America's Worst War


by Terry Hogan


It was by most measures of standards, America's worst war, at least in my opinion.  The devastation of US property, the impact on the economy, the loss of American lives, and the impact on two American cultures still have not fully bound and healed their wounds.  Of course I'm referring to the American Civil War.  It is more than American history.  It is American family history.  Few families who lived in the eastern half of America were spared the sorrow or economic hardships imposed by the war.  If you start doing family history, you soon find yourself in the mid-1800's and contact with the Civil War becomes inevitable.  It is important to have some basis context to place these generations of family into.  I say "these generations" because it is quite possible that you may find two or even three generations of your ancestors fighting in the war.  And you may find families fighting on opposing sides.


First a few statistics may help to set the Illinois perspective of the Civil War. Numbers can be a little boring.  But they can also show the importance of understanding the setting of this war.  You can't fully appreciate your ancestors without some understanding of the war that goes beyond the name of Lincoln and the vague notion of freeing the slaves.   In 1860, the census nearest to the outbreak of the Civil War, Illinois had a population of 1,711,961. Of that total, Chicago reported 108,260, so Illinois was still rural, but with an increasing urban population even then. Illinois was a source of cheap land, so many first generation Americans could be found both in Chicago and in more rural down state areas.  Galesburg was finding Swedes becoming railroad workers, farmers, hired-hands, and shop owners. Irish were also coming to town, bringing the Catholic religion with them.  It was a time of growth and a time of change.  Of course, of these nearly 1.75 million Illinois residents, many were women and young children, who for the most part, did not participate directly in the war.


Illinois put 259,092 men in uniform during the Civil War.  This represents over 15% of the entire population of Illinois.  If you let me make a few assumptions that are merely my guesses, the numbers become more spectacular.  Families were bigger back then.  Families needed children as farm hands and birth control, other than abstinence, was nonexistent. Thus, if we can assume that the average family consisted of two adult parents and 4 minor children; this would make one adult male (no exclusion for old age in my assumption) potentially available to fight for each 6 folks in the census.  Adjusting for this assumption, there would be potentially 285,326 adult males from which to draw 259,092. This would suggest 91% of adult males were put in uniform.  This is not likely, so what is wrong?  What is wrong is that not only head-of-household males went to war.  Often they went to war with one or more young, single sons.   However you want to adjust the numbers, the conclusion is obvious.  At least two generations of males were at risk, and probably in some families with senior officers (and often senior age) there might be three generations at war. In Illinois, most of the soldiers were young and looking for adventure.  They were mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, although some were older than 50.  On the other end, some mere boys went off to war. Five from Illinois were identified to only be 13.


Of the 259,092 who went off from Illinois to war, 34,834 (over 13%) never came home alive. The causes of their deaths varied, ranging from wounds, disease, accident, and ill-treatment in POW camps.  But disease was a bigger killer than the enemy without regard to the color of the uniform.  Disease had no moral high ground. It did not honor white flags. It did not respect age or heroism, and gave no concern about loved ones back home. 


As such, your genealogical research cannot and should not ignore your ancestors' roles in the war.  And don't forget to look on "both sides".  We were a mobile society even in those days.  Father against son and brother against brother, are not merely Hollywood enhancements.  I know this from my own Hogan line.


Most of the Illinois soldiers were volunteers.  Although later in the war, a draft was established, it was only implemented, state by state, if volunteers were insufficient to fulfill the state quota. Illinois did a pretty good job at that. When it became difficult to meet quotas, Illinois expanded recruitment for "colored soldiers".


Good for genealogical research, but bad for the communities, Illinois Civil War units were formed in local communities or from a couple of nearby units.  Thus if you know the county your ancestors were in, it makes it easier to identify their units.  Of course, the bad side for the community is that whole units often by back luck, or poor commanders, were send in harm's way.  Whole units, company-sized or larger were at times nearly decimated, creating great loss of life for local communities. Adult males went off in mass from a town and often died in mass, never to return to the community and families they left. Such community units were good for morale and promoting bravery, but were hard for the folks at home when things went bad.         


In some cases, units were broken down into even smaller subsets of the community.  Galena, Illinois had the 45th Illinois Regiment, known as the Lead Mine Regiment.  The farmers around Dixon, Illinois joined up to form with the 34th Illinois Regiment and were called the “Rock River Rifles”.  The 73rd Illinois was formed by a Methodist minister and it is reported that it had so many "men of the cloth", that it was commonly known as the "Preacher's Regiment".  Bloomington, Illinois also produced a unique unit - the 33rd Illinois.  It was formed mostly from the campus of the Illinois "State Normal School". It had two unique distinctions.  First, most the unit's members were quite young.  Second, they were very well educated, compared to the other units.  One of the contemporary jokes was that a soldier declared to be mentally incompetent in the 33rd was qualified to be an officer in other units.  In fact, one company of the 33rd had 13 college graduates, and they were all privates.    


As becomes apparent from the above, most of the Illinois soldiers who went to war were civilians shortly before.  They were ill-trained, and generally poorly equipped, particularly early in the war. Even many of the officers were poorly trained and equipped for leadership.  Some were civilians, elected by their peers.  Some were old soldiers trained in maneuvers that no longer met the needs of a new type of war equipped with repeating rifles.  Some were sent home. Some were killed. Some learned. But the troops quickly learned if they had a good officer or not. Their conclusions were sometimes related in letters to back home.  Major Black of the 37th Illinois wrote home that his superior officer, "…might prove to be a soldier in peace, a citizen in war…." (Hicken, 1991, page 17).


If you had ancestors who fought in the Civil War and were from Illinois, there are a couple of good places to start your research. I have included them at the end of this article. If you had ancestors who enlisted in other states, either for the north or the south, the Internet is getting better every day as a starting point for information.  Unit histories are often available for downloading.  Information on major battles that the units were involved with, can also be downloaded. 


Beyond the Internet, you may also be able to get the military records and any pension records of your ancestors, if you know their exact names and the units they served with, and approximate dates of service.  The National Archives even has a remarkably good record of Confederate units as well.      


It was America's worst war. It left few families untouched.  It probably touched yours.




Chapman, Chas. C. 1878. History of Knox County, Illinois. Blakely, Brown & Marsh Printers, Chicago.  (Reprinted by the Knox County Genealogical Society, Galesburg, IL) (Book has list of units and roster of local volunteers in the units.)


Hicken, Victor. 1991. Illinois in the Civil War. University of Illinois Press. 417 pages (available in paperback) (Great book for "local color" of Illinois units)


Reyburn, P. and T. Wilson. 1999. Jottings from Dixie, The Civil War Dispatches of Sergeant Major Stephen F. Fleharty, U.S.A.  Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. 262 pages.


Internet site: