ROBERT INGERSOLL was born on August 11, 1833, in Dresden, N.Y., the youngest of five children. His mother was a remarkable person, strikingly beautiful, highly intelligent, with a keen sense of humor and the courage of her convictions. Unfortunately, she died when Robert was only two years of age, but loving memory and admiration for her persisted in the entire family. His father, a Congregational minister, was an honest and broad-minded man, opposed to slavery, who was never able to get adjusted to the superficiality and fluctuations of public opinion. As a result, he was unsuccessful in his vocation and had to move from parsonage to parsonage until he settled down with his family in Illinois. But the family remained devotedly united and as happy as their poverty and insecure conditions permitted.
Young Robert grew to be a man in whom cheerful optimism was combined with sympathy for people in trouble and passion for justice. These humane traits were further blended with a critical attitude toward all knowledge and belief. Apparently, his personality was appealing to most people, for, after he was admitted to the Illinois bar ( 1854), together with his brother Clark, his practice thrived. Yet he found enough time to read philosophical works of ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians, as well as of modern thinkers.
Faithful to his convictions, Ingersoll actively participated in the Civil War, fought valiantly, earned the rank of colonel, organized or helped to organize several cavalry regiments and headed one of them; but in one battle, overwhelmed by superior forces, he was captured.
Within two years, however, Ingersoll was back home, where he at once resumed the practice of law. Shortly afterwards he was chosen for the position of state Attorney-General ( 1867-1869). His practice and reputation continued to grow. In 1878 he moved his office to Washington, D.C., and subsequently ( 1885) to New York City. In I. N. Baker's opinion, Ingersoll was "one of the really great lawyers of the day."