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March 1864 – Hail the Heroes Home From the War!

While most of the Will County regiments were in winter camp during the early spring of 1864, the 20th Illinois Infantry was on the march with Sherman, burning a swath across the south. They were the first to volunteer for the war and three long years later, they were still fighting.

In a journal entry, one unnamed man of the 20th wrote, “Thus, from Feb. 3d to March 4th, we had marched 375 miles, captured and burned the towns of Clinton, Jackson, Brandon, Decatur, Hillsboro, Chunkey Station, Meridian, Enterprise, Forest, Quitman, Canton and Brownsville; captured and burned 35 locomotives and 125 cars; and killed about 400 rebs, wounded 800 more, and took 800 prisoners.”

“We had captured 2,000 horses and mules, and brought in with us 10,000 contrabands (former slaves) of all ages, sizes, colors, sexes and shapes; in all kinds of conveyances from the great plantation wagon, crammed full of woolly heads, down to the smallest jackass, loaded down with a big wench on her pack of movables. Our contraband train was a sight to behold, worth more than any street show that Barnum ever organized.”

“We had destroyed more than 150 miles of R. R., burned every R. R. building on the route, and every cotton gin, mill and public house and some private ones. Long, long will the people remember the visit of Sherman’s army, and its marks will not soon be obliterated from the region.”

Only 197 of the original 600 men were left in the 20th, and now, at long last, they were given a furlough home. This reward came because a majority of them had reenlisted for the duration. It was also at this time that news came that their old comrade, Col. Bartleson, had been released from Libby Prison and was going home too.

Col. Bartleson was met in Chicago by a committee of citizens from Joliet and escorted home to Joliet to a public celebration at the Court House. He was there to greet his comrades of the 20th when they arrived. Receptions and oyster suppers were held in their honor, making them forget just for awhile, what they had just seen.

Meanwhile the 100th Illinois was camped near Athens Tennessee enjoying life as best they could. George Woodruff in his book Will County in the Civil War, described this time as “the one green spot in their military experience which still retains a pleasant memory.”

Major Rodney Bowen, writing home from Athens said, “We are living as well as anybody need. Rations are plenty. Butter and eggs from the country abundant. We board at a first-class hotel, have a husk mattress to sleep on, and a shingle roof over our heads. Is not this gay soldiering?”

Maj. Bowen also describes a wedding party to which the officers were invited. “The influence of the place and its society was soon manifest in the appearance of the regiment. All, the officers and privates, began to “slick up,” as boys, old or young, will, when there are pretty girls about. Boots were blacked, clothes were brushed, heads were groomed, paper collars sported, etc., things which the boys had almost forgotten how to do.”

“When not on duty they were permitted to go down town and form the acquaintance of the inhabitants, among whom, as more than one soldier’s letter testifies, were many pretty girls. These letters show also that these Athenian damsels found the tender spot in many a soldier’s heart.”

“I have heard it said that more than one of the boys came near losing his heart, and forgetting the girl he had left behind him. Indeed, one member of the regiment was married here. This was Charles Styles, of Manhattan, who, though he never surrendered to a rebel, struck his colors to a pretty Athenian widow. (Woodruff adds: Poor fellow, as we shall see, his wife was soon a widow again!”)

The feeling of good will seems to have been mutual. The citizens used to come up to witness the Sunday afternoon dress parades, and were so well pleased with the regiment that when a forward movement began to be talked of, they presented a petition to the department commander, asking that the 100th regiment might be left as a permanent guard. I don’t know whether the girls signed this petition or not, but I have no doubt they prayed for its success.”

As March slowly led into the warmth of April 1864 battle lines were once again being drawn, and the men of Will County once again put themselves on the that line, determined to finish the fight.