The Civil War is the deadliest military conflict in American history.
During the war, from 1861 to 1865, more than 750,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives. More died from disease than did from injuries. Pneumonia, typhoid, dysentery and malaria caused about two-thirds of the deaths. Some campaigns were halted because of epidemics in the camps.
The Blue Island Ridge communities of the late 1800s, Washington Heights, Beverly, Morgan Park and Blue Island, were home to many Civil War veterans.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded in 1866 as a fraternal organization for veterans of the Union military. A local branch, Wilcox Post 668, was founded in 1889.
A stone and bronze marker listing the charter members, created in 1928, can be seen at Ridge Park, 96th Street and Longwood Drive. The GAR dissolved in 1956 after the death of its last member. The legal successor of GAR is the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), open to male descendants of Union military veterans.
Local cemeteries became the final resting place for many Civil War veterans. Many of those, as well as veterans from other wars, lie in unmarked graves.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) furnishes upon request, at no charge to the applicants, government headstones or markers for the graves of eligible veterans in cemeteries around the world. Bronze niche markers are also available to mark the location of cremated remains.
In 2007, Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, 2900 W. 111th St., began “Operation Remembrance” to identify and mark the graves of U.S. veterans buried there. This became an on-going project for Paula Everett, president of the Mt. Greenwood Cemetery Association, and Kim Demas, the cemetery’s administrative assistant.
The graves of over 300 Civil War veterans from almost every Northern state east of the Mississippi River were verified in the cemetery. Among them is the grave of a woman, Catherine Near, an Army nurse.
With research help from SUVCW members, sufficient documentation was compiled to apply to the VA for about 100 grave markers, mostly for Civil War veterans.
In April 2013, a ceremony and program, “Honoring Mt. Greenwood’s Civil War Veterans,” co-sponsored by SUVCW, was held to dedicate the new grave markers. Highlights included historical presentations; posting of the colors; the Pledge of Allegiance and patriotic songs; canon and rifle salutes; and taps. Many ceremony participants dressed in historic costumes.
The SUVCW also rededicated the memorial for L.H. Drury Post 467 of the Illinois GAR, which established a burial site at the cemetery for its members and presented the cemetery with a new cannon replica to replace the original cannon that went missing in the 1980s.
When the effort began in 2007, a newspaper article brought it to the attention of then Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. This led to Everett and Demas receiving “Homefront Hero Awards,” which honor Illinois citizens who demonstrate “their heartfelt support for our troops through their spontaneous, unwavering generosity toward our veterans and military families.”
Everett said her mission was to salute veterans.
“The goal was to honor and acknowledge these forgotten heroes,” said Everett, “by marking their graves for future generations to witness.”
Everett said the application process required detailed research and documentation, such as muster rolls, extracts from state files and pension records. The cemetery used the Illinois Roll of Honor for the names and then checked cemetery records to verify that the graves were unmarked.
SUVCW representatives helped authenticate the service records, no easy task since the records are more than 150 years old and are often incomplete or missing.
Demas, who has been with the cemetery for over 20 years, said the project was quite an undertaking.
“We tried hard to find the veterans,” Demas said. “We were not looking for any kind of recognition for ourselves; this was for them. The VA was phenomenal to work with.
“This was a project that blossomed into awesome.”
Local Civil War veterans
Illinois was a major source of troops and supplies for the Union during the Civil War, contributing over 250,000 soldiers.
At the beginning of the war, most of the military units on both sides of the conflict were volunteers. Illinois had no trouble meeting recruitment goals. In fact, so many enthusiastic young volunteers turned out that some had to wait to enter service.
As time went on and reality set in, states had to draft soldiers. Recruitment in the Chicago area remained high, and the draft was little used here. Downstate, especially in areas that were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, conscription was used to supply manpower to Illinois regiments late in the war.
Among the Civil War veterans from the Ridge were members of its earliest settlers. The Morgan, Rexford, Barnard and Wilcox families were on the Ridge in the 1840s, and two decades later, they all sent sons to fight for the Union.
It is likely that some of those young men heard Abraham Lincoln speak in person at the downtown hotels he frequented, such as the Tremont House.
According to Linda Lamberty, historian of the Ridge Historical Society, these families knew each other well, were friends and even intermarried. For example, the Barnard Family came to the Ridge from the East Coast when the patriarch was recruited by Englishman Thomas Morgan to tutor the Morgan children.
The Barnards established farms in the area, including their renowned flower and vegetable seed operation at what is now 103rd Street and Longwood Drive.
Erastus, William and Daniel Barnard fought in the Civil War. The brothers survived the war, and they are all buried at Mt. Greenwood Cemetery.
Two of the Barnards, Erastus and William, married two sisters of the Wilcox Family, Mary Lavinia and Miranda, respectively. The Wilcox Family took over the early Gardner Tavern, a wayside inn along the Vincennes Trail, and the family also farmed in the area.
“These pioneer families were at the core of community activities here for generations,” said Lamberty. “Many brothers, relatives and friends joined the same units and went off to fight together.”
Four of the Wilcox brothers fought in the war, and the family was not as fortunate as were the Barnards. John, as a sergeant, joined the company that was raised by Daniel Barnard, who served as captain. John was killed in 1863 and was laid to rest in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Wilbur, Thomas and Willard Wilcox joined Company A First Illinois Artillery Volunteers. The group was called “Battery A” First Illinois Light Artillery. Most of its men were from the Chicago area.
Thomas Wilcox wrote home from Vicksburg, Miss., to his sister in 1863.
“I would like to come home when we take Vicksburg. … Willard is as strong as ever. … I do not like soldiering.”
Wilbur was killed in Mississippi in 1863, and Thomas was captured and held prisoner at the terrible camp in Andersonville, Ga., for eight months. His health deteriorated, and he reportedly never fully recovered.
He returned home, and in 1872, he moved his farm to Indiana, where he died in 1895. Willard also returned home and moved away from the Ridge.
The Wilcox Post of the GAR was named in honor of the Wilcox brothers.
None of the Wilcox brothers who fought in the Civil War are buried at Mt. Greenwood Cemetery. However, a fifth brother, William, is buried there.
William stayed home to keep the family farm running during the war. It was a common, and necessary, practice to designate a family member to remain behind to continue a family business.
The Rexford brothers, Roscoe Eugene and Everett Heber, were members of one of the first families to settle the Ridge, running an inn and also farming. They were recruited into Battery A by their friend, Wilbur Wilcox.
Other Ridge friends were also in Battery A, including Harry and Francis Morgan, from the Morgan Family that gave Morgan Park its name.
According to a history of the battery, the Rexford brothers were “delighted” to join their friends at Camp Smith in Cairo, Ill., in July 1861. But soon, youthful visions of camaraderie and glory gave way to the grim realities of war.
After the Battle of Ft. Donelson at the Tennessee-Kentucky border early in 1862, Roscoe Rexford fell ill and died while returning home. He is buried in Mt. Greenwood Cemetery.
Everett Rexford became the bugler for the battery. He left his faithful horse, Japhet, with his friend, Thomas Wilcox, and shortly afterwards, Wilcox and the horse were captured by the Confederates.
Everett Rexford survived the war and became a prominent citizen of Blue Island.
He served as village president and cut a dashing figure for many years while leading mounted parades of local Civil War veterans through the streets on Decoration Day, May 30, the forerunner of Memorial Day. He was active in the battery’s veterans’ association. He died in 1920 and was buried in Mt. Greenwood Cemetery.
Francis and Harry Morgan were two of the sons of Thomas Morgan, the man who brought his family to the U.S. from England on his own ship and purchased much of the land on the Ridge, where they farmed and raised livestock.
Francis Morgan was educated in a military school and showed a strong inclination for the profession. He was a lieutenant with Battery A, and he rose to the rank of captain. Plagued by health issues, he returned to Chicago and took a job with the governor’s staff. He died in 1897. The Morgans are buried in Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side.
After the war, Harry Morgan stayed on the Ridge, farming his family’s lands. He and Everett Rexford became brothers-in-law when they married sisters Emily and Sarah Robinson, respectively, members of another early Ridge family.
Harry eventually moved to Blue Island as the family’s land was sold to developers and became the Village of Morgan Park.
One of the impressive gravesites in Mt. Greenwood Cemetery is that of the Brockway Family.
The monument is a noteworthy example of “white bronze” or “zinkie,” which was made to look like solid granite or marble but was actually a hollow cast made from a metal compound, zinc carbonate. Popular in the late 1800s to early 1900s, these monuments were expensive status symbols for wealthy families.
Major James W. Brockway was a Civil War veteran, an officer with the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), which was composed of African-American soldiers, mostly freed slaves, and commanded
by white officers.
Brockway distinguished himself in battle at Richmond-Petersburg, Va., receiving an injury that led to the loss of his leg. He stayed in the service after the war and was placed in command of a U.S. hospital in Albany, N.Y.
Brockway spent his youth on a farm in New York. He came to Chicago in 1858 to work in the building trades. Returning to Chicago in the late 1860s, he went into government work and was elected Cook County recorder for several terms. He was a founder and president of the Consumers’ Gas Fuel and Light Company.
He was also in real estate and, later, in the restaurant business. He lived in Morgan Park for many years and died in 1895 at the age of 58.
The grave of Catherine (Kate) E. Near, a U.S. Army nurse, illustrates the role of women in the Civil War.
Thousands of women served as nurses, first as volunteers and then as paid members of a corps of nurses established through the efforts of Clara Barton in 1861. In Illinois, Mary Ann Bickerdyke galvanized nursing efforts at military camps in Cairo.
Nursing as a profession was in its infancy, and no nursing education programs existed. At first, women were considered too delicate to cope with the demands of caring for the sick and wounded, but they soon proved themselves through determination, hard work and sacrifice.
Nurses were soldiers’ wives who had accompanied their husbands, local residents or members of religious institutions and relief organizations.
Born Catherine Fay, Near was living in Blue Island with her mother, and she also had a sister and brother in town when the war broke out. The exact sequence of events that led her to become an Army nurse are not yet documented, but records show that she married John H. Near, a soldier from Blue Island, in December of 1861 in Alexander County, of which Cairo is the county seat.
After the war, the marriage broke up, with Kate returning to Blue Island and John relocating to Missouri. Army records show that Kate received a pension from the Army. She died in 1908.
Although Kate Near is the only female Civil War veteran documented as being buried at Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, she was not the only woman from the Ridge.
At the entrance to Memorial Park, 12804 S. Highland Ave., in Blue Island, is a display of tombstones dating back to the days when the park was the Blue Island Cemetery.
One of the stones belongs to Clarissa F. McClintock, a U.S. Army nurse. Local historians are now researching her background.
Other cemeteries on the Ridge—Mt. Olivet, Mt. Hope and the cemeteries along South Kedzie Avenue—contain hundreds of veterans of the Civil War.
As Memorial Day is celebrated, these heroes are among those to be remembered; they served to uphold the Union and the principles upon which this country was founded.