December 1861 closed a tumultuous year that saw secession of southern states following the election of a Republican president of the United States and bloodshed after the organization of the Confederate States of America. Perhaps more so than in most years, the close of 1861 was a time to reflect on the meaning of the past and to anticipate the future.
A major change in the Illinois command structure took place on November 11 with the appointment of Allen C. Fuller of Belvidere (Boone County) as adjutant general, the state government’s chief military administrator. At the time of Fuller’s appointment, thousands of volunteers had gathered in camps at Springfield and Chicago, awaiting organization into regiments. Many units were too small to be accepted for service, and they waited while men who hoped to become officers worked to enlist more recruits. Fuller soon became determined to create regiments out of these fragments regardless of the concerns of would-be officers. He made a “flying visit” to Camp Douglas in Chicago “to consolidate the skeletons and complete at once their regimental organization.” That trip and time similarly spent at Camp Butler near Springfield quickly resulted in the organization of units ready for service, one newspaper happily announcing “the satisfaction of stating that . . . both encampments [are] entirely cleaned out, without a remnant of a company or a squad being left.”
On December 10 Fuller reported to Governor Richard Yates the number and location of Illinois troops. He noted that 60,540 men served in Illinois regiments. More than 17,400 of them were still encamped in Illinois, soon to be sent to the front. The great majority of regiments already in the field were stationed in Missouri. Fuller noted with real concern that an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Illinois men had enlisted in regiments raised in Missouri, Kansas, or Iowa at a time when the federal government refused to accept eager offers of more troops from Illinois.
On December 12 Governor Yates issued a statement calling attention to Adjutant General Fuller’s report on “the grand army of Illinois.” He also noted proudly that through his efforts during the last two weeks over 6,000 “new and superior arms” had been distributed to Illinois units “most exposed to the enemy.” The state was also taking delivery of a number of James rifled cannon—”obtained from the Secretary of War during my last visit to Washington”—to be issued to new companies of artillery.
Illinois’ “grand army” grew in size and confidence, and it was relatively unbloodied by the first months of fighting. At the end of December most counties counted a few men lost in the national service. The pace of the fighting had been slow, and few battles had been fought, most notably for Illinoisans at the Missouri towns of Lexington, Fredericktown, and Belmont. By the end of December 1861, Springfield—the state’s fourth-largest city with a population just less than 10,000—had lost two residents in battle. Most deaths occurred off the battlefield, in camps, with illness and accident claiming victims.
Observance of Christmas 1861 in Illinois seems to have been affected little by the outbreak of war. Newspapers were filled with the usual advertisements announcing the imminent arrival of Santa Claus and accounts of church gatherings at which attention centered on “Christmas trees” decorated with small gifts.
Still, there was a difference. An antislavery newspaper editor from Peoria likely reflected the belief of many as he wrote of a terrible judgment being responsible for the current state of affairs: “This will be a strange Christmas to a large number of American citizens . . . [as] war, horrid and unnatural, reigns supreme over the land, making hundreds of hearths desolate to-day, and thousands of happy homes sorrowful. Like all other public calamities, this is only the result of a violation of the Divine Law . . . that we must do unto others as we would have others do unto us.”
Illinois men in military camps felt the absence from loved ones but seem to have borne it well. Many units created celebrations around boxes of goodies shipped by friends from home. A member of the 36th Illinois Infantry wrote almost lightheartedly that “even in the rebel states of Dixie, Christmas is regarded by all as a day of feasting and pleasure. . . . But with us, living this military life of ours, all days are the same, and thus we have passed, for us, the strangest Christmas.” Apparently the 36th did not receive gifts of food from home, “yet on this day almost every mess has managed to procure some extra that they might at least keep up a semblance of those not yet forgotten festivities around the family table.”
New Year’s Day seems to have been celebrated much in the prewar spirit as well, with the male heads of families making calls upon their friends while wives and daughters served refreshments to callers at their homes. In another old tradition many boys who delivered newspapers distributed an elaborately printed annual “carrier’s address,” hopeful of a tip for the past year’s service.
The end of 1861 and advent of 1862 brought high hopes to many. A perhaps typical feeling was that of George Willis of the 15th Illinois Infantry. Stationed near Otterville, Missouri, he wrote in the last days of the eventful year 1861 that “The coming year will like the present, be fraught with bright hopes and fair promises, some of which hopes, will be disappointed, and some of the promises will be forgotten, still we feel kindly towards the stranger [the year 1862], and rejoice that our acquaintance of nearly twelve months is about to bid us farewell forever.”