Though the Village of Wilmette did not come into existence until 60 years later, residents of the tiny, then-unincorporated villages of Gross Point and Wilmette served the Union as a significant part of Illinois’ contribution to the American Civil War.
This history was the subject of Sunday’s Wilmette Historical Museum (609 Ridge Rd.) presentation “Illinois Fights the Civil War,” an event held to commemorate the 150-year anniversary of the war.
Attended by roughly 70 local history buffs, “Illinois Fights the Civil War” was delivered by the Loyola University-educated author and historian Robert I. Girardi. The hour-long lecture highlighted how Illinois and the Chicago area contributed to the Civil War through influential leaders such as Lincoln, Grant and John A. Logan (for whom Logan Square was named). Over the course of the war, approximately 250,000 Illinois soldiers were enlisted, primarily with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Around one-third of the troops of this major theater of the war was recruited out of Illinois, Girardi said.
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, out of the 22,000 Illinois soldiers from Cook County, 4,000 lost their lives on the battlefront or from diseases related to poor sanitation. Girardi estimates that around one in seven Illinois soldiers died in the Civil War.
Due to massive, local support for President Lincoln and General Grant, the Chicago area never faced major voluntary recruitment shortages, though, as Girardi discussed, anti-war “Copperheads” were also very active in the area. Newspapers like the Chicago Times vocally denounced “King Lincoln,” in an attempt to discourage draft efforts and even rioting.
Nevertheless, Union sentiment was extremely high in Chicago, and local politics would come to be dominated by veterans and political supporters of the war for at least a generation after. To this day it is almost impossible to visit any town in the area without seeing some visual relic of this period. Girardi also stressed the importance of our historic graveyards, many of which became the final resting places of Confederates who died in the Camp Douglas POW camp on Chicago’s South Side.
During the war the sparsely populated North Shore was primarily important for raising crops to be shipped to the battlefront through Chicago’s expanding rail network. John G. Westerfield’s pickle factory in the hamlet of Wilmette helped supply Union troops with pickles and vinegar.
This part of the North Shore had at least one casualty, John Feigan of Wilmette who died in the notorious Confederate prison camp of Andersonville. Veteran Peter Schuetz (pictured) is buried at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church 1747 Lake Ave. along with 12 other veterans of the Civil War. North Shore men are known to have served with the 23rd Illinois “Irish Brigade,” 34th Illinois “Rock River Rifles” and the 8th Illinois Cavalry. Most of the soldiers from the North Shore trained for a period of thirty days at Camp Butler (near Springfield, IL) as Girardi explained.
Girardi, who was the recipient of the 2010 Civil War Round Table Nevins-Freeman Award for Civil War scholarship, helped contextualize the area’s contribution to the massive war effort, both on the home front and in the battles such as Shiloh, Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
Girardi also shared his insights on Chicagoland’s commemorative public artifacts of the war and the importance of Illinois’ treasury of various monuments, statues, memorials and historic graveyards. Girardi is currently working on a project that will catalogue Chicagoland Civil War monuments. This is his third time speaking as a guest of the Wilmette Historical Museum on subjects related to the Civil War.