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The Civil War: When They Marched to the Sound of the Guns

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No battles were fought on Illinois or Wisconsin soil during the bloody Civil War, but many thousands of families in our region lost loved ones. Jon McGinty traces the journey of local soldiers on the sesquicentennial anniversary of our nation’s bloodiest war.

A Civil War re-enactor visits the graves of soldiers who fought in America's bloodiest conflict.

This year begins the four-year sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War. Ceremonies, parades, re-enactments, lectures, movies and TV shows will remind us of the tremendous sacrifices suffered by our forbearers to decide the fate of our nation.

From April 1861 to April 1865, more than 3.5 million Americans fought each other (one-fourth were immigrants), and more than 620,000 died. The Union suffered more than 350,000 deaths, while the Confederacy suffered about 160,000. For every soldier killed in battle, two succumbed to disease. Nearly half of all Civil War battlefield graves are marked as unknown.

From an 1860 population of about 1.7 million, Illinois contributed more than 256,000 soldiers, ranking it fourth in the Union. This is especially remarkable given the divided loyalties that existed between northern and southern Illinois residents. Most recruits were between 18 and 25 years old, and more than 1,800 were “colored.” Nearly 35,000 died in battle from wounds, disease or imprisonment. More than 100 earned the Medal of Honor.

Wisconsin sent more than 91,300 men marching off to war and suffered more than 12,200 casualties, almost 14 percent of its total enlistment. Many regiments were composed almost entirely of immigrants, primarily Irish or German. The 15th Wisconsin Infantry was mostly Norwegian, with 115 men named ‘Olle.’ The Medal of Honor was awarded to 21 Wisconsinites.

Many families in northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin need look no further than their own attics or family histories to find evidence of such sacrifice. Amateur historians all over the region have collected letters, photographs and other memorabilia testifying to their relatives’ roles in the epic struggle. Some of these collections have been deposited in museums to ensure their safety and accessibility to future generations.

Alexander Thain

The Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda obtained an extraordinary collection of Civil War letters and related documents in 1993, from the granddaughters of two of the main correspondents. Known as the Minto collection, it contains over 200 letters between various family members of Katherine Minto and Lura Johaningsmeir, all written during the Civil War.

“These two women took exceptional care of the letters, often reading them over the years,” says Diana Dretske, Collections Coordinator at the museum. “They eventually decided that other members of the family might not be as interested in keeping the collection together, so they felt the best way to preserve them was to donate them to us.

“The collection is also unique, in that it contains as many letters written to soldiers as from them, since most soldiers often discarded or lost their letters from home. The entire collection has been transcribed, digitized, and is available online, through www.idaillinois.org.”

Susannah Smith Minto


Susannah Smith Minto was the grandmother of Katherine and Lura, and often wrote to her brother, George, who had enlisted in the 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Several of his soldier friends apparently became envious of all his letters from home and started corresponding with Susannah themselves.

One such writer was Alexander Thain, a Scottish-born farmer from Milburn, Ill., before the war. His eloquence with language went on to serve him well, as he survived the war to become a Congregational minister. As part of the Union campaign against Gen. John Bell Hood, Thain was wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia on June 27, 1864, but did not leave the command. On Oct. 25, he wrote a letter to Susannah Smith.

Horace Brewster Locke

James Locke Lyon I, Sycamore, Ill., is a member of the ancestral organization Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

After his mother’s death, Lyon found a letter written by his great-great grandmother, Catherine Locke, to her brother, William Chatham, describing family news and her dilemma of sending her son, Horace Brewster Locke, off to war. Horace was Jim Lyon’s great-grandfather.

Ray Schoenfield (Jon McGinty photo)

Jefferson Coates

Ray Schoenfield is an avid Civil War buff and member of the Rock River Valley Civil War Round Table. While researching his ancestors through the National Archives and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, he uncovered the story of his great-great uncle, Jefferson Coates, a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Coates was born in Boscobel, Wis., on Aug. 24, 1843, and enlisted in Company H, 7th Wisconsin Infantry, in August 1861 as an 18-year-old. The 7th was part of the famous Iron Brigade.

Coates fought in several battles with the Army of the Potomac, including the Battle of South Mountain, Va., on Sept. 14, 1862. In that engagement, he grabbed the regimental flag and rallied his troops to charge the Confederate lines.

On July 1, 1863, Coates was severely wounded during the fighting in and around Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg, Penn. He was struck in the right temple by a musket ball that passed through his head and took out both eyeballs.

“…One brave reb, finding him sightless and defenseless, with blood streaming from his wounds, tried to capture his shoes; another gave him a terrible bayonet wound. Just then a rebel Captain came to his rescue…. A noble-hearted Georgian carried him to a compassionate shade tree and sat him up against its scarred and bracing trunk, and brought him a canteen of water, for which Mr. C. gave the Georgian half his coffee.”

Later records show that Coates recovered from his wounds and attended an Institute for the Blind, where he learned to read Braille. In 1866, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “unsurpassed courage in the War of the Rebellion.” He married, moved to Saline County, Neb., had five children and became a successful stock rancher. He died there on Jan. 27, 1880, at age 37.

During a trip out west in 1988, Schoenfield and family stopped in Boscobel to see if they might find Coates’ grave. An inquiry at the local Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) museum led him to Lois Rogers, press correspondent for the local chapter of the Women’s Relief Corps.

“She didn’t know about Coates or his medal,” recalls Schoenfield. “So when we returned to Beloit, I sent her copies of my information about him.”

Charles Coates, one of Coates’ grandsons, moved near to St. Louis and became a wealthy businessman. Charles had a monument company in Washington, Mo., create and install a memorial for his grandfather in 1964.

“A University of Washington professor, also a veteran, drove past that monument for more than 13 years, and often wondered about it,” says Schoenfield. “At about the same time that I stopped in Boscobel to tell Mrs. Rogers that she had a Civil War hero from her town, this guy became fed up with seeing that monument. He decided to check into who the heck was Jefferson Coates, and found out what I had found.”

Eventually, the professor notified Rogers at the museum in Boscobel. She arranged for the monument to be transported to Wisconsin, and on July 1, 1989 – the 126th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg – the monument was installed outside the Boscobel GAR museum, amid great fanfare.

“They declared it Jefferson Coates Day and held a big parade,” says Schoenfield. “I was one of those who unveiled the monument during the ceremony. Our kids were in junior high at the time, and they were embarrassed at all the hoopla.”

Eli Vincent

Eli Vincent was a grand-cousin or grand-uncle to Dave Bond, another member of the Rock River Valley Civil War Round Table. According to records obtained by Bond, Vincent was from Rock County, Wis., and enlisted into Company G of the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters from Milton, on Oct. 26, 1861. During almost two years of service, Vincent was involved in nearly 20 engagements, until he was fatally wounded at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

Leroy Key

The U.S. Sharpshooters were two regiments of marksmen organized by Hiram Berdan of New York, but drawn from all over the Union. The enlisted men were required to “put 10 bullets in succession within a 10-inch circle at 200 yards.” Original recruits were told to bring their own target rifles, but eventually, nearly all companies were provided with new, breech-loading Sharps rifles, giving them the nickname “Sharpshooters.” Today, we would refer to them as snipers.

Company G was composed primarily of volunteers from Wisconsin. All companies dressed in unique green uniforms,plumed caps and leather leggings, earning them the nickname the “Green Coats.” The Berdan sharpshooters were engaged in all campaigns of the Army of the Potomac from March 1862 to Sept. 1864.
While serving as part of McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsular Campaign to capture Richmond, Va., a tent mate of Vincent wrote a letter (below) to his sister about a battle he and Vincent had survived just days before, the Battle of Hanover Court House, on May 27, 1862.

On July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle at Gettysburg, Vincent and others in his unit were sent forward to reconnoiter some woods on Seminary Ridge. During the ensuing combat, Vincent was wounded in the shoulder and died 13 days later.

And Eli S.B. Vincent, poor fellow, mortally wounded and taken back only to die of slower torture and suffer greater agony. I never can forget hearing the heavy thud and sharper crash as the bullet went through the upper portion of his right breast, crashing the bones as the bullet sped through and wringing a cry of agonizing pain from Vincent.

Vincent is buried in the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, along with 3,511 other soldiers.

Leroy Key

Frank Crawford is a retired teacher in Caledonia, Ill., with a lifelong interest in the Civil War. He has edited and published several collections of letters written by Union soldiers and their families, and belongs to several area Civil War Round Tables.

During his research for a new book, Crawford discovered the story of Leroy Key, a southerner who fought for the Union after enlisting at Bloomington, Ill., as part of the 16th Illinois Cavalry Regiment. He was captured in Virginia and sent to the infamous Confederate-run prison, Andersonville, in Georgia.

While there, Key was instrumental in forming “the Regulators,” a self-appointed vigilante group that tried to stop a gang called “the Raiders” from robbing, beating and murdering fellow inmates for possessions or food. Key got permission from camp commandant Captain Henry Wirz (one of only three soldiers later hanged for war crimes), to arrest and prosecute the offenders.

“Key organized a trial for almost 100 men,” says Crawford. “Several were sentenced to wear a ball and chain, others to run a gauntlet of fellow prisoners who beat them (one died) and six were hanged for their crimes. Key even supervised the building of the scaffold.”

After the war, Key returned to his Mississippi home, where he got married and raised four children. After his first wife died, he resettled in Springfield, Ill., and married a widow with three more children. In 1880, he applied for a medical pension of $8 per month from the federal government.

“I suspect he had throat cancer,” says Crawford. “After the second pension check arrived, Key committed suicide. He waited for that second check to make sure it would arrive to support his family.”

Key was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, in a plot for the indigent. “I found the burial plot myself,” says Crawford. “It’s located about 100 yards from Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, and it had no headstone. When I called this to the attention of the cemetery curator, she said she could order a headstone, which she did. It was installed last November.”

This past Memorial Day, a large ceremony was conducted at Oak Ridge Cemetery, to commemorate the unveiling of Key’s headstone. Dignitaries from the Illinois State Historical Society and the Lincoln Home National Park attended, as well as re-enactors from the 114th Illinois Volunteers and the 10th Illinois Cavalry. Key’s tombstone reads in part: “Organized the Regulators at Andersonville Prison, 1865.”

“If my book never gets published, at least Key got his headstone,” says Crawford. “I’m proud to have been part of the process. It seems that it’s our job to retell the stories.” ❚

A monument to the Iron Brigade. (Jon McGinty photo)

Sidebar: The Iron Brigade

The Iron Brigade was an infantry unit in the Army of the Potomac, originally consisting of the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiments, along with the 19th Indiana.

The nickname came from a comment made by Maj. Gen. George McClellan, during the Battle of South Mountain, Va., in September 1862. As he observed the troops forcing the Confederate line back to Turner’s Gap, McClellan said to Maj. General Joseph Hooker, “They must be made of iron.”

The Brigade was also called the “Black Hats,” because its members wore the 1858 model black Hardee felt hats issued to Army Regulars, rather than the blue kepis worn in most other units. Proportionally, the Iron Brigade of the West suffered more casualties than any other brigade during the entire Civil War, losing more than 60 percent of its men at Gettysburg alone.

Civil War Museums & Events

Kenosha Civil War Museum
5400 First Avenue, Kenosha, Wis.
www.thecivilwarmuseum.org
One of the Midwest’s most outstanding museums, this facility is dedicated to telling the stories of the Civil War as experienced by people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan. “The Fiery Trial” exhibit (part of which is pictured right) includes talking mannequins who lead you through various aspects of the war.

Lake County Discovery Museum
27277 N. Forest Preserve Road, Wauconda, Ill.
(847) 968-3400 • www.lakecountydiscoverymuseum.org
The museum is housed in restored farm buildings in the Lakewood Forest Preserve, and is a part of the Lake County Forest Preserve District. A large Civil War re-enactment event is held on the grounds every July. A current exhibit titled “Civil War High Tech” includes displays of technological innovations used during the conflict, such as observation balloons and submarines.

Another way to immerse yourself in Civil War history is to attend a re-enactment or living history presentation, where participants in authentic period dress and uniforms portray soldiers and civilians from that era. Here are a couple of organizations that do just that.

Battery G, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery
www.batteryg.org
Battery G is a Civil War artillery re-enactment group based in the Rockford area. Its members participate in battle re-enactments, living history encampments, parades, ceremonies and educational presentations.

1st Brigade Band
www.1stbrigadeband.org
The 1st Brigade Band of Watertown, Wis., is the oldest re-created Civil War brass band in the United States, playing original period music on original antique instruments. Their concerts also include performers describing legends, stories and historical accounts of the Civil War.
Here’s a partial list of upcoming performances:
Aug. 7: Octagon House Ice Cream Social, Watertown, Wis.
Aug. 27: National Guard Officers’ Convention, Milwaukee
Sept. 11: Civil War program, Portage, Wis.
Nov. 5: 24th Annual Harvest Ball, Racine, Wis.

For other Civil War-related events, check out the Illinois Civil War Sesquicentennial Web site at www.illinoiscivilwar150.org.

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