Civil War - Civil Union:
Chapter 2: Civil War (1862 - 1863)
Civil War-Civil Union
Chapter 1: 1842-1862
Chapter 2: 1862-1863
Chapter 3: 1863-1882 Chapter 4: 1883-1912
Chapter 5: 1912-on
Descendancy Chart (to come)
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Civil War-Civil Union is copyrighted 2003
When the Confederates captured Fort Sumter in April 14, 1861, all talk in Will County turned to war, as it did across the nation. In Joliet, “People on their way to church, hearing the news, forgot their errand and their day, and gathered at the street corners, and discussed the situation.”[i] Meetings were held in all of the towns of the county and recruits were sent to Joliet.
Twelve companies were raised in Will County alone. One of the first to sign up was Frederick Elderkin. He must have been extremely motivated, for his enlistment on August 2, 1861, in Company Jenks’, Independent Cavalry Regiment Illinois,[ii] came a year before the county had established its own regiment. In all probability Frederick was David and Charles’ younger brother, although he is only mentioned obliquely twice – once in a letter Jeptha wrote to his brother, Elijah in Nova Scotia, referring to Catherine having “three smart boys,”[iii] and once in an affidavit by David T. Elderkin describing the death of his brother in St. Louis.[iv]
By July of 1862, the pressure to enlist had become irresistible. The county began to form the 100th Illinois regiment with a bounty of $60 to each volunteer,[v] and quickly accomplished their goal. Company K was an all-Will County outfit. David T. Elderkin signed up as a member, passing the physical despite his hearing problem. On September 2, 1862, the new regiment – nearly one thousand men strong – moved out of Joliet to huge fanfare by their families and the townspeople.[vi] David was just shy of 25 years of age.
The young recruits traveled by train first to Springfield, Illinois, and then to Louisville, Kentucky. Their first few weeks were characterized by oppressively hot marches. Once fall arrived, the 100th faced their first engagement at Bardstown, Kentucky, on the 4th of October, which proved successful.[vii]
It was when they arrived in Nashville that they faced a serious threat. The Battle of Stones River (or Murfreesboro) began on December 31, 1862 and ended on January 1, 1863. Today, it is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the war, with more than 23,000 total casualties. While tactically indecisive, the Union army retained possession of the battlefield and called it a victory.[viii]
During the battle, the 100th Infantry was held in reserve initially, but then was called to action.[ix] The regiment charged the confederates, with David in the thick of battle. The noise was thunderous. Artillery shells, musketry, and cannon fire roared in David’s already impaired ears. He and his fellow soldiers marched forward, holding the line, with no protection save themselves.[x]
Later David remembered the scene vividly: “We were in line firing on the enemy. A bombshell busted near me, took the head of the man in the rank in front of me off. I was stuck by something I thought was the man’s head.”[xi] David was hit on the cheek, the man’s brains spewed all over him, and David fell unconscious.[xii] He was fortunate to be alive at all. The soldier he referred to in his account, Giles L. Greenman, and a lieutenant and friend, William Worthingham, both lost their lives in that particular cannon shot.[xiii]
A few hours after the Battle of Stone’s River ended, David awoke in a field littered with bodies. He staggered toward some fellow Union soldiers in the distance, but instead of finding his way back to his company, David was intercepted by patrolling Confederates.[xiv]
The Confederates hauled David away to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia.[xv] The conditions there were atrocious. The prison was located in an old tobacco factory with long rooms lighted only with windows at each end. The discomforts of winter crept into their chamber – wind, rain, snow and cold. Rations were even worse than the weather, for the Confederate Army had trouble feeding even their own soldiers. Thin soup, meager amounts of bread and cold rice were about all a prisoner could expect.[xvi]
According to an account by David, he went from weighing a healthy 185 pounds to about 80 pounds on his 5’8” frame.[xvii] David spent 41 miserable days at Libby before he was exchanged for another prisoner that Union forces held. He was sent to Annapolis, Maryland, where he was told to report to Benton Barracks in St. Louis.[xviii] He arrived there on March 17, 1863.[xix]
As he followed the Army’s instructions, it became clear that David’s days as a soldier would be numbered. Near total deafness had set in following the battle, and he was plagued by a roaring sound that resembled artillery fire. How could he expect to hear orders on the battlefield? His friend and comrade, Peter M. Chilson, took him to an Illinois regiment doctor, who told him he needed to be discharged. However, the doctor had no authority to do so.[xx] David wrote the captain of his company and received “some paper” in return. Chilson told him it was to draw his pay. He filled out the forms and handed them to a clerk in St. Louis, “who looked at it – and would not return it to me, nor give me my pay.[xxi]”
David knew something was amiss, but was unable to rectify the situation, perhaps because his ability to communicate had worsened. Peter Chilson remembered having enormous influence over him during this time.[xxii] After a month of waiting in St. Louis for his discharge, Chilson convinced David to return home to Jackson’s Grove.[xxiii] David left, “hardly knowing what I was doing under the circumstances and not realizing any harm by returning home.”[xxiv] David was back in St. Louis within the week to attend to a family tragedy – his brother Frederick had died there after being paroled from a prisoner of war camp. [xxv]
Unfortunately, the anguish continued. When David returned home permanently on June 11, 1863, his mother Catherine was dying of cancer. She died one month later on July 25, 1863, and is buried with her husband and daughter in Browns Church Cemetery in Will County. Catherine’s illness must have been particularly painful, because an epitaph on her grave reads, “Rest sweet mother rest, your labor is done, your pain is over.”[xxvi] It is the only epitaph on an Elderkin family grave in the cemetery.
Woodruff, George H., Fifteen Years Ago, or The Patriotism of Will
County, (Joliet: J. Goodspeed, 1876), p. 17.