Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Hard Lessons of War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry at Helena, Arkansas

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The Hard Lessons of War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry at Helena, Arkansas

Article excerpt

The Fifth Illinois Cavalry organized in southern Illinois in the autumn of 1861, and consisted of men who were hostile to "Negroes," staunch Democrats, and Evangelical Christians, with profound proUnion convictions. All these factors contributed to enlistment, with patriotic sentiments the strongest. Joining the Federal army, according to one Illinois cavalryman, meant fighting for the Union, to "establish the government of our Fathers on a firm and lasting basis."1

The Fifth's commanding officers received their commissions because of close ties to the Republican Party. Colonel Hall Wilson, a thirty-year-old British native, served as a clerk in the Illinois State Auditor's Office, and was a friend and boarder of Republican State Auditor Jesse K. DuBois. Wilson initially served as major of the Twentyseventh Illinois Infantry and fought at the battle of Belmont, Missouri in November 1861 before he received his commission with the Fifth Illinois. lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Wiley, a forty-year-old farmer from Makanda, helped form the Republican Party in southern Illinois. He ran on the Republican ticket for congress in 1856, worked closely with David L. Phillips and Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 senatorial debates, and served as a Republican delegate in the 1858 and 1860 elections. Political patronage also secured commissions for majors Speed Butler, Thomas A. Apperson, and James Farnan.2

The army mustered in the Fifth Illinois throughout the fall of 1861. but the regiment did not reach its full complement of twelve companies until December. The men spent the first six months of duty in training at Camp Butler in Sangamon County, Illinois. In February 1862. the regiment joined Brigadier General Frederick Steele's division in Missouri. After a few skirmishes in the southeastern part of the state, Steele's troops became part of Major General Samuel R. Curtis's Army of the Southwest at Jacksonport, Arkansas. Curtis's combined forces moved through north-central Arkansas in July toward Helena, a small river port on the Mississippi River. The army marched through strong Secesh territory, where Rebel guerrillas and Southern sympathizers worked closely to slow the progress of the Federal army. Union soldiers struggled against Confederate ambushes and coped with foul water and food poisoned by citizens and partisans. Though the Federal army suffered severely on the march from the lack of potable water and food, the men obeyed the army's orders to respect the property of Southern citizens. Many soldiers who suffered through that terrible march believed the army should have taken supplies from the civilians who hampered their progress. Sergeant Major John P. Mann, a forty-year-old merchant from Randolph County, kept a daily record of his observations and opinions in his diary. Mann held strong views on how to conduct the war, "I do not think the [Rjebels should be protected in the possession of their property. ... We cannot expect to end the war by coaxing and persuading [R]ebels to be loyal, but should punish them, and make them feel war untill [sic] they are subdued. Many of the boys are angry because of the leniency shown to [Rjebels around here."3

The Fifth arrived at Helena on 12 July. Their service in Arkansas would last until May 1863. It would be at this strategic port on the Mississippi River that the men of the Fifth Illinois Cavalry would learn and practice the concept of total war: one waged against both the Confederate army and civilians who supported the Southern cause. Their time at Helena would also foster a new respect for slaves and freedmen, and where the men would learn the value of quality leadership.

The Federal army's attitude toward Southern property owners soon reflected those held by the Fifth Illinois. The passage by Congress of the second Confiscation Act on 17 July 1862, aided the Federal army in acquiring resources from civilians. Congress legalized the seizure and confiscation of property, including cotton and slaves, of any person or persons in rebellion against the United States. …

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