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December, 1861 – The Cold Reality Sets In

As the winter approached, the brave men who put their life on the line hunkered down in their winter barracks, foraged for food when the officers weren’t looking, and wrote letters home. At home, preparations for the holidays were subdued. But even in quiet times death can be only a heartbeat away.

The 20th Illinois Voluntary Infantry was marched to Byrd’s Point as their winter quarters. As luck would have it, the farm on which they were located had bee hives loaded with golden nectar. Despite the rule against foraging, the hungry regiment could not help divesting the hives of the precious honey.

Unfortunately body guards of General Grant himself caught them sticky-handed and confiscated the evidence. The men of the 20th were fined cash money to reimburse the rightful owner of said honey, although the evidence was never brought to court, as it disappeared while in General Grant’s body guards’ custody.

From then on the 20th marched to the tune of “who stole the honey”, whose last line was “who ate the honey? Grant’s body guard!” It wasn’t long until Grant heard the tune, inquired about the origin, and remitted the fine imposed upon the 20th for the honey never eaten.

The 39th Volunteer Infantry, with its many Will County volunteers, had not yet seen a battle. They went into winter quarters about a mile from Williamsport, Maryland. They brought with them an unseen enemy – disease. An outbreak of measles, brought from the west, sickened many and killed some. The 39th lost none to that disease, but it was here that the first man from the 39th died, not of measles, but of typhoid, another prevalent disease where people crowd together without proper sanitation.

Lieut. Joseph W. Richardson, a young lawyer from New York, who lived at the Stewart House Hotel in Wilmington, had the dubious honor. His regiment wished to fire a volley of salute over his grave, but was unable to honor him in this way because they had not yet been issued their muskets. They decided to request a company from the nearby 13th Massachusetts to help them with that part of the service.

Instead, the entire regiment came to the service, and both regiments stood with bowed heads while the solemn burial service of the Masonic order was conducted. After which the 13th Massachusetts saluted the Lieutenant from Illinois, who was born in New York, but buried on the banks of the Potomac in sight of two hostile armies in Virginia and Maryland.

In addition to this loss, the 39th experienced another – Colonel C. Light was removed from command. It was thought to be a political move, however, the men had learned to have high regard for him, and there were few dry eyes when he gave them a farewell address.

When Light was dismissed, the men were so upset that Captain Munn, a Wilmington citizen rode to Washington to ask for the particulars. It seems that Light had fought in the war with Mexico. He was a corporal at the time and committed the crime of desertion. He was caught and sentenced to 40 lashes and had the letter “D” branded on his hip. He returned to service and became an exemplary soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel. However, during the Civil War the War Department was taking no chances and he was dismissed from the service.

After learning this, the men described their feeling this way, “We had all had such great confidence in, and respect for the Colonel, that it was hard to believe this charge, still we could not doubt the evidence that he had once been unfaithful to his oath, and this we felt to be a sufficient reason for taking from him his commission. Still we could not but respect him for his ability as an officer, and for his treatment and bearing toward us while in command. He had undoubtedly, once greatly erred, yet we cannot but believe that he is now a true patriot, and a courageous soldier.”

Another Will County regiment was forming in December of 1861 at Camp Butler in Chicago, the 64th Voluntary Illinois Infantry. Company F was raised mainly in New Lenox, Frankfort and Wilmington by Joseph Reynolds of New Lenox. Company E was raised from all over Will County, and boasted of Fred Matteson, son of former governor Joel Matteson, as a major. The first battalion of this regiment was known as the “Yates Sharpshooters” after Governor Yates.

As 1861 drew to a close, Will County worried and prayed over the men who volunteered to save the union, and wished the old Christmas carol would ring true, “Peace on earth, good will toward men!”