Illinois and the Memory of the Civil War

By Girardi, Robert I. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Illinois and the Memory of the Civil War


Girardi, Robert I., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


When one thinks of the American Civil War, images of great battles and famous generals spring to mind. Battles at Shiloh, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Atlanta resonate in our imagination. One thinks of these great battles, heroic charges, sacrifice, suffering, and great deeds. As we were told many times in Ken Burns's epic 1991 PBS documentary series, The Civil War, the war was fought in ten-thousand places. Illinois was not one of those places, there are no National Battlefield Parks here, but the state was actively and vitally a participant in every aspect of the conflict. How many of us turn our thoughts homeward when we think of these events of the 1860s? Small towns throughout the South still bear witness to the scars of the war, and towns both North and South have public reminders in their monuments and in their cemeteries. Today, as we begin to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the great American conflict, it is important to understand its relevance to us as it fades into the background of our collective memory. Political correctness and changing ideals of what it means to be an American are blurring our vision of the past. History and the ideals of America are not taught in our schools; instead of cultivating our national identity, we are dividing into ethnocentric splinter sub-segments of society. This is a disturbing development for many of us who regard our historical heritage and memory as treasures to be honored and studied. The past reaches out to us still; it is for us to grasp it and not let go, to learn from it, and preserve its memory for the future. Who we were, good or bad, is as important as who we are, and our understanding of that will shape who we become.

The Civil War was the Great American Conflict, defining the United States and ending both the strain of sectional conflict and the stain of human bondage in the "Land of the Free." On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. President Abraham Lincoln called for seventy-five-thousand volunteers to put down the rebellion. Illinois' response to this call was overwhelming, both at the beginning and throughout the war. The first call for sixthousand men, or six regiments, brought forth enough volunteers for ten regiments. Additional volunteers were turned away, prompting some of those not accepted to join units being raised in Missouri and Kentucky instead. By war's end, Illinois sent more men per capita into the army than any other state. With a population of 1,800,000 in 1860, Illinois sent 259,092 men into the ranks: 150 infantry regiments, seventeen cavalry regiments, two regiments of light artillery, and eight regiments of heavy artillery. Additionally, several specialized units were organized. Illinoisans served in the navy and many of Illinois' free Negroes served in the 29th United States Colored Troops (USCT). Illinois nearly always over-subscribed its enlistment quotas and the draft was relatively unused here, accounting for only 3,538 recruits. Illinois provided the Union with its president, Abraham Lincoln, and claims title to Ulysses S. Grant, who ultimately brought victory. In total, Illinois provided fifty-three brigadier generals, nine major generals, and one lieutenant general to the cause.

The war was fought for and by Illinois. The state was an important transportation and supply depot and was also a source of vital industry and manpower. Illinoisans fought in every major battle of the war. They served in unprecedented numbers. On the home front, women flocked to the labor force, managed farms, and organized sanitary fairs to raise money to aid the soldiers. Anti-war Copperhead sentiment was strong in some parts of the state, and Confederate plots were hatched to free the thousands of prisoners held in Chicago. As many as ten-thousand Confederate soldiers are buried in Illinois, soldiers who died while imprisoned in the four prisoner of war camps in the state. …

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