An in-progress paper that probably won't get finished. If anyone would be interested in publishing a final version of this project, please let me know and I'll get back to work. Tracks the lives of two brothers from Cheney's (or Heney's) Grove, Illinois who volunteered for the Civil War.
Eventually one ended up in the 37th Regiment Illinois Infantry Volunteers while the other served in the 4th Illinois Calvary. The letters of Robert and James provide a window into the lives of two men whose commonalities were rent asunder after they left home to follow the drums of war. Robert, born on July 8, 1842, was unmarried; and Wrote to his mother and father, on whose farm he lived and worked before the war. James, born on January 2, 1840, and married in January 1861, was expecting a child with his new bride, Charlotte; all of his letters in the Collection are addressed to her. By examining letters that the brothers wrote during the early months of the war, it is possible to come to some understanding about why these brothers went to war, and the ways in which they adapted to army life. The letters used in this research are part of a collection entitled Papers of the Thompson Family, 1834-1864, which is housed at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections branch in Tucson, Arizona. The bulk of the collection are letters written during the Civil War by the older brother, James. All of These letters are addressed his wife, Charlotte, who lived in Cheney's Grove, Illinois. All correspondence from the younger brother, Robert, is addressed to his parents of the same location. The author's research indicates that these letters have not been published, in any form, hitherto.
A Horse to Live and a Greyhound to Die
Early Civil War Experiences of Robert and James Thompson
BRUCE MAKOTO ARNOLD
Bruce Makoto Arnold: firstname.lastname@example.org
BEFORE NOON on September 3, 1861, residents of Bloomington, Illinois, paused and turned when they heard the distant sounds of a martial band's rousing melodies approaching from the east. When the sonant wagon finally came into view so did its trailing procession of carriages, which had started out from the small village of Say-Brook, some thirty miles distant. Nearly the entire community had made the dusty trek to show its support and to bid farewell to thirty one of its men. The band played on as family members and friends paraded through the middle of town, stopping only when they reached the train station. There, the men boarded cars bound for Chicago, and the war.1 among those departing was nineteen-year-old Robert Thompson, a farm boy whose home was in the lush wooded area surrounding Say-brook known as Cheney's [sic.] Grove. He was not the only member of the family to answer Lincoln's summer 1861 call for volunteers; his older brother, James, enlisted in an Illinois cavalry regiment just days later. The letters of Robert and James provide a window into the lives of two men whose commonalities were rent asunder after they left home to follow the drums of war. Robert, born on July 8, 1842, was unmarried and wrote to his mother and father, on whose farm he lived and worked before the war. James, born on January 2, 1840, and married in January 1861, was expecting a child with his new bride, Charlotte all of his letters in the collection are addressed to her. By examining letters that the brothers wrote during the early months of the war, it is possible to come to some understanding about why these brothers went to war and the ways in which they adapted to army life. Other questions that can be answered are: why did they fight? How did their families at home affect their willingness to go into battle? What were their concerns, fears, and hopes? Were they typical or atypical soldiers? Also, since these was just getting started? 2
Robert, the brother with arguably fewer concerns and worries at home, wrote letters that were almost entirely anecdotal. His missives usually detail the events that he experienced since the letter he wrote previously. Robert would generally write about camp life or life on the march. Little space was devoted to inquiries about family members back in the grove or to ask them for further or greater amounts of communication. Although James' letters generally adhered to a pattern the number of sections contained within each are greater. There is usually one section in which James thanks his wife for a letter that she wrote, entreats her to write more letters, or both. Other sections usually include: anecdotal information, especially descriptions of the many battles in which he participated; inquiries about family members; speculations on current rumors or the remaining strength of the Rebel forces and when the war will end (he usually concludes it is within months); queries about the crops on the farm; musings about their son, who is born in January, 1862; suggestions on how resolve the numerous personality clashes Charlotte had with his family members; and, occasional
Commentary on current political developments. Because of these different patterns, and the great disparity in the total numbers of letters from each brother, the examination of their experiences lend themselves to dissimilar styles as well.3 Robert's letters, so few in number, lend themselves to a chronological examination. James' letters, on the other hand, are too numerous to try to examine chronologically-this set, therefore, lends itself to a topical examination.
The Thompson brothers along with their five siblings were the sons of a Pennsylvania
Woman and an English immigrant father who, after marrying, settled on a farm near Akron, Ohio. There the brothers were born and later attended school. Although there is no direct reference to any influence their mother may have had on their views toward the issue of slavery, she may have affected their thoughts since she was the daughter of a slave owner who had liberated his slaves of his own free will sometime before the war.4 In the spring of 1857, James, accompanied by his brothers, came to Tazewell County, Illinois, and returned to Summit County, Ohio the winter of that same year.5 The next spring they came back to Illinois ahead of their parents who followed in the fall and settled on Section 27 of Cheney's Grove Township on what was then a tract of land known as the Robert Cunningham Farm.6 The grove was known for the "generous shelter" that its "islands of shade and their accompanying cool streams gave," which would have attracted a farming family such as the Thompsons.7
But even the grove's trees could not shade its residents from the winds of war that blew
Across the country after the Union defeat at Bull Run. It was then that a Chicago-based
customs collector named Julius White telegraphed Washington with a request to the secretary of war that he be allowed to raise an Illinois volunteer regiment.8 The offer was quickly accepted, and in August 1861 advertisements began to appear in state newspapers calling on state residents to join the newly-created 37th Regiment Illinois Infantry Volunteers, which would be known as the Fremont Rifles in honor of its commanding officer, Major General John C. Fremont.9 The newspaper advertisements promised, among other things, monthly pay in gold ($11 a month for privates), arms of the "best Minnie rifles," "good" U.S. uniforms and rations, a gift of $100 in gold at the end of enlistment, and a promise that "the undersigned can pledge all who join the company that their rights as volunteers will be respected and looked after, and parents can feel safe that the physical and moral safety of their sons will be looked after."10 Although the bulk of the advertisements were placed in northern Illinois, the word reached Say-brook and its men volunteered their services to a company in Chicago that was waiting to fill its quota.11
Originally, companies joining the 37th were housed in an old Chicago customs house, but as the regiment filled it was relocated to Camp Webb.12 Covering some eighty acres of Northside land called Wrights Grove, the camp was connected to the city by horse cars which ran into the city every thirty minutes.13 But on Wednesday, August 28, 1861, themen from Say-brook forwent the slick city transportation and marchedthe three miles to camp where they were issued only eating utensilsand a wedge tent.14 The company that these men had formed eventuallybecame Company G, the Cook County Turner Rifles.
Answering Lincoln'scall to duty after the Union defeat at Bull Run and imbued withmotivating rage militaries, Robert's first trip away from home was anadventuresome hunt to see the great "elephant."15 Free of hispastoral bonds, he reveled in the sights and sounds of his newenvironment. He ventured into the Second City the next day, and atefree at the "best house in town;" and after sightseeing, took thestreetcar back to camp.16 The novelty of Camp Webb was just asunfamiliar and alluring, so the next day he chose to stay with hisfriend to observe the ever-growing number of recruits.17 On August 30the company elected their officers and sergeants, and Robert wasvoted in as third sergeant.18
Robert was quick totake notice of the sharp officers, including his new captainHenry
N. Frisbie whoquickly earned Robert's trust and whom he declared to be the"finest in camp."19 In fact, most of the officers received highmarks, especially acting Colonel White, to whom most of the menattributed their good fortune. One soldier wrote that White was"untiring in his efforts and labored to make us not only goodsoldiers but also comfortable in all he could."20 And later, he wouldshow tacit approval for his commander when he wrote: "the man theycalled Tiger Black in western Virginia is our Major he was in fourengagements while he was there"21 There is a good chance thatRobert's ability to quickly trust the regiment's officers drove hisdesire to continue on with the company, even after he had become verysick.22
Robert's lettersfrom Camp Webb indicate that he had few misgivings about militarylife but also revealed that he was also keenly aware of the problemsthat could accompany it. Although his letters do not specificallymention any dread over departure from civilian life, another newinductee into the 37th may have felt as Robert did when he wrote "soended our...initiation in army service and with the best of spiritswe bid farewell, for a time indefinite, to comforts previouslyenjoyed."23 There were signs early on that Robert understood just howserious camp illnesses could be when he wrote to his parents that"there is no sick persons in camp some of the boys (in among therest) had the diarrhea pretty bad but I carried myself discreetly GeoSmith and Geo Day was sick enough to have the doctor but they havegot well."24 If there was a common complaint amongst the Rifle's newrecruits, it was their drill schedule. Indeed, drilling had takenmany of the men out of their normal routine. One member of the 37thof Company K complained bitterly to his mother and beseeched her tointervene, writing: "I would have not joined Captain Black's companyif I had thought that he was going to make me work as hard as I haveto. I want you to write him at once and tell him that I am not usedto getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning, and that I want betterthings to eat and that I often have to stay up at night walkingaround with my gun and there is not any sense to it."25 Again,Robert's enthusiasm probably helped him keep his spirits up, becausehe wrote less about the drilling and did not express the distaste forit that most recruits developed it, mentioning only that he would"drill from 5 AM till seven from ten to twelve from 2 PM till fivehave to run like sixty some times."26
By the second dayof September, the regiment contained about 850 men and began toprepare for active duty. Officers were elected, including White whowas chosen to be its colonel.27 Although most of the new officersclearly lacked military experience, it was noted that they all had agreat amount of zeal for the coming fight.28 On 18 September, 1861,the regiment was officially mustered into service and the next day itmarched in platoons through the city and drilled in front of theBoard of Trade Building, after which they were treated to speeches byprominent citizens. Following that the regiment received its colorsand national flag from members of the Board of Trade.29 Its nationalflag displayed "37th Illinois" in letters of gold on one of the whitestripes, while its banner bore a portrait of Fremont on one side, andan image of the general scaling the Rocky Mountains on theother.30
The pomp andceremony quickly gave way to the start of the hunt as the regimentproceeded immediately to the Illinois Central Railroad Depot and wasloaded into the passenger cars of an Alton and St. Louis R.R. trainbound for St. Louis. Many lined the route to give their support tothe troops with "manifestations of patriotism by supplying us withall they had." The train rode through the next day and into theevening and when it finally came to East St. Louis where the menboarded the steamer Belle of Memphis on which they remained for thenight. In the morning, the steamer crossed the river and debarked theregiment, which then marched through enthusiastic crowds to Fremont'sheadquarters. Fremont praised the regiment for its "soldieryappearance" and, at the conclusion of the inspection, his wife Jessietied red, white, and blue ribbons to the lance of the regimentalflag.31
Although theregiment's orders had been to advance to Jefferson City, Fremontimmediately countermanded and ordered the men to go to BentonBarracks so that they could go into service with him as quickly aspossible. Built on several hundred acres of land in St. Louis, BentonBarracks was designed as a staging area for 30,000 new troops. Thebarracks' plain, whitewashed, single-story, dirt-floored structuresprovided the men with comfortable quarters, and, when combined withabundant food and drink helped keep up the men's morale. Even twodays of drilling under the stern discipline of Brigadier GeneralSamuel R. Curtis, the camp commander, did little to dampen thefighting spirit of the men.32 Robert, too, was comfortable and ingood spirits, writing to his parents: "I am well at present and hopeyou are enjoying the same blessings." He was certainly proud about aninspection tour at camp, and wrote that Fremont had said that they"were the best regiment that has come from[Illinois]."33
For all of thecomforts of the barracks, St. Louis itself was still a hotbed ofdissent, replete with Confederate sympathizers-it was there thatDeath began to stalk Robert and the rest of the Pathfinder's men. Inone particularly close brush, Robert described a scene where "therewas a man in the grounds yesterday selling pies one of the soldiersbought one and eat it and in ten minutes he was dead one of thesoldiers went up to the man and asked him if he sold him the pie hesaid yes and asked him if he did not want one at that the oldierbayoneted him and killed him instantly the darned secessionist wastrying to kill as many as he could with his poisonedpies."34
Robert's first andfinal trip into the landscape of war began on September 26 when theregiment, bound first for Jefferson City, left the barracks andboarded three river steamboats: the William L. Ewing, the Northerner[sic], and the Sam Gaty.35 The trip up the river wasdescribed by one soldier as "tedious," but a member of the 9thMissouri Infantry traveling with them noted that the fighting spiritof the men was still high and that the trip "bore more resemblance toa gala day with a militia regiment out on picnic than it did to thefirst advance of an invading army seeking the unknown woes of war."36The 37th was only in Jefferson City for a few days and from there, the regiment was ordered to Booneville and from there they continued upriver and went into camp on October 2.37
As if fate had scripted Robert's life in moribund ironic prose, the regiment spent a few days in what was nearly universally remembered as one of the most splendid places that the
Illinoisans had ever seen. Although the area's residents were sympathetic to the Southern cause, they remained pacific, even while the regiment foraged liberally from the surrounding countryside.38 One soldier remembered the area around Boonville as "one of the most pleasant features" of their march because "scouting in small parties gave...both milk and honey and other things."39 Another man wrote: "we got a knapsack of percimums in abundance all along the road and more apples than a horse could carry... I never saw a prettier country in my life.
More greenery and more novelty than ever I heard tell of almost..."40 Robert agreed with his comrades, and reported to his parents: "this is as pretty a country as I ever saw there is thousands of bushels of peaches and apples going to waste here there is orchards here from twenty five to two hundred acres [?] fruits we want and the vineyards are plenty steal plenty of sweet and fresh Irish potatoes and cabbage but if the officers catch us at it they put us in the guard house but I aint been there yet."41
It was not fruits of the verdant countryside that proved to be sinister, it was the serpent of inexperience and hurried introduction to the rigors of the march that was the deadly menace. Ever-increasing numbers of men were reporting persistent coughs and high rates of sickness began to reflect the increasingly poor condition of the Illinoisans.42 Private Andrew Besinger of Company C, a husband and father of five, died on October 11 of "Summer Complaint," and two days later, dysentery claimed the life of Sergeant Tom Newell of
Company E.43 Death's scything became unrelenting, and by the middle of the month the high rates of sickness became alarming enough that William P. Black of Company K began to openly question the abilities of the regimental surgeon, Dr. Luther F. Humeston. Black indicated in a letter to his mother that the men had become sick, and that Humeston was mostly to blame.44
In another letter to his father dated October 25, Black continued his implications, writing that the regiment's "men lay sick by hundreds, chiefly confined at the start by diarrhea and chills then through criminal neglect...they grow worse and worse" but that "many would rather lay down and die than call in the Surgeon."45 To the doctor's credit, men were often quick to blame their medical staff for their troubles and Black had become ill himself, but Black became so convinced of the doctor's inefficacy, that he actively lobbied for the surgeon's removal from the regiment.46 Whether the doctor contributed more than anything else to Robert's final demise is difficult to ascertain, since he held his post for the next three years.47
On October 14, the men of the regiment (less Companies C and H) broke camp and went on their first long, in-country march. On their two-day journey to Otterville, some thirty-five miles away, the men began to weaken as they were overloaded with equipment and suffering from their lack of training.48 Somewhere along the way, Robert began to succumb to the same harsh environment and stresses that were already claiming many of the men. On October 23, Robert wrote to his parents about his progressively worsening condition.
I received your letter the other day I have been sick for the last week so that I could hardly be up I am still unable to be up and around much yet Fred Snyder was lying sick beside me with the agine and something else but he broke out with the measles so that I am bound to have the measles to so I can see a little more sickness the doctors gives quinine for all kinds of sickness I suppose I could go home buy I hate to bring the measles in the family so that I will take my change here Peter is a good fellow to take care of a man that is sick if it had not been for her I would have had a hard time of it up in the night with me I feel very grateful to him for it and the worst of it is it for three days from morning to night and at the end of three days there was a good many men pretty well give out this soldiering is pretty hard business to follow especially when a person is not well they make you go it till your sick enough to go to a doctor then he asks you if you're sick you tell him yes asks to look at your tongue looks at it grunts then writes a prescription hands it to his assistant that is all the examination that you get then you are sure to get quinine and a little rhubarb there is about forty served that way every morning drove up like sheep by the order of each company I was very sorry to hear that mother has been unwell I hope that she has got to be well again it would be a pleasure for me to hear that you are all well Robert's letter dated October 29, further reveals his understanding of the dire situation that the sick soldiers were in. Until then, most letters revealed little about his personal motivations for going to war. In this missive, Robert, still placing value on his eagerness, reveals the only small insight into his motivations for fighting when he wrote: "our officers say we are going to help to take price or whip him that's something we all want to do for the boys think it is about time we was a doing something for our country and we will get it to do now sure enough."49
It was becoming apparent, however, that his eagerness was no match for his malady and the ever colder mornings, which were relentlessly sapping his strength: "it is getting pretty cold in the morning now it takes a fellow about an hour or two after sun up to thaw out so it is not very comfortable unless we have a fire in the tent I have got so that I can get around some now pretty handy but am weak yet can't go very far at a time then will have to take me in there wagons if they want me to go and I guess they will let me ride before they let me staybehind."50
The regiment, under the command of General John Pope, left Otterville on October 29, heading towards Bolivar.51 While marching by Humansville on November 3, Colonel
White received an order to proceed quickly to Springfield, because it was rumored that Confederate General Sterling Price was waiting to overwhelm Pope's advance columns as they marched on the city. White immediately detailed one company to guard the supply train and then called on volunteers to determine who would be fit for a forced march. Captain Henry N. Frisbie wrote to Robert's parents about the morning when he solicited the company that evening for volunteers: "Your son was a fine brave boy and no one regrets his loss more than unable to go and gave orders to leave him behind he cried like a child and beg promising to go he 'could walk as well as any one... By in the morning when the team started he was so sick myself." And although Robert was "one of the first to volunteer, and when I saw that he was that he could not ride and necessarily had to be left behind."52 It was the first forced march to which the men were subjected. They reached Springfield on the evening of November 5 and covered the last fifty miles in thirty-six hours-only about a day behind an advance column that had started a week prior. Because of that, the regiment became known as the Illinois
Robert, however, did not share in the glory of the march. Sometime after he was left behind, he was taken into the Humansville home of Isabela S. Goodsoon, who, along with her husband, son, and a black servant, cared for him. By then, he was "only rational at times in the mornings" and although he had accepted his fate, "he wanted to get well and go Home and see Mother." On the evening of December 6, 1861, Robert breathed his last. Isabela's letter to the Thompsons contains a concise, but elegant eulogy: "he has left a world of Trouble and gone home to Heaven the way worn Soldiers know nothing [sic.] But Toil and suffer until they fall by the way side."54
On the day that Robert died, men the Fourth Illinois Cavalry were traveling by train downstate on the last leg of their journey to Cairo, which was one of the most strategic cities in the Midwest.55 The unit was conceived by Ottawa judge Thaddeus Lyle Dickey, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln.56 Immediately after his proposal was accepted, Dickey wrote to his son-in-law, William McCullough about his plans to raise a cavalry regiment. McCullough, who had served as the sheriff of McLean County, was such a prominent resident of
Bloomington that it was hoped that with even with one arm missing, area men would follow him into battle. On August 21, 1861, that letter appeared in the Weekly Pantograph as a call to arms: "The War Department authorized me to raise, organize, and command a regiment of cavalry for three years or the war. I hereby tender to you the position of Major. I desire that you immediately take measures to organize five or size companies."57 Most of the men who joined Dickey began arriving at Camp Hunter, Ottawa, Illinois, in the first weeks of September 1861.
For James and the rest of the cavalry regiment, military life began slowly due to insufficient provisioning. Horses began to arrive immediately, but in fewer numbers than required. The camp was considered "a very pleasant place, on the south bank of the Illinois River... three miles below Ottawa" that had once been an Indian encampment.58 Because of this, James, and the other recruits had time to enjoy their duties as well as the nature surrounding their camp. On the 18th, James announced that he had been "chief cook and bottle washer for some time." Impromptu fishing excursions with comrades to the nearby Illinois River provided both entertainment and bragging rights, as James reported out in his
letter of September 18: ...walking down by the river yesterday and we saw some fellows fishing and we went down where they was and there was a fish pole and line hanging there and I picked it up and baited the hook with a grasshopper and threw it out into the river and set down not expecting to catch any fish for they had not cached any but I soon hauled one out and threw out and I hauled in a fish that would weigh about three pounds but he fell off before I could get him out and hauled at another fish and the others never cached one and they would throw their hooks just as close to mine as they could but they did not catch any I am a going to try it again today and I believe that I can catch some worth while
James, unlike Robert, only briefly commented on his satisfaction with the officers. Most of his excitement was directed toward the company's horses and accompanying accoutrement. This may have been due a combination of his ability, as a farmer, to discern that he would receive quality equipment, and the fact that supplies trickled in to the regiment at a very slow pace, so he had longer to consider and appreciate his situation. In his September 15th letter home, although he was sure that he would "be out of the [war] business by spring,"
James was happy to let Charlotte know that his equipment began to arrive, writing: "we got part of our uniforms today [(]that is one suit of them[)] I got me a new saddle to bit my horse I am well pleased with him"59 On the 27th, the elusive equine continued to stay just beyond James' grasp as he wrote: "we have to draw our horses today or tomorrow the first of the week and we will get our Uniforms next week." By the beginning of October, the process continued to labor on: our Captain drawled for the horsed this morning to see what color we would have for our company he drawled blacks horses the best set of horses on the ground and now we have to draw to see which horse we get to ride and I want to get a good one and that is all I care about60
Procurement had become so tedious that many of the men, James included, were allowed to go home on one week furloughs, which he took advantage of during the second week of October. Two days after James returned to Ottawa on the 16th, he finally had the opportunity to write: "we drawled our horses to day and I got the very horse that I wanted the one that I was telling about when I was at home with you." That day, too, he also received the other half of his uniform allotment and mailed his civilian clothes home. After inspect his new mount, he wrote of his approval and stated that he had "the best horse in the business."61
Historian James McPherson stated that mail call was the "brightest part of a soldier's day," and another said that of all the events in a day, it "would produce the most enthusiastic response."62 However, the same event could, in fact, be the greatest letdown of the day if no mail was received. Almost immediately after arriving at Camp Hunter, James fell into this noted pattern. In his first letter from camp, dated September 8th, he wrote his wife: "I want you to write to me as soon as possible and write me all the news." Having not received a letter for the next seven days, he entreated her mildly, writing: I would like to get a letter from you every week and I wish you would write one letter every week if possible and let me know how you are getting along for that is all my thoughts it has not been very long since I saw you but it seems a year almost just to be sure, he ended the letter with a final instruction to "write once a week any how if [possible]."63 James relief is evident on the next letter that he wrote on the 18th, a day after Charlotte's first letter arrived:
I received your letter last night and was so happy I never felt so well over receiving a letter before for I was impatient I could scarcely wait for it any longer." And on the 25th, his spirits were again lifted: [after getting in after 2 AM the night before] I feel some sleepy to day but it did not keep me from reading your letter last night for I had a candle light as soon as I got home and read the whole of it and never felt the least bit tired nor you cannot write enough letters to make me tired of reading them if I should read them over half a dozen times a day do you think you could.
This pattern of longing, imploring, and relief repeated itself throughout James' tenure in the cavalry. McPherson also noted in his book, For Cause and Comrades that married men often had difficulties balancing their sense or honor and duty with the responsibilities as husbands to those to whom they "had made a sacred pledge to cherish and support."64 It is evident from his first letter that James was affected by this dilemma. On September 8, James wrote about the displays of care for his wife, even while he was en-route to Ottawa:
I got my likeness taken in Bloomington and sent it out with Semple, did you get it and a dress for you did you get that and there was one thing that I forgot and that was that head dress and how did you like that dress I thought that it was pretty good but I am sorry that I forgot that head dress but I will get it as soon as possible...65
James' ability to provide monetarily for his pregnant wife was an immediate worry. Pay in the
Union army was commonly tardy, and it is apparent that James was trying to ensure that Charlotte would be able to draw upon his salary as easily as possible:66...you will according to law draw eleven dollars per month and I am a going to see the Major about it and have it fixed so that you can draw it for you have as much right to have it as any other man's wife has they saw we will draw our wages every two months and if we do I can send home some of my wages to my Dear little Lottie and you know how dear you are to me...67
Although disbursement problems continued for James during the early part of the war, it is clear that his debts still lingered on throughout much of the conflict. On January 1, 1862,
James mentioned that he considered a new way to remunerate, writing: "if I get into a Secesh town I am going to steal enough to pay them off and have enough left to get tight on when I get home." However, James' attentions to his husbandly duties were almost expressed in his attempts to comfort and guide his wife through numerous personality conflicts she had with his siblings, parents, and possibly business associates. James' wrote succinctly on December 11, 1861:...and another thing troubles me is my dear wide and parents brothers and sisters at home if I only knew that you was getting along at home as well as I am getting along here I would feel a great deal easier in mind...68In another example, James expressed further concern: I am uneasy all the time about you but you must not mind what they do to try to put you out for if they try to do that they will fail for father never work an under handed game but you must go right straight along and never mind them but if nothing happens I shall be at home the last of this week or the first of the next then I can get home without cost and I shall be there as shoure as shooting if I can and I am pretty certain I can and when I do get there I shall try to straighten things around so that you will live more peaceable...69
Eventually, the regiment began move southward, into the war. Although the unit was officially mustered into service on September 26, 1861, it did not leave the comfortable Camp Hunter until 4, when it began the march southward to Cairo, Illinois, where it finally arrived on the evening of December 6. Camp Cairo was a camp of extremes for James, in both the physical and emotional sense. In terms of the former, the camp sat on a "low, marshy, boot-shaped site," which was situated on a small peninsula at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.70 Observers noted that the area was constantly overgrown with weeds and "the smell of slop in the streets was nauseating." One Ohioan was so disgusted by the area that he wrote, "When the world was made, the refuse materials were up at the junction of the Ohio and the Mississippi and the composite is Cairo. It is, in face, nature's excrementitiously deposit." 71 It is here that many in the regiment became sick after working to clear the area on the 9th. James' emotional challenges came to him in several forms. First, he read a letter that was sent to a friend claiming that James had died.
December 11th, 1861 I have some news to write but they are bad Thomas Myers got a letter from Fred Snyder this morning and it stated that Robert was dead he said that he died the next day after they started I expect that he was one of the three that Father head about...72 Here, James, expresses his feelings of brotherly familiarity and love for Robert as he attempted. This was the first person other than Charlotte, for whom he expressed such emotions. Once again, we see James try to bridge the emotional and physical divides between him and his loved ones. He continued: I only wish that he had been with me and with a Cavalry Regiment for they fatigue I have lived in hope that we would hear of him well and hearty it seems almost impossible for me to believe it to be so about Robert but you must be a good girl and do tell mother for me that it would most likely have been the
same if he had been at home but she would have had the satisfaction of knowing that he was well taken care of... he died a soldiers death and I hope a happy death for he was never a bad boy for anything that he did he would repent of if it was anything wrong he always was a little quick but never meant wrong I cannot believe that he is deal until I see or hear from a good and straight source if it is actually so we must look at it as something that cannot be helped although it seems hard they was all taken right off down into the middle of Missouri and they was not used to the climate at all and it was warm and right in the sickly season they Infantry Soldiers that are here at Cairo look sickly to what our boys do all of the men in this Regiment look hearty and robust and I feel so myself I never felt better in body and healthier than I do now buy my mind is troubled considerable about Robert I have been with him so much and spent many a happy day a running around with him...
However, shortly after writing that letter, James received a letter from his wife stating that Robert was, indeed, alive. December 12th, 1861, I just received your letter and read it through and I feel like new man for the letter that Thomas Myers got from Fred Snyder made me feel very bad but I am a happy man now to what I was his letter was dated the 4th of this month and I guess they got the report according to his letter they thought that he was or had been dead for some time and I don't expect they know anything about it or him
buy any how I feel like a new man how I felt when and ever since I got the first word about his being sick I will send both letters in one envelope and you will see the difference in the letters...
Robert died on the evening of the 6th, but because of the methods of communication during that era, the first letter James received was most likely one in which Fred Snyder has misinterpreted James' inability to proceed on the forced march as a sign of his death. This was probably a fair mistake since Robert probably appeared to be very close to the end that evening.
Another emotional jolt came with of the announcement that his baby boy had been born on January 14, 1862. Although word probably came to him by telegraph, a family friend made the trek south to tell of the good news in person. Of that even, James wrote: Mr. Myers came in and we was all surprised of course and all glad to see him but he came in to the tent and slapped me on the back and called me pop Thompson and they boys had considerable fun over it but I did not care for I was thinking of you and home 73
Word of his wife's postpartum recovery further raised James' excitement: I was glad to hear from you and was glad to hear what I always dreaded to hear that you had come safe through your troubles and you say it is a boy my dear wife as well as I am pleased I cannot help blaming myself for your misery...I hope it won't be any longer for my own dear wife is at home waiting for me and I want to put a stop to her suspense and see our little boy...you wanted me to give him our boy a name I guess if you will have my name for one of them and want me to give him another we will gave to name him after Harry J Thompson will that suit you if it don't you will have to tell me...74
The confirmation of Robert's death came in a letter from Charlotte on May 26, 1862. James' response is one of the first to call on God by name, which indicates that he may have been using the shield of his faith to accept that Robert was gone, and that he, too, was in the hands of Providence.75 He wrote:
I received [your letter] this morning that brought the sad tidings of Robert's death it seems to be as though it cannot be so but I suppose it is a sad reality Gods will be done not ours he is free from all trouble in this world and he was always light-hearted and free and a good boy as hard as it is to lose him we cannot help it's what god has done... everything is for the best I suppose I have always hoped since I heard he was sick that I would find him at home when I got there but I supposes there is no room for hope now but I hope we shall all meet someday to part no more...
His earlier letters indicated that he believed Robert to be in trouble from both a weak body and being in an infantry regiment. That, and the fact that he witnessed the horrors of war all around him, also helped him through this sad piece of news. While on patrol from camp Cairo, Illinois, James came into contact with his first contraband of the war, and opportunity that did not avail itself to Robert. Although James never explicitly states his opposition to slavery, this, and other examples in his letters, indicate that his concern was genuine and altruistic. On January 20th, he wrote from Camp James, in Mound City, Illinois:
I have got something to tell you there was a darkey in here today that ran away from his master in Alabama and they had chased him with dogs but he got away some way or other and last Saturday he was coming along and he came across two men and they told him to stop and he was so afraid of being taken back that he started to turn and one of them struck at him with a club then the fellow struck him over the head and knocked him down but he got across the rover and came here his arm is hurt pretty bad but we dressed it the best we could I put a bandage on his arm and then we put some liniment on it and made it as comfortable as possible he has a wife and two children in Alabama he was sold
and taken away from them he has not seen them for four years that looks pretty hard don't you think it does...And later, from Camp Cairo two days later he wrote:...we have got the darkey working for us...he is contraband and we have him to take care of No 1 horses and he says he likes it first rate a great deal better than the plantation he has had two hundred lashes at once when he could not pick up two hundred pounds of cotton per day that seems pretty hard don't it I know you would say it was because you are so good to anything and everything...76 James was fairly quiet about the prospect of having to kill anyone. He occasionally wrote that he hoped the war would be over before he had to shoot anyone. However, it is apparent that James did, in fact, enjoy the thrill of the hunt, especially after he began to taste battle for the first time near Fort Donelson, in early February 1862. James wrote of one particularly memorable patrol:
February 9th, 1862
It is considerable fun to scout around through the country after the devils they are as scared as if they was agoung to be killed and the people through the through the country...when we was out the other day we rushed up to a house...the wimen and darkeys happened to be out and we got up before they had time to hide and they asked us if we was Northern troops and we told her we was and she said you won't destroy a widow woman's property will you we told her that we would neither destroy her property nor harm her in any way...and they all commenced then to thanking us and kept on as long as we could hear them for we started off when we found that they had no men folks about...
As he had done with Robert's regiment, Death, too, stalked the men of the Fourth Illinois as they rode farther into enemy territory. Unlike his unfortunate brother, however,
James' always managed to stay one step ahead. There are two early incidents in 1862 that he came perilously close to dying, but lived to write about it. The first episode took place when the regiment was marching in Tennessee from Moscow to Trenton:
August 31st, 1862
...I got slightly wounded not by lead nor steel but with iron a piece in the shape of a horse shoe we halted to rest and let the brain catch up I had my horse out to one side of the road and there sat down on the edge of the bank and he bucked up and his leg touched my back and he let fly and hit me on the back of the head he cut two holes in the skin with his heal corks if I had been two feet farther off he would have laid me out certain... James continued that this episodes was one of his "lucky" escapes, and finished the thought with: "you know it is better to be lucky than rich dont you think it is"
His next narrow escape happened, ironically, almost exactly a year after the war claimed his brother. At the battle of Coffeeville, James found himself in a night skirmish:
Ten Miles from Oxford [Mississippi]
December 8th, 1862
...we was ordered to go ahead and form our lines to check their flankers once we started the Colonel leading the Column and I was right behind him we run right against them they shot the Colonel three times and one of the Orderlies four times and made me dismount they had me prisoner but they kept on shooting and there was a mule run between me and them and they shot the mule I thought that I would run the risk of getting away I catched my horse by the bits and started off they shot my horse but there was another horse followed me out and I jumped onto him and got away without a scratch...
Whether it was luck or Providence, James completed his three year term and was mustered out of the service in October 1864. He lived to see his first son, who became Robert James Thompson, and five other children be born in Say-brook. He retired from farming in 1903, and moved with his youngest son to a new farm in Kansas. He died on May 23, 1912, and is interred in Grenola, Kansas.77
Robert's letters, save one, are devoid of any references to his brother. In what might have been a jab at his brother's new status as a married man, Robert wrote after his arrival in
Chicago that James "had better stay at home because the soldiers had to cook and drill a lot of the time."78 If this was, in fact, a jest, Robert's last communication with his brother may have brought a grin to James' face every time he thought of it.
The Thompson brothers were, in many ways, typical soldiers. Their letters indicate that once they joined the army, the commitment to their families and fellow townspeople were foremost on their minds. Robert felt the pained because he could not march off to glory with the other thirty men from his city-men who had wanted to fight so badly with each other that they joined a company far from their homes. James, too, held on to the things dear to him-his wife and his new born child. They joined out of a sense of obligation to the
Immediate community and their families. If anything, these letters help us understand that these types of men-not the great generals or sudden heroes of the war-were the true earthly spirit and driving force behind the armies' ability to fight. Even after losing a brother and continuing on as a father to a child he never saw, James "would never leave" unless he "left like a man."79 The war was decided by men, and these brothers were quintessential examples of men that their families, community, and descendants can be proud of. It is a fitting irony, then, that the last true farewell the brothers had was at the train station in Bloomington. The martial music became, for the Thompsons, what it had been for hundreds of thousands of men during those days of strife-the drums of a funeral march.
The author would like to acknowledge the staff at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections branch for granting him access to the original Thompson documents.
1. The Weekly Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), 4 September 1861.
2. The letters used in this research are part of a collection entitled Papers of the Thompson Family, 1834-1864, which is housed at the University of Arizona Library Special Collections branch in Tucson, Arizona. The bulk of the collection are letters written during the Civil War by the older brother, James. All of these letters are addressed his wife, Charlotte, who lived in Cheney's Grove, Illinois. All correspondence from the younger brother, Robert, is addressed to his parents of the same location. The author's research indicates that these letters have not been published, in any form, hitherto.
3. Whereas there are only six letters from Robert and two more written by others concerning his death. James' letters to his wife total well over one hundred.
4. Short Biography from Thompson Papers Collection
5. Although the actual reasons for the family's relocation from Ohio to Illinois were not known, there are several letters in the collection from Bowman's (the brothers' father) sister,
Jane Bland, that indicate Bowman was quite taken with the quality of land that he settled.
6. History of McLean County (Illinois. Chicago: W. Le Baron Jr. & Co., 1879), 906.
7. Ibid., 536.
8. Michael A. Mullins, the Fremont Rifles: A History of the 37th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry (Wilmington: Broad-foot Publishing Company, 1990), 1.
10. Rock Island Register, 7 August 1861.
11. For a brief overview of the history of the 37th Volunteer Illinois Infantry Regiment, see Frederick A. Dyer, Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, vol 2 (Dayton: Morningside, 1979), 1062. Also see Illinois Military and Naval Department, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, vol. 3 (Springfield: Phillips, 1901), 398-405.
12. The camp was named to honor of a captain who was the mustering officer then posted in Chicago. See Mullins, 5.
14. These alternate first-hand descriptions of life in the 37th Illinois, see Henry Ketzle, "Military History of the 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, but more particularly of Company A said Regiment, from its organization in July and August 1861 till its muster out of service the 15th of May 1866 at Houston, Texas. (4 yrs. 10 months.)," December 1998, <http://www.ketzle.com/diary/> (25 February 2003) and Thomas R. Brown, "A Compilation of Thomas Reeves Brown's Family Letters," n.d., <http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilcivilw/scrapbk/brownletters2.html> (10 March 2003).
15. James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1997), 16.
16. The establishment Robert ate at may have been the "Sherman House" or the "Richman House," which had both provided food to other companies of the 37th en route to Camp
Webb; Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 30 August 1861.
17. There were about 800 recruits in camp at this time. See Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 30 August 1861.
19. Although company officers were generally from the same communities as the men they presided over, this was not the case in this instance, since the Saybrook men had enrolled in a regiment from Cook County; the country that Frisbie had come from. See Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 30 August 1861.
20. See Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
21. This was John Charles Black; Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 9 September 1861.
22. See McPherson, 58-61 and passim.
23. Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
24. Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 9 September 1861.
25. Thomas R. Brown, letter to Mother, 28 August 1861.
26. The descriptions of the drill procedure is in Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 9 September 1861. Compare living conditions with Bell I. Wiley, The
Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), 54 and passim.
27. Mullins, 7.
28. Ibid., 8.
29. See Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
30. The Pathfinder was so famous that his handsome and rugged image even began to appear as letterhead, because his name and energy were considered primary assets in raising an army; see T. Harry Williams, Lincoln and His Generals (New York: Knopf, 1952), 32-33. Descriptions of the regimental flag and ceremony are given in Mullins, 9, and Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
31. Descriptions of travel to St. Louis and what transpired there can be found in Mullins, 10, and Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
32. Benton Barracks information is from Mullins, 10.
33. Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 22 September 1861.
35. Mullins, 12.
36. Ketzle, section entitled "1861;" Mullins, 13.
37. Mullins, 13-14.
38. Specifics are in Mullins, 15. For a recent look at the role of foraging in the Union army, see Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge and others: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 102-103 and passim.
39. Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
40. Thomas R. Brown, letter to Father and Mother, 15 October 1861.
41. Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 4 October 1861.
42. Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), 17.
43. Mullins, 15
44. Ibid., 16-17.
45. See Mullins, 17, and Hicken, 17.
46. Thomas R. Brown, letter to Father and Mother, 15 October 1861. For a brief look at officer's view toward surgeons, see Wiley, 131.
47. Mullins, 17.
48. Ketzle, section entitled "1861;" Mullins, 16.
49. Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 28 October 1861.
51. Mullins, 18.
52. Captain Henry N. Frisbie, letter to Bowman Thompson, 5 December 1861.
53. Ketzle, section entitled "1861."
54. Isabella S. Goodson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 5 March 1863.
55. For a brief overview of the Fourth Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, see Dryer, vol. 2, 1023-24. A more detailed history is available in Phineas O. Avery, History of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry Regiment (Humbolt, NE: Enterprise Press, 1903). Detailed articles of the importance of Cairo, Illinois, see James M. Merrill, "Cairo, Illinois: Strategic Civil War River Port," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 76 (1983): 243-258; and Alan Sewell, "Dissent: The Loyalty of Illinois," Civil War Times Illustrated 20, no. 8 (1981): 14-21.
56. Dickey was a lawyer, a personal acquaintance of Lincoln, and spoke in support of Stephen A. Douglas during the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. He also was responsible for raising of the First Illinois Cavalry regiment during the Mexican-American war. During the Civl War, he eventually became Grant's cavalry division commander and was stationed in Memphis. He was forced to withdraw from the war due to ill health (as he had in the Mexico war). See Wayne C. Townley, Two Judges of Ottawa (Carbondale: Egypt Book House, 1948).
57. The Weekly Pantograph (Bloomington, Illinois), 21 August 1861.
58. Thomas K. Mitchell, "Civil War Diary of Thomas K. Mitchell," n.d.,<http://4thillinoiscavalry.tripod.com/ThomasKMitchellDiary.html> (21 March 2003), under entry for 15 September 1861.
59. James Thompson, letter to Charlotte Thompson, 15 September 1861. In the Fourth Illinois Cavalry, companies were given a small selection of horses to begin their training.
Although most of the men had received their saddles and horses by the second week of October, many still did not have their horses by the end of that month.
60. Mitchell, entry for 1 October 1861, indicates that horses were drawn by the companies in lots by color. Mitchell notes that his company drew Sorrel horses.
61. James Thompson, letter to Charlotte Thompson, 20 October 1861.
62. See McPherson, 132-139, and Wiley, 189-90, 289-292, for detailed analysis of how mail was one of the largest, if not the largest, factor in morale.
63. James Thompson, letter to Charlotte Thompson, 15 September 1861.
64. McPherson, 134.
65. It is most likely that James proceeded from his farm to Bloomington where, after shopping, he took the northbound train line to Ottawa, Illinois.
66. For a brief discussion on the mechanics of Union pay, see Wiley, 48-49.
67. James Thompson, letter to Charlotte Thompson, 15 September 1861.
68. Ibid., 11 December 1861.
69. Ibid., 25 September 1861.
70. Merrill, 243.
71. Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 1 January 1862.
72. Captain Frisbie's letter to Bowman Thompson on 5 December 1861, indicated that Bowman Thompson had come looking for the regiment in St. Louis.
73. James Thompson, letter to Charlotte Thompson, 20 January 1862.
74. Ibid., 23 January 1862. This letter was initially dated 22 January 1862, but James corrected himself and re-dated the letter about a quarter of the way through.
75. See McPherson, 62-76, for an elegant discussion on the role of religion in Civil War soldiers' ability to cope with the death and destruction that surrounded them.
77. James Thompson short biography in the Thompson Collection.
78. Robert Thompson, letter to Bowman and Elizabeth Thompson, 30 August 1861.
79. James Thompson, letter to Charlotte Thompson, 31 August 1862.
Brown, Thomas R. "A Compilation of Thomas Reeves Brown's Family Letters." n.d. <http://www.rootsweb.com/~ilcivilw/scrapbk/brownletters2.html> (10 March 2003).
Ketzle, Henry. "Military History of the 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, but more particularly of Company A said Regiment, from its organization in July and August 1861 till its muster out of service the 15th of May 1866 at Houston, Texas. (4 yrs. 10 months.)."
December 1998. <http://www.ketzle.com/diary/> (25 February 2003) Mitchell, Thomas K. "Civil War Diary of Thomas K. Mitchell," n.d. <http://www.angelfire.com/ca3/4thillinoiscavalry/Diary.html> (21 March 2003). Thompson Family Papers, 1834-1864. Manuscript Collection of the University of Arizona Special
Collections, Tucson, Arizona.
Cincinnati Daily Commercial
The Rock Island Register
The Weekly Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois)
Adjutant General Records, Administrative Files. 37th Infantry, Record Group 301.18-Civil War Records, Project 47, Microfilm Rolls No. 28-30. Illinois State Archives,
Government Printing Office, 1894-1927. Springfield Illinois Military and Naval Department. Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois. 3 vols. Springfield, IL: Phillips, 1901. United States War Department. War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 70 vols. in 128 parts. Washington, D.C.:
Books and Articles
Avery, Phineas O. History of the Fourth Illinois Cavalry Regiment. Humbolt, NE: Enterprise Press, 1903. Dyer, Frederick. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. 3 Vols. Dayton: Morningside, 1979.
Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865. Cambridge and others: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
The History of McLean County, Illinois. Chicago: W. Le Baron Jr. & Co., 1879.
McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1997.
Merrill, James M. "Cairo, Illinois: Strategic Civil War River Port." Journal of the Illinois State
Historical Society 76 (1983): 243-258.
Mullins, Michael A. The Fremont Rifles: A History of the 37th Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry.
Wilmington: Broad-Foot Publishing Company, 1990.
Sewell, Alan. "Dissent: The Loyalty of Illinois," Civil War Times Illustrated 20, no. 8 (1981): 14-21.
Townley, Wayne C. Two Judges of Ottawa. Carbondale: Egypt Book House, 1948.
Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.
Williams, T. Harry. Lincoln and His Generals. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.
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