This past April 12, 2011 marked the 150th Anniversary of the beginning of one of darkest chapters of our nation’s history, the start of the American Civil War. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln described the United States as being, "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." He continued, "[Now] we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Today, we have the benefit of hindsight to know that after four years of bloody conflict, the nation was re-unified; but in 1861, no one knew how long the struggle would last, or its outcome.
Against this backdrop of uncertainty, a patriotic wave swept over our nation that caused many men to drop the implements of their livelihood, pick up a musket, and leave their loved ones to defend liberty and the stars and stripes. This scene was all too familiar in McHenry County, which sent over 2,500 of its husbands, fathers, and sons to the cause. The first units that were formed in our county would eventually become Companies A, D, and F of the Fifteenth Illinois Infantry Regiment. Company A was from the Woodstock area; Company D from the Marengo and Union area; and Company F from the Algonquin area.
Union resident, Harley Wayne, was the primary organizer of Company D; and a meeting was held in Marengo on April 26, 1861. Lucius Barber, a Riley Township resident who recorded his Civil War experience in his book, Army Memoirs, enlisted in Company D. That early in the conflict, the country’s war machinery wasn’t well-oiled or functioning on all cylinders. It wasn’t certain if the company would be accepted by the state. Barber wrote, "…we held ourselves subject to orders and in readiness to march when called upon." The recruits didn’t have long to wait. Governor Yates soon sent orders for the company to report to Freeport, Illinois on May 11, 1861, and go into, "Camp of Instruction."
Barber described the scene of downtown Marengo on the morning of May 11th. He wrote, "… the usually quiet streets of Marengo were thronged with spectators, friends, and relatives of the soldiers who had come to witness their departure." Before the recruits boarded the train, a short ceremony was held where the ladies of Marengo presented the new unit with a regimental flag; and the soldiers, "made a solemn vow never to disgrace it or bring it back until our flag could wave in triumph over all our land." Soon afterward, the company left for Freeport. It was the first step of a journey that spanned more than four years and covered 10,897 miles. The Fifteenth clashed with rebel troops in places like Shiloh, Vicksburg, Davis Bridge, and Bentonville. Many men returned to their homes and families, but some did not.
If you happen to be in downtown Marengo this May 11, 2011, take a second to ponder the past and envision the scene that unfolded there 150 years ago.