Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Backing the Boys in the Civil War: Chicago's Home Front Supports the Troops - and Grows in the Process

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Backing the Boys in the Civil War: Chicago's Home Front Supports the Troops - and Grows in the Process

Article excerpt

By the beginning of the Civil War, Illinois - and particularly the Chicagoland area - had almost everything needed to become an industrialized area. It had the population to provide the labor, both skilled and unskilled. It had access to the raw materials. It had the mail and the telegraph to communicate with its suppliers and customers. It had the railroads, canals, and shipping on the Great Lakes to get its products to markets.

In 1850 there were only ten incorporated cities in the State of Illinois. But the cities started to grow during the 1850s. Peoria became the second largest city in the state with a population in excess of 14,000 people. Alton and Quincy became important river ports in the decade when commerce still traveled on the rivers. Belleville only had 7,500 people; but it had what would prove to be a much more stable basis for its prosperity - six breweries. According to some experts of the mid-nineteenth century, Cairo, Illinois, was to become the largest city in the world. It sat, after all, at "the most important confluence of rivers in the world" where the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers meet. It was also at the southern terminus of what was to be the main western railroad, the Illinois Central. It was, therefore, expected to commercially dominate the Ohio, Wabash, Tennessee, and Cumberland Valleys as well as the great Northwest, and to become a connection between the northern and southern markets of the U.S. Obviously, this did not happen. Instead, Chicago grew rapidly, reaching a population of 110,000 by I860.1 What made Chicago the great city of Illinois - and what, indeed, made it possible for farmers and manufacturers to get their products to market was the I & M Canal and the coming of the railroads. The railroads also made it possible for Chicago to "back the boys," so we must look at their coming to Chicago.

Before the 1850s transportation was either over dirt and mud trails (or, if there were some entrepreneurs with sufficient capital, over planked toll roads), or by water. Thus, the western cities of the early nineteenth century grew up along the rivers of the West. St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans - it was these cities that the early enthusiasts for Cairo expected their city to eclipse. Then came the canals; in 1848, the Illinois & Michigan Canal was completed, tying together the Illinois Valley and the Great Lakes by water. Water transportation, while relatively efficient, could only go where there were either rivers or sufficient capital to build canals. Neither rivers nor canals were of much use during northern winters. But the railroad could go anywhere year round.

The backbone of the railroads of Illinois was the Illinois Central. Senator Sydney Breeze, U.S. Senator from Illinois in the 1840s, was an early champion of the proposed Illinois Central, seeking federal assistance for its construction. When he was joined in the Senate by Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois Central gained a politically astute and effective champion. Douglas made a deal to give similar federal assistance to Alabama and Mississippi; suddenly, southern opposition to the federal government assisting railroad construction subsided, and the "Chicago and Mobile Railroad" Act became law on September 20, 1850. The essential character of the federal assistance was that the Illinois Central was to be a land grant railroad. That is, the federal government, which still owned much of the land in Illinois, would grant the land to the State of Illinois, which would turn it over to the Illinois Central. The building of the railroad would be financed from the sale of the land. In return, according to Section 4 of the Act, the "...railroad and branches shall be and remain a public highway for the use of the government of the United States free from toll or other charge upon the transportation of any property or troops of the United States." Though no doubt being believers in limited government,2 the builders of the Illinois Central were happy to accept this federal largess. …

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