Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Colonel Mitchell's Wars: Confederates, Copperheads and Bushwackers

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Colonel Mitchell's Wars: Confederates, Copperheads and Bushwackers

Article excerpt

THE UNION VICTORY IN THE CIVIL WAR in part reflected the overwhelming resources of the North relative to the South. Southerners used this view to rationalize the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy. However, Union colonel Greenville M. Mitchell of Charleston, Illinois would scoff at this idea. His experiences were nearly the opposite. At home on leave in Charleston, he fought a deadly battle against Northern copperheads and barely escaped with his life. Mitchell was captured twice by Confederate forces that far outnumbered his own brave troops. On one occasion, the paroled colonel and his unarmed men had to march 140 miles north to Union lines through southeast Missouri fending off irate citizens, guerrillas, and mad dogs. Upon reaching Union lines, Mitchell sought reinforcements to burn an offending town, Doniphan, Missouri. Mitchell also experienced serious attacks of malaria, which caused lifelong heart problems. Eventually, he was promoted to brevet brigadier general. However, he always preferred the title of colonel because it was earned on the battlefield.

Greenville McNeel Mitchell (called Mac by his friends) was born on October 5,1835 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was the first of six children for Bedford Mitchell and Julia Maxwell Mitchell. In 1851, Mitchell moved to Paradise Township in Coles County, Illinois, a path north followed by many Kentuckians seeking a brighter future. Mitchell became a store clerk in Paradise. His father, Bedford, died in 1856, leaving young Mitchell responsible for his family's support. In 1858, he moved to nearby Mattoon to enter general merchandising in partnership with John Cunningham. Mattoon was a growing railroad crossroads that offered good prospects for merchandising success. The following year Mitchell moved to Charleston, ten miles east, to become deputy sheriff of Coles County, serving until May i860.1

In Charleston, Mitchell married seventeen-year old Kate Miles on May 1, i860. Over thirty-five years of marriage, they had seven surviving children. The Mitchells relocated briefly to Mattoon where he continued the merchandising business. They were well-established financially, holding property in i860 valued at about $5,000. The family returned to Charleston in 1861 when Mitchell joined the army. From his experiences to date, Mitchell was showing strong citizenship, personal savvy, ambition, management ability, and leadership. He could also be vocal and outspoken. His military records show a clear and forceful writing style, decisiveness, sound judgment, and confidence in communications.2

Following the Confederate attack of April 12, 1861 on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for additional federal troops and mobilization of state militia. It was a huge undertaking of men and material. In Illinois, the First Illinois Cavalry was commanded by Colonel Thomas Marshall of Charleston, who welcomed his nephew, Greenville Mitchell, as an elected captain and company commander. Mitchell was mustered at Alton on July 19,1861. The regiment spent a few days in St. Charles, Missouri drilling and acquiring arms and uniforms. The arms were mostly old pistols and rifles; lacking were cavalry carbines. The regiment moved west through Jefferson City to Mexico, Missouri, then to Haynesville, and eventually reaching Lexington, Missouri, about 200 miles west. At Georgetown, Mitchells company skirmished with a rebel force losing one man killed and four wounded. Mitchell sustained a minor wound, but continued west.3

At Lexington were 2,800 Union soldiers commanded by Colonel James A. Mulligan of the Twenty-Third Illinois Infantry; included were 700 from Colonel Marshalls First Cavalry. They were camped at a college, north of town and close to the Missouri River. A strong earthwork surrounded the main college building. (Also guarded by Union troops were about one million dollars of state funds and the Missouri state seal; both were recaptured by the State Guard.) Confederate General Sterling Price, commanding about 7,000 troops of the Missouri State Guard, arrived near Lexington on September 13, 1861. …

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