History of Mercer County, Illinois

Return to Mercer Home Page
Part 3 - 1845 to 1860
Part 5 - 1866 to 1880
Surnames Page
Social and Home Life in the 50's and 60's

Part 4: Mercer County - 1860 to 1865

Page 1 - New Boston Militia Rolls

Page 2 - New Boston Milita Rolls

Eliza Township Militia Rolls

Civil War Information Resources - includes links to letters written by and about Mercer County soldiers

Library of Congress American Memory Timeline Site on the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877

December 25, 1860 - Illinois Votes for a President

Mercer County: 1808 votes for Lincoln; 1193 votes for Douglas, 35 votes for Bell, and 3 votes for Breckenridge
New Boston: 227 votes for Lincoln; 130 votes for Douglas
Eliza: 93 votes for Lincoln; 60 votes for Douglas

A Trip From Denver (C.T.) to the United States in 1861

While Mercer County was gearing up for the Civil War, two of its residents were returning from a trip to Denver, Colorado Territory, to New Boston. Their journey is documented in Diary and Journal of a Trip from Denver, C.T. [Colorado Territory] To the United States, 1861 By John Forsyth (kindly sent to us by Edward Swenson, a descendant of Isaac Newton Bassett who joined John Forsyth on the trip.)

John Forsyth and family are found in Green Township in 1870: John Forsythe, 41, farmer, born Pa; Margaret, 38, Pa; Margaret J., 14, Il; William, 11, Il; Adison, 9, Il; Sherman, 5, Il; James, 4, Il; Delilah, 1, Il. We would love to hear from any descendants whose family lore might tell us the reason for this trip.

Isaac Newton Bassett figured prominently in the history of Mercer County and we have created a page for them as he had ties to New Boston. Isaac mentions in his autobiography that he had gone to Denver on the Pike's Peak gold rush.

Link to Forsyth Journal

Letters to, from, and about Mercer County Civil War Soldiers

Stan Drake shared with us letters written by Captain William A. Wilson of Company K, 102nd Illinois Infantry. In addition we had at one time combed through old editions of The Aledo Weekly Record and made copies of letters received by the record about soldiers in the field from Mercer County. Cf. letters by Sylvanus Atwater linked below and a letter by an unknown "Uncle John" which we have posted on the Captain Wilson page. We have yet to discover the identity of Uncle John.

Mercer County and the Civil War

In Mercer County, the Civil War took a toll, in dead and wounded, widows and orphans. Not all the citizens supported the war, but supporters outnumbered the others, labeled Copperheads, and castigated in the newspapers. Mercer County was proud of her soldiers and after the War erected a monument in Aledo to all those who died. {Click} The names enshrined on the monument are listed in the History of Mercer County 1882.

At 4:30 A.M. on Friday, April 12, 1861, the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War had begun. On Monday, April 15, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. Mercer County immediately held meetings for the purpose of taking some action in relation to the affairs of the nation. Enthusiastic meetings were held in New Boston and Keithsburg Saturday evening, April 20, 1861. New Boston led in offering volunteers. A more formal meeting was held at the Court House in Aledo; on Monday, April 22, at one o'clock P. M. The meeting was called to order by Col. W. D. Henderson; George Simms of North Henderson was elected President, and J. H. Reed of Aledo, was appointed Secretary. A Committee of one from each township was appointed to prepare business for the meeting. R. S. Cramer was appointed for New Boston, and J. J. Huston for Eliza Township. Patriotic remarks were addressed while the Committee met. Several resolutions were presented by the Committee, the last one being that a Committee of one citizen from each township be appointed to carry out the resolutions of the meeting. James Thompson was appointed for New Boston, and D. F. Noble for Eliza Township. The proceedings of the meeting were interspersed by patriotic music by the New Boston Band. (A copy of the Resolution will be posted). By April 23, 1861, Judge Gilmore and Captain Wood had visited Springfield and offered two companies from Mercer County. Already Lincoln's call was filled and the Mercer County boys had to wait.

A meeting of the Volunteers of Keithsburg and New Boston was held on April 24, 1861. The roll of volunteers numbered 104, and 85 were present at the meeting. Dr. Enos P. Wood of New Boston was elected Captain; George W. Sanders of New Boston, 1st Lieutenant; Ed Brewington, Keithsburg, 2d Lieut.; and Dr. E. S. Benedict, New Boston, 3d Lieut. Orderlies and Corporals were also appointed from Keithsburg and New Boston. Judge Thompson accompanied the volunteers to camp at Peoria where they were enlisted into the 17th Volunteer Infantry on May 20, 1861. Judge Thompson returned and recommended that the Board of Supervisors supply blankets and uniforms for the volunteers - "those who go forth to fight for the country should not go at their own expense."

On Tuesday, August 20, 1861 a company dubbed the "New Boston Sharpshooters" under the command of Captain H. B. Southward left for Camp Butler, a training point for recruits. On the day before their departure all of New Boston turned out to bid them farewell with patriotic speeches, songs and a picnic dinner. The remains of the dinner were sent with the men to provision their journey. The story of their 64 hour journey was documented by Sylvanus Atwater and published in the Aledo Weekly Record. {Click} The company was mustered in on August 23, 1861, as Company G of the 27th Illinois Infantry. Sylvanus Atwater kept Mercer County citizens informed of many of their exploits. As time permits we will add more of his letters. The company received their first baptism of fire at the battle of Belmont, Missouri on November 7, 1861. George Cross who had enlisted at New Boston wrote a poem about the Battle of Belmont.

In 1862 Mercer County quickly obeyed the government instructions to enumerate all males between 18 and 45 in order to list future draftees. The Militia Roll for New Boston lists approximately 210 names and the Roll for Eliza Township lists approximately 100 (links listed above). Unfortunately the Mercer County Military Census was taken before forms were provided; only the names are given, with no ages, place of birth, occupation or other information requested by the government. So the census is not completely helpful in identifying residents. Some of the names are seen in no other context in Mercer County and may represent friends or relatives coming from across the Mississippi River or from adjoining counties. Many were already serving before this list was compiled.

The companies of Illinois Volunteer Regiments formed with Mercer County boys are listed on the Mercer County IlGenWeb pages along with rosters of soldiers for each. Short regimental histories from The Adjutant General's Report are included on the pages so one can deduce the battles the soldiers participated in. Many Mercer County men participated in Sherman's march on Atlanta ( Sherman in Georgia Web Site).

Company A of the 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry was formed in Rock Island County but included soldiers from the towns of Richland Grove, Preemption, and Perryton of Mercer County. Henry Ketzle served from Mercer County and kept a fine diary which is up on a Web Site. The diary should be of interest to anyone who had ancestors serving as it is a fine example of a soldier's life. A roster of the company is included on the Web Site.

When soldiers enlisted in Mercer regiments, they were evaluated for health and strength and if found wanting were discharged. Patriotism ran so high, however, that some of these boys simply went to neighboring states and enlisted in regiments who did not have such harsh screening practices. We will give some examples in individual family stories.

Like most Illinois soldiers, Mercer County boys enlisting or being drafted were sent to the "Western Armies", fighting in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. They fought at Chicamauga and Lookout Mountain, entered Atlanta with Sherman and died at Andersonville Prison. The folks at home kept in touch with soldiers by writing and receiving letters, some of which were reprinted in the newspapers (samples to follow). Some of the boys found fair damsels to their liking in distant states and brought home brides. If researchers can't find the parents of the wife of a soldier in Mercer County, then they should check the states where he served.

At home in Mercer County the war created widows and orphans who needed help, thus creating or increasing social programs -- the Soldier's Relief, Sanitary Commission (precursor of today's Red Cross), and the Poor Farm. During the war farmers faced a shortage of help with the crops and low prices. Because the barge traffic on the Mississippi was interrupted, farmers could not ship crops to market centers, thus could not get good prices for produce even as soldiers needed food. The grief over loss of fathers, husbands, sons and friends spurred religious changes from revival meetings to the growth of spiritualism. It was a problem for women who remained behind to handle the chore of procuring wood to warm their families and cook their food. In response to this dilemma, men who remained behind held wood gathering parties, usually followed by a social party in the evening (See Social Life in the 50's and 60's). Sometimes conditions at home became so acute that a soldier had to resign and return home, cf. Lt. Col. James Mannon.

Another problem plaguing the farmers who remained behind was the blatant thievery of their horses for sale to the Army. Brokers purchased horses for between $70 and $100. While most of these were purchased through stables who contracted with the Army, it also led to a "black market." 15,000 horses were sold to the Army through Chicago in 1865 alone. Neighbors banded together to combat the thievery problem as in the formation of the Eliza Association for the Detection of Thieves. Apparently the Association was successful, for newspapers soon reported that thievery had moved north to Rock Island County.

Patriotism remained at a high pitch. The Aledo Weekly Record, December 29, 1863, reported a war meeting held in New Boston which resulted in the enlistment of ten volunteers and a contribution of some $400 for the relief of soldiers' families. A similar story January 12, 1864: "We learn that the patriotic citizens of New Boston have raised a fund by subscription of about $500 for the relief of soldiers' families, and propose increasing it to $1000... .The fact that our New Boston neighbors are disposed to care for the families of soldiers may to some degree account for the large number of recruits that have recently entered the service from that township."

New Boston remained acutely aware of their favorable postion in recruiting. The Aledo Weekly Record reported on January 19, 1864: "Seceded - As is generally known, the Townships of Keithsburg and New Boston were enrolled together and constituted a sub-district, and in case of a draft, the two Townships would have been drafted together. New Boston having furnished a large number of recruits while Keithsburg has done but little in that direction, the citizens of the former Township concluded to "secede" from their less fortunate neighbors, and accordingly applied for, and obtained, a division of the district. This is right and proper. A Township's liability to draft, should not depend upon what other Townships do, but upon what they do themselves."

Citizens of Mercer County also contributed to the soldiers. In response to news of scurvy in the Army, a plea was entered in the Aledo Weekly Record July 20, 1864, for those putting by their preserves and dried fruits and vegetables to put by an extra portion for the soldiers. Reports were also made of citizens sending crates of live chickens to the soldiers. Contributions were made at home as well. On 4/19/1861 Mr. William P. Baker closed his connection with the Collegiate Institute at Aledo as he was going into another line of work. By 4/30/1861 he had changed his mind and decided to stay because of the national crisis. Children of volunteers were then admitted free to the Institute.

An interesting item found in a book of Civil War letters is a letter written by a Captain in the 129th Illinois in April 6, 1864 from Wauhatchie, Tennessee: "A soldier's wife of the 102 Illinois arrived here today on the cars. ...there are several other wives here... . I cannot imagine how they stay here but most everything is possible nowadays." Many Mercer County soldiers were in the 102nd Illinois and we know of at least one conjugal visit by Ellen Welch Carr to her husband William Carr. We know this because of the birth of a child about a year before William's enlistment ended. Of course, he might also have come home on leave!

At last the War ended. One of the most pleasant uses of the Sanitary Fair held in Chicago that year was the reception of returning Illinois soldiers. Major General Sherman and Lt-General Grant were present when the first regiment, the 102nd under the command of Colonel James Mannon of Aledo, was received in Union Hall. The 102nd, armed with Spencer repeating rifles had been a terror to evil-doers. It had been one of Sherman's foraging regiments, and was eagerly welcomed to the hospitality of the Hall.

Those Union soldiers who came home to Mercer County suffered the effects of exposure, illness and wounds for the rest of their lives, as revealed in their pension papers. Some returned to farms and family. But for others, their journey South established a wanderlust that led them to the new lands in the West. Special land rewards for soldiers also drew them away (see Prouty migration to Kansas). At a reunion after the war, one Illinois regiment discovered 3/4 of their survivors had left Illinois. We find similar patterns of change in Mercer County veterans who left for Iowa, Kansas, Texas, and other western territories.

Contributing to this exodus was the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the terms of this law, all heads of families and all males over 21 could claim 160 acres of the public domain, provided that he lived on and cultivated the land for five years. The effect was not immediate because of the war and few farmers had the means to move their families to the frontier. Eventually states (e.g. Kansas) gave incentives by allowing veterans to deduct the length of their service from the necessary five years for proving up a claim and attracted many settlers..

Thus the Civil War marks a watershed in the history of Mercer County, as in Illinois and the rest of the newly re-United States. Many individual heroic stories will be told on family pages.

Coincidentally, this time period also marks the rise of Spiritualism, as the "new religion." A Universalist Church was organized in New Boston as early as 1844, and spiritualism was "tolerably strong" in New Boston, but the Civil War really brought it to the forefront. An article in the New Englander and Yale Review, May 1860, tells us that the newly coined term Spiritualism had been entered into two American dictionaries. Previously it had been used as a theory of mental philosphy and was a technical term. The appendix of the new edition of Webster's Dictionary stated "this term is now often applied to the doctrine that a direct intercourse can be maintained with departed spirits through the agency of persons called mediums, who are supposed to have a peculiar susceptibility for such communications." Spiritualism spread like wildfire across the country and Mercer County had its share; over and over, we see families converting to Spiritualism. William Drury was a Spiritualist and vowed he would return after death. When one considers loved ones lost in the Civil War and the many children lost to disease in this time period it is easy to see the attraction of something offering continued intercourse with one's dear departed. One can read the Yale Review entire article as well as many other fascinating books of the time period on the Cornell University Library Web Site where they have scanned book pages onto the Internet beginning with their collection starting in 1825.

The Civil War was also a watershed in medical practice in the United States. We have added a page on Medicine in New Boston and Eliza Townships which includes comments on the effect of the Civil War.