Illinois During the Civil War

Settlement and Immigration in Civil War Illinois

by Drew E. VandeCreek

By 1861 Illinois was no longer the frontier. Instead, it had become a prosperous agricultural state marked by the rapid growth of the region's great city. In the antebellum period Chicago had used the Illinois and Michigan Canal's water link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basin to become a new trading hub. Now the railroads, pushing ever west, made it the northwest's leading commercial center. Illinois' central position in the American transportation network and general prosperity made it a magnet for immigrants. Many chose Illinois for its good prospects. Others settled down because fate, or at least a train, deposited them there.

Bird's eye view of Chicago in the 1860s

While Germans and Scandinavians joined Irish in the immigration of the 1850s, the Civil War brought a new group of immigrants to Illinois. White southerners, some uprooted by battle, others simply disinclined to live in the Confederacy, streamed into the state. Cairo, already a large military depot, became the first destination of many of these immigrants. While some came to join relatives who had migrated decades earlier, most southern immigrants arrived with little money or property, and no contacts in Illinois. They relied upon the uncertain workings of the state government and the charity of church groups and other voluntary associations. Some endured harrowing trips north to their new communities, traveling in dirty cattle cars and freezing temperatures.

Illinois officials complained that some of this immigration was pernicious, specifically Missouri's policy of expelling convicted rebel sympathizers across the Mississippi River. These new arrivals often took up as pro-Confederate guerillas and bushwhackers, and contributed to the Prairie State's political unrest.

A significant number of African Americans had fled Illinois in the years leading up to the Civil War due to the state's zealous enforcement of the fugitive slave law. Many slave catchers readily apprehended free blacks on the street and sold them into slavery as well. But by 1862 southern slaves, freed by Union troops and now regarded as contraband of war, made their way north to Illinois. Cairo became the focal point of this immigration as well.

While Illinois state law prohibited black immigration to the state, martial law governed Cairo, and a large federal camp devoted to contrabands grew there. Every day the Illinois Central Railroad carried several carloads of African-Americans north to Chicago, Rock Island and other urban centers. But the white population of Illinois rose up in outrage, and demanded that political leaders put a stop to the black migration. In February of 1863 local officials convicted six African Americans of living in Carthage, in western Illinois, in violation of the state's black laws, and sold them to the highest bidders. These actions quickly ended the influx of black immigrants to Illinois.

In 1865 Radical Republicans in the state legislature succeeded in repealing the state's black laws, clearing the way for freedmen to immigrate to Illinois once again. Many settled with the help of the Northwestern Freedmen's Aid Committee, which had been organized in 1863. A significant number of African Americans remained in Cairo, but the vast majority of the new arrivals set out for Chicago's urban environs or noted abolitionist centers such as Quincy, Galesburg and Jacksonville.

In the 1850s Chicago had become a center for the real estate speculation that shaped immigration to Illinois and other prairie states. Speculators bought large blocks of land, often from veterans acquiring acreage through military warrants or directly from the government land office, and held it, waiting for prices to appreciate. In the first half of the 1850s nearly ten million acres passed from the federal government to private hands by these means. Much remained unoccupied during the war.

By the eve of the Civil War east central Illinois remained the least settled portion of the state. But the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad, which linked Chicago with the Mississippi River at Cairo, brought immigrants to this region. The railroad became a major land agent itself, selling its federal grant lands through a large-scale advertising campaign and the efforts of recruiting agents scouring the East, South and Europe for buyers.

Several major groups of European immigrants arrived in Illinois in the Civil War era. Germans congregated in Cairo and LaSalle, as well as Chicago. Many Scandinavians passed through Chicago en route to settlements in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But Norwegians settled in a large group near Ottawa, and a significant Swedish community emerged in Rockford and other towns in Illinois' northern tier.

The Wig-wam, the Chicago structure in which the 1860 Republican National Convention was held.

German immigrants became an instrumental part of the state's young Republican Party, and proved instrumental in carrying the state for Lincoln in the party's 1860 convention (pictured at left). Scandinavians, French and Scots joined them in the Republican ranks, while Irish turned to the Democratic Party. Irish immigration, begun with the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, continued through the war years, thanks in part to the efforts of the Chicago Emigrant Agency, which maintained a vigorous campaign in the British Isles. Many Irish contributed to the period's Fenian movement, which set as its goal Irish independence from Great Britain. In 1863 Fenians held their first national convention and Irish National Fair in Chicago, and the city became a hotbed of movement activism.1

As Illinoisans left their frontier days behind, they became increasingly involved in others' westward migrations. Denizens of Jacksonville noted that "a constant tide of movers passed through our streets, going West." Chicago, the "great Babylon of the West" became a major way station for immigrants from foreign land as well as native-born Americans seeking a better lot in the West. The city increasingly served as a nexus between East and West, moving western crops and materials to eastern markets and distributing immigrants to new homes in Wisconsin, Iowa and other new territories.2

By the end of the Civil War Chicago had become the great commercial center serving a vast American hinterland stretching as far as the Rocky Mountains. Having defeated their rivals in Cincinnati and St. Louis for this lucrative designation, merchants brought grain, corn, lumber and livestock into the city on a network of rails. In Chicago workmen processed and packaged such raw materials and sent them on their way to eastern markets. Chicago's immense industrial and commercial expansion attracted a legion of immigrants in the decades to come.

The city's commercial concerns also packaged manufactured products, from tools and clothing to pre-fabricated houses, for sale in the West. Generations of Chicago-based salesmen rode the rails in search of sales commissions in the West's growing cities, towns and hamlets. Thus Illinois decisively shaped the patterns of America's western settlement, even as that settlement passed by the state's borders.3

Browse primary source materials for the theme "Settlement and Immigration."

  • 1. The Fenians' rapid growth culminated in an unfortunate 1866 invasion of Canada (then called British North America) by a private Fenian Army made up largely of Civil War veterans. Seeking to strike a blow at the hated British Empire, the Fenians instead met an inglorious defeat at the hands of British Army regulars and American border patrols.
  • 2. Arthur Cole Centennial History of Illinois: The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870 (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919) 348.
  • 3. William Cronon Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).