The 19th Century’s Greatest Generation

by Robert C. Wilson & Rebecca Mohr
Peoria Historical Society

This local couple has worked tirelessly to transcribe diaries and letters from the Civil War era.

At 4:30am on April 12, 1861, Confederate Captain George S. James nodded to his gun crew and yanked the lanyard. The mortar projectile arched high over Charleston Harbor, leaving a meteoric trail that terminated in the air above Fort Sumter. The American Civil War had begun. The nation was at war with itself.

The news spread across the country like wildfire. President Lincoln quickly called for 75,000 volunteers. In the south, there was celebration as Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee quickly followed South Carolina’s lead and seceded from the union. In the north, there was rage and patriotic fervor.

Anticipating the upcoming struggle, groups of men throughout the union began organizing. In Peoria, Illinois, a young Prussian emigrant, Phillip Smith, and others came together to form the Peoria Zouave Cadets, a military company based on the French light infantry. Two opportunities materialized for the Cadets in June 1861: the Douglas Brigade forming in Chicago, and the 8th Missouri Infantry organizing in St Louis. The Peoria Cadets opted for the St. Louis Infantry, and left for Missouri on June 19, 1861. On July 7th, they were sworn in for a term of three years.

Our Adventure Begins
Shortly after joining the Union Army, Phillip Smith began a diary. His first entry reaches across the centuries:

“As I lie in my bed this morning I got to thinking as I had enlisted in the army for the period of three years. Through which time many an incident would occur and many an event take place that would be a pleasure and likely of much interest not only to myself if God so wills that I pass safely through this war, but to my friends in the future, I have concluded to keep a Diary, and shall endeavor to keep it as accurate as can be done under the circumstances and conditions under which from what little experience I have already had & will have to contend with.”

With this, my wife Becky and I began our adventures with the Peoria Historical Society. For me, growing up in the south during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Civil War was an obsession. This passion has stayed with me throughout my life. In 2013, while helping my wife’s aunt prepare her house for sale, we met Bob Killion, curator at the Peoria Historical Society, who was invited to peruse the many items of interest Becky’s aunt and her husband had accumulated over the years. Through our many conversations, we learned the Peoria Historical Society was always looking for volunteers. This is where it all began.

I spent a good deal of time in Bradley University’s Special Collections room, digitizing diaries and letters from Peoria-area Civil War soldiers. Using a unique filing code, I enhanced and identified each page, then began the tedious job of transcription, with help from my wife. She had little interest in history at first, but now she’s absorbed in every document she reads, as the writers and characters within seem to come alive. We feel their pain, hardships, fear and jubilation, and we also got used to their sometimes-awful handwriting, poor grammar and period colloquialisms, as well as the ravages of time on the documents: fading, crease marks, dirt, smudges, and tears, to name a few.

To date, we have worked on communications from about 18 area individuals, with five diaries and many letters comprising the majority of the correspondence. Both infantry and cavalry soldiers are represented, with ranks from private to full colonel. So far, the battle experience encompasses only the western theater of war until the Atlanta campaign in mid-1864 and General Sherman’s subsequent March to the Sea. But as people hear what we’re doing at the Peoria Historical Society, more diaries and letters are secured, which continue to fill the gaps. Here’s a glimpse of our work thus far.

The Battle of Shiloh
Let us begin in the spring of 1861. It’s April 5th, and Captain John Ziegler of Company E, 11th Illinois Cavalry, is at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, unaware that just a few miles away, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnson is marshaling his forces for a surprise attack that will result in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. His men are new, and the unit has not experienced the war up close:

“...it is hardly safe to be here in camp the dam boys is shooting all the time thare was a ball struck this tree I set against just now close to me this morning shot Fultons horse in the hind end another shot the 2 Lieutenant Davis with a carbine axidently with thare cursed fooling with thare guns now dam the man that shots me axidently I will kill him & his [friends] if he don’t kill me the first time...”

The next morning, Phillip Smith of Company H, 8th Missouri Infantry, is at Crumps Landing, just a few miles from Captain Ziegler. After a hard day, he enters this note in his diary:

“Early this Morning we heard the booming of Cannon and the rattle of Musketry in the direction of Pittsburg Landing... we received the News that the rebels were getting the best of our men and were driving them back... The Order came for our Troops here to March to the battlefield... We finally arrived at our place in the line of battle... So the whole Situation is this, Our forces badly licked, Raining like thunder, hearing the cries of the Wounded and a good prospect of being Killed tomorrow makes a very uncomfortable state of affairs for a fellow to try and get some sleep.”

Close to defeat, the Union army turns the tide the next day, rolling back the Confederate threat. Smith makes another entry:

“Evening. Well here we are right side up with care and no bones broken! Our forces complete Victors of the field... We were the Victors and the Air was rent with the Wild Jubilant cheers of the men. Soon General Grant rode along the line and was greeted with deafening cheers.”

The 86th Tastes War
In the fall of 1862, Major Allen L. Fahnestock and the 86th Illinois Infantry left Peoria for Louisville, Kentucky and their first taste of war. On September 7th, Fahnestock writes in his diary:

“We left Peoria by cars for the seat of War and in due time arived at Jeffersonville Indiana (Camp JoHolt) remained there a few days then crossed the river to Louisville Kentucky were we remained a short time… Gen Nelson commanded all the troops at Louisville and we were compelled to pass in review one very hot day and many men died and was taken sick in consequence of the extreme heat and hard marching all to make a good show. General Nelson had some dificulty with General Jefferson C. Davis. He slaped General Davis who drew a pistol and shot General Nelson dead. About this time Rebbe General Bragg was advancing with a large army on Louisville and we expected to be attacked. So on Oct 1st we marched out of Louisville Kentucky after Bragg and his Rebble army, all in good spirits and ready to meet the enemy, fearfull that the War would end and not get a chance to see a Battle.”

December 31, 1862. Major Fahnestock at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee:

“I suffered all day with Camp diarhrea. Our Regiment was mustered for pay, the left wing of our Regiment out on pickett … The 86 was called under arms at 9 o’clock and remained in line untill 10 o’clock. We then laid down untill 3 o’clock next morning, then went out on the pickett line on the White Pike. I had charge of Company D and my own company… This was a very cold night and it was watch night for us. The old year went out and 1863 came in nice and clear. There is heavy cannonading in our front and the Battle of Murfreesboro is progresing and the brave Boys are losing their lives by hundreds that the Country might be saved but they will sell their lives dearly, for they will fight to the last.”

From Vicksburg to Chickamauga
Further south, Edward “Ned” Ingraham, Co-B, of the 33rd Illinois Infantry, writes home about the siege of Vicksburg on April 6, 1863:

“The boys are busy working on the canal 6 or 7 miles from here. I went down to Youngs Point [8] miles this side of Vicksburg in sight of that dreadful place but it was so hazy I could not see it. One cannot form any idea of the magnitude of Grant’s army, it is scattered all along the riverbank from Lake Providence to Youngs Pt and up the Yazoo.”

On May 5, 1863, Captain John Ziegler revisited the battle site of Shiloh and gave this impression:

“I crossed over the old field of Shiloh the sean is grand & yet meloncoly the hundreds of graves the old bleeched bones of man & horse the fragment of arms & equipments with the variety of barels, boxes bottles tin cans & in fact all maner of thing that one can think of with the stakes forks & bark shelters that the men had to keep the rain of with the old bake uvens all look sad & tell a tale of the past... the hole seen made me pray that god would stop such barberous doing...”

On January 10, 1864, near the Chickamauga battlefield, Major Fahnestock makes a diary entry:

“Sunday morning, cloudy and cold. Late in the evening there was two young ladies brought in by the guard stating their aunt was sick and wanted a doctor. I sent them to Doct. Guth. He sent them to Col. Harmon of the 125th Ill who was commanding the Brigade. He sent them back to me with orders to send Surgeon Guth out with them. He refused to go. So I went to Col. Harmon and got permission to send Joseph Robinson, the Hospital Stuart, had him dress up in Doct. Guth’s uniform and sent a strong guard out with him as it was several miles outside the lines. All went well, a girl and a boy twins, they named the boy after Joseph Robinson.”

In a postscript to this story, Joseph W. Robinson stayed in Washington, Illinois after the war and became a druggist. In the 1880 Census, he was living in Sheldon, Illinois and listed as a physician.

Homeward Bound… and a Familiar Face
July 3, 1864. Phillip Smith has completed his commitment and is on the way back to St Louis:

“Yesterday afternoon at Three Oclock we were greeted with the sight of St Louis which we had not seen since we left it Three years ago and a Welcome sight it was.”

July 12, 1864. Smith arrives in Peoria:

“Several of the Peoria boys including myself started for home and arrived there this Morning right side up. How proud an honor to have been a member of an Army that has Accomplished so Much as has the Army of the Tennessee... An Army that has as yet met with a defeat. May the God of Battles be ever with them and carry them through to the end as well and as Glorious as thus far.”

In this letter of December 4, 1864, Willit Haynes, 53rd Illinois Infantry, Co-H, is working for the assistant quartermaster in Memphis, Tennessee. He writes of seeing a familiar face in the crowd—that of Union General William T. Sherman:

“I have just been abroad of the packet, and who should I see but my friend William. He looked quite natural and was having quite an amount of fuss and pelaver made over him... I stood around until I had seen him put about half a pint of Corn juice out of sight, when I left for fear I should lose my good opinion of Billy, for fear you won’t know who I mean as there are so many Williams in this troublesome world, I will tell you, it was the stepfather of our country Maj. Gen. W.T. Sherman enroute for Little Rock.”

End of the War
On April 15, 1865, Duncan Ingraham, brother of Ned, Co-B, 33rd Illinois Infantry writes of one of the saddest moments in U.S. history:

“While at Montgomery the rumor came – came creeping thru rebel sources – came solemn & grief bearing even from our enemies – Lincoln is dead! Struck down by the hand of an assassin! Few believed it – yet over all crept a sense of horror.

“Could it be true! Just when the Nations heart beat high with joy for our victories and gratitude to her defenders. At length the official notice came from Maj [Eric Canby] also ordering half hour guns from sunrise to sunset & minute guns from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Did you ever hear minute guns? There is something inexpressibly solemn in their tone. I have heard church bells toll out – What a world of solemn thought… but the roar of a piece of artillery especially at some distance and at that interval of time one has but just forgotten for what that grieving [mean] was given when hark another.”

April 28, 1865. The war is over, but the dying continues. Willit Haynes writes an account of the Sultana tragedy, the steamboat which blew up while returning Union troops to their homes with more than 2,000 on board:

“I never saw anything to compare with it; I was awakened a little before daylight by the cries for help on the River and by the time I could get out, there were hundreds of them struggling in the water and crying all kinds of help. We all did everything we could, but there were a great many lost before any assistance could be afforded. I was out until noon in a yawl with three others; we caught nine men, some of them almost gone, but gripping some piece of the wreck that kept them above water; among the rest, I found Mr. S.W. Hardin, former adjutant of the 53rd. He was puked up nearly drowned; he had been to New Orleans on a wedding tour; his wife was lost. I brought him to my room and supplied him with a suit of clothes as he was nearly naked; he is nearly crazy about his wife... It was only about 7 or 10 minutes after the explosion, which no doubt killed hundreds, that the boat was all a sheet of flame; there were about 10 lady passengers and I guess 3 in all that were saved. Mrs. Hardin’s body has not yet been found...”

In an 1885 newspaper article, Phillip Smith sums up his wartime experience:

“...[Our Generals] are dead now. They have gone the way we all must go… and before many years none will be left to tell the tale of the fearful struggle through which we of both sides passed. But we do feel proud of the fact that we leave to our posterity a united country, under one flag, the grand starry banner, the emblem of the grandest government that ever existed, and which I believe the old veterans, whether they wore the blue or the gray, would now stand as one man to uphold and guard. Is it any wonder then that we, the few surviving members of this grand old regiment, desire once more, after a separation of over twenty years, to come together in a reunion – to grasp each other warmly by the hand, to talk over our campaign, our battles, our joys, and our troubles? When it is over we can part, feeling happier because of the occasion, and grateful that we have been spared to be there.

The Aftermath
Phillip Smith of Peoria survived the war and had a son, Howard, and daughter, Edna, by his wife, Mary. In the 1870 Census, he is employed as a painter; in 1880, he is a letter carrier living on Illinois Ave. in Peoria. Mary died in 1899, and the 1900 census shows Phillip living with his daughter and her husband, Fred. In 1910, Smith remarries Cynthia, and they live on Glen Oak Street; his profession is listed as “lawyer pensions.” Ten years later, the couple is living in the Proctor Endowment Home; his profession is “pension agent.” Smith died in 1927.

After the war, John Ziegler chose another profession. He would remain an undertaker in Ward 7, Peoria, Illinois, until his death in 1896. He was survived by three children: Warren, Florence and Frank. Promoted to full colonel on May 10, 1865, Allen Fahnestock returned to his home in Glasford. Over the years, he was very active in the Grand Army of the Republic, and hand-wrote several copies of his war diary, the largest of which is 500+ pages and in the possession of the Peoria Historical Society. He ran a general store until 1920, when he died at the age of 92. Allen and his wife, Sarah, had four children: Mary, Charles, Frank and John.

Edward “Ned” and Duncan Ingraham were two of the nine children of Captain Henry E. Ingraham, who served in the New York State Militia during the War of 1812, and Constant Wilson. The boys’ great-grandfather, William Greenleaf, was a member of the Provincial Congress and an intimate friend of George Washington. Henry’s sister, Sophia May Ingraham, married Philander Chase, who founded Jubilee College near Kickapoo, and whose nephew was Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Treasury secretary. After the Civil War, Ned and Duncan migrated to the northwest. In 1880, we find Ned as a physician/surgeon in Oregon, and Duncan as a clergyman, surveyor and farmer in Washington State during the 1880, 1900 and 1910 Censuses. Ned died in 1894; Duncan died in 1923.

After the war, Willit Haynes of Marshall County became a grain dealer in Chenoa, Illinois and married Eliza; they had one son, Eldon. In the 1900 Census, a widowed Haynes, age 61, is a bank employee, living in Chicago with his brother, William. In 1910, he is retired and living with his son and wife, Louise. Haynes died in 1919 and is buried in Chenoa.

These are but a few of the many interesting passages we have transcribed. These men fought to save our nation, succeeding, but not without four long years of loss, suffering and toil. They are truly the greatest generation of the 19th century. iBi

Once complete, all diary entries will be available for viewing at peoriahistoricalsociety.org.

Add new comment