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Friday, July 10, 2009

Faces of the Civil War

Civil War re-enactors meeting the public at Lakewood Forest Preserve. Photo by Chip Williams.

From 1990 to 2018, Lakewood Forest Preserve was the site of the museum's annual Civil War Days. The weekend event included hundreds of re-enactors, sutlers, storytellers, musicians, and even an Abraham Lincoln or two. 

The annual event was the largest Civil War re-enactment in northern Illinois, drawing an average of 5,000 attendees, and generating interest in Lake County's role in the war. Researchers from the public and the media have utilized the museum's Lake County History Archives, which includes muster rolls, letters, photographs, and bound volumes. For research assistance, please email

The news of the fall of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the war reached Waukegan by telegram on April 15, 1861. Nearly 2,000 Lake County men enlisted voluntarily during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), out of a population of just over 18,000. Men enlisted into 75 different regiments, including the  37th, 45th, 51st, 65th, and 96th Illinois Infantry. 

Letter of George E. Smith, Jr. (Company D, 96th Illinois) to his sister Susannah D. Smith in Millburn, August 30, 1863 from Camp Near Estell Springs, Tennessee. Minto Family Collection, Dunn Museum 93.45.458.

In George Smith's letter (above), he let his sister know that her letter had arrived while he was on "Piquet." Picket duty was an advance outpost or guard that watched for enemy movement. This duty was the most hazardous work of infantrymen in the field. Many picket guards were targets of snipers. This portrait of George was included in the History of the 96th Illinois published in 1887.

State of Illinois records noted 1,890 Lake County men served in the war. Local historian, Elijah Haines, calculated over 2,000. The majority enlisted with the 96th Illinois Infantry, which had the unusual distinction of being a joint venture of two counties, Lake and Jo Daviess, since neither had enough companies to form its own regiment. 

Susannah "Susie" Smith, was a great letter writer to her brother and his comrades. It was commonly felt that the folks back home should correspond regularly with the soldiers to keep their spirits high. Susie Smith also supported her brother by sending care packages filled with paper and envelopes, and spices to enhance his army rations. She also made quilts for wounded soldiers, and was an editor of a pro-Union paper, The Millburn Union Casket.

Susannah "Susie" Smith, circa 1865. The photo was donated along with other photographs, letters, and diaries by Smith's granddaughters, Katherine Minto and Lura Minto Johaningsmeir. Minto Family Collection, Dunn Museum, 93.45.54. 

Many local recruits credited John K. Pollock (left) for their enlistment. Pollock was a farmer of standing in the Millburn area. He was elected captain of Company C by the men of the 96th Illinois. 

Edward Murray (right) of Newport Township was one of Pollock's recruits. He described his enlistment as follows: “I was in the harvest field working when a Mr. Pollock came to me and wanted to know if I would enlist…. After some conversation, I did…. On the appointed day we met in Searle’s hall [Waukegan]. After the signing of the roll call, we became soldiers... I now realized that I was a soldier and could not come home without a permit. Accordingly, I was permitted to come home and finish up my harvesting.”

About 10% of Lake County's enlisted men did not survive the war. However, all the soldiers mentioned in this post did.

The story of Edward Murray and his comrades is now featured in the book The Bonds of War by Diana Dretske (2021). The book was inspired by a Civil War portrait in the Dunn Museum's collection, and is the most extensive examination of the 96th Illinois Infantry since the regiment's history was published in 1887. The book is available at the Dunn Museum's gift shop and SIUPress. 

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