We can safely say that by October of 1861 the War Between the States was really starting to get serious. The boys of the 20th, who had joined in April, were finally preparing to see action. On October 18th they boarded a steamer, destination Fredericktown, where they hoped to capture the notorious rebel Jeff Thompson.
They made camp near a southern sympathizer’s plantation house. The chaplain of the 20th called on the family, and finding they were Baptist asked if they would like a prayer meeting held in their home after dinner. To this they agreed, but unfortunately not all of the 20th were of a religious mind. While some of the men attended the prayer meeting in the home, others raided the farm stealing the family’s chickens, sweet potatoes and a good bit of their honey.
When a Sergeant Bernier, who was not aware of the theft, called on the family the next day to borrow a kettle, the lady of the house thought it pretty “cheeky.” She screamed, “Some of you come here and pray, and talk very pious, while the rest steal my chickens and potatoes! And now you want my kettle!” She then attacked him with a broadside of words that we cannot repeat. Sergeant Bernier beat a hasty retreat still wondering what he had done wrong.
On the 20th of October, the 20th marched into Fredericktown expecting a fight. When they arrived they found that another Union regiment had gotten there before them, but the elusive Thompson had left the day before.
Hoping to still catch up to him, the 20th set off in pursuit. They would have run right into an ambush prepared by the wily Thompson had it not been for one solitary black man they found sitting on a fence post. He informed them that he saw “a heap of Secesh (Confederates) down the road a piece.” Thus being warned, the troops set up their artillery to flush out the rebels. The result was that the 20th lost only 3 men, while Thompson left 300 on the field.
This was the first real battle the 20th participated in, and after the battle the grim site of the dead and dying on the field shocked them. They would soon get used to that gruesome sight.
After the battle strict orders came down from Col. Marsh that the men were not to forage for food. However, supplies were short and many of them were hungry. They came upon a flock of sheep; the temptation was too great and soon mutton was roasting away over the campfires. Marsh came riding out and chastised them for violating his orders. They replied that they had come upon the flock, and as the sheep refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union, they had to be disposed of.
Meanwhile back in Will County, war meetings and rallies were still the order of the day. The 39th Illinois Voluntary Infantry, known as the Yates Phalanx, was being organized. They passed through Joliet on their way to camp in Chicago, and were warmly greeted at the station by a large group of citizens. The end of October found the 39th on their way to the East.
Most were a bit homesick, but a pleasant surprise took their minds off the war for awhile. In Carlysle, Pennsylvania the train stopped to put on supplies and the boys of the 39th got off to stretch their legs. They were surprised by a crowd of well dressed women and girls who began kissing and hugging them to express their admiration and appreciation.
Woodruff says, “Although they had not yet received their muskets they had the right kind of arms to meet such an attack and returned the attack with compound interest.”
On the 1st of October Wilmington created a county-wide sensation. It seems that Dr. W. H. Russell, better known as “Bull Run Russell,” visited the town. He was a correspondent for the London Times and had been severely critical of the Union forces after their defeat at the first battle of Bull Run. So much so that he was thought a southern sympathizer and the Lincoln administration would have little to do with him.
As another one of his countrymen had done, Russell went hunting prairie chickens on the prairies between Wilmington and what would become Braidwood. And as his countryman did, he went hunting on Sunday with his retinue of sportsmen and followers.
The good citizens of Wilmington were outraged and arrested him for breaking the Sabbath. His fine was three dollars and court costs (about $72 today). George Woodruff said that he hoped this would give Russell a good respect for Illinois law and Wilmington justice. Russell beat a hasty retreat to more civilized parts of the country.
It was also at this time the “sociables” became popular. These were parties, for the most part held at citizens’ homes, where there was food, music and dancing. But at each event there was a collection jar to raise money for food, uniforms and medical supplies for the Will County boys.