Search This Blog

Friday, July 27, 2012

William B. Lewin, 96th Illinois Regiment

This is the second post on the five men pictured together in a Civil War era tintype in the museum's collection.

Like most Lake County men who enlisted to fight in the Civil War, William B. Lewin (1843 - 1914), was a farmer.

Born in Oxfordshire, England, William immigrated to the United States with his family in 1853. They landed at Boston and came directly to Newport Township, Lake County, Illinois. The Henry Lewin farm was located on either side of the Des Plaines River in today's Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve near Russell, Illinois.

Seated left to right: William B. Lewin, Laughlin Madden, Edward Murray; Standing left to right: James Murrie and John Y. Taylor. Dunn Museum 62.41.2

According to Edward Murray's memoir, a group of five farmer-neighbors from Newport Township (shown in the photograph above) went together to Waukegan on September 2, 1862, as volunteers in the 96th Illinois Regiment. They were assigned to Company C, which became the regimental Color Guard. The photo was taken in late September or early October 1862 while encamped at Camp Fuller, Rockford, Illinois, to commemorate this comradeship in the fight to preserve the Union. At Camp Fuller the men trained and were given their uniforms, guns and accoutrements.

Detail of William B. Lewin from group photograph, 1862. Dunn Museum 62.41.2

William Lewin experienced more than his share of misfortune in the war. At the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia on September 18 - 20, 1863, he suffered a "long, raking shot on the shoulder and back, but rejoined the Regiment next day."

On December 11, 1863, Lewin wrote to his friend, David Minto (formerly of Company C) in Millburn, Illinois: "We marched from Lookout Mountain the 2nd of this month and reached there the 3rd we are about 9 miles from Bridgport near the Chattanooga Railroad we had a pretty hard time taking the Mountain charging over rocks and logs and climbing the hill and driving the rebels from their entrenchments."

Lewin's letter to David Minto about the Regiment taking Lookout Mountain. Dunn Museum 93.45.518.2

Lewin went on to tell his friend that "after fighting hard all day we lay at night upon our Arms with a rubber [sheet] only for covering and at daybreak in the morning we found the enemy had evacuated. Our regiment and the 8th Kentucky ascended the mountain with ladders and took possession in this engagement our regiment lost 15 wounded and 1 killed."

An 1889 lithograph of the Battle of Lookout Mountain (November 24, 1863) by Kurz & Allison. Library of Congress.

Less than a year later, Lewin was taken prisoner during the Battle of Resaca, Georgia on May 14, 1864.

According to the Regimental history: "First Sergeant Joseph B. Leekley of Company F, Corporal Wm Lewin and Orange M. Ayers of Company C took a slightly wrong direction in the retreat, and emerging upon the road found themselves prisoners. Leekley and Ayers afterward died in prison, and Lewin reached home only at the close of the war."

Lewin and about thirty comrades were marched for several days. "We were persuaded by bayonets to accept seats in a freight car for that prison, above all other prisons, recorded as having no parallel in the world's history." Here, Lewin is referring to the notorious Andersonville prison.

Lewin's signature from a letter to David Minto. Dunn Museum 93.45.518.2

Many histories have been written describing the horrific conditions at this prison. Lewin also attested to the meager rations, poor water supply, lack of shelter, and that no clothing or cooking utensils were furnished.

“The scurvy had so contracted my limbs as to make it impossible for me to walk but a few steps at a time, and caused me severe pain." A Confederate physician informed him that a large potato eaten raw "would prolong a person's life a month." On this information, Lewin traded his pocket watch (which he had managed to keep) for 7 1/2 dozen potatoes and two biscuits. "Very quickly we partook of raw scraped potato."

After Union General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, Georgia, Confederate Generals feared that he would liberate Union prisoners held in camps in southern Georgia. Prisoners were moved to locations out of Sherman’s path. Thousands, including William Lewin, were sent to South Carolina as preparations began on a new prison at Florence.

By February 1865, Lewin was in a very low state with "swamp fever." Fortunately, he and his comrades were paroled from Florence on February 28th. They boarded a freight train and were met near Wilmington, North Carolina by General Schofield. The army had a celebration planned for the men--a band played popular tunes, and fellow Union soldiers held signs: "Thrice welcome, comrades," and "Home again."

"We were overjoyed to be... under the folds of the dear old flag." The former prisoners-of-war received clothing, food and two months' pay.

Lewin mustered out in Springfield, Illinois on May 24, 1865.

William Lewin from the 96th Illinois Regimental history, 1887.

William Lewin returned to Lake County where he married Susan P. Heath in 1871 and settled in Russell. There he became a prosperous farmer and respected veterinarian.

The story of William "Billy" Lewin and his comrades is now featured in the book The Bonds of War by Diana Dretske (2021). The book was inspired by the commemorative portrait in the Dunn Museum's collection, and is available at the Dunn Museum's gift shop and SIUPress. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

John Y. Taylor of the 96th Illinois Regiment

Research of an unidentified soldier pictured in a tintype in the museum's collection has revealed the forgotten story of a young Scottish immigrant and Civil War soldier, John Y. Taylor (1842-1863).

John Y. Taylor is pictured top right in this 1862 tintype with his fellow 96th Illinois Regiment comrades. Seated left to right: William B. Lewin, Laughlin Madden, Edward Murray; standing left to right: James Murrie and John Y. Taylor. The tintype was donated to the museum in 1962 by Lee Simmons, a grandson of Edward Murray. (Dunn Museum BBDM 62.41.2)

Of the five men (all from Newport Township), only Lewin, Murray and Murrie survived the Civil War, and even they were wounded. John Y. Taylor and Laughlin Madden were not as fortunate.

Taylor, who was young and not yet well established when he died in the war, was difficult to research. Using the History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment, and letters in the museum's collection and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library collection, I was able to confirm he is the young man pictured at top right.

Detail of John Youngson Taylor from group image (left) and photo provided by his brother for the 96th Illinois Regimental history (right).

John Y. Taylor was the son of Samuel Taylor (1781-1858) and Isabella Lawrence Taylor (unknown-1845). He was born in New Byth, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His father was a bookbinder and bookseller, and assisted in the establishment of a circulating library.

The first of the Taylor clan to come to Lake County was John's older half-sister Isabella (1822-1897), who immigrated from Scotland in 1844. It is believed that the Taylors were cousins to the Thain family of Antioch, and she may have come at their invitation. Isabella married James Low in early 1845. The couple settled northeast of Millburn in Newport Township (part of today's Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek).

In 1854, at the age of twelve, John joined his sister in the new country. He was accompanied by two older siblings: Mary (1832-1915), who married James Bater, and James M. (1839-1921).

It is probable that the siblings lived together in the Low home until at least 1856 when Isabella and her husband sold their farm and moved to O'Plain (Gurnee).

In the 1860 census, John Y. Taylor lived on his own with the David White family near Millburn. John was not related to the Whites, but was working for them as a farm laborer. Some of John's and James's letters imply that in addition to farming, the brothers attended school and were teachers.

John Y. Taylor's signature from an 1863 letter (BBDM 93.45.490.2)

On April 12, 1861, John wrote to David Minto of Millburn while living with the John Murrie family in Newport Township and working as their farm laborer. Today, the Murrie farm would be located on the south side of Russell Road and just west of the Des Plaines River in Sterling Lake Forest Preserve.

John wrote of his new situation: "I know all of you have a great deal better accommodation then I have at present. A small log house occupied by a very large family [eight children]... Still it makes a very good home. The folks I like first rate... a very frank accommodating boss." (LCDM 93.45.570.2)

Excerpt from John Taylor's letter of April 12, 1861: "... a couple of days and last Friday we sowed about 2 acres of wheat and dragged or rather mudded it in. The weather looks more favorable today. I hope we have a spell of drouthy [sic] weather so as to get the crops in." (BBDM 93.45.570.2)

An envelope addressed to David Minto from John Y. Taylor, and posted at Kenosha, Wisconsin, May 20, 1861. Note Taylor's initials on the lower right. (BBDM 93.45.568.1)

In 1861, John commented that not many volunteers had gone to the war from Newport Township. “We have weekly meetings to aid in the cause,” and some men “have formed a militia company.” (BBDM 93.45.568.2)

The following year, when more troops were needed, the 96th Illinois was formed and John Taylor enlisted with his brother James on August 1. A month later, the men who had enlisted and returned to their homes were “ordered and required to report themselves in person at the city of Waukegan.” They arrived promptly and began drilling exercises on the courthouse grounds and race track.

The recruits were quartered in citizens' homes and at hotels such as the Sherman House (above), located at South Genesee and Lake Street in Waukegan. (BBDM 94.14.102)

On September 5th, four Lake County companies met at the train depot and departed at 7 p.m. for Chicago where they were sworn into service. It is easy to imagine that John and James's sister Isabella Low was present to say farewell. It would be the last time she saw her youngest brother, John, alive.

On March 1, 1863, John wrote to Isabella from Nashville, Tennessee: “Nashville is a very pretty place... Bro James is 1st corporal. I still enjoy myself performing the duties of a high private in the rear ranks.” (Original in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

He wrote to his sister Mary Bater on April 24, 1863: “I have been down to the cars [railroad cars] and seen the prisoners off for Nashville that our boys captured today… all from Texas, the regarded Texan Rangers... Most of them were quite sociable, occasionally one hot-blooded fellow among them.” (Original in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

Over the course of his year in service with Company C, John suffered many illnesses that he described as general fatigue and fever, but he always recovered within a few days under the care of an army surgeon. Camp illnesses were common, but some severe enough that men needed to be discharged such as John's closest friends David Minto and Andrew White.

John Taylor wrote his last known surviving letter to one of his sisters on September 18, 1863. He was in Rossville, Georgia, having arrived from Estella Springs after several days of marching and riding on a freight train.

Although the Battle of Chickamauga began on September 18, not all of the 96th Regiment's men went onto the field. Those who were sick or too worn down from the march were left in camp, which may explain why John wrote such a pleasant letter on the first day of the battle:

“My Dear Sister… I am well and feel as hearty and strong as need be... There is a nice spring of water in the cave where we filled our canteens. The cave is at a place called Shell Mound… we have seen a great many caves and other sublime sceneries of nature – worth the time spent in marching to see them.” (Original in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

Two days later, things would change drastically. According to the regimental history, “Chickamauga was a terrible blow to this Company [Company C]." The company went into battle on Sunday, September 20th and “Corporal John Y. Taylor had his right hand shattered at the wrist."

Corporal J.A. Robison of Company F, wrote in the regimental history that while he was at Hospital No. 16 in Nashville, recovering from wounds, “I visited Corporal Taylor, of Company C, who had lost an arm, and who died in a short time.” According to this account, it appears that the surgeons amputated John’s right arm in an attempt to save his life. He died on November 24, 1863.

In December 1863, William Lewin (pictured with John Taylor in tintype) wrote to David Minto: “We were all very sorry to hear of J.Y. Taylor’s death.” (BBDM 93.45.518.2)

Excerpt from William Lewin's letter with regrets about John Taylor. (BBDM 93.45.518.2)

John Taylor was buried in the temporary burial grounds at the army's Nashville general hospitals. In July 1866, the Nashville National Cemetery was created and the hospital interments were transferred there. Taylor is buried in Section D Site 3260.

Entrance arch at Nashville National Cemetery, courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration History Program.

John’s brother, James, who was wounded on May 9, 1864 and had his right arm amputated, returned to Millburn for Fourth of July celebrations in 1865. Susie Smith (Minto) wrote in her diary of the day's events, including a reference to James and his deceased brother:

"... we went talking, thinking along, thinking O. so joyfuly. O, so thankfuly for by our sides sat those brave hero boys who, one year ago, were engaged amid the din and cloud of battle fighting for their much loved country."

(above) "One poor fellow [James], who had loved a much loved brother [John] in the strife for Freedom, and whose own right arm had been lifted up, for this our own proud land." (BBDM Smith diary 93.45.290)

Although John Taylor’s life ended tragically, it is important to remember his sacrifice and heartening to bring his story to light. From reading these letters, I met a young man who was good-natured, generous of spirit, interested in learning, and considerate of his friends and family.

The story of John Y. Taylor and his comrades is now featured in the book The Bonds of War by Diana Dretske (2021). The book was inspired by the commemorative portrait in the Dunn Museum's collection, and is available at the Dunn Museum's gift shop and SIUPress.

Special thanks to Glenna Schroeder-Lein and all the great staff at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library for facilitating my research in the James M. Taylor Papers and for information on the Taylor family.