Once Upon a Time in Quincy: City responds to Civil War

Posted: Aug. 28, 2011 12:32 am Updated: Jan. 30, 2015 3:48 pm


On April 13, 1861, Quincy received word by telegraph that Confederate forces had attacked Fort Sumter, located 1,000 miles away in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.. The resulting American Civil War would tear the nation apart but would mean economic and population growth for Quincy.

Quincy became an important military location in Illinois, adjacent to a corner of Missouri with divided loyalties and sympathies, as well as the place where military units gathered to cross the Mississippi River, confront Confederate forces, and ensure Missouri's loyalty to the Union. Quincy was the site of several military hospitals, and its residents saw steamers passing down the river loaded with soldiers only to return with sick and wounded.

At 1 a.m. Sunday, April 14, news was received that Maj. Anderson had surrendered Fort Sumter the day before. Church bells rang and dispatches were read in local churches. The Rev. W. W. Patton of the First Congregational Church preached from Matthew 21:6, "And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye not be troubled; for all these things must come to pass, for the end is not yet." Further, Rev. Patton said, "The present struggle is one in which every Christian may rise from his knees and shoulder his rifle."

Hundreds assembled at the Adams County Courthouse on the east side of Washington Square to hear local speakers discuss the situation. Many present avowed their readiness to enlist if necessary to redeem the honor of the country. Throughout Sunday, groups around Quincy discussed the news. Several fights occurred, but none involved lethal weapons.

Two days after Fort Sumter fell, Quincy held its municipal elections. Democrats rejoiced in winning all offices except that of city engineer. Republicans countered that the exciting war news had diverted their supporters from the polls.

A mass meeting was held at the court house at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17. The night was fair and warm, and "Old Glory" floated in the moonlight from the staff in front of the court house (which faced the east side of Washington Square) as Orville H. Browning and Isaac N. Morris, two of Quincy's leading Republicans, spoke. Browning called the meeting "immense" and said all stood with the government regardless of party. Browning confessed he was worried about treason in the community because he felt some in Quincy supported secession. He also noted Quincy's two most prominent Democrats, Richardson and Singleton, did not appear at the meeting, perhaps questioning their loyalty.

The crowd grew so large that the meeting was adjourned across the street to Washington Square where Democrat I.N. Morris spoke for over an hour. He said it was the duty of all patriots to lay aside political parties and, if necessary, wipe out the whole race of disunionists. The meeting divided, and the court house refilled to hear Browning once again and several other local residents. Those outside heard Dell sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,' followed by impassioned speeches by K. K. Jones and B. B. Wentworth. It was nearly midnight when the throngs dispersed to get a short night's sleep before heading off to work Thursday morning.

The following day in a letter to the president, Browning commented on the enormous patriotism being displayed and told of Quincy's hostility to "Southern treachery."

Recruiting committees of military companies were kept busy enlisting volunteers throughout the city. The commander of the 10th Illinois unit was Quincy's Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss. Prentiss had served with the militia during the "Mormon Wars" of 1844-45 and as a captain of Illinois Volunteers during the Mexican War. He had been the losing Republican candidate for Congress in 1860.

Quincy merchants were encouraged to display "their flag" so customers might know whether they were for or against the Union. It is likely Maine and Hampshire streets were bright with the colors of "Old Glory" but less certain whether the community spirit or the merchants benefitted from the patriotic display.

On Thursday, April 18, another meeting was held in the courthouse. This time the purpose was to form a military organization to be called the "Home Guard." It was to consist of six companies, one from each city ward, and each company would elect its own officers. The Home Guard's stated purpose was to "… protect person and property, as circumstances may require, within the City of Quincy." Capt. Prentiss addressed the meeting, stating the necessity of extending substantial aid to the companies such as his 10th Illinois, formed under the call of Gov. Yates. Jackson Grimshaw and Thomas Redmond were appointed to a committee to procure written guarantees from Quincy citizens for payment for a sufficient number of uniforms for Prentiss's company. By 5 p.m. Friday, April 19, the 10th Illinois had registered 105 recruits. These, added to the original company of the Quincy Guards, made up its full complement. Plans were moving ahead to leave for Springfield two days later. Also on Friday, the daguerreotypist, Mr. Ames, advertised to take the likeness of recruits free of charge. This offered the opportunity for wives, sweethearts, and mothers to have a remembrance of the loved ones while they were gone.

Quincy realized that with sons, husbands, fathers and brothers in harm's way, casualties were likely. Local businesses pledged to close every evening (except Saturday) by 7:30 p.m. It was agreed violators would pay a fine of $5 to an orphans' find. Local insurance agent G.W. Fore urged soldiers to purchase life insurance policies for the benefit of their families in case they failed to return.

On Saturday, April 20, Quincy residents received word that city founder ex-Gov. John Wood had been appointed Quartermaster General of the Illinois State Militia by Gov. Yates. Capt. Prentiss continued drilling his 140 recruits in Washington Square while a lieutenant's guard of Capt. Schroer's company paraded through the city in full uniform with fife and drums beating for recruits.

Sunday, April 21, began rainy, as Capt. Prentiss received a telegram to report at once with his men to Gov. Yates in Springfield. By noon, it had cleared and was a fine warm day. Quincy's church pastors met Capt. Prentiss and his command in Washington Square to give a parting benediction. Troops were addresses by Rev. Foote and Orville Browning. Browning recorded it was the most impressive scene he had ever witnessed. Thousands were in the Square and, while Browning spoke, many wept aloud. The assemblage marched to the depot at Front and Vermont where the "Star Spangled Banner" was sung by Mathias Denman and others with five or six thousand joining in chorus.

At 4 p.m., the train started amid loud cheers, flag waving and cannon firing. People along the route from Quincy to Springfield hailed the train's approach and departure. Speeches were made at different places by Cap. Prentiss, Lt. John Tillson, and I.N. Morris. A Whig correspondent reported hearing no secession talk except at Mount Sterling, stating, "That town is a blot on the map. It ought to be ploughed under and seeded down." The rain arrived in Springfield around midnight, and Quincy's troops were escorted to a temporary encampment at the fairgrounds. They distributed themselves among animal pens and stalls for a night's rest before boarding a train for Cairo and the start of their military adventures.

Quincy's response had been swift and its loyalty to the Union unquestioned. The next four years would bring many changes to the "Gem City."

Phil Germann is a retired executive director of the Historical Society, having served for 19 years. He is a former history teacher, a local historian and speaker, a member of several history-related organizations and a civic volunteer.



Quincy Daily Whig, April 15-25, 1861

Quincy Daily Herald, April 15-25, 1861

Additional Information

Pease, Theodore Calvin; and James G. Randall (eds.) (1925-1913). The Diary of Orville H. Browning, 1850-1881 (2 vols. ed.). Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Historical Society. The diary is also available online at


Things to Do

Sign up for Email Alerts