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From what has been written about Vandalia in the history books and personal memoirs, our county seat was an armed camp during the years of the Civil War.
With the fighting-age men off in other states, the protection of the home front fell on the old men, boys and the womenfolk.
As with other counties, several former offices of the Mexican War were residents and helped to organize the security as best they could. Col. Robert H. Sturgess’ name stands out among the "home guard" in Fayette County after his return from service in the Civil War.
It was at this dangerous time that the Clingman Gang began to raid farms near Ramsey and Vandalia, including that of James Bowles, who lived west of town on the Vandalia-to-Greenville road. Said to number around 700, they wreaked havoc in five counties until Josiah Wood, alias Clingman, was run out of the area by the residents who banded together.
At the outbreak of hostilities and call for soldiers, “Fayette County was the first in the field with recruits,” according to the Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Fayette County, published in 1910.
“Some of the men who went from Vandalia attained a national reputation. Col. Thomas E.G. Ransom, who was the Illinois Central agent at Farina when hostilities began, enlisted in the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, soon became colonel and then major general.
“Others distinguished in the Union cause were Col. Sturgess of the Eighth; Major Thomas K. Jenkins of the 14th Cavalry and Major A.P. Koehler of the Seventh Cavalry, all of Vandalia.
“Many of those who went out never returned, dying on battle fields or in the terrible Southern prisons. Others did live to get home, but died soon thereafter from injuries or fatal diseases contracted while in service.
Seventeen volunteer companies were raised in Fayette County, with most of the men signing up for three-year enlistments.
Major John McIlwain, a member of the field staff, 35th Illinois Infantry, who died on June 22, 1864, was the first Fayette County man to die in battle. The McIlwain post of the Grand Army of the Republic, Post No. 173, was organized on June 11, 1883, with 45 charter members. The 35th Illinois Infantry was raised in Fayette County.
Col. Sturgess was the first post commander. Through the local post, the sick were cared for, those who died were buried with military honors and memorial services were held each Decoration Day.
Adam Goodheart, a professor and author from Chestertown, Md., said that up to one-third of all Americans are descendents of Civil War soldiers. It would be interesting to know what percentage of these people have found this heritage.
A list of all known soldiers buried in Fayette County – known as the “Honor Roll” – was compiled by the Veteran’s Administration, first in 1929 and again in the mid-1950s. Arranged in alphabetical order by cemetery name, the “Honor Roll of Fayette County,” contains the names of more than 1,000 veterans among its pages.
We have names of two Fayette County women who served as nurses – Mary Wren Sharp and Mary Dull. Known Confederate veterans buried in Fayette County now number 23.
Was your great-grandfather a veteran of the Civil War?
With the aid of the “Honor Roll,” which is now online through the Secretary of State’s office, it has become easier to prove.