By February of 1863 one thing was clear; the war was not going to end any time soon. Folks at home kept wondering why Union forces didn’t just go out there and fight. Weren’t there enough men, or guns, or what? There was no answer forth coming from those in charge.
On February 3, the nation of France made an offer to mediate the differences between North and South to hopefully end the war. Their interest lay in the fact that trade with the U. S. had been brought to an abrupt end and they missed their cotton and tobacco. On February 5th William Seward informed the French ambassador that the Union was not interested in their offer.
Most of the Will County regiments were in camp, resting and recuperating in February, a much needed respite from battle.
At home, spirits were low. News of the death of more Will County men in a skirmish near Colliersville, Tennessee arrived, all from Co. C of the Fourth Cavalry. Sergeant John Avery and Corp. Geo. N. Smith from Wilton, H. E. Benner from Joliet and Marion Cooper from Florence were taken prisoner at the same time.
Three young men from Joliet decided it was about time that someone took over who knew what they were about. Their names were Webb, Camp and Walker and their ages were 12, 15 and 15 respectively. They boarded the train for Cairo where they hoped to enlist. A higher authority, their parents, interceded and they were brought back home for further training.
On February 16th the Senate passed the Conscription Act which required all men between the ages of 20 and 45 to register, including all immigrants who had applied for citizenship.
One provision, written to appease pacifists and those who, for religious reasons did not want to fight, provided that a man who was drafted could find another man to enlist in his stead. The bounty paid that man was set at $300 (about $5,400 today.)
Each congressional district was assigned a certain number men that had to be conscripted. However, in Will County no one was ever drafted. There were enough volunteers to fill the quota.
That act sparked riots in New York City where young Irishmen were conscripted as soon as they set their foot off the boat as depicted in the movie “Gangs Of New York.”
Those who spoke out against the act were thought to be Confederate sympathizers. There was a fear that a secret society of the South known as “Knights of the Golden Circle” were infiltrating the North, giving aid and comfort to the Confederacy. Neighbor watched neighbor looking for any tell-tale signs of sympathy toward the South.
In response secret societies all over the North were formed. In Will County one such society was simply called “S.B.”, later renamed the Union Leagues. One of the men who joined the S. B.’s was George Woodruff, who later went on to write the histories of Will County and the Civil War.
He writes in his book “Fifteen Years Ago, Will County in the Civil War,” “These societies were bitterly denounced by a portion of the people and of the press, and regarded as very dangerous to our liberties. But I think that they were not only very harmless, but that they did much good in strengthening the government, and encouraging the armies in the field.”
“We had frequent, meetings, and secret signs and passwords, and a kind of semi-military organization, and imposing ritual and ceremonials. We solemnly promised to be true to the Union, and to the boys in blue.”
“We ate a cracker, took a pinch of salt, and drank a little water – positively nothing stronger – and then went through with some other flummery, which I have forgotten. Many of us bought revolvers, but I am quite sure we never intended to use them.”
“This is about all that I remember about these secret leagues, except that our fellow-citizen, T. L. Breckenridge, Esq., was the “high-cock-a-lorum” of our lodge.”
A sobering reminder of the war passed through Joliet on the St. Louis Railroad toward the end of the month, 1,500 Confederate prisoners headed for Camp Douglas in Chicago. Curiosity seekers crowded the station as the train refueled; some even boarded the cars for a direct interview with the enemy.
Many called for action from the generals, but it seems that the generals were regrouping and February passed into March with little action on the front.