Elgin in 1860 had one bridge, mill races, and few homes east of Gifford Street, north of Ann Street, south of Prairie Street, and west of what is now Jackson Street.
The army must be filled and the country saved, and if others will not go, Elgin will send the last man and the bottom dollar.'1
Chapter II. The Dividing Line
The settlers who claimed small farms in the Fox Valley were part of a continuous American movement westward to new lands and opportunities. The first Kimballs had landed in Massachusetts in 1634, and a Gifford was listed as a Connecticut proprietor as early as 1659. The descendants of these Puritans moved outward from towns near the New England coast to New Hampshire and New York and thence to Illinois. Farmers in the West supplied the industrial Northeast with food, and in return obtained manufactured goods. The railroads strengthened this economic link between these sections, which already shared a common heritage.
The Fox enters the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi, and the Father of Waters flows south past states which were settled by families moving westward from the Southern coastal plain. With them came slaves to work cotton lands, and although only a minority owned them, Southerners defended the system. The growing antagonism between the sections over slavery became inextricably involved with other issues and was difficult to resolve. Two ways of life were emerging within the Republic-one essentially democratic and expansionist in outlook, the other aristocratic and conservative.
The life of a city, even as that of men or a nation, may be divided into periods, each marked by a dramatic change in its development. The Civil War was this kind of dividing line in the history of Elgin. The conflict which erupted between North and South would transform a country town into a factory city.
The slavery question was argued in Elgin from the earliest days of the settlement. Abolition sentiments were not popular at first, and an Elgin Free Discussion meeting in 1840, during a series of abolition meetings, resolved that "when any person who does not break the law proposes peaceably to express his views in this community by lecturing on any subject, we feel bound to protect him in his constitutional rights"2 The chairman of the meeting was Dr. Joseph Tefft, and the secretary, James T. Gifford.
One morning William G. Hubbard, a storekeeper, found on his veranda a full-sized coffin, placed there during the night. A note pinned to it warned that if he did not stop talking so much against slavery he would need the coffin. Hubbard used it for kindling and kept on talking. Despite the desire of many to let the effort to elect the Liberty Party's local candidates in the Elgin subject rest, a growing number joined Hubbard and took a stand precinct. It resulted in one of the first Liberty Party victories at against what they considered the injustice of slavery. Their opposition became part of their religious beliefs, and it soon shaped their political attitudes as well.
The Liberty Party had been organized in upstate New York in 1840. Not all Liberty men agreed on the particulars of a program, but they generally rejected the argument that slavery was recognized by the Constitution, and they opposed its further extension. One of the members of the new party in Elgin was James T. Gifford, who was appointed to its state central committee at a Chicago convention in 1842. There were only 32 Liberty votes cast in Kane County in the gubernatorial election of that year, less than three percent of the total. Six of these votes were in the Elgin precinct. In the Congressional election four years later, the Kane County vote for the Liberty candidate swelled to 533 about twenty-nine percent of the total. The third party was gathering momentum.
The Kane County Anti-Slavery Society furthered the movement. Among the Elgin members were Dr. Anson Root, R. W. Padelford, the Rev. N. C. Clark of the Congregational Church, and William G. Hubbard. In 1844 a new pastor for the Baptist Church, the Rev. Adoniram Judson Joslyn, arrived in Elgin. The preceding year he had served as secretary of the DuPage County Anti-Slavery Society. Fiery, aggressive and outspoken in his opposition to slavery, Joslyn's energies were not confined to the pulpit. The Western Christian, which he helped edit, advocated repeal of the Illinois black laws which restricted the rights of free Negroes. A Liberty convention at Aurora in October 1846 moved "that we recommend to hungry, destitute, naked and plundered emigrants to tarry through the winter, or longer, if they choose, in Kane County, being assured that it is as safe and secure an asylum as Canada itself."3
The abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, brother of the martyred Elijah, was a principal speaker at an Anti-Slavery Convention held in Elgin in February 1847. "If the people of Elgin can withstand what he has said," wrote Caroline Gifford to her father, "and still cling to their parties, I cannot think what they are made of. I do not see how they can help being good Anti-Slavery people - I mean real strong Liberty party folks. We had a fugitive here only 30 days from slavery who gave his narrative which was very interesting."4 This meeting resolved to make a special effort to elect the Liberty party's local candidates in the Elgin precinct. It resulted in one of the first Liberty party victories at the polls in Illinois.
In August 1848, A. J. Joslyn was a delegate to the national convention in Buffalo, New York, where the Liberty men broadened their program beyond the anti-slavery issue and adopted the new title of Free Soil party. That fall their candidate for president, Martin Van Buren, captured Kane County with 1,220 votes to 855 for the Whig and 783 for the Democrat. In Elgin the vote was Free Soil, 222; Democratic, 147; and Whig, 140.
Not all of the Van Buren vote could be considered anti-slavery, since the numerous emigrants from "York State" may have been voting for one of their own. On the other hand, Free Soil votes were not a true indication of the anti-slavery sentiment in northern Illinois, since there were many opponents of the institution who continued to vote Whig or Democratic. The year of the Free Soil plurality in Kane County marked the zenith of its political fortunes. The Illinois Whigs now also declared themselves against the extension of slavery and recovered many of the moderates among the Free Soilers. In 1852 Kane County returned to its traditional Democratic allegiance, and the Free Soil party lost almost half the votes it had won four years before.
"We were all in favor of the underground railway to Canada," recalled Harriet Gifford.5 The extent of local participation which may have accompanied this sympathy is not definitely known. Since those who harbored a fugitive slave were subject to criminal penalties, little evidence remains of Underground Railroad operations in Elgin. The Illinois tracks of the "Liberty Line" started at such river towns in Chester, Alton, and Quincy and led toward Chicago. Elgin was too far north of the more direct routes into Chicago from the south to have served as a major station. The nearest main line ran from Princeton through Sugar Grove, Aurora and Hinsdale to the lake terminus.
During the fifties Elgin welcomed a number of prominent anti slavery speakers, including John P. Hale, Free Soil presidential candidate in 1852, Ichabod Codding, Wendell Phillips, and Cassius M. Clay of Kentucky.
Led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Congress in 1854 enacted the Kansas-Nebraska bill, opening up new territories to the possible introduction of slavery if their settlers approved. The legislation resulted in the formation of the Republican Party as a union of Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers opposed to the extension of slavery. The Rev. A. J. Joslyn served as secretary of the organizational meeting of the Kane County AntiNebraskans, as the Republicans were first known, held in Geneva on August 19, 1854. This was one of the first stirrings of the new party in Illinois. That fall, the entire local Anti-Nebraskan slate was victorious with the exception of the candidate for sheriff. Augustus Adams of Elgin, a former Whig, was elected to the state Senate on the new ticket. The little band of Liberty men were now part of a larger host moving toward a divided Union.
In the presidential election of 1856, a political pattern was set in Kane County which has endured to the present day. Fremont, the Republican candidate, beat Buchanan, the Democrat, by a margin of five to one. The proprietor of a local restaurant announced a free public dinner on the occasion of James Buchanan's election. Only the Catholic priest accepted the invitation.
The mounting hatred of slavery in Elgin can be found in the diary of Sam Kimball. He had been a Democrat and an adrmirer of Stephen A. Douglas. And yet, when John Brown was hanged in December 1859, Kimball could write: "When working ... my ear was often saluted with the tolling of the bell as a token of respect for John Brown ... No doubt many of the church bells in the northern states have rung the requiem to the honest John Brown who has laid down his life for the cause of freedom." Later, when Brown's co-conspirators in the Harper's Ferry raid were hanged, Kimball recorded: "Nothing of special interest has transpired here today. But things of great moment have taken place in the land. Four immortal souls have been sent to eternity by the slave power of Virginia for what? For remembering the oppressed as bound with them."6 The Elgin bell tolling for John Brown was also sounding the tragedy to come.
2. Elgin in 1860
"Elgin to all her guests on this 4th of July in the year of Grace 1860, in the year of American Independence 84, bids a cordial welcome"7 was the announcement of a community picnic in the grove to the east of the Academy. At sunrise a thirteen-pound cannon salute was followed by a crackle of small arms fire. Later, church bells pealed, and a parade started on the west side and crossed the single wooden bridge which linked the two parts of the settlement. Postmaster George Renwick, the Grand Marshal of the day, was mounted on a fine horse. The line of march was led by the Brass Band, and included the Washington Continental Artillery Company in full uniform. Distinguished citizens, clergy, and school children followed.
The community's patriarch, former state senator Elijah Wilcox, welcomed everyone to the grove and congratulated them upon their privileges as American citizens and occupants of the Fox River Valley. The Declaration of Independence was read, and there were toasts to the Pilgrim Fathers, Our Common Schools, and Young America. Stirring music was supplied by the band and the German Glee Club. Fireworks concluded the day.
Those in attendance included early settlers and their offspring and a number who had arrived from foreign shores. There were 2,797 residents counted in the official census this year. Of the 770 foreign-born, 264 were natives of Ireland, 257 came from the British Isles and Canada, and 212 had left Germany. The rural area of Elgin Township contained 795, and there were 544 in the village of Clintonville, three miles downstream. The city had been dormant since the panic of '57, and Aurora now led the county's townships in population.
Most of the dwellings were located within half a mile of Market Square at the intersection of Chicago, Mill (now Douglas), and River (now Grove) Streets. This was then, as it today, a triangle. Farmers brought produce, wood and livestock there for sale to merchants. About three-fourths of the houses were on the east side, few of them south of Prairie or north of Park. Many broad, vacant patches lay between the dwellings.
Much had been accomplished in the twenty-five years since the founding, and Elgin was no longer a frontier community. It was linked by rail to Chicago, now a booming city of 109,260, which Provided a market for the area's wheat and milk. The local economy was concentrated on the processing of the surplus of the surrounding farrns. The city served the farmer with four flouring mills (the Waverly, Excelsior, Eagle, and City), which drew their power from mill races running south along both banks of the river. The largest was the City, with a capacity of one hundred barrels daily. Also powered by water was the woolen mill, which in 1860 reported an annual output of thirteen thousand yards of flannel and additional quantities of yarn made from the wool of area sheep.
Grain not turned into flour was likely to become distilled liquor. Benjamin F. Lawrence and Walter L. Pease about 1855 erected a large distillery along five hundred feet of river frontage above the dam. Its buildings were situated on about ten acres of ground, and barrels were made on the premises. Many of the Irish were employed here. The plant used 150,000 bushels of grain annually. Other manufacturing establishments, dominated by the farm machinery, wagon and carriage shops, were found along River Street. The biggest of these in the past year had produced one hundred cultivators, sixty carriages, and thirty farm wagons.
Newest building on the square was a bank erected by Orlando Davidson this very year on the northwest comer of Chicago and Mill. Across the street to the east, Hubbard's store offered both dry goods and groceries. In the same building a book store sold copies of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss; the latest papers from Chicago and New York; and magazines, such as Harper's Weekly, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Edinburgh Review. Other groceries on the square were James Knott's on the northwest corner of Chicago and River and Todd & McNeil's on the southwest comer. The southeast comer was occupied by Henry Sherman's Block, with Union Hall upstairs.
Evening activities for men, other than attendance at several saloons, were the rituals at the Kane Lodge No. 47 of the Odd Fellows, formed in 1849, and Elgin Lodge No. 117 of the Ancient, Free & Accepted Masons, organized in 1852.
Nine churches called the faithful to worship, five of them recently organized. Divided in part by the slavery question, there were two groups of Presbyterians, who were first organized in 1853. The Reformed Presbyterians formed a separate church two years later. An Episcopalian church was started in 1858. Two churches with services in the German language marked the presence of these immigrants. The Evangelicals organized in 1855 and the Lutherans in 1859.
Germans began arriving after the failure of the liberal and nationalistic revolutionary movements of 1847-48. They were mainly Protestants from the northern states. In Hanover Township, Cook County, which adjoined Elgin's eastern border, their farms were now more numerous than those of the native-born Americans. Already it was noted that "they save what they make. They live within their income. They pay as they go."8 Mill Street north of Davidson's bank and Hubbard's store was almost wholly occupied by German enterprise, including Seidel's bakery, Bielenberg's barber shop, the Adlers' clothing store, the Kohns' meat market, Pabst's Chicago House and Fordrescher's Music Hall.
Political feelings ran high among the followers of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, two presidential candidates from the Prairie State. The 1860 campaign was marked by fervent rallies, parades, band music and songs. It was discussed from the pulpit in notably partisan sen-nons, argued about on Market Square, and was the cause of more than a few personal quarrels. Even brothers were divided. The Rev. Adonirarn J. Joslyn, now editor of the Weekly Gazette, was an articulate Republican and an ardent temperance advocate; his younger brother, Ed, was a captivating Democratic stump speaker and a practicing wet.
Republicans were clearly in the majority. The Wide Awakessemi-military marching clubs for Lincoln-had three local units with a total membership of about two hundred. They wore oilskin caps and capes to protect them from the dripping torches carried in their parades. Young girls and women embroidered elaborate banners for the cause of "Lincoln and Liberty." As a militiaman in the Black Hawk War, lawyer, and senatorial candidate, Lincoln had traveled widely in Illinois. Although he visited several places nearby, such as Aurora, Waukegan, Evanston, Rockford, Freeport and Joliet, he had never walked the streets of Elgin. And yet Elgin residents were among his strongest supporters. The Wide Awakes had demonstrated for him at the Republican convention in Chicago, and an eleven-member delegation journeyed to Springfield to congratulate him upon his nomination.
One Republican rally in Gifford Park started at two in the afternoon and continued into the evening as huge crowds cheered one speaker after another. Hundreds of wagons belonging to those driving in from neighboring towns and fields jammed the streets. The orators in the public park were on two stands, one thundering forth in English, the other in German.
When the votes were counted, Lincoln had carried Elgin Township with 532 votes to 297 for Douglas. Unable to accept the decision of the electorate, which sent the rail splitter to the White House, Southern states began seceding.
3. Drums of War
A messenger riding through town shouted the news that Fort Sumter had been fired upon. The Academy bell began to ring, joined almost at once by other bells, all announcing that war had begun. President Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers was answered with meetings to form military companies.
First to respond were members of the local drill unit, the Continentals, but they were unarmed. When ninety muskets arrived at the county courthouse, both an embryonic Geneva company and the Elgin contingent claimed authorization for their possession. The dispute was settled when Captain Ed Joslyn, who had recently been elected Mayor of Elgin, and about twenty men stormed the gun cache guarded by the Genevans and were met with iron pokers and a hail of stones. Bloodied but victorious in their first battle, they returned home with the weapons and left for Springfield escorted by the Brass Band. Organized as Company A of the 7th Illinois, the state's first regiment, they performed guard duty around Cairo until the end of their three months' enlistment.
Other Elgin patriots were frustrated by the lack of equipment. Several months passed before Illinois regiments could be armed, trained, and sent into combat. Influential citizens were given authority by the governor to raise regiments; they in turn would persuade other prominent men to form companies. Ed Joslyn, returned from service with the 7th, helped form the 36th Illinois Regiment and became its lieutenant colonel. Sam Ward, a monument maker and Wide Awake leader, recruited a company of the reorganized 7th. Attorney John S. Wilcox was chosen captain of Company K of the 52nd. Another attorney, John S. Riddle, was a captain in the 127th. James Tazewell, an English-born brewer, led a company of the 55th. The son of a west side store proprietor, William Lynch, left his studies at Notre Dame to form the 58th, which many of the local Irish joined. An artillery outfit, the Elgin Battery, was organized by George Renwick, but many of the men were strangers recruited through payment of a sixty dollar bounty allowed by the Kane County Board of Supervisors.
Adonirarn J. Joslyn (1818-1868) above, and his younger brother, Edward S. Joslyn (1825-1885), below, were eloquent political opponents in Civil War days.
Most of the Elgin soldiers who saw battle action signed up for three years with the 7th, 36th, 52nd, 55th, 58th, and 127th 11linois infantry regiments. Others performed guard duty with the 69th and 141st regiments which were enrolled for one hundred days, and the 153rd regiment, which was mustered for a year.
Farmer, cooper, carriage maker, laborer, teamster, poulterer, clerk, printer, harness maker, blacksmith, mason, shoe makerthe volunteers came from all walks of life. They were men of great courage and strength, charging with muzzle-loading rifles into killing fire and often engaging in hand-to-hand combat. They marched long miles burdened with the equipment described this way by John S. Wilcox:
The knapsack weighs about 2 pounds. In it put a shirt, pair of drawers and socks and pants, handkerchiefs, paper & also a large woolen blanket weighing in all some 14 pounds more. Then add the weight of his gun and bayonet weighing 12 pounds-40 rounds of cartridges with box belt-weighing fully ten pounds and their haversacks with 3 days rations of provisions and you have the load of our soldiers.9Led by Grant, the Elginites, first went into battle at the capture of Fort Donelson February 15, 1862. Colonel Lynch wrote home: "The Elgin boys behaved notably in the fight ... not only those in the 58th, but also those in the 7th. Captain Ward is particularly noted ... We are now about to go on some expedition the kind or whereabouts I know not."10 Grant moved deeper into Tennessee to a concentration point on the west side of a bend in the Tennessee River, near a country church called Shiloh. Benjamin Thomas, the Elgin Baptists' pastor, was now a chaplain of the 52nd. Late in March he reported: "We are now expecting a battle daily ... We have made no fortifications."11
The Confederates decided to attack while they had a numerical advantage before Grant's divisions were all assembled. Not only were there no Union entrenchments, unthinkable later in the war, but there were few cavalry patrols sent out to scout the approaching enemy. These factors contributed to the rout when Southern troops hit the Northern tents in the dawn of Sunday, April 6. The battle of Shiloh was a bloody holocaust consurning two amateur armies. In no other Civil War engagement were there so many from Elgin on the field and so many casualties among them.
The 7th, 52nd, and 58th Illinois were stationed close to the river about four miles from where the skirmishing began about 5 a.m. Fulton Gifford, son of Elgin's founder and a sergeant in the 52nd, described the scene when his comrades first heard of the attack: "Sunday morning the sun rose warm and pleasant, and everyone in our camp was washing, shaving and cleaning up for a quiet Sabbath's rest, when a mounted orderly came riding furiously into our camp saying-"Beat the long roll, we're attacked, the enemy are right into us.'"12
Gus Kothe of Elgin, a lieutenant in the 58th, learned of the developing battle from the heavy cannonading, followed by the sound of small arms fire. When the regiment neared the battle line, his company's captain suddenly became ill and Kothe assumed command. Panic was commonplace among the green troops that morning, and hundreds of frightened Union stragglers headed toward the river to huddle under the bluffs or to attempt swimming to safety on the eastern shore. "The Major was of no account," reproached one Elgin officer of the 52nd, "& we had no leader."13
The 55th Illinois was stationed at the extreme left of the Union fine near a blossoming peach orchard. The Confederates reached this position shortly before 10 a.m. One of the three regiments in the brigade, the 71st Ohio, promptly took flight. The 55th and a remaining Ohio regiment withdrew in order and formed along the brow of a hill. Protected by a fence and thick undergrowth, the little brigade held its ground without artillery support. More than half of the 55th's men in line were casualties. Had they been turned, the Confederates could have separated the Union forces from their base on the river landing.
George Doney, an Elgin private in the 52nd, relates what happened when his regiment and the 7th and 58th moved up in support of the wavering Union fine: "Our troops were then falling back rapidly, and the Secesh were upon us like thousands. The cannon balls, grape, canister and bullets flew at a terrific rate, and quickly, our brave boys began to fall."14 The three regiments formed part of a confused line running about three miles through a densely wooded area and anchored along an old sunken road shielded by underbrush and small trees. This strong position the attacking Confederates named the "Hornets' Nest" from the sting of bullets and shot which repulsed their repeated charges. For more than seven hours of almost incessant fighting, the Nest held firm.
About 4 p.m. the Union left and right began giving way, leaving the position isolated. The 7th and 52nd were pulled back before they became encircled, but the 58th was among the regiments surrounded. Colonel Lynch rose in his saddle and gave the order to cut their way through, but in the confusion, white flags were raised, one of which Lynch struck to the ground with his sword. They were forced to yield shortly after 5:30 p.m. More than three-fourths of the two hundred eighteen men of the 58th were wounded. By that time, darkness was coming and the attack was halted.
That night it rained in torrents while pickets exchanged musket fire, siege guns boomed, and the wounded screamed in agony. The victorious but exhausted Confederates slept in the tents occupied by Union forces that morning. Their lines pinned Grant's shattered forces close to the river landing, waiting to drive them into the Tennessee the next day. Colonel Lynch, who was wounded in the mouth, Lieutenant Kothe and other Elgin prisoners lay in mud and water inches deep. Ahead of them were the hardships of prisons in Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia.
It was now the Confederates' turn to he surprised. Around midnight Union reinforcements began to arrive. These fresh, welltrained troops almost doubled Grant's effective strength. By five on the morning of Monday, April 7, the federals were ready to assault a tired and crestfallen Southern army. The 7th Illinois, which had remained on the picket line Sunday night until relieved by the fresh troops, went into action before noon on Monday and was hotly engaged until the enemy retreated about three in the afternoon.
The days following the battle were filled with anxiety in Elgin. There were few means of getting information, and hundreds were expecting fearful news. Many did not learn the fate of relatives or friends for weeks. "Few towns have suffered more from this devastating war than Elgin," wrote the editor of the Gazette.15 Eight from the Elgin area perished, including Capt. Sam Ward, who was described by his commanding officer as having distinguished himself by almost unparalleled bravery. More than a dozen were wounded.
Who won the battle of Shiloh? Union losses were heavier, but the Confederates had been driven from the field. Pvt. Erastus Roberts of Clintonville, who arrived on the scene the day after the conflict ended, reached one conclusion: "It is very hard to look on the battle field and see the dead that is piled up there. There is more than one thousand men a-burying the dead. They dig long holes and pile them in like dead cattle and teams to draw them together like picking pumpkins ... It smells bad."16
The fighting continued three long years after Shiloh. Heaviest Elgin casualties were suffered by the 127th. The regiment lost fifteen during the siege of Vicksburg, all but three from disease and privation. The 36th, the Fox River Regiment, participated in the most engagements, among them Perryville, Stones River and Chickamauga. At Missionary Ridge, led by Major George D. Sherman, son of Henry Sherman, Elgin troops in the 36th were among those who charged up the steep and rugged hill in the face of a withering fire of Confederate batteries sweeping their path. Hardened veterans of the 7th, 36th, 52nd, and 127th regiments fought their way south to Atlanta and then joined Sherman's March to the Sea.
Of the sixty-eight men from the township who gave their lives to preserve the Union, about two dozen fell under fire. Because the concept of sterilization was almost unknown, some died of even minor wounds. One perished amid the horrors of the notorious Andersonville prison. Living in the filth of camps and drinking contaminated water, the great majority succumbed to typhoid, dysentery, and pneumonia.
Lincoln expressed the necessity for this sacrifice in this July 4, 1861, message to Congress:
This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men ... to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life...17These words had deep meaning for the people of Elgin, both natives and foreign-born, who had a fair chance to elevate their condition in a Western settlement. The extension of this ideal to newly freed slaves would be tested with the arrival of the contrabands.
4. The Contrabands
The retreat of the Confederates to Corinth, Mississippi, following the battle of Shiloh left the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama open to Union occupation. Large numbers of slaves were either captured by Yankees or escaped to their lines. They were termed "contrabands of war," and their masters' claims were declared forfeited by an act of Congress. Emancipation was thus occurring through military operations long before Lincoln issued his proclamation. Depriving the Confederacy of its labor force helped to weaken its war effort, and the Union armies could use the male contrabands as laborers and teamsters. The Negro women and children, however, posed a problem for the military authorities.
The 52nd Illinois, then commanded by John S. Wilcox of Elgin, was one of the Union regiments laying siege to Corinth. Wilcox described the condition of the contrabands in a letter to his wife: "But these poor miserable beings-what is to be their present fate, how are they to live during the coming winter? I have this forenoon been to the Negro corral, and such a spectacle of poor wretched thoughtless serni-humanity I never dreamed of."18
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on September 18, 1862, authorized the transfer of those contrabands who could not be utilized to local committees which would provide for their support in the North. The Illinois Central Railroad began carrying one to four carloads of Negroes per day across the Prairie State. The order aroused bitter resentment and embarrassed Republican candidates in the approaching congressional elections. When the Democratic mayor of Chicago was invited to cooperate in finding jobs for black immigrants, he refused with the backing of the City Council. Elsewhere in Illinois the action was opposed by mass meetings and threats. On October 13th, the same day the governor of Illinois warned the President of the political consequences of this violation of the state's Negro exclusion law, Stanton forbade further shipments.
Before the order was rescinded, however, contrabands were already on the cars heading for Elgin. The 52nd's chaplain, Benjamin Thomas, had asked the Rev. Adonirarn J. Joslyn, "How many do you think can find homes at or near Elgin? ... Now, the time to prove our faith by our works has come in regard to the Negro ... We are told that we dare not bring these persons north ... Who will complain? None but sympathizers with treason!"19
Joslyn called a meeting which appointed a committee. The editor replied on October 6: "The committee instructs me to say to you that if you find it necessary to bring any of the contrabands under your charge so far north as this, they shall be well taken care of and provided with good homes during the war. We are willing to do anything, bear anything, suffer anything if we may be instrumental in tearing down the odious temple of oppression and taking from this accursed rebellion its elements of power ..." Joslyn admonished objectors by writing that "those who made themselves ridiculous by scolding and swearing about 'niggers coming to Ill.' had better go into a room alone, look into a French mirror, and see how foolish they look."20
Notwithstanding Joslyn's claim to speak for the city, there was bitter opposition to receiving the contrabands, especially among the Democrats and Irish. It was one thing to free slaves in the South; bringing them to live in the North was another. The previous summer, voters had an opportunity to put the black exclusion laws into a proposed new state constitution. The article incorporating the prohibition had received huge majorities, and Elgin was no exception.
Thomas arrived in Elgin from Cairo on October 15th with two carloads of contrabands, consisting of five men, twenty-eight women and seventy-seven children. Some aroused citizens proposed to lynch the chaplain, and others attempted to have him arrested for violating the Black Laws. Thomas in turn threatened with military arrest anyone interfering with what he called military orders. On at least one occasion he was physically assaulted.
A large number of the newcomers had been slaves on the Newsome, Oates, and Pride plantations located near Cherokee, Franklin County, Alabama. They were put up for the night in the basement of the Kimball House, and next morning were placed among sympathetic families. William E. Bent, for example, built an addition the rear of his farmhouse to accommodate one of the families. Mrs. Wilcox wrote her husband on October 19th that: "Silvan (the colonel's brother) has taken six, a man, his wife and three children and the Maternal Grandmother. They are all anxious to obtain a Negro. Mrs. Sherman has two, Dr. Tefft, seven, and nearly every one you can think of here has one or more. They are welcome to them and it is well to have them taken care of, but I have no desire to have them around. I don't like them..."21
The contrabands had been exposed to smallpox, diphtheria and scarlet fever before their arrival in Elgin. When they were distributed about town, these diseases spread among fan-lilies with children. The height of the epidemic came in November. At least Sixteen of the contraband children, including four children of Mingle and Emma Newsome (the ex-slaves had generally adopted the last names of their former owners) died of smallpox, and about an equal number of white children died of scarlet fever. The city government paid for their medical care and burial.
"We have never known so much fatal sickness in Elgin and vicinity as during the past few months," reported the Gazette on February 18, 1863. "Children have been swept away as with a pestilence." Many citizens blamed the contrabands for the illnesses, and some looked upon the infliction as a reason for retaining all Negroes in bondage. Joslyn answered their complaints by saying, "The government asked us to take care of these captives, and we are doing it not as a pleasure, but as a patriotic duty. We rejoice that they are so well taken care of, and that so few are disposed to insult their helplessness."22
Hostility toward the contrabands was reflected in the columns of the Second District Democrat, a local newspaper critical of Joslyn, which had adopted as its motto the words of Stephen A. Douglas: "I hold that this government was made on the white basis, by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever . . . "23 So prevalent became the abuse of the refugees, however, that even this sheet called for a halt in an editorial in the issue of October 7, 1863:
There is a growing disposition, on the part of some boys and rowdies, to insult and maltreat in every conceivable manner the contrabands, who, unfortunately, and without fault on their part, have become residents of Elgin and vicinity. The disgraceful and barbarous treatment to which these poor creatures are daily subjected, in the shape of stones and missiles of every description, whenever they appear on our streets, demands in thunder tones that protection which humanity and law should always extend to the helpless and innocent.In the spring of 1863 some of the Negro children began appearing at the public schools in violation of Illinois law. An act passed by the state legislature in 1825 provided that the public schools should "be open and free to every class of white children between the ages of five and twenty-one." When Edward S. Joslyn, then city attorney, had drafted Elgin's school ordinance in 1854, the word "white" was omitted from the local admission provisions. Now back from the war and serving as an alderman Joslyn introduced a resolution on May 5, 1863, correcting this oversight by forbidding entry to the contraband students. The Democrats, who controlled the Council, passed the resolution by a vote of 4 to 3. This action aroused an immediate protest from Joslyn's brother, the minister and editor.
Each of the Joslyns had a following in town, and now they were to battle over the school question. Adoniram's arguments favoring the entry of the contrabands have a distinctly modern ring: "Had the council voted that none but decent children should attend the schools, there might be some show of reason in it. But as long as children, dirty, lousy, vulgar, obsene (sic) and profane, are permitted to sit in the school rooms, we cannot see the consistency in sending a clean, well-behaved colored child away. The board, to carry out the order, will need to be good judges of color, for the lightest darkey is but a little darker than the darkest whitey."24
In the end, the dispute was settled by a compromise. On October 6, 1863, the City Council approved a motion by Alderman Ed Joslyn establishing a segregated Colored School. During its first year of existence, sixteen boys and twenty-eight girls were enrolled, and the average daily attendance was fourteen. The superintendent reported that though attending only irregularly, or for only a part of the time, a number had advanced to the third reader, and nearly all had made commendable progress. In 187172, the Elgin schools were integrated. The superintendent's report for that year reads:
But little difficulty has arisen from putting the Colored Children into the schools with the white scholars. In the intermediate department of the Mist Ward, some trouble has existed between the two races, but aside from this, I have heard but little complaint. Many of the patrons, however, will not allow their children to sit beside them, which makes it very inconvenient for the teacher, especially when the school is full.25Worship services among Elgin blacks first took the form of camp meetings, at which some whites came to jeer, in Colby's Grove east of the Academy. In 1866 the Rev. Adoniram Joslyn helped them organize the Second Baptist Church, and in 1867 he was granted a letter of dismissal by the First Baptist Church to unite with the Second. The first arrivals were later joined by their mates and fathers, many of them acompanying Union soldiers going north on leave. One of them, Arthur Newsome, came in March 1863. For half a century, he would be the most resPected leader of the Elgin blacks.
Unlike the many earlier emigrants from the East and foreign shores who found homes in the Fox River Valley, the first blacks had little choice in moving to Elgin. Most of them were children, and they were suffered to come less out of Christian charity than as a means of striking at an enemy. They came as contrabands and remained as second-class citizens.
5. A New Elgin
While Elgin men in blue were fighting on Southern fields, the little city they had left behind was being transformed by the social and economic forces the war had unleashed. "The war will not make hard times in the North West," the Gazette predicted when the war began. "No matter how long the war continues, this great producing region will grow rich out of it ... This may be rather a low view of the contest, but let us accept the good with the bad."26
Despite higher taxation, inflation, and hardship among families with wage earners in military service, Elgin was growing and prospering. In the five years between 1860 and 1865, population increased by more than twenty percent. Streets were thronged with teams and busy men. Elgin was becoming the leading shopping center for the area, attracting trade that formerly went to other towns. Farm prices soared. Wheat was selling for fifty to fifty-five cents per bushel on the local market in September 1861. By October 1863 the price had risen to a dollar and upwards. In the summer of 1864, it had hit two dollars on the Chicago Board of Trade. "Work is plenty and wages high," reported the Gazette in confirmation of its forecast. "Our farmers are coining money and salting down the greenbacks."27
Healthy cows pastured on area dairy farms were challenging grain production as a source of income. The growth of Chicago increased the demand for pure milk, and by 1863 an average of about six hundred gallons per day were shipped from Elgin. The Galena & Chicago Union fitted up a special car which left loaded each morning and was returned empty at night. Dairymen were more independent of the middle man than the grain producer. "Elgin leads and controls the market in this matter," declared editor Joslyn. "If the dealers in Chicago attempt to depress prices, the supply is withheld until they come to time."28 This control was made possible in part by using surplus milk to make butter when prices fell. In the first nine months of 1863, more than 185,000 pounds of butter had been shipped from Elgin.
One sure sign of the boom was the establishment of new banks on a firm foundation of cash. Orlando Davidson's bank, with most of its notes secured by bonds of Southern states, had folded with the outbreak of the rebellion. The firm was reorganized under the state's banking laws in 1861 as the Home Bank. Davidson was the president and A. J. Waldron, cashier. On January 5, 1863, deposits were $16,220.33. A year later they had risen to $28,381.
The Home Bank's deposits would have shown an even greater increase during this period if a rival had not appeared on the scene, its funds supplied by two instant capitalists. The most important of the wartime taxes levied by Congress was the internal revenue law of July 1, 1862, which increased the tax on spirituous liquors by two dollars per gallon. Some time elapsed between the passage of the levy and its effective date, and during this interval, the distillery operated by Benjamin Lawrence and Walter L. Pease worked day and night. Cellars and barns around town were filled with whiskey kegs. The day after the new rates were imposed, the partners began selling their immense stock at an advance of two dollars per gallon on the previous price. By the time their inventory was sold, they were wealthy men. Each had an income for 1863 of about thirty-five thousand dollars-this in an era when a wage earner received less than six hundred dollars for a year of ten-hour days and six-day weeks.
Closing their distillery, Lawrence and Pease combined with M. C. Town to open a private bank and then received a charter for the First National Bank on June 12, 1865. Of the original one thousand shares of stock issued at one hundred dollars per share, Lawrence subscribed to four hundred and Pease to two hundred and fifty. The capital funds necessary to attract industry were now available when opportunity arrived.
During the war, the American Watch Company at Waltham, Massachusetts, was prospering with the flush times in the North, and the establishment of competitors was being agitated. In the early summer of 1864, two American Watch employees were vacationing in Chicago. The thought of forming a watch factory in the growing West was discussed with a Chicago watchmaker, John C. Adams, who took the idea seriously. Adams, who had learned the trade in Elgin, contacted several Chicago investors, among them Beni amin W. Raymond, whose business interests in Elgin were of long standing. Receiving encouragement, Adams was sent East to stimulate interest among leading craftsmen in Waltham, some of whom were discontented.
Prospects seeming favorable, the National Watch Company of Chicago, was organized on August 18, 1864. Before the end of the month, the firm was licensed, and Raymond was elected president. Through his influence, the location of the factory was offered to Elgin on condition that a site of thirty-five acres be deeded to the company and twenty-five thousand dollars worth of stock was subscribed by the town's residents. Taking up one-fourth of the capital of a business with a questionable reputation for stability, at a time when most of Elgin's able-bodied men were in uniform, was an exhibition of civic heroism.
A location on the Dexter farm South of the little city, adjoining the east side North Western railroad tracks and extending to the east bank of the Fox River, was deemed satisfactory. The farm contained a little over one hundred seventy-one acres, and the owners living in Oneida, New York, agreed to sell no less than the entire property for fifty dollars an acre, cash. Efforts to raise the money to purchase the land and to sell the stock were then started, but funds came in slowly. To prevent other communities from attracting the industry away, an article divulging the news in the Elgin Chronicle was suppressed. Finally, Silvanus Wilcox, Walter L. Pease, Henry Sherman, and Benjamin F. Lawrence on December 24, 1864, bought the farm, each paying one-fourth of the purchase price. They donated thirty-five acres to the watch company and subdivided the remainder into building lots. The investors, who became known in company lore as the Four Immortals, also subscribed to the balance of the twenty-five thousand dollars-in stock that hadn't been sold.
In September 1864, company representatives had traveled to Waltham to recruit experienced watchmakers to start up the new factory. They secured Charles S. Moseley, George Hunter, John K. Bigelow, Patten S. Bartlett, Otis Hoyt, Charles E. Mason, and Daniel R. Hartwell, who were referred to as the Elgin constellation of the Pleiades, or the Seven Stars. Each was paid a five thousand dollar bonus and given a five-year contract at five thousand dollars per year. In addition, they received an acre lot on thirteen of the donated acres lying east and south of the factory site. "With two exceptions," recalled George Hunter, "they were all machinists before they were watchmakers, and all were backed by youth and the best of New England traditions."29 Moseley, who was designated the new factory's superintendent, had entered the watch industry in 1852. He was the inventor of the split-chuck and hollow spindle lathe, which embodied the principle leading to the later development of automatic machinery. Hunter had evolved the system of compound dies and punches which was later utilized to the maximum at Elgin.
In January 1865, a temporary wooden building three stories high was hastily erected over the east side mill race south of the bridge. Machinery was shipped from Boston, and for some time the labors of the seven recruits were concentrated upon making machines and tools. The building was braced on the outside by long beams to prevent shaking with the vibration of the machinery. When fire raged in the Elgin business district in July, men and women formed a bucket brigade to save the structure and its contents. Their destruction may have ended the undertaking, because the original capital was too small to cover a loss in the event of a disaster.
The authorized capital of the National Watch Company under its 1864 license was one hundred thousand dollars, represented by one hundred shares at $1,000 each. When the shares were first issued, thirty-nine men purchased one to five shares in the venture, twenty-three of them residents of Elgin. The organization was re-structured under a new special charter granted by the state Legislature on April 25, 1865. Authorized capital was raised to half a million dollars, and the general offices were established in Chicago, where they would remain for more than sixty-five years. Benjamin F. Lawrence was the only Elgin resident on the board of directors.
A second manufacturer arrived before war's end. The discovery by Gail Borden that cow's milk could be preserved in tin cans was tested on a large scale by the Union forces. His eastern plants working at capacity, Borden sought a new site for a plant in the West. The burgeoning milk supply of the Fox Valley attracted the inventor, whose wife had once lived in Elgin. In February 1865 work was started on remodeling the east side tannery into a condensed milk factory.
Battlefield experience changed the political attitudes of many veterans who had been Democrats, solidifying the Republican dominance. When Col. William Lynch was released from Libby Prison, he declared: "I hardly need tell you that I have always been a strong uncompromising Democrat ... I was opposed to Abraham Lincoln; I am now opposed to every man who opposes Abraham Lincoln."30 Col. John S. Wilcox, who had been a prominent Douglas man in 1860, was released from service to speak in various Parts of the state as a member of the Republican Central committee during the campaign of 1864. For a generation to come, Elgin Democrats would be stamped with the label of secession.
The city marked the end of the war with mourning and a public celebration. The church bells that had rung out the news of the attack on Fort Sumter now tolled the death of the martyred president. Groups of shocked and weeping citizens congregated on the streets discussing the tragedy. At the same time Lincoln was buried in Springfield, a funeral procession led by a fife and drum corps wound its way to the Methodist Church, where a local service was held.
On the Fourth of July, 1865, so distant in the rush of events and dramatic
change from the same occasion five years before, a big gathering on Market
Square commemorated the Union victory. The veterans who returned after
Appomattox found that a rural mill town was fast becoming an industrial
Town in the West
II The Dividing Line
III Watches, Milk and Butter
IV The Expanding City
V Boom and Panic
VI The Good Years
VII Whirling Twenties
VIII Depression and War
IX Civic Pride
X Modern Elgin
Town in the West
© 2001 by E. C. Alft and ElginHistory.com. All Rights Reservered.