Friday, October 4, 2013

Adventurer turned Governor, Richard J. Oglesby (R-Decatur) did it all

Governor Richard J. Oglesby,
(R-Decatur) the only
man elected to three separate
terms as Governor of Illinois
Among the collection of the Illinois State Military Museum sits a most unusual artifact. Beside the weapons, flags and old uniforms from wars past, visitors will see a wooden leg in a carriage. The prosthetic belonged to Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, victor at the Alamo and leader of Mexican forces during the 1846-48 Mexican-American war. The relic made its way to Springfield compliments of the 4th Illinois infantry regiment, which captured it and just missed capturing Santa Anna himself at the battle of Cerro Gordo. Some of those Illinois troops were led into the fight by 1st Lieutenant, and later Governor, Richard J. Oglesby (R-Decatur).

Richard J. Oglesby was born in Kentucky, in 1824 and moved to a farm near Decatur at 12. He practiced law in Springfield, where he befriended a local attorney named Lincoln. But the law did not hold the appeal for Oglesby that military service did, and so with the outbreak of war in 1846, he was commissioned a lieutenant and saw action at Veracruz and Cerro Gordo.


After the war, Oglesby led a team across the west to California, where they spent two years mining for gold, before returning to Decatur. Never one to sit still for long, he was soon off again, searching for adventure in Europe and Africa. His exploits included hunting boar with the King of Prussia and attending the coronation of the Czar of Russia, then riding a camel across the Sahara and climbing Mt. Sinai.
Returning home, Oglesby was a sensation, giving talks about his journey, and gathering a following that would stay with him for the rest of his career. He married Anna White in 1859 and fathered four children. His first successful run for office came in 1860 when he was elected to the state Senate. But most of his attention was spent on helping his friend Lincoln, first at the state convention where he coined the phrase “the rail-splitter candidate,” and later at the national convention in Chicago.

With the coming of the Civil War, Oglesby again answered the nation’s call. As Colonel of the 8th Illinois, he fought alongside General Grant at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, where his bravery earned him a promotion to Brigadier General. Seriously wounded at Corinth, Mississippi, Oglesby was promoted again before resigning from the Army in 1864 to run for Governor, with Lincoln’s encouragement.
Victorious, Oglesby took office just in time to lead the fight for ratification of the 13th Amendment, permanently outlawing slavery. It was through Oglesby’s efforts that Illinois became the first state in the nation to do so.

Summoned to Washington to meet with Lincoln, he arrived on April 14, 1865. President and Mrs. Lincoln invited Governor and Mrs. Oglesby to accompany them to a play at Ford’s Theater that night, but, exhausted from the trip, the Oglesbys declined. Hours later, he was notified that Lincoln had been shot. Oglesby was among those at the President’s bedside when he died. He accompanied Lincoln’s body back to Illinois and led the team which funded and designed Lincoln’s Tomb.
Governing Illinois immediately after the Civil War proved to be an arduous task. Oglesby oversaw the ratification the 14th Amendment, and had the segregationist “black laws” annulled.  He worked to obtain better care for the mentally ill, and expanded the state hospital system. Amidst all this activity, tragedy struck when his son died just a week before Oglesby became Governor, and then again in 1868 when Anna died in the Governor’s Mansion.

Still grieving, Oglesby left office in 1869, but didn’t stay retired long. He again heard the call of elected office, running for Governor in 1872 and winning. Eight days after Oglesby began his second term, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate by the legislature. He served his term in the Senate and retired in 1879, turning his seat over to another hero of the Civil War, Sen. John A. Logan (R-Murphysboro).
Once more, in 1884, he sought the Governorship and was again successful. This time, Oglesby won by a comfortable margin, but could not bring in a similar mandate for the legislature: both Houses were equally divided between parties. A biography at the time described Oglesby as “ardent in feeling and strongly committed to the policies of his party, he intensifies Republicanism among Republicans, while at the same time his jovial and liberal manner prevents those of the opposite party from hating him.” But even the jovial Oglesby could not overcome the divisions of the late 1880s. Dealing with intensely divided government, Oglesby’s third term was not as productive as his first, and he left office for good in 1889.

Richard Oglesby’s life of service to Illinois has few parallels in the state’s history: adventurer, legislator, veteran of two wars, General, Senator and the only man elected to three separate terms as Governor. An advocate for the mentally ill, close friend of Abraham Lincoln, leader in the fight against slavery and segregation, Oglesby did it all. Just before his death in 1899, he wrote a friend, “We kept things in pretty good order for fifty years, now let the world take care of itself.”
Remembered for his, “vehement, passionate and scornful tone and gestures,” and “tremendous physical power,” Oglesby’s legacy is kept alive at the Oglesby Mansion in Decatur. Santa Anna’s wooden leg remains on display at the State Military Museum in Springfield.
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