Remembering that S.D. “Deck” Wesson fought his first battle of the Civil War at Williamsburg, Va., in May 1862, I decided to search for the battlefield last week while we were visiting our son in Virginia.
Wesson, a Union soldier from Victor Township, had been encamped near Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., as he began his four-year stint with Company K of the 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment. They made some excursions into the Confederacy in early 1862, but their first real fight was when Union forces pursued the retreating Southern army after the battle of Yorktown in Virginia.
Deck’s regiment was put on a ship headed for Yorktown, but arrived after the battle there. Next, he wrote, “We are camped near an oyster bed. The oysters taste better than any I ever tried at home. It is fine sport to watch the big siege guns throw shells at night.” Then he reported a skirmish with the rebels on May 4 when two of their men were wounded. On the night of May 5 he penned, “My first battle. It is not pleasant work. The weather is hot. They are burning the woods to burn the dead. The men cannot bury anymore on account of the stench.”
That battle involved more than 72,000 men from both sides. Union forces totaled 40,768 and Confederates 31,823. The estimated casualties, according to National Park Service Web site on Civil War battle summaries, were 3,843 total – 2,283 for the North and 1,560 for the South. Even though Deck could not know those figures at the time, he experienced the horror of death in large numbers by seeing and smelling it, as his diary indicated. The Northern commander in charge was Maj. Gen. George McClellan, and for the South Major Gen. James Longstreet. After a long day of attacks and counterattacks, the Confederates withdrew during the night.
Then on May 9, Deck wrote, “Had to march all night to join Gen. Stoneman. There are more fireflies and whipporwills in Virginia than in all the rest of the world.” So he had seen the worst and then took time to enjoy the little pleasures of his new surroundings. But the next day he was sent back into the fighting with the Battle of West Point.
Deck's little leather-covered journal is full of the “back and forth” between the opposing forces and what else he noted around him. I hope someday the family will have it published as a book.
My journey to Williamsburg was not successful in finding the battlefield marker, but we did enjoy a stop in Colonial Williamsburg, where we toured the fairly new Decorative Arts Museum and adjoining Abby Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. You just can’t escape Illinois politics, though, as one of the furniture exhibits boasted the name Blagojevich Gallery. The docent was quick to explain that this name is a common one and in no way related to the deposed Illinois governor.
Back in Washington, it is worth the effort to visit the domed Capitol and see all the statuary in the rotunda and hallways. I imagine few of us know which two statues Illinois has on display there. Ever hear of Frances Willard or James Shields?
Willard was chosen by the state in 1905 for a statue because of her pioneering efforts for social reform and the women’s Christian temperance movement. She founded the Prohibition Party in 1882 and served as president of the Evanston College for Women, later to merge with Northwesten University.
Shields was best known for being elected a U.S. senator from three states – Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri – as well as being governor of the Oregon Territory. He served in the Mexican War and the Civil War, where he attained the rank of Union brigadier general. Since he neither was born nor died in Illinois, I wonder why he was chosen in 1893 for this high honor.
Other states have opted to change statues from time to time. For example, Illinois’ native son Ronald Reagan’s statue replaced another from the State of California in recent years. There are several prominent Illinois names I can think of – Carl Sandburg, Adlai E. Stevenson, Chief Shabbona – who are well worth considering for statues in the Capitol. It would make a good project for a high school history class. Conduct a poll statewide with a list of prominent Illinoisans to choose from. Then let a civics class follow this by getting someone to carry the bill through the legislative process and have it signed by the governor. Of course, a business class would also be needed to raise the $20,000 or more to have it sculpted. Just a thought.
• Barry Schrader served as editor of the Daily Chronicle from 1969-72 and later edited and wrote columns for three newspapers in San Francisco’s East Bay. He and his wife are now retired and living in DeKalb. Find an archive of his columns at www.dekalbcountylife.com. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.