Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

General John Corson Smith and the Early Days of the Fighting Ninety-Sixth Illinois Infantry

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

General John Corson Smith and the Early Days of the Fighting Ninety-Sixth Illinois Infantry

Article excerpt

EVERY SO OFTEN HISTORIANS STUMBLE UPON previously un published Civil War documents, manuscripts, letters or diaries that shed a previously unknown and personal light on the men and units that fought on both sides. Recently, the wartime diary of Brevet Brigadier General John Corson Smith of Galena, along with five private letters written to his wife, surfaced.1 These sources vividly portray the assembling of Company I of the Ninety-Sixth Illinois Infantry, the early tribulations and political red tape associated with company organization, and the personal emotions of those farm boys principally from small towns like Scales Mound, Apple River, Warren and Elizabeth in Jo Daviess County and Wauconda and Waukegan in Lake County, Illinois that left behind their farms and families and marched to the sound of the cannon. Company I, initially attached to the Second Brigade, Third Division, Army of Kentucky, Department of the Ohio, became John Smiths extended family for the next three years.

John Corson Smith was born on February 13, 1832 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and, at the age of 22, moved to Galena. A builder before the war, he married Charlotte Augusta Gallaher on March 24,1856 and fathered four children, three sons and a daughter.2 Charlotte was affectionately known as the "Mother of the 96th" and Smiths diary reflects the substantial amount of time Charlotte spent in camp during the early days of the war. This is one of several themes that permeate Smiths diary-the unusual presence of his wife, children, parents and sibling in camp and in towns near the camps of the Ninety-Sixth during their early months of service.

Diary entries for October 2,1862 saw Smiths "wife and children came down to Rockford this RM." On October 3, "wife and children came to camp to see me" and on October 5, wife and children in camp all day." These notations of the presence of Charlotte and his two oldest children, Robert and Samuel, then ages five and three, continue on through this period when the Ninety-Sixth Illinois Infantry was being formed, electing its officers (Smith was chosen major at the time of Company Is organization) and further continue through October 17, when the company received its marching orders. By October 18, Smiths parents had joined his wife and children: "My family remained overnight with me, father and mother came out so they could see me." On October 19 his family went "to town in the ambulance wagon," and then on October 27 Smith "remained overnight with my family in Cincinnati." His family stayed through Christmas, when on the evening of the twenty-fifth his "wife and children have to go home." Major Smith and the Ninety-Sixth were getting ready to march toward their first combat duties.

While by no means unique, John Corson Smith certainly spent the first five months of his Civil War service in the field in frequent company of his family, a quasi state of home familiarity that would certainly have been a luxury not accorded the vast majority of soldiers. Likewise, these family attentions were apparently accepted by the troops, for Charlotte gained their motherly affection and respect and the children enjoyed free reign running through the camp.

The following are the complete extracts from John Corson Smiths diary for the period August 2, 1862 to August 20, 1862 which detail the arrival of new troops, arranging the men in camp and cleaning up the campgrounds-perhaps tidying up to be more acceptable to Smiths family:

August 2, 1862. Private Charles Walsh has received his $60.00 bounty from Mr. Cambeleck. I shall retain his order.

August 3,1862. Galena. Raining at home all day

August 4,1862. Cloudy + cool feel unwell at home

August 5,1862. Have enlisted. I shall try and raise a company

August 6,1862. Warm + clear. Went to Scales Mound, Apple River and Warren. Squads of men at each place. Shall not unite with them.

August 7,1862. Clear + warm. 20 men came in from Elizabeth my company is now full. …

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