The firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, and President Lincoln’s April 15 call for troops found Illinois largely unprepared. Although Americans had discussed the possibility if not likelihood of war since the election of a Republican president in November 1860, the state had made no real preparations for the coming of conflict. Illinois leaders had to make up for lost time, and they moved quickly on multiple fronts.
Legislation and bureaucracy
After calling for men to volunteer for national service, Governor Richard Yates called for the Illinois General Assembly to meet in special session to begin on April 23. The agenda included, among other things, providing for the organization of volunteers into regiments, providing funds for the military defense of the state, and providing for the arrest and punishment of those who would destroy the railroad’s capacity to carry troops or military supplies or who would use telegraph lines “for illegal and revolutionary purposes.”
With the opening of war the state’s adjutant general, who administered the skeletal militia, became a lead player in organizing the state’s war effort. Men volunteered by the thousands, and the adjutant had to decide who to accept and who to turn away. Regiments then had to be organized, fed, clothed, and armed. A Springfield newspaper noted that on April 15 the “Adjutant General’s office, in the State House, began … to assume quite a military appearance, an orderly in full uniform being stationed outside the door, and military men constantly coming and going.” Two days later “Adjt. Gen. Mather, with several aids, was busy all day registering the companies as they were reported, receiving and answering dispatches, and in the transaction of other business pertaining to his department.” The chaotic situation calmed somewhat late in the month when a former U.S. army captain, Ulysses S. Grant, “took supervision of the muster rolls and assignments of companies, and before a week had expired had brought order out of chaos in the papers.”
Keeping weapons from rebels
On April 17, 1861, a group of Illinois state officials including Governor Yates and U. S. Senator Lyman Trumbull wrote President Lincoln to warn of the danger that secessionist leaders in Missouri might capture the 30,000 muskets stored at the U. S. arsenal in St. Louis. They proposed that the arsenal commander be ordered to provide Illinois with at least 10,000 of the weapons, some of which could then be provided to Union men in St. Louis. The more guns removed the better. “We are anxiously waiting for instructions… Our people burn with patriotism…”
On April 20 Secretary of War Simon Cameron instructed Governor Yates to send Illinois troops “to support the garrison of the St. Louis Arsenal, and to receive their arms and accoutrements there,” with an additional 10,000 muskets for later distribution. Captain James Stokes moved on April 24, steaming from Alton, Illinois, on the steamboat City of Alton. Stokes hatched a plan with arsenal commander Captain Nathaniel Lyon to haul the guns to the steamer under cover of night and then move quickly to the Illinois side of the river. A decoy shipment of broken weapons diverted the attention of secessionist scouts, and wagons carrying about 20,000 muskets reached the City of Alton without being detected.
The removal of arms from the St. Louis arsenal and their provision to troops enlisted to defend the Union provided a boost to Illinoisans in the weeks after the surrender of Fort Sumter. The operation provided weapons for several Illinois regiments, while others were soon ordered shipped to Ohio and Wisconsin, much to the disappointment of Governor Yates. Newspapers described the exploit to their readers, and the Illinois General Assembly voted its thanks to Captain Stokes “for the tact and energy displayed by him” in capturing the ” arms and munitions requisite for equipping the volunteer forces of this state.”
Holding Cairo for the Union
The same April 17 letter to the president from Illinois officials declared that if “Federal troops can be spared… they ought to be sent instantly to Cairo, that point being considered the most important and commanding point of the West.” On April 19 the Secretary of War ordered state officials to occupy the city. Located at the far southern tip of Illinois and overlooking the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, control of the city meant control of large stretches of the two important waterways. Holding Cairo would also make it easier to protect the important Illinois Central Railroad line, and to prevent the movement of weapons, ammunition, and other military goods to the rebellious states.
Governor Richard Yates immediately ordered Richard K. Swift of Chicago to move without delay all available men to carry out the War Department’s instructions. About 600 troops departed Chicago on April 21. Others joined the force as it moved south on the Illinois Central Railroad, finally totaling about 900. The men, “indifferently armed with rifles, shot-guns, muskets and carbines, hastily gathered from stores and shops in Chicago,” reached Cairo on the morning of April 23. Troops continued to arrive, establishing what would be a major base throughout the whole war.
The following day, orders came from Governor Yates to stop the steamboats C. E. Hillman and John D. Perry, said to be carrying “large quantities” of weapons and munitions south from St. Louis. The ships were stopped, boarded, and the military goods confiscated. Though the seizure was not ordered or authorized by the War Department, federal officials soon gave their approval for this act and issued orders that made Cairo a crucial point in attempting to choke off the flow of goods to the South.
Interested in learning more?
A detailed study of the history of the St. Louis arsenal and the capture of its weapons in 1861 can be found at http://www.civilwarstlouis.com/arsenal/index.htm.
For more on the holding of Cairo see William A. Pitkin, “When Cairo was saved for the Union”. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 51 (1958): 284-305, in digital format at:
and the report by Illinois adjutant general Allen C. Fuller on pages 7-9 of