Supplying the armies of the republic

A Union battery at Fort Prentiss (renamed Fort Defiance),
with guns facing the Ohio River, Cairo, Illinois. 
Out of the wreckage of the Union Army retreating in disarray from the disastrous July 1861 battle of Bull Run came the realization that the Civil War was not going to be a 90-day conflict, but a long, drawn out affair. It would be a war of attrition. The north would have to call upon its superior manpower and industrial base to save the Union. It would be helped along in no small part by the burgeoning economic powerhouse that was the state of Illinois.

Following President Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Illinoisans had rushed to sign up. By the end of the war 259,092 Illinoisans; 15% of the state’s population; served in the Union Army and Navy, and 34,834 fell in the cause of freedom.

Winning the war required more than just soldiers on the battlefield. They had to be fed and equipped, clothed and transported. As General Ulysses Grant’s army pounded its way into Tennessee and Mississippi its logistical tail would come to depend on Illinois to keep the army moving. Illinois’ vast railroad network would prove to be a critical link in this chain. All of the food and equipment produced in the north would flow down the vital rail nexus to Grant’s supply depot at Cairo.

On the home front, just as on the battlefront, the war started off disastrously. Illinois farmers relied on southern markets to sell their products. Numerous Illinois banks were backed by southern bonds. The state’s economy teetered on the verge of collapse by 1862.

Illinois was not alone in facing economic ruin from the disruption of agricultural and financial markets. The condition existed throughout the north, forcing Congress and the Treasury Department to take action, issuing national currency called “greenbacks” to stabilize the economy.

Meanwhile, a market had to be found for agricultural products from Illinois. Fortune smiled on the Midwest in the form of bad weather in Europe: a series of crop failures on the other side of the Atlantic created a need for food imports. Illinois’ rail and water connection to east coast ports made it easy for the vast quantities of corn, pork and wheat from the Midwest to bypass the south and make their way to overseas markets. It was the beginning of the Midwest’s standing as the Breadbasket of the World.

With demand surging from overseas, Illinois farmers put their John Deere plows and McCormick reapers into high gear. Corn prices which had fallen to just a few cents a bushel now started to climb. Rail traffic coursed through Chicago at all hours. Meatpacking firms expanded, both to feed soldiers in the field and customers overseas. Railroad equipment manufacturing thrived in the city.

All these factories required more fuel and more materials. Coal mines in central and southern Illinois boomed, lead mines outside Galena worked overtime, railroads brought iron ore from northern Minnesota and Wisconsin to Eber Brock Ward’s iron works in Chicago to produce steel rails for the fast-growing railroads. Workers flooded in, and Illinois’ population jumped by more than two-thirds: from 1.7 million at the 1860 census to more than 2.5 million at the end of the decade.

Banned from fighting, women in Illinois found their own ways to help the cause of freedom. They organized aid societies and made bandages and other hospital supplies, raised money for the war effort and for the care of the wounded. They looked after the families of soldiers and fought for better living conditions in military camps. Dr. Mary Thompson created the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children in 1863 and became a voice for better sanitation for soldiers who were dying from disease at a greater rate than from battlefield wounds.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke. 
A nurse from Galesburg, Mary Bickerdyke volunteered her services in June 1861 to help out in army hospitals. She accompanied Illinois soldiers into 19 battles, providing first aid on the battlefield and assisting in surgeries and the creation of more than 300 hospitals. She became known to soldiers as “Mother Bickerdyke” and was beloved for the care she provided them. General William T. Sherman asked her to ride at the head of the grand review of the armies in Washington following the Union victory.

While Union soldiers and supplies were moving south, captured confederate prisoners were moving north. Just east of Springfield, Camp Butler had started out as a training post for Illinois soldiers, but after the first few large battles in the west it became a prisoner camp, holding 3000 captured southerners. An old state prison in Alton also became a POW camp, as did another site in Rock Island.

Also making their way north were wounded Union soldiers evacuated from the battlefield. As the southernmost point of free soil on this side of the Mississippi, Cairo became the primary evacuation point for wounded. It was quickly overwhelmed. Hospitals were built a few miles upriver at Mound City. Inevitably a final resting place was also needed for the fallen, and 5,555 soldiers were buried at the Mound City National Cemetery.

Mound City played an important role in keeping the Union Navy in action. While the Navy possessed classes of large oceangoing “blue water” warships, little thought had been given to the idea of fighting battles on inland waterways like the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. The Navy needed shallow-draft, maneuverable warships to patrol the rivers and provide fire support for armies on land.

The Mound City foundry, which before the war had been constructing steamboats for trade on the Mississippi now began turning out gunboats and floating mortars. Steamboat crews which had lost their jobs when the river was closed to civilian traffic became sailors in this new riverine Navy. Soon Grant’s troops were moving deep into the south using the rivers as highways, an early precursor of the joint-service task forces which make up so much of the 21st century military.

Naval Station in Mound City, Illinois. 
By the second year of the war Governor Richard Yates was dealing with political troubles at home. Frustrated by the lengthening casualty lists coming from battles like Fort Donelson and Shiloh, where much of the fighting had been done by Illinois soldiers, a peace movement had been gaining steam throughout the state.

In 1860 Illinois voters had authorized the calling of a state constitutional convention. It had convened early in 1862 and immediately broken down into a highly polarized, partisan standoff. The convention stood in opposition to much of the Governor’s agenda, and much like Congress’ infamous Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War which bedeviled and second-guessed Lincoln at every turn, this Illinois constitutional convention became the bane of Yates’ existence.

After trying to work with the increasingly hostile convention, Yates had severed his ties with it, writing that he “did not acknowledge the right of the convention to instruct him in the performance of his duty.” The final straw had likely been the efforts by members of the convention to go outside the chain of command and communicate directly with the commanders of Illinois regiments in the field.

The convention produced a new proposed Constitution, but it was handily defeated in a statewide referendum in June 1862.

While the bumbling of the convention had thwarted the drive for a new state Constitution, it had not blunted the momentum of the anti-war faction. Like Lincoln himself, many Illinoisans of this era were transplanted southerners and southern sympathies still ran deep. Enthusiastically patriotic speeches by leading politicians like southern Illinois Congressman John A. Logan had rallied many to the Union cause early on, but support was waning by 1862. This peace faction sought a return to the pre-war status quo, organized around the slogan, “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was.”

Violence broke out in Illinois on more than one occasion. Soldiers home on leave attacked anti-war newspapers like the Bloomington Times and Chester Picket Guard. Deserters from the army banded together in mobs in rural areas of the state, while cavalry patrols and militias sought to track them down. A gunfight between soldiers and pro-southern “copperheads” broke out on the courthouse square in Charleston in March 1864. Nine died and a dozen were wounded.

A pro-southern group called the Knights of the Golden Circle sought to organize a guerilla uprising in Illinois in 1864 by releasing confederate prisoners and then attacking rail lines to disrupt Union reinforcements and supplies. The plan fizzled when the plotters were unable to find much support in Illinois for a violent revolt.

Governor Yates. 
Governor Yates made frequent trips to visit Illinois soldiers in the field and came back with requests for more appropriations from the legislature to keep them supplied. He had no sympathy whatsoever for those who opposed the efforts he and Lincoln were making to save the Union, and accused them of being traitors and opposing abolition solely out of fear of competition for jobs.

But as the war dragged on and the death toll climbed, Yates found himself on the wrong side of the electorate. In the 1862 mid-term elections opposition legislators claimed a majority in both chambers, 13-12 in the Senate and 54-32 in the House. They quickly set about changing the state’s agenda.

Resolutions were adopted which in the words of historian Robert Howard, “advocated that the south be allowed to return to the Union with slave state status, blamed New Englanders for a partisan war, and asked that no more money be spent or men recruited in its behalf.” The legislature also ejected Lincoln’s ally Orville Browning from the Senate seat to which he had been appointed and replaced him with former Congressman William Richardson.

Richardson was a veteran of the war with Mexico who had turned down an appointment by Lincoln to be a general early in the war. He had aligned himself with Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, so odious a copperhead that Lincoln would have him banished to the Confederacy in 1863. The legislature’s next action was to attempt to strip Yates of many of his executive powers and appoint commissioners to a peace conference to end the war without victory.

This overreaching led to a strong backlash. Senator Issac Funk of McLean County called the peace faction, “traitors and secessionists at heart,” and said he would donate his entire personal fortune to support the Union. The 65-year-old legislator also challenged his opponents on the other side of the aisle to a fistfight. With tempers flaring, Yates used an obscure clause in the Constitution to adjourn the legislature before any violence could break out.

But by this time the tide was turning on the battlefield. Illinois soldiers had led the way in capturing Vicksburg in the west just one day after the great Union victory at Gettysburg. A large peace rally at the state fairgrounds was followed by the good news from the front and then an equally large rally in support of the war effort. Opponents of the war became increasingly marginalized. In the 1864 election Lincoln won Illinois’ 16 electoral votes and his political ally, General Richard Oglesby, was chosen as governor by a similarly comfortable margin.

Lincoln’s victory sealed the fate of the confederacy. A month after his second inauguration Confederate forces began surrendering and the war came to an end that summer. The war was won, slavery was abolished and the Union was saved. All with plenty of help from Illinoisans on the home front.