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.