Illinois During the Civil War

Refusing Comfort

by Drew E. VandeCreek

In the fall of 1864 Grant's troops took up the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, Richmond's rail link to the shrinking Confederacy. In Georgia and South Carolina General William T. Sherman's army, which included fifty Illinois regiments, embarked upon their "March to the Sea," making "old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”1 South Carolina met with special treatment from bluecoats hardened by combat. One soldier reasoned that South Carolina "will never want to seceed (sic) again…. I think she has her rights' now."2 Confederate deserters and stragglers joined Sherman's "bummers" in depredations on the southern countryside, prompting one rebel soldier to complain "I do not think the Yankees are any worse than our own army."3

The burning of Columbia, South Carolina

The burning of Columbia

By the spring of 1865 Grant's siege of Peterburg had reduced its Confederate defenders to near-ruin. Lee's army of 55,000 slowly shrank as southern deserters returned to their homes and farms. After a series of engagements, Grant's 120,000 soldiers forced the Army of Northern Virginia into a retreat from Petersburg. Richmond was now surrounded, and the Confederate government abandoned its capital. On April 3, Abraham Lincoln rode into Richmond, only hours after the last Confederates had left.

McLean House


On April 9, 1865, after an abortive Confederate counter-attack, Robert E. Lee arranged to meet with Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean house near Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia (pictured above), where he surrendered his army and ended the war.

Five days later, just as the president turned to the delicate issue of reconstructing the rebel states, the well-known actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln as he sat in a private box in Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Although a native of Maryland, Booth considered himself a member of the southern gentry, and had stated that "the country was formed for the white, not for the black man." Booth had seethed at Lincoln's proposal, in his Second Inaugural, that African-Americans receive the vote, and vowed "that is the last speech he will ever make."4

A wave of disbelief and grief swept across Illinois and the rest of the northern states. After lying in state in the United States Capitol, Lincoln's body began a long funeral procession home to Illinois. In Philadelphia, New York, and the other major cities of the North, Americans paid their respects to their fallen leader. On May 1 the procession reached Chicago, and on May 4, 1865 Lincoln was laid to rest near Springfield.

The Cairo Democrat, which less than a year earlier and in the heat of a campaign had denounced Lincoln as "a usurper and tyrant who is only fit to split rails," now mourned. "Illinois claims Abraham Lincoln as her gift to the nation; and receives back his lifeless body, marred by traitors, weeping, like Niobe, and refusing to be comforted."5

  • 1. James McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 809.
  • 2. McPherson, 826.
  • 3. McPherson, 810.
  • 4. David Herbert Donald Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) 589.
  • 5. Arthur C. Cole The Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 391.