Richard Yates: An Appraisal of His Value as the Civil War Governor of Illinois

By Bohn, Roger E. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Richard Yates: An Appraisal of His Value as the Civil War Governor of Illinois


Bohn, Roger E., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The general public mostly remembers George Armstrong Custer for his fatal action at Little Big Horn. Richard Yates is, to some extent, remembered for his periodic drunken behavior while he was Illinois Governor during the Civil War. Both public conceptions follow the old maxim, "A half-truth is worse than a whole lie," because it obscures the positive attributes, contributions, and actions of each of these notable characters in American history.

Custer actively participated in the Battle of 1st Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Overland Campaign, the Wilderness, Yellow Tavern, Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864, the siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. He was present at the Appomattox surrender.

After the Civil War, Brevet Major General Custer returned to the Regular Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. 7th Cavalry. On June 25, 1876, Custer and his entire command were killed at Little Big Horn. Custer's wife, Libbie, published books on his life, which contributed greatly to his image as a "tragic military hero," and so, Custer's very distinguished Civil War record has been overshadowed by his fate at Little Big Horn.

Richard Yates was elected Governor of Illinois in the 1860 election that put his friend, Abraham Lincoln, into the White House. Yates was an outspoken opponent of slavery. He was personally and actively involved in raising volunteer soldiers for Illinois and became known as the "Soldiers' Friend," a title he both earned and welcomed. When the war began, Illinois Governor Yates sent more troops to aid the Union than any other state. As early as April 19, 1861, Yates sent armed troops to Cairo and other locations in order to save and secure the arms stored there, so that this essential equipment would not fall into the hands of southern sympathizers.

Yates gave U.S. Grant his first recognition as a soldier in the Civil War by appointing him as mustering officer for the state and afterward, Colonel of the 21st Illinois Regiment. He gave Lincoln much-needed support for his Emancipation Proclamation. He set up a training camp which later became Camp Douglas, the prisoner of war encampment in Chicago. Yet, when Yates was elected U.S. Senator in January of 1865, he served only one term. The reason, in part, for his not gaining a second term was his reputation - rightly or wrongly - for being an ineffectual drunkard. We will attempt to determine if this "classification" is justified as we explore the value of Governor Yates in the Civil War.

Richard Yates was born in Warsaw, Gallatin County, Kentucky, on January 18, 1815. He moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1831, and graduated from Illinois College in 1835. He studied law at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and was admitted to the bar in 1837, when he then opened his law practice at Jacksonville, Illinois. In July of 1839, he married Catherine Geers of Lexington, Kentucky.' An intimate friend of Yates, William Pitt Kellogg, described him as "Striking in appearance, with bright auburn hair and bright blue eyes."

Yates was elected to the Illinois State House of Representatives and served from 1842 to 1845, and again from 1848 to 1849. As a Whig candidate, he was elected to the United States Congress from 1851 to 1855, but was an unsuccessful candidate for re-election. He served as Illinois Governor from 1861 through 1865, when he was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate, where he served from 1865 to 1871. He was not a candidate for re-election.

President Grant then appointed Yates as a United States commissioner to inspect a land-subsidy railroad. While on this assignment, Yates died suddenly of a stroke caused by a brain hemorrhage in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 27, 1873. He is buried in Diamond Grove Cemetery, Jacksonville, Illinois.2

Richard Yates was a veteran politician by the fall of 1860 when he attended the Republican Convention in Chicago as a candidate for Governor of Illinois. …

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