prosecuted for starting it and sticking with it until an estimated 620,000 soldiers were either killed or died of disease or other reasons was a horrible miscarriage of justice.

UPDATE: Was doing my usual early morning cruise about the Net today and came across this great column by the War Nerd about Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” which stepped off from Atlanta just 150 years ago this month.

One thing for which you’ve got to give the instigators of the War of Southern Sedition credit is their remarkably successful post-war effort to spin this absolutely horrible conflict as entirely the North’s fault that was undertaken to somehow take the South’s freedom away.

I remember while growing up that movies and TV shows continually glorified the “Lost Cause.” The rebels were not only glorified, but, in the case of Robert E. Lee, almost sanctified. The causes of the war were obscured so that most came to believe the “states’ rights” canard. Sherman and Grant had no illusions about what was going on, nor did those who fought in Union blue. As Grant put it, the South’s decision to fight a war to uphold slavery was “the worst cause for which men ever fought.” And as Sherman warned his Southern friends before their effort to subvert the Constitution got fully underway: “It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization!”

It truly was. Read the War Nerd’s blog post.

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Filed under Frustration, Kendall County, Law, Military History

Trying to make the world a safer, better place…

For the past few weeks, we’ve been working up our annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego.

My compatriot Bob Stekl has been putting together most of the main exhibits, including the Wall of Honor and the exhibit of uniforms and equipment that make the annual event so interesting.

During World War II, this sign kept track of the men and women serving their country. I twas located on Main Street right next to the Oswego Village Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

During World War II, this sign kept track of the men and women serving their country. I twas located on Main Street right next to the Oswego Village Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Wall of Honor consists of photos of veterans and serving military personnel, from World War I to the present day. This year, we’re including a number of vets and serving personnel from our most recent spate of wars, including one youngster, a Marine, who graduated from Oswego High School in 2010, joined the Corps, and then encountered an IED in Afghanistan in 2011 that blew off both his legs and part of his hand.

My job in putting the exhibit together was to do a poster on each of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in action from Oswego, from the Civil War through Vietnam. Fortunately, we’ve had no more KIAs in the wars of the 21st Century, although that seems more due to the incredible advances in medical technology than a lack of our people finding themselves in harm’s way—see the story about the Marine above for verification of that.

From the information we’ve been able to gather (there may be more, and if there are, hopefully someone will point them out to us), three Oswegoland residents were killed in action during the Civil War, one during World War I, five during World War II, and three during Vietnam.

These were young men for the most part, with an average age of 22.4. They ranged from Frank Clauser, 31, (a distant cousin of mine) an engineer-dorsal turret gunner in a B-26 shot down over the Mediterranean during World War II, to 19 year-old Alfred X. Murdock, killed at the Battle of Ezra Church during the Civil War.

William "Billy" Pooley was a 24 year-old private when he was killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta in 1864. (Little White School Museum collection)

William “Billy” Pooley was a 25 year-old private when he was killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta in 1864. (Little White School Museum collection)

In fact, two of our KIAs were killed during at Ezra Church, Murdock (his friends called him Ax), 19, and William “Billy” Pooley, 25. During that same, desperate battle, as Hood’s Confederates tried to break the American line near Atlanta, young Robinson B. Murphy won the Medal of Honor. Just 15 at the time, he guided reinforcements to the far end of the American line held by Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteers, comprised mostly of Oswegoans. Murphy grew up in Oswego with the soldiers in the company and had enlisted as a drummer boy with them. The sights and sounds horror of that day stayed with him the rest of his life.

As Murphy put it in a letter published in the Sept. 7, 1898 Kendall County Record:

“As you all know, the most of the time my position was such that I could look on and see what was being done and oh! how I always turned towards my own regiment, and how it grieved me to see them stricken down either from disease or the rebel bullet. I shall never forget that 28th day of July in front of Atlanta, when “Billy” Lawton came running out of the woods and said “Bob, for God’s sake get us some reinforcements; they are cutting us all to pieces,” and a little later as I rode up near the line with the reinforcements, there I found our comrades, Ax. Murdoch [sic] and “Billy” Pooley, both shot dead; they were our Oswego boys. Do you wonder I was deeply touched and the tears rolled down my face?”

Two of our Civil War dead weren’t even citizens. Billy Pooley was born and raised in England before coming to the U.S. with his family, while William Shoger was born Johann Wilhelm Schoger in Germany. He immigrated with two brothers and three cousins at the age of 13 to help scout for good land for the rest of his family, which came from Germany a couple years later, settling just outside Oswego west of the Fox River. William was killed in action at the Battle of Raymond in 1863, as Gen. Grant tightened the noose around Vicksburg.

During World War I, 21 year-old Archie Lake was killed in action fighting the Germans in France with the U.S. Marines.

Kay Fugate was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kay Fugate was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

We lost five area residents during World War II, three of them in the Air Corps, one in the Navy, and one in the Army. Kay Fugate, 24, a Seaman Second Class, didn’t make it past the first day of the war, dying aboard the USS Nevada during the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. As noted above, Frank Clauser was shot down along with the rest of his crewmates in fighting over the Mediterranean. Donald A. Johnson, 20, died when his C-87 Liberator Express transport flew into a mountainside while flying over the “Hump.” Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer, 22, was killed near the end of the war when his B-29 Superfortress was shot down during a night raid on Tokyo near the end of the war. None of the three bodies of our three Air Corps dead were ever recovered.

Stuart Parkhurst was killed during his first experience with combat, and just two months to the day after he left New York Harbor in some of the fighting just before the Battle of the Bulge. He and his best friend, Stan Young, had pledged they’d volunteer for the paratroops when they were drafted, but Stuart decided not to. Stan persevered, making several combat jumps in the Pacific Theatre and being on one of the first, if not the first, U.S. planes to land in Japan to take the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army. Stuart was a sergeant in the headquarters company of the Second Battalion, 345th Infantry Regiment—normally not one of the most dangerous places to be, but on Dec. 17, 1943, the headquarters of 2nd Battalion was raked by tank and machine gun fire, badly wounding several officers and killing Stuart.

E4 Hans Brunner, a German national fighting in the U.S. Army, was killed in action at Pleiku, Vietnam on March 29, 1968. (Little White School Museum collection)

E4 Hans Brunner, a German national fighting in the U.S. Army, was killed in action at Pleiku, Vietnam on March 29, 1968. (Little White School Museum collection)

In Vietnam, we had three Army casualties. Fred Heriaud, 21, was Kendall County’s first Vietnam casualty, getting killed in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley Dec. 17, 1965, a battle immortalized by Mel Gibson’s movie, “We Were Young.” Hans Brunner, like William Shoger, another German national who had immigrated to the U.S. shortly before he joined the Army, was killed in action at the age of 24 on March 29, 1968 defending the airfield at Pleiku. And Bobby Rogers, who went to school with me (he was two years younger) was serving in the Army during Operation Iron Mountain when he was killed on March 19, 1968. He was just 21

It’s hard not to wonder what these young men would have accomplished had they not died in the service of their country—in three cases, their adopted country. If you happen to be in the Oswego area this coming weekend, come on over to the Little White School Museum. The exhibit opens Saturday, Nov. 8, at 9 a.m. Hours are Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. It’s free and it honors those who tried their best to make the nation and the world a better place.



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

We dodged an authoritarian bullet in the 1860s…

Reading about the Civil War always makes me extremely glad the Union won, not to mention extremely angry that the war happened at all.

If a large portion of the officer corps of the U.S. military had not decided to surrender their honor and become traitors, it’s likely the estimated 620,000 soldiers on both sides (and that figure doesn’t include war-related civilian deaths) who lost their lives during the conflict and the millions of dollars of destruction could have been avoided.

Unfortunately for us future generations, by the time U.S. Grant and William Sherman had beaten the South into submission the nation was so tired of war they decided to give those military traitors a free pass, other than brief imprisonments for some. And thus was born the “Lost Cause” fable that ushered in decades of monstrous Jim Crow subjugation of anyone with African-American blood in their veins–no matter how little flowed there.

It’s not too strong a statement to say that the Confederate government had a lot in common with the authoritarian governments of the early 20th Century, and seems to have pioneered some of the same techniques fascist and communist governments used to subjugate their own people.

The Civil War is often described as the first modern war since it made extensive use of railroads, mobilization of heavy industry, and proto-modern military tactics such as elaborate entrenchments and rifled firearms. It can also be considered a modern war in that it really didn’t settle much, other than eliminating slavery. Which, granted, was quite a major achievement. Southern attitudes took a breather for a few years but then began once again to eat away at the fabric of the nation right up to the present, to the point that the America envisioned by the Founders is in real danger of disappearing under a mound of hatred and lies.

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Filed under Frustration, Military History, People in History

The passion and the tragedy of William Harkness

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

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

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

1862 William Harkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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