TBT: The man who kept coming back

Governor Richard J. Oglesby
The young orphan grew up to be a Civil War hero and a three-term Governor of Illinois. No matter where he went in life, something kept bringing him back.

His time in the governor’s office also reflects something of a paradox: he served the shortest term of any Illinois Governor, but spent the second-longest amount of total time as Governor.

Oglesby was born in Kentucky in 1825 and came to Illinois in 1836 after his parents and three siblings lost their lives in a cholera epidemic. He was brought to Illinois by his uncle and first settled in the area around present-day Decatur. They returned to Kentucky, but then came back to Decatur briefly before setting out again for Indiana. The young Oglesby stayed a year, then came back to Decatur to stay with an aunt. She sent him to Kentucky for an apprenticeship, but he came back once again to Decatur for school.

Oglesby studied under a local lawyer in Springfield and was admitted to the bar. But shortly after that he joined the Army for the war with Mexico. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the 4th Illinois and fought at Veracruz and in the big U.S. victory at Cerro Gordo. Soldiers from his regiment came close to capturing the Mexican commander, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, but had to settle for seizing his carriage which included thousands of dollars in gold coins and the general’s artificial leg. The cork leg remains on display at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield.

With victory in the war complete, Oglesby came back to Decatur, this time to give speeches in support of the Presidential campaign of the former commanding general in Mexico, General Zachary Taylor. Oglesby took off for California next, where gold had been discovered. Less than two years later, he came back to Decatur yet again, $5000 richer.

Once he came back from California, Oglesby began investing in real estate around the Decatur area. A staunch, lifelong opponent of slavery, he used some of his newfound wealth to return to Kentucky and purchase the freedom of his late father’s slave, known as Uncle Tim. During the 1850s, Oglesby traveled the world, keeping in touch with friends at home through a series of letters to the local newspaper. He came back in time to help nominate his friend Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. Senate. It was Oglesby who in a speech at the Republican state convention in Decatur christened Lincoln as “the railsplitter candidate” during his 1860 run for the White House.

Richard J. Oglesby poses for a portrait in uniform  while serving as a
 Major General in the Union Army. Photo from the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library & Museum.
On the same day that Lincoln won the White House, Oglesby won a seat in the Illinois Senate. It was a short term, as he resigned to go back to the Army following the outbreak of the Civil War. As one of a small number of volunteers who had valuable combat experience, he was commissioned Colonel of the 8th Illinois on April 25, 1861. A promotion to brigadier general and command of a brigade came after he led an attack on Fort Donelson, Tennessee. That spring, Oglesby was seriously wounded in the chest at the battle of Corinth in Mississippi. His wound was so severe that Lincoln himself telegraphed General Grant from the White House to check on “the condition of General Oglesby, who is an intimate personal friend.”

Oglesby recovered from his wound and came back to the Army after six months. He was promoted again and placed in command of a corps, but the wound proved to be too severe and he asked to be relieved. The timing proved opportune for Oglesby’s political career, as he was able to come back to Illinois in time to throw his hat in the ring for Governor in 1864. Oglesby tied himself closely to Lincoln and was swept into office, defeating the same opponent who had bested him in a congressional race six years earlier.

Oglesby took office as Governor in January 1865 to begin a term marked by tragedy. His inauguration was postponed several days following the death of Oglesby’s five-year-old son. His term would end with the loss of his wife, Anna, who died in the governor’s mansion in Springfield. One of Oglesby’s first acts as Governor was to travel to Washington in April to visit with Lincoln at the White House. He met with his friend, but declined his invitation to join him that night at the theater. Later that night Oglesby heard the shocking news of the President’s assassination. He rushed to Lincoln’s side and was with the President when he died. Oglesby would chair the association which built Lincoln’s first tomb in Springfield. He gave the dedication address there in 1874.

Governor Oglesby helped secure Illinois’ immediate ratification of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, making Illinois the first state to ratify the amendment. Oglesby signed the legislation appropriating funds for construction of a new State Capitol building at 2nd and Monroe Streets in Springfield. He also pushed for the creation of what became the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Oglesby oversaw historic regulation of railroads, the creation of the State Board of Equalization, prison reform and the state’s first voter registration law.

Term limited out of the governor’s office in 1869, Oglesby came back to his home in Decatur and remained active in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Decatur-founded, post-Civil War veteran organization which was quickly becoming a political force to be reckoned with in Illinois and the rest of the northern states. By 1872, Republicans were ready to give Oglesby another shot, and he was nominated for the Governorship again. When he won his second term, he became (and remains) the only Illinois Governor to serve non-consecutive terms.

But it didn’t last long.

Oglesby’s true goal was the U.S. Senate, and after that, possibly, the Presidency. During the fall of 1872 he worked to help elect legislators who would then vote to send him to the Senate (U.S. Senators then being chosen by state legislatures, a practice which did not end until enactment of the 17th Amendment in 1913). Ten days after he came back for the second term as Governor, Oglesby was elected to the U.S. Senate. The week-and-a-half term is the shortest term ever served by an Illinois governor.

Not long after, Oglesby married his second wife, Emma, and that year their son John, was born in Decatur. Perhaps inheriting his father’s political gene, John would serve two non-consecutive terms as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois in 1909 and 1917.

The Senate did not turn out to be as pleasant a locale as Oglesby expected. By this time he had become famous in the Midwest for giving passionate speeches blaming Southern Democrats for secession and the Civil War, “waving the bloody shirt” in the parlance of the times. While this made him popular at gatherings of veterans and at GAR events, it proved odious to members of the staid United States Senate, and Oglesby soon wore out his welcome. Republicans nominated General John A. Logan for the Senate in 1878, and Oglesby soon came back to Illinois.

But Oglesby didn’t stay on the sidelines for long. In 1884 he came back for another shot at the Governor’s office, and won again, though this time it was much closer. Oglesby became the first Illinois Governor to serve three terms, an accomplishment unequaled until Jim Thompson did it 100 years later. During his third term, Oglesby signed the bill appropriating funds for the completion of the new State Capitol which he had initially authorized during his first term. The building was completed near the end of his term in 1888.

During Oglesby’s third term violence broke out at a labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago. When a bomb exploded, killing several bystanders and police officers, Oglesby wrestled with the dilemma of whether or not to extend leniency to the anarchists convicted of the attack. Governors generally did not intervene in the decisions of courts in those days, but at the last minute Oglesby commuted two sentences. Four others were executed in 1887. The remaining jailed anarchists stayed in prison, their fate continuing to vex a series of Governors for the rest of the century.

Former Illinois Governors – Richard Oglesby is pictured in the front row, second from the left.
Photo from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum.
Leaving the Governor’s office for the last time in 1889, the Oglesbys moved to Logan County and built an estate named Oglehurst. After serving two full terms and one abbreviated one, Oglesby remains second only to Thompson in terms of total length of time in the office. The former governor came back one last time, for a speaking tour in 1896 on behalf of that year’s Republican ticket. Looking back on his long career in public service, Oglesby wrote, “we kept things in pretty good order for fifty years, now let the world take care of itself.”

Richard J. Oglesby died on April 24, 1899 at his home. He was buried at Elkhart Cemetery in Logan County. During his funeral procession, the commander of the local GAR post marched with the very same flag that had covered the casket at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln.