Illinois During the Civil War

“And the War Came,” 1861-62     

by Drew E. VandeCreek

War began on April 12, when South Carolina batteries bombarded Fort Sumter, which had eluded Confederate seizure due to its position in the middle of Charleston harbor. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas quickly seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy.

Secession divided Illinoisans, often along geographical lines. While one man wrote Senator Lyman Trumbull that he was "ready for twenty years of war," ex-governor John Reynolds declared that "the revolution in the South is the greatest demonstration of human greatness and grandeur that was ever performed on the globe." A significant number of Illinoisans also believed that the federal government lacked the authority to prevent secession. Even the Ottawa abolitionist G.W. Bassett asserted the "absolute and unqualified right of the people of any State of this Union to dissolve their political connections with the General Government whenever they choose."1

Southern Illinois became a hotbed of secessionist sentiment. The Cairo Gazette declared "the sympathies of our people are mainly with the South." A public, outdoor meeting in Pope County echoed the South's right to secede, and a rally in Williamson County sought to split Egypt from Illinois and join the Confederacy.2

Illinois Governor Richard YatesIn the corridors of government Illinois closed ranks. In his inaugural address Republican Governor Richard Yates (pictured at right) declared that "the whole material of the government, moral, political and physical, if need be, must be employed to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States." Senator Stephen Douglas, who had advocated compromise with the South during the months before Sumter, immediately spoke out on behalf of the Union's preservation after hostilities began. After briefly voicing pro-southern sympathies, Congressman John A. Logan of southern Illinois enlisted in the Illinois militia. His actions helped to lead many of his political followers toward the defense of the Union.3

With the firing upon Fort Sumter, the young men of Illinois volunteered en masse for military service. One man walked over twenty miles to enlist. But the volunteers found an outdated militia structure unable to organize them into an effective fighting force. The State Legislature quickly rushed into special session and approved a bond issue to provide war funds, as well as a new militia organization. The new plan established camps at Alton, Caseyville and Cairo in southern Illinois. These installations placed training troops nearer to the anticipated theater of conflict, but they also cast a long shadow over potential secessionist activities in the state's southern tier. One area farmer opined "them brass missionaries has converted a heap of folks that was on the anxious seat."4

President Lincoln quickly ran afoul of public opinion in his native state. Most Democrats of course criticized his handling of the secession crisis, and blamed him for the outbreak of hostilities. But many Republicans also lambasted Lincoln for his lack of decisive action in prosecuting the war. Slowly acclimating himself to the work of the executive branch and the political currents of a capital in crisis, Lincoln moved deliberately. While Republicans called for immediate, bold action, he turned his efforts toward the delicate task of retaining the Border States for the Union.

The arrival of John C. Fremont, the intrepid western explorer and 1856 Republican presidential candidate, as commander of the federal forces in St. Louis only exacerbated Lincoln's difficulties. The St. Louis armory contained a large cache of weapons, ordnance and supplies, and remained vulnerable to pro-southern forces assembling in Missouri. Fremont moved rapidly to secure the city, often without adequate support from a War Department overwhelmed by events in the East.

But Fremont also proved to be capable of rash action. Late in the summer of 1861 he issued a proclamation announcing the emancipation of slaves in Missouri. Lincoln, eager to avoid ruffling the feathers of border state slaveholders, ordered Fremont to withdraw the proclamation. When Fremont demurred, the commander-in-chief officially overruled his subordinate. In early November, the War Department removed Fremont from his command.

Lincoln's action aroused the ire of Illinois' ardent abolitionists and militant Republicans. The Rock River Democrat argued that "It is the settled conviction of the people of the West that Gen. Fremont is just the right man in the right place, and is promptly and rightly doing his duty, and if the Administration desires to outrage that sentiment it can find no surer way to do it than by superseding Gen. Fremont." Gustave Koerner called the president's policy "outrageous," and concluded that "the administration has lost immensely in the Northwest."5

  • 1. Arthur C. Cole The Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 255, 261, 254.
  • 2. Cole, 253.
  • 3. Cole, 256.
  • 4. Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991) 2, 13.
  • 5. Cole, 265.