One hundred and fifty years ago, about 2,000 DeKalb County residents enlisted in the Union Army were engaged in important battles of the Civil War.
“The county had been drained of its able-bodied men,” said Rob Glover, volunteer archivist at the Sycamore History Museum. “So many people had volunteered that they didn’t need to have a draft here until July of 1864.”
Many area families had difficulty harvesting their crops because so many men had gone off to war. Jim Lyon of Sycamore, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans, said that Illinois had the fourth-highest number of soldiers who fought for the Union.
The Battle of Vicksburg ended on July 4, 1863, a date newspapers at the time called the “most glorious Fourth.” That siege and 47-day battle gave Union troops full control of the Mississippi River and dealt a crushing defeat to the Confederacy.
“Lincoln himself said that it (Vicksburg) was the key to defeating the Confederacy because it split the lines,” said historian and Sons of Union Veterans member Tom Oestreicher of Sycamore.
Oestreicher said July 1 through 4, 1863, were “the four days that killed the Confederacy.” As the battle at Vicksburg was ending, the Battle of Gettysburg was simultaneously fought and won by the Union. “The Confederates never fought another offensive battle during the war. They spent the rest of the war retreating and retreating,” he said.
Lyon recently took his son Brandon to visit the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, to see where Jim Lyon’s great-great-grandfather Horace Brewster Locke fought.
“I wanted my son to have the same experience I did. It puts chills in you,” Jim Lyon said. “He (my ancestor) was here. It was real.”
A number of DeKalb County soldiers achieved prominent places in history through their actions at Vicksburg. Corydon Heath of DeKalb, a captain in the 9th Louisiana Infantry, African Descent, disappeared after an intense battle at Milliken’s Bend, La., near Vicksburg. Eyewitness reports suggest that he was taken prisoner by the Confederates and became one of the first white Union officers to be hanged for commanding black troops.
The Battery G, 2nd Light Artillery’s first camp was in DeKalb, where it enlisted many DeKalb County residents. It later moved its headquarters to Springfield. On May 1, 1863, Battery G was crossing the Mississippi River from Louisiana into Mississippi to approach Vicksburg from the south, but the ferry collided with a Union steamship and sank. Two members of Battery G drowned, and all the unit’s artillery sank to the bottom of the river. The battery’s survivors were sent to Memphis for re-equipment and rejoined Grant’s troops on June 30 during the final days before the surrender of Vicksburg.
Samuel J. Churchill of DeKalb described the end of the Battle of Vicksburg in his book, “Genealogy and Biography of the Connecticut Branch of the Churchill Family in America.”
“Our battery was stationed in front of Fort Hill, which was undermined and blown up,” he wrote. “We were in the siege and under fire about six weeks before the surrender. I saw Rebel General Pemberton when he came out with a flag of truce to negotiate terms of surrender with General Grant. They stood just in front of our battery for some time, and the rebel soldiers whom we had not seen for weeks came upon the breast-works to look over. We did the same thing. It was a beautiful sight down the line of fortifications as far as we could see were the soldiers in blue on one side and the rebels in gray on the opposite side all standing in bold relief, where but a few moments before not one on either side dared to show his head. Our battery was among the first to march into Vicksburg, Mississippi, the morning of July 4, 1863. It was a glorious Fourth to us.”