Chapter 19, Page 215
…..The War News…..
how unreliable it is
-John Edward Young
Athens in the Civil War
1861 - 1865
Writing in the Athens Free Press in November, 1935, George W. Boyd said that "he could remember seeing Company F, of the 28th Illinois drilling on Main Street before going to Camp Butler."
Boyd was a ten-year old boy during the Civil War days.
He also remembered "going to Camp Butler to see the boys and the Confederate prisoners there."
More poignantly, he told "of the hardships of women left at home and how their neighbors helped them.
"The soldiers' pay was $13 a month in Greenbacks, which were worth forty cents on a dollar."
Boyd's memories give a fleeing glimpse of Athens in the Civil War - a town that went all-out to support the Union and Abe Lincoln, who had lived among them. Slavery couldn't have been much of an issue with them, as slavery never had a foothold in central Illinois.
Athens had been enthusiastic in supporting Lincoln for the Presidency and as will be told in another section had participated in the grand rallies in the county and at Springfield. The new Republican Party had swept up the Old Whigs, many of the luke-warm Democrats and other fragmented splinter parties. Before the War was over being a Democrat was almost synonymous with being a Rebel.
Living in the Athens vicinity, between the town and the Sangamon county line was a farmer, John Edward Young, 1824-1904. During the years 1859-1866, he kept a diary, now known by the title: An Illinois Farmer During the Civil War. + Athens is the principal community in his record, as it is the place where he does his trading and from him we get a wonderful view of Athens during the Civil War.
In August, 1861 (the 16th) Young tells us "that The Menard company of soldiers went up to Camp Butler (near Springfield) yesterday. This company numbers about 90 men." This was the first of many contingents to leave for war.
From time to time he reports of the news they get from the fronts, of Athens men killed and wounded, of their participation in various battles. He laments on the unreliability of the news.
The news, by the way, during the first part of the war was bad. Later, in 1863, the double victories of Vicksburg and Gettysburg give a new note to his diary. Sometimes when the war news is good, he can hear the cannon booming at Springfield announcing the victories!
From Young's pages we learn of one of the greatest days in Athens during the war:
September 3, 1862. "Clear and cool. This has been a day that will be long remembered by many in our county. Capt. Hurt's & Capt. Estill's Co.s left Athens this morning for Camp Butler. These companies number a full 200 men, the flower of our side of the county.
"There was an immense concourse of people at Athens to see them off and the leave-taking was solemn and effective.
"There was 163 waggons & and about 700 persons in the company that went up with the boys. The day was pleasant & everything went well.
"I drove a team and stayed over nite with the boys. The scene at the camp was novel & interesting. There is about ten thousand troops & two thousand prisoners there." ++
Principals in this encampment was Co. K of the 115th Illinois Volunteer Infantry; the Athens company in that Menard county regiment. Some of the men who were present on the great day of September 3rd never returned; killed in action; died as prisoners of war and of wounds and disease. Among them were several Hall - Overstreet family members. (See: section on Halls in the Civil War.)
Young's diary tells of day-by-day effects of the War. The hardships at home, the worry over the news, the draft of men in the last years of the war and of the death of Lincoln and his funeral in Springfield. All in all, the account; is history at its best.
The Petersburg newspapers kept their readers informed of the war, but the coverage depended on official dispatches and occasional rumors and personal reports. They, too, wondered about the War. From the issue of the Menard Index, December 25, 1862 is the following paragraph:
'We get no word from the 'boys' in the army this week. The 14th and 28th and 114th, we suppose, at Oxford, Miss. The 106th was at Jackson, Tenn., when last heard from.'
The local papers would publish items about individuals in the services and the activities of the recruiting officers. There was, of course, official news which came by telegraph to towns on railroads and frequently the news was material copied by the local press from newspapers published in the larger cities.
The progress of the War could be somewhat followed by noting what was published in the papers, although frequently the news was many days late. The Menard Index published on April 18, 1861, Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops, which had been made on April 14 --- the news was only four days late! During 1861 a survey of men available as militia in Menard county was made. It was found that the county had 2070 men between the ages of 18 and 45. The Index then reported on August 1, that the county already had 75 men in the service and the Capt. Estill's company was being formed.
From the faded records of the militia survey of neighboring Sangamon county, miraculously preserved in the Illinois State Historical Library, the names of two of James Wesley Hall's son-in-law appear; (from Fancy Creek Township) James Cline and Carlisle Mitt. Cline did serve: Mitts did not have a service record.
As Young pointed out, scarcely a family in the county and likewise the village of Athens was without someone in the armed forces. The percent of participants in the Civil War was high. Fortunately, there was a great deal of self-sufficiency among the persons left at home so that they were able to overcome the high prices and physical hardships. The war was very hard on the wives left behind by their soldier-husbands to fend for themselves and their families. When the drafting of men came, there was serious doubts in the economy could be maintained. Those living in Athens would not know of the wave of immigrants coming from overseas to support the Union cause.
Battle of Athens
The Civil War stories have been handed down in the Hall - Overstreet family ---neither of them verified.
The first involves the so-called 'Battle of Athens.' This incident in not dated but is supposed to have taken place when a large number of Athens Union soldiers were back home on leave.
It seems as though the 'bushwackers' from the Salisbury-Petersburg area had been riding over to Athens on various occasions, and after gathering their forces at the edge of town (and likely bolstering their courage via the bottle) would ride madly along Main Street, firing their guns and yelling, "Hurrah for Jeff Davis!"
On the day of the Battle, with so many men home on leave, the word was out that the 'Salisbury' gang was on its way. Hastilly, the soldiers who were unarmed, collected together and picking up all the loose stones and brickbats to be found, hid in the alleys and behind store fronts.
As the 'bushwackers' repeated their performance on this occasion, they were greeted with a shower of stones and bricks - perhaps a shotgun blast or two - by their unanticipated hosts.
This was the famous 'Battle of Athens.'
This story was told the writer by one of the older Hall women, who may have been a party to the incident. (Since I heard this as a boy, and I couldn't keep my numerous great aunts and other female relatives straight, my memory is faulty. They were all old women to me and possibly all in the Civil War as far as I was concerned).
Since the Civil War was a great event in the history of the Hall family at Athens, a good portion of our time when visiting around with the kin was taken up by telling tales of the War and, of course, lining up all those 'damn Democrats' with the Rebels!
It seems that one of the regiments in which there were a large number of men from Athens and vicinity was in winter camp somewhere in the South. Permission was obtained for their wives to visit them and perhaps some of those who planned to marry and were married at the camp. The story goes that them for several weeks with the men, living in special quarters, etc.
In retrospect, it would appear that in the following year, the population of Athens could have increased by a number of new family additions. This could be a good research topic - possibly adding an interesting chapter to the family history!
To assume that everyone, even in a community as loyal as Athens, was a Unionist is obviously wrong. There is some evidence from the writings of John Edward Young - and others - that Menard county had its share of those participating in the Copperhead movement.
Suspect, of course, were the loyal Democrats with strong southern connections who according to a contemporary account, 'preached dis-union and dis-cord.' Actually, the anti-Union (and War) sentiment reached its peak at the end of 1862 when there had been nothing but failures to report for the Northern forces.
Illinois went Democratic in 1862 and there were anti-war disturbances and demonstrations in various parts of the state. From the Menard-Sangamon county area southward through the state early settlement by people from the South made the lower half of Illinois a problem area.
In Menard county this sentiment was strong on the side of the Sangamon River opposite Athens. Salisbury, in Sangamon county just across from Athens was reportedly a bad spot, although they too had their quota of Union soldiers. Just how serious the anti-Union sentiment was in the entire area is difficult to assess. It should be pointed out that the civil and military authorities hesitated in using Camp Butler as a prison camp because of the reported non-Union sympathizers in the area.
As a boy, the writer was shown an old schoolhouse in the area of the Hall farm, then in dis-use, and was solemnly told by his grandfather, James Newton Hall, that it was used as a rendevouse by the 'Copperheads' during the Civil War. He spoke with authority as he was a boy during the war years and lived in the neighborhood. It made considerable impression on my imaginative mind and conjured up visions of all sorts of depradations.
Loyalty to the Union was not as strong in some of the Hall family branches as it was in the descendants of Abner Hall. After all, they were not far removed from their southern roots. As a group they were not rich enough to buy their way out --- and it is assumed that they didn't want to.
For the 'stay-at-homes' and after the threat of a Democrat Revolt and take-over in the state, the Union League Association boomed in Illinois and became active in Athens.
The purpose of this association was to support the war effort and to preserve the Union. After the war, it proved active at the political level and today exists as a private men's club in Chicago, Philadelphia and other major cities.
The 'Union League' provided a patriotic outlet for those who for one reason or another did not enlist. It gave the well-to-do Democrats an opportunity to express their loyalty to the government. While one might think of Athens in that period of time as a rather democratic community, it was stratified to a certain extent by those of greater means than others. One must recall that doing the Civil War, the poorer members of any community could not 'buy' their way out of the war and the bonus system was very attractive to them. The post-war pensions and homestead land was a pay-off in many respects to their sacrifices.
The Union League Association at Athens was organized April 24, 1863 with seventeen charter members. Since we are concerned only with the Hall - Overstreet family, the discussion is confined to them.
In the first candidate group for membership, May 2, 1863 we find a John Overstreet. This is John R. Overstreet, a son of Dabney Overstreet and a grandson of the Revolutionary War soldier, John Overstreet, Sr.
Among the candidates for membership in the Union League, at its second meeting, June 27, 1863 we find the names of A.B. Hall and John Hall. A.B. Hall was Abner Banks Hall, second son of Abner Hall, the town founder. The John Hall is a relative. He is descendant of Thomas Hall, who died in Virginia in 1815, and was a brother of the Abner Hall, named above. This group of Halls lived near Athens in the Sweetwater neighborhood.
It is noted that my great-grandfather, James Wesley Hall, is not a candidate or a member. My guess is that he probably couldn't afford it and that he may have considered his contribution to the war effort were adequate. (see: Halls and the Civil War.)
As the war dragged on, recruiting became increasingly more difficult. The draft was instituted and local communities were given quotas to fill. The local officials could seek men anywhere and they did! As the government bounties increased, local communities added sweetners --- Athens was no exception. Since the Union had policing to do in the South, as late as June 28, 1865 we find a bounty subscription list circulating in Athens. The town was offering an additional $25 to any man who would sign up. Reading the list, we find the wealthier men, who had remained as Democrats in the presidential election of 1864, giving generously.
Writing a century and a quarter after the War - and Civil War cuts across all lines - we can only say that Athens in the Civil War experienced a tremendous community shock the repercussions of which in the family and civic life for years to come.
Much of this side of Athens in the Civil was revealed as late as 1978 in the acquiring of the Jno. T. Rogers papers.
+, Journal, Illinois State Historical Society.
++this was the great event also reported by George Boyd in 1935.