July of 1863 found the citizens of Will County full of hope – hope that they would see their boys again and the bloody war would finally end. There was a reason for this. Two great battles had been won by the Union. Would that be enough to finally turn the tide?
The battle at Vicksburg had been raging over a month, with great loss of life on both sides and by military and civilians alike. Grant had laid siege against Pemberton and was determined to dig him out. On July 4th, Pemberton surrendered.
The 20th Illinois Infantry, the first to muster in from Will County, had the privilege of marching into Vicksburg on that day, where they stayed for several months keeping order.
Of the regiment up to that time Surgeon Goodbrake, writing from Vicksburg on July 16th, says:
“The 20th has been engaged in all the battles since Gen. Grant crossed the river, up to and including the charge of May 22d, in which Col. Richards, Capt. Stevens, Lieut. Sears, and sixteen privates were killed. Up to the surrender of Vicksburg, the regiment had 21 killed and 102 wounded; had been in nine battles, with honor every time, and had gained the nickname of the “Little Fighting Regiment.”
McAllister’s Battery, 1st Illinois Artillery, the first regiment from Will County to see action, was also at Vicksburg. George Woodruff tells us what happened to them after the surrender.
“After the surrender, the battery was stationed at the bluffs of Chickasaw Bayou, near a large and beautiful spring. In the course of 10 or 12 days, the men began to complain of a strange sickness, and one after another were sent to the hospital.”
“This unaccountable sickness continued to lay up the men until all were more or less affected, and an investigation was ordered. The result was that a small keg of arsenic was found imbedded in the bottom of the spring, and the cause of the sickness was revealed. Out of 150 men, 100 at least had been temporarily disabled by this fiendish outrage.”
The 39th Illinois Voluntary Infantry, a strong Wilmington regiment, was still at the door of Charleston harbor. A plan was afoot by the Union army to take Morris Island and Forts Wagner and Gregg on that island – one step closer to Charleston.
One of the regiments assigned the task of storming Fort Wagner was the 54th Massachusetts, an all black regiment, excepting the officers. Their casualties were horrific, a fifty percent immediate loss. That battle was later made into the movie “Glory.”
It was no easier for the men of the 39th, when on July 10th they fought and won part of the island, a foothold toward taking the two forts that were still in the hands of the Confederates.
Meanwhile, out east a three-day battle was raging. On July 1, 2, and 3rd at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Gen. Robert E. Lee met Gen. George Meade. It was to be the three bloodiest days in American history.
At the end the two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing), while Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate. Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, documents 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing). Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured.
The only Will County regiment in that battle was the 8th Illinois Cavalry, organized mainly with men from Crete and other eastern Will County towns.
The folks back home rejoiced. George Woodruff describes the reaction at home in his book Will County in the Civil War, “July. 4th brings us the glorious news of Vicksburg’s surrender, one of the greatest achievements of the war, hitherto. Simultaneously we hear of the victory of Gettysburg, in which our County had some share in the 8th cavalry.”
“Great demonstrations of joy are made throughout the city. Cannons are fired, bells rung, and bands played. The people get together in the old City Hall, and orate and bloviate, and jubilate in the most thrilling and patriotic manner. We think for a while that the backbone of the rebellion is surely broken, but it turns out that it had only got a bad wrench!”