Governor Richard Yates visits the battlefront
On April 10, 1862, Governor Richard Yates and a handful of other state officials left Springfield for Cairo. There they would meet dozens of volunteer surgeons and nurses and proceed to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, to provide care for and evacuate hundreds of Illinoisans seriously wounded during the battle of Shiloh. The governor had arranged such an expedition following the fight at Fort Donelson, Tennessee, several weeks earlier, but the Pittsburg Landing project would dwarf his earlier effort.
Illinois at the battle of Shiloh
The number of Illinoisans killed and wounded at Shiloh (more than 700 killed, 3,000 wounded, and 800 captured or missing) rocked the folks at home. Illinois had been represented at Shiloh by the army commander, four of the army’s six division commanders, and more than two dozen regiments of infantry and cavalry, and several batteries of artillery.
Governor Yates plunges ahead
On receiving word of the number of Illinoisans wounded in the fight, Governor Yates immediately planned an expedition to the battlefield to aid Illinois’ wounded. He issued a call for volunteers to serve as doctors and nurses and chartered the steamboat Black Hawk, operating out of St. Louis, with all to meet at Cairo before moving to Tennessee.
The steamer arrived late at Cairo, delayed perhaps by the necessity of purchasing and loading goods to be used in the relief effort. The State of Illinois purchased from St. Louis merchants large volumes of special foods, including rice, macaroni, vermicelli, teas, tomatoes, and other items not a part of regular army issue.
An observer reported an outpouring of volunteers for the expedition, which led Yates to charter another vessel. “[C]onsiderable difficulty was had to confine the list of surgeons, nurses and assistants to anything like moderate proportions—three times as many insisting upon a passage as could be accommodated. The best was done that could be under the circumstances…” On April 13 religious services were held aboard the boat “to offer up thanks for our late victories, and prayers on behalf of our many wounded and their afflicted families.” At Fort Henry the boat landed and a “brief half hour” was given to touring the fort.
On April 14 the party reached Pittsburg Landing, mooring near boats sent by other state governors. “Having been so fortunate as to obtain an order to receive Illinois wounded alone,” the boat began loading men at 2 p.m. and reached its full capacity by 6 p.m. On leaving from nearby Savannah (Tennessee) for Cairo, several surgeons and nurses volunteered to remain and help with wounded there and at the battlefield itself.
At Cairo many of men disembarked so that they could travel home by rail. As the boat continued to St. Louis “the wounded began to improve very much—good nursing and good living had worked wonders with them.” The expedition, one participant wrote, “was one of entire success. His Excellency, the Governor, was untiring in his efforts to accomplish everything possible… The wounded were full of expressions of gratitude to him for having done more for them than the Governor of any other State had been able to do for their wounded. …”
The second voyage of the Black Hawk
On April 24 the Black Hawk began a second trip from Quincy to the Pittsburg Landing area, chartered by Adjutant General Allen Fuller on instructions of Governor Yates. This time the men making up the volunteer corps resisted the urge to visit the battlefield in search of souvenirs and remained at the boat. “When the sick and wounded were taken on board, day and night did these true men stand by the suffering soldiers… until all were either started toward their homes or safely deposited in the hospital at Quincy.” There were some problems along the way-at Savannah, Tennessee, Fuller found between five and six hundred ill or wounded Illinoisans believed to have been already evacuated, and there was a delay in removing men from Pittsburg Landing for fear of imminent battle at Corinth, Mississippi.
Some lessons learned
Adjutant General Fuller returned from the relief expedition with suggestions for changes in future operations. He first noted that the practice of accepting donations to be shipped only to specific units was absolutely “impracticable” and suggested that soldier relief organizations in Chicago and St. Louis “are eminently deserving [of] the confidence of the public, and I recommend that supplies be sent to them for distribution.” He had also seen the confusion that resulted when boxes arrived without invoices revealing their contents, and the waste that resulted from unneeded or useless goods filling precious cargo space. In the future, “Boxes containing such supplies should be plainly marked and invoices of their contents should accompany them,” and would-be donors should contact the central relief commissions to see what is needed at a given time. “A little attention to this, will prevent an unnecessary accumulation of some articles and a deficiency of others.”
A new hero
Governor Yates continued the relief operation through late May, again personally visiting the battlefield and nearby hospitals. Illinoisans celebrated the good work of their governor. “Every care and attention that can be shown them is rendered. Good surgeons, faithful nurses, and an abundance of medical stores of every kind, ice water, (a luxury that our poor boys prize above gold,)… all that the sick could desire, is here to cheer them on their homeward way. The forethought and energy of Governor Yates in providing for the emergencies of the forthcoming battle of Corinth is beyond all praise. Before this letter is before your readers, thousands of hearts will be made glad by the return of the loved ones whom Illinois, acting through her Governor, has snatched form the very jaws of death.”
Even non-Illinoisans gave thanks for Yates’s efforts. A newspaper correspondent wrote that on a trip to Mississippi in May, Yates encountered the 7th Iowa Infantry. Its commander shouted to his men, “Soldiers, I have the honor to introduce to you Gov. Yates of Illinois. We are citizens of Iowa, and love her, yet to Gov. Yates… we owe a debt of gratitude for furnishing us clothing and other supplies at a time of sore need, when our government, though inability or carelessness, failed to supply us. I propose three cheers for Gov. Yates.”
Interested in learning more?
Hawk, including invoices for goods provided, are located in: “Richard Yates (1815-1873) Correspondence, RS101.013, Illinois State Archives. Governor Yates’s interactions with Illinois soldiers are discussed in Jack Nortrup, “Richard Yates: A Personal Glimpse of the Illinois Soldiers’ Friend.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 56 (1963): 121-38. (It can be found using the webpagehttp://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/index.html). Many documents relating to the voyage of the Black Hawk, including invoices for goods provided, are located in: Richard Yates (1815-1873) Correspondence, RS101.013, Illinois State Archives