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Thursday, October 27, 2022

Dark Souvenirs of the Civil War

Members of the 19th Illinois Regiment, from The Nineteenth Illinois: a Memoir of a Regiment of Volunteer Infantry Famous in the Civil War, James Henry, 1912. At least eight Lake County men enlisted in this regiment.

A charged object or "dark souvenir" is an object collected to share as a witness to historic events such as a natural disaster or military battle. The term “charged object” is used by museums to denote artifacts “charged” or permeated with the energy of an event. These Victorian terms may sound odd to the modern ear, but still represent the sentiment of how people collected and preserved what affected them.

The bullet-ridden battle flags of the 96th Illinois Infantry as photographed for the History of the 96th Illinois Regiment, 1887. The regiment consisted of four companies from Lake County and six companies from Jo Daviess County, IL. 

Battle flags, also known as the colors of a regiment, were one of the most common objects collected during the Civil War. By preserving and commemorating flags, charged with the energy of battle, the veterans of the regiment were able to honor the memory of their bravery and of their dead comrades. 

The Dunn Museum has over two dozen charged objects in its permanent collections of which at least sixteen pertain to the American Civil War. In caring for these items, the museum takes into consideration age, condition, and provenance.


Provenance is particularly important, since without the object’s history we would not know its’ connection to an event or person. The Dunn Museum’s Civil War relics represent conflict, loss, suffering and death, and therefore need special consideration when exhibited. Collections staff take into account how to represent souvenirs of war to give proper context and respect for those involved.

Tree stump from Kelly Farm (cannonball fragment not shown), Battle of Chickamauga, Sept 18-20, 1863. A paper note identifying the object is attached to the front right of the stump and was likely placed there after it was collected from the historic battle site. Dunn Museum, 2006.0.6 (1958).

Battlefields are rife with the memory of loss and victory. One object in the Museum’s collections is a tree stump taken from the Kelly Farm on the site of the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia (September 18–20, 1863). The Battle of Chickamauga was especially significant to Lake County, since so many of its enlisted men fought there. 

George Smith of Millburn with the 96th Illinois, wrote to his sister Susie after surviving the battle: "When I get to thinking about it I will choke and tears of gratitude come into my eyes to think that one of us after feeling such a storm of lead and Iron should have escaped, but such is the chances of every battle." 

Chickamauga was the most substantial Union defeat in the Western Theater of the war, and had the second highest number of casualties of the war. At Chickamauga, the 96th Illinois suffered the third highest percentage of losses at 54 percent killed, wounded, or missing. The most casualties in a single battle of the war were sustained just two months earlier at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1–3, 1863.

The Kelly Farm tree stump has an additional identification painted on top: "From Kelly Farm Chickamauga." Dunn Museum curators suspect this was done by Charles S. Bentley of La Grange, IL when the object was added to his Civil War relics museum in the early 1900s. Dunn Museum 2006.0.6 (1958). 

Many veterans returned to the battlefields where they had fought to collect souvenirs such as bullets and tree stumps imbedded with shot. These items became touchstones for remembering and commemorating the war and were believed to be “charged” with the energy of the event.

According to historian Anna Denov Rusk, "soldiers collected items that told a specific story or part of their war experience."
  • Andersonville Prison, Ga., August 17, 1864. East view taken from the stockade as photographed by A.J. Riddle (1828-1897). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C
  • The deplorable conditions in prisons (both in the North and South) were a volatile subject during and after the war. William "Billy" Lewin of Russell, Illinois, served with the 96th Illinois and was a prisoner at Andersonville from May to September 1864. He recalled that he had “suffered even more than death [at] that prison, above all other prisons… [which has] no parallel in the world’s history.”

  • Camp Sumter in Georgia, commonly known as Andersonville, was used to imprison Union soldiers from early 1864 to May 1865. Though the prisoner camp was only in operation for fourteen months, 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, and nearly 13,000 died.
  • Wood from the stockade at Andersonville prison, presented to Charles S. Bentley in 1913. Dunn Museum 70.586 (1958).

  • A section of a wooden post (shown above) was sawn from the Andersonville prison stockade as a souvenir by Corporal George W. Healey (1842-1913) of the 5th Iowa Cavalry, Company E. The cavalryman became a prisoner at Andersonville after he was captured at the Battle of Brown’s Mill in Georgia on July 31, 1864. Healy and Billy Lewin were imprisoned at Andersonville during the same period, but it is unknown if they ever met, since the prison held tens of the thousands of men. 

    Healy likely collected the dark souvenir as a veteran returning to the site. In 1913, he presented it to Charles S. Bentley (1839-1924), veteran of the 2nd Wisconsin Cavalry, Company D, who had a Civil War museum in his home in La Grange, Illinois. The object came into the Dunn Museum’s possession through Robert Vogel, who purchased it at the auction of Bentley’s collection in 1958. Vogel, who founded the county's first history museum, undoubtedly understood the object's significance and connection to those who had served from Lake County.

    One of the most compelling charged objects in the Dunn Museum’s collections relates to the funeral of President Abraham Lincoln. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, President Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. 
    Floral and textile remnants from President Lincoln's funeral catafalque, 1865. Dunn Museum 70.29.2

    • Charles Partridge of Waukegan with the 96th Illinois remembered the soldiers’ reactions to the terrible news: “The day before had seemed to these brave veterans the gladdest in all their lives; and now an unspeakable grief had blotted out their happiness and a gloom that seemed well-nigh impenetrable was upon them.”


      Citizens were desperate to make sense of the tragedy and millions stood along the route of the president’s funeral train as it made its way to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. On May 1, the train made a scheduled stop in Chicago. 
    • President Lincoln's Funeral—The Catafalque at the City Hall, Chicago” as sketched by William Waud on May 1, 1865. Published in Harper's Weekly May 20, 1865. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

    • An estimated 125,000 mourners viewed the late president’s “mortal remains” at the Cook County Courthouse in Chicago. The framed ribbon and floral remnants are from the decorated platform, known as a catafalque, on which President Lincoln’s coffin rested. People eager to find solace in their grief and overwhelmed by the tragedy of the president's death solidified the moment by taking bits of the decorations from the platform. 

      Leonard Doolittle of Fremont Township, Lake County was convalescing at the U.S. Army Hospital in Chicago after being wounded at Chickamauga while serving with the 96th Illinois. Doolittle left the hospital on crutches to go "down to the city" for the viewing. He remarked in a letter that "I think that I never saw as many men women and children at one time in my life... as I saw today." Though the dark souvenir in the Dunn Museum's collection is not directly associated with Leonard Doolittle, the object's provenance suggests that the materials were collected at the viewing of the late president's remains in Chicago. 

      According to historian, Robert I. Girardi, while the Civil War was not fought in Illinois, “the state was actively and vitally a participant in every aspect of the conflict.” Illinoisans “sent more men per capita into the army than any other state.” These men collected souvenirs charged with the events they had seen and experienced. 

      Dark souvenirs can teach us about history and human nature. They are a window into the lives of those who experienced these events and spent their lives trying to come to terms with them. It is important for museums to collect such objects in order to preserve the memory of what "our boys" went through in the Civil War and to explore the war's continuing significance.

    • - Diana Dretske, Curator

    • Sources: 

      • Bess Bower Dunn Museum, Libertyville, Illinois.
      • Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., online collections.  
      • Letter of George Smith to Susie Smith, October 6, 1863, Bess Bower Dunn Museum (93.45.460).  
      • Letter of Leonard Doolittle to David Minto, May 1, 1865, Bess Bower Dunn Museum (93.45.407). 
      • "150 Year Old Items Go On Auction Block: Historical Collection to Be Sold Today," Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1958. 
      • Girardi, Robert I. "Illinois and the Memory of the Civil War." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) Vol. 104, No. 1/2, Civil War Sesquicentennial Issue (Spring-Summer, 2011), pp. 8-13.
      • Rusk, Anna Denov. "Collections the Confederacy: The Civil War Scrapbook of Henry M. Whitney." Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 47. No. 4 (Winter 2013), pp. 267-296. 
      • Wilson, R.C. "Gen. Bentley Has Real Museum: La Grange Man Has Wonderful Collection of Photographs, Letters, Fire Arms and Articles of Historic Interest." Uncited newspaper.  
      • Dretske, Diana L. The Bonds of War: A Story of Immigrants and Esprit de Corps in Company C, 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2021.
      • Partridge, Charles A. History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Chicago: Historical Society of the Regiment, 1887. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Legend of the Lotus

Linen postcard of map of the Chain O'Lakes, 1949. Dunn Museum, 2016.1.112/9BH1932.

The resort era began in Lake County in the 1870s with people visiting Waukegan's mineral springs to better their health, and sportsmen finding the best hunting and fishing in the Chain O'Lakes.

Among “The Chain’s” most popular lakes for tourists were Grass Lake and Fox Lake. Early “resorts” catered to hunters and fishermen, and were run by entrepreneurial farmers, who added rooms onto their farmhouses or allowed hunters to pitch tents on their land. As demand grew, cottages were built and rented as were grand hotels such as the Mineola on Fox Lake.

Train with vacationers at Antioch Depot, circa 1910. Dunn Museum, M-86.1.62

The growing popularity of the lakes region combined with the arrival of the Wisconsin and Central Railroad passenger service in Antioch in 1886 created a resort boom. Many of the vacationers were from Chicago and were eager to escape the pollution and bustle of the city for the seemingly boundless natural areas of Lake County. 

Colorized postcard of lotus in bloom on Grass Lake, circa 1910. Dunn Museum 2001.1.23

One of the biggest lures to the lakes were the vast lotus beds with large pale yellow blossoms that bloom in late July and early August. (Note: White water lily flowers are often mistaken for the lotus, but have much smaller white blossoms). The lotus beds were especially plentiful on Grass Lake and caused a tourism sensation from the 1880s to 1940s.

News clipping from the Woodstock Sentinel, August 3, 1911.

As a marketing gimmick, resorts and newspapers fabricated a legend to promote the lotus as originating in Egypt. Depending on who you spoke to the flower had either found its way to Lake County by a bird or an early settler who had brought it back from Egypt. The legend further claimed that the flower only grew in Lake County and Egypt. 

Cartoon in Chicago Sunday Tribune August 15, 1909 with article on "Sacred Lotus Flower of Egypt" found in the Calumet River south of Chicago. 

Visitors were so enamored with the beautiful lotus that they never questioned the legend. After all, it added to the excitement. So, why spoil the fun? 

In July 1911, the Waukegan Daily Sun set out to shake-up the myth of the lotus by stating: "Cherished Tradition that Flowers are Egyptian Appears Unfounded." The paper quoted Dr. Jesse M. Greenman, Assistant Botany Curator at the Field Museum, as saying the lotus are native to the U.S. and "interesting but not a great rarity." 

The American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) native habitat includes waterways throughout the eastern United States. It is thought that the plant originated in the east-central U.S. and its seeds and tubers were used as food by prehistoric peoples, who carried it with them as they traveled. The lakes region was the traditional home of tribal nations for thousands of years, where they had villages and were sustained by wild rice, fish, water fowl, beaver and aquatic plants from the lakes.

Bess Bower Dunn visiting the lotus beds of Grass Lake, circa 1909. Dunn Museum

Among the multitudes of visitors enchanted by the lotus beds was Bess Bower Dunn (1877-1959), the Dunn Museum's namesake. Bess is often associated with the preservation of Lake County's historical record, but she was also an avid naturalist. She traveled extensively throughout the county with her box camera and spent many pleasant days taking photographs of the lotus.

Bess Bower Dunn visited the lakes region often. This ledger entry for Gifford's Resort on Channel Lake for July 4, 1901 is from the collections of the Lakes Region Historical Society in Antioch. It shows Bess Bower with a group from Waukegan, including her best friend Isabel Spoor. 
Lakes Region Historical Society

The pressure of so many visitors to these natural areas ultimately led to the decline of the lotus. People loved the lotus nearly to obliteration from the lakes.

The demand for access to the beds by boats led to dams being built on the Chain. The first dam, the McHenry Dam officially known as the Stratton Lock Dam was constructed of wood in 1907 and replaced by steel by 1915. The lakes are naturally shallow and this raised water levels, which made it easier to navigate the lakes, but damaged the lotus’ habitat. Motorboatsand boat racingtore up lotus roots and made the lakes so muddy that sunlight could not penetrate through the water.

On August 3, 1911, The McHenry Plaindealer ran a story about an "excursion to the lotus beds" on the passenger boat "Alice." The article written by the boat's Captain William Koeppe stated: "The Alice is the only propeller boat that runs right into the beds so that passengers may pick the flowers without leaving their seats."

Postcard of motorboats cruising along a channel that was dug through lotus beds on Fox Lake. Blarney Island is shown in the distance, circa 1938. Dunn Museum M-86.1.206.

By the late 1910s, residents began to see the damage that was being done. They tried to mitigate the impact by preventing lotus from being picked by the boatloads, and worked to stop refuse from being dumped into the lakes.

A leader in this preservation effort was Colonel John P. Vidvard of Grass Lake. On August 19, 1917, Col. Vidvard and other respected citizens made a plea to "protect the valuable and most beautiful lotus beds in the world located at Grass Lake." In spite of their attempts to raise awareness, by the 1950s, the lotus beds were devastated and without them the tours stopped. For more, read post Col. John Vidvard

In the last several decades, thanks to continued conservation efforts the lotus have made a comeback, although limited. Lake water levels remain artificially high, but boat traffic restrictions and cleaner water have allowed the lotus beds to grow along shorelines.

Boat tours are popular once again, taking visitors out on the lakes to view historic buildings, hear stories of the resort era, and to learn about the natural beauty of the lakes. Though its’ domain has shrunk the pale yellow blossoms of the American lotus remain a popular attraction.

- Diana Dretske

Bess Bower Dunn Collection, Dunn Museum, Libertyville, IL
Chain O'Lakes Reference Files, Dunn Museum, Libertyville, IL 
Lakes Region Historical Society, Antioch, IL 
A History of Fox Lake, Illinois, 1917-1957, Fox Lake Golden Jubilee Commission. 
"Even the Sacred Lotus Flower of Egypt Has Taken a Fancy to the Calumet," Chicago Sunday Tribune, August 15, 1909.
"Square Mile of Lotus Blossoms at Grass Lake," Waukegan Daily Sun, July 25, 1911. 
"Excursion to Lotus Beds," Woodstock Sentinel, Woodstock IL, August 3, 1911.
"Surrounded by Lotus Beds, Plea Made to Save Them," Waukegan Daily Sun, August 20, 1917. "Stratton Lock and Dam." Accessed July 28, 2022. 
Flora of North America.