In early July 1863 Illinoisans joined others in the loyal North in celebrating major military victories at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Vicksburg, Mississippi. A small number of Illinois units saw important service at Gettysburg, while troops from the Sucker State made up as much as one-third of the army with which Ulysses S. Grant captured the crucial Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River.
Hot work in Pennsylvania
Three Illinois regiments took part in the battle at Gettysburg-the Eighty-Second Infantry, and the Eighth and Twelfth Cavalries. In spite of this relatively small representation, Illinoisans are thought to have fired some of the first and last shots of the battle.
On the morning of July 1, 1863, the two Illinois cavalry regiments performed picket duty outside of Gettysburg, watching for movement by Confederate troops known to be in the area. Shortly after returning from the line, Lieut. Marcellus Jones of the Eighth was called back to the post. On arrival he could see dust in the distance, raised by marching Confederates. Jones later recalled asking a trooper for the use of his carbine saying: “Give me the honor of opening the ball.” He then aimed and fired at a mounted officer-the first shot, so Jones claimed, of the battle of Gettysburg.
The Eighth and the Twelfth acquitted themselves well in the sharp fighting that followed, as the cavalry led by Major General John Buford of Rock Island sought to prevent large concentrations of Confederates from capturing the important crossroads town until Federal infantry could arrive. The Illinois regiments and their comrades withdrew following a hard day’s fight, during which Union troops were driven through Gettysburg and into defensive positions south of town.
The Eighty-second Illinois Infantry, composed almost completely of Germans and Scandinavians, was part of the force that hurried to Gettysburg to relieve Buford’s hard-pressed cavalry. Marching north through town, the Eighty-second and their comrades were soon attempting to defend a poorly chosen position against a force about twice their size. At about 3:30 P.M. the arrival of new rebel troops led to the collapse of the Federal line and the retreat of the Eleventh Corps, including the Eighty-second, to new positions at Cemetery Hill. There they remained through the rest of the battle.
On the afternoon of July 3, following the repulse of the famed “Pickett’s Charge,” Federal cavalry led by newly-appointed Brigadier General Elon J. Farnsworth of Illinois charged Confederate positions. The assault ordered by Farnsworth’s superior, Major General Judson Kilpatrick, was almost certainly doomed to failure. The Confederate position could be reached only by crossing ground crisscrossed by stone fences and spotted by timber. Farnsworth led the charge under protest, believing it a futile move. He was right. He soon lay dead, to be celebrated by Chicago newspapers as a martyr to the Union cause.
A long campaign on the Mississippi
The same days that fighting took place in southern Pennsylvania saw the culmination of Federal efforts to capture Vicksburg, the Confederate strongpoint on the Mississippi River. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, a resident of Galena, Illinois, opened operations to capture Vicksburg in December 1862. Grant’s command included dozens of Illinois regiments, as well as several commanders at the corps and division level.
The six-month campaign delays and some actual reverses, but Grant and his army persevered. Of special concern were the assaults mounted on city’s defenses on May 19 and May 22, 1863. The attack on May 22 alone resulted in the loss of over 900 Illinois men killed, wounded, or missing. Ten days later the steamer City of Alton, chartered by Illinois Governor Richard Yates, left St. Louis for Vicksburg carrying a cargo of donated food and hospital goods, and a group of about twenty-five volunteer nurses from Chicago, Springfield, Bloomington, Peoria, Rock Island, Jacksonville, Quincy, and other towns.
On July 4, about twenty-four hours after the bloody repulse of Robert E. Lee’s final attack at Gettysburg, Grant received the surrender of the Mississippi River citadel. As President Lincoln happily remarked to an old Springfield friend in August, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”
Celebrating the victories
News of the fighting at Gettysburg reached Illinois even as the battle continued, thanks to established telegraph lines linking Chicago with Philadelphia and other population centers near the scene. On July 3 the Chicago Tribune published dispatches outlining the two previous days’ fighting, and the morning edition on July 4 contained a report issued just hours before Pickett’s charge was launched. Tidings of Vicksburg’s July 4 surrender took longer to reach Illinois, not appearing until July 8.
The news of victory was like a tonic for Unionists after months of stalemate and defeat. Some Illinoisans were at first skeptical, remembering occasions when early reports of Union success turned out to be exaggerated if not absolutely wrong. Springfield’s Democratic Illinois State Register commented that the public “had been so repeatedly gulled with the like reports, frequently sent out under the sanction of official authority… that they were indisposed to credit the fact… We like to rejoice with those that rejoice, but it does not help the Union cause to go into spasms of ecstacy over reports of victories that were never achieved.”
Even the dual victories could not calm the often bitter differences between the political parties, and it looked as if Democrats and Republicans would hold separate gatherings to laud the armies and their commanders. In the end, however, a single celebration was called to meet at the courthouse in Springfield.
“Right gloriously have our armies celebrated the eighty-eighth anniversary of our country’s independence.” The Register described the “grand Union demonstration”:
“The whole of Capitol Square was illuminated by bon fires; the stars and stripes were displayed from public buildings and residences, lights gleamed from hundreds of windows, and variegated lanterns and transparencies… present[ed] a fairy like scene…”
Illinoisans were especially proud of their sons and brothers at Vicksburg, and of their leader. At the Springfield celebration the adjutant general’s office displayed a four-sided transparency that celebrated Grant, who had been an employee during the war’s earliest days. The mottoes proudly outlined his wartime career: “Capt. U. S. Grant, Drill-master, Camp Yates;” “Col. U. S. Grant, 21st Regiment Illinois Volunteers”; “Brig,. Gen. U. S. Grant, Belmont, Fort Henry, Fort Donelson”; “Major General U. S. Grant, Shiloh, Corinth, Hatchie, Iuka, and Vicksburg.”
Interested in learning more?
The story of Jones’s first-shot claim and its detractors is found in David Petruzzi, “Battle of Gettysburg: Who Really Fired the First Shot?” America’s Civil War (2006), online at http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-gettysburg-who-really-fired-the-first-shot.htm . For more on the 82nd Illinois Infantry in the battle see Eric Benjaminson, “A Regiment of Immigrants: The 82nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry and the Letters of Captain Rudolph Mueller,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94:2 (Summer 2001). The life and military career of Elon J. Farnsworth are outlined online at: http://petruzzi.wordpress.com/2007/06/13/faded-hoofbeats-elon-j-farnsworth/
For an overall view of the involvement of Illinois troops in the extended Vicksburg campaign see Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War, Chapter 6. The Illinois-Vicksburg Military Park Commission report, Illinois at Vicksburg (digital format:http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/isl7/id/3842 ) contains unit-by-unit information as well as a roster of Illinois troops who participated in the campaign.