Illinois During the Civil War

Illinois Volunteers

by Drew E. VandeCreek

By the summer of 1862 Illinois had sent over 130,000 men to war. Despite its early secessionist proclivities, southern Illinois counties led the way in the enlistment of troops, providing nearly 50% more than their quota. Illinois troops, like most other Union soldiers, organized in units linked to their state and locality rather than the regular Army. The 45th Illinois, hailing from Galena, became known as the "Lead Mine Regiment." The 34th Illinois, raised in Dixon, dubbed itself the "Rock River Rifles." Troops often organized themselves in outfits comprised of specific ethnic groups or occupations. Illinois sent regiments of Germans, Irish, Scots, and other ethnicities, as well as units comprised solely of Jews. Units made up of railroad men, schoolteachers and ministers joined a "Temperance Regiment" in service.

Illinois' first regiment of black troops hailed from Galesburg. African-Americans also served in regiments from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In 1863 the War Department organized a new black regiment at Quincy, but failed to provide the recruits with the same enlistment bounties and pay as white soldiers. Black soldiers also faced discrimination when many Union commanders opted to use them for heavy labor rather than combat.

Camp Butler and Camp Douglas, huge new military installations, opened outside of Springfield and Chicago, respectively. These facilities housed most Illinois troops before they departed for the South, as well as a growing list of Confederate prisoners. Cairo and Mound City in Illinois' southern tip became major military depots as well. Cairo served as the western armies' base of operations, ferrying rations, ammunition and other supplies downstream to troops in the field. Mound City hosted the Union Navy on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In its foundry workmen converted steamboats into gunboats.1

Union gunboat anchored opposite Cairo, Illinois

Union gunboat at Cairo

Military conscription, or the draft, did not take effect in Illinois until 1864. Many Illinois leaders preferred to turn out volunteer soldiers rather than submit to the draft's implied critique of their state's patriotism and its threat to individual liberty. The same spirit of voluntary action inspired the vast majority of the Prairie State's response to the war's emerging concerns for sanitary conditions, medical expertise, and the lot of the less fortunate. In this regard Illinoisans adapted the antebellum tradition of voluntary associations, discussed in such detail by Alexis de Tocqueville, to the unprecedented conditions of Civil War.2

  • 1. Robert P. Howard Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972) 298-302.
  • 2. ALexis De Tocqueville Democracy in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)