Military life of Gen. John Tillson

Brevet Brigadier Gen. John Tillson, center, with staff. In Sherman’s march to the sea and beyond, Tillson commanded a brigade. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County)
Posted: Nov. 22, 2013 3:16 pm Updated: Dec. 16, 2013 8:15 pm


On May 20, 1902, Congress passed legislation increasing Ann E. Tillson's Civil War widow's pension from $8 to $30 per month.

The bill acknowledged that her husband, Gen. John Tillson, had "had an unusually fine military record ... marked by many promotions which he received for his zeal and devotion to duty," while further pointing out that Mrs. Tillson was the daughter of former Illinois Gov. John Wood, who "with his money and person defended the Union cause. He died poor, as also did General Tillson ... "

The bill's sponsor made it clear that it did "not seem proper that the widow of so gallant an officer should be allowed in her old age to suffer and live in want."

The move to increase Mrs. Tillson's pension came nearly a decade after Gen. Tillson's death on Aug. 6, 1892. Now age 74, Anne Tillson with two grown, but dependent daughters, left Quincy to live with a married son and his family in Omaha, Neb. Her time of prominence and wealth had past. In fact, it was said that when Gen. Tillson died, the family lacked sufficient funds to pay his funeral expenses.

When Anne Wood and John Tillson Jr. married on Oct. 2, 1851, two of Quincy's leading families were joined. John Wood had been the city's founder and first settler. In 1836, the elder Tillson, a wealthy land speculator and entrepreneur from Hillsboro, built the Quincy House Hotel, known at the time as "the finest hotel in the west." With his land business now centered in Quincy, Tillson moved his family here in 1843.

John Tillson Jr. was born in a log cabin on Oct. 12, 1825, in Hillsboro in Montgomery County. Here, his father's land business prospered, making John Tillson Sr. one of the wealthiest men in Illinois. Of philanthropic bent and of public mind, Tillson Sr. built the Hillsboro Academy and donated $9,000 to the founding of Illinois College -- schools that John Jr. attended. Tillson Jr. finished his education in 1847, graduating from Transylvania Law School in Lexington, Ky. Returning to Quincy he took up the practice of law. By 1851, Tillson Jr. left his law practice and formed a land company, Tillson & Kingman.

On May 29, 1856, disaffected Democrats, Whigs, Abolitionists, and Know-nothings came together in Bloomington to form a new political party -- eventually the Republican Party. Representing Adams County was John Tillson. The party's platform was centered on opposition to the extension of slavery in the territories. That fall Tillson ran as an Anti-Nebraska candidate for the state legislature. He lost. His father-in-law, John Wood, was more fortunate and was elected lieutenant governor. In 1858, Tillson was the Republican state Senate nominee for Adams and Brown counties. He was again defeated.

Local militia companies were commonplace in the first half of the 19th century. The organizations were more fraternal then martial, with drilling and marching more for show than fighting. John Tillson Jr. was a member of the Quincy City Guards. But with the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for troops, these local companies became the nucleus of the Union army. On April 16, 1861, Gov. Yates called for men to make up six regiments.

Quincy and Adams County soon had three companies off to Springfield where they were absorbed into the 10th Illinois Volunteer Infantry -- a 3-month regiment. On organization, Quincy residents Benjamin M. Prentiss and James D. Morgan were respectively commissioned colonel and lieutenant colonel of the regiment. As a result, John Tillson took over as captain of the Quincy City Guards, now Company A. Within a month Prentiss was made a brigadier general. Morgan assumed the colonelship of the 10th and Tillson was promoted to major.

When the outfit's three-month enlistment expired, the unit reorganized on July 29, 1861 as a three-year regiment. Tillson's commission as lieutenant colonel came through on Sept. 9. With Morgan's promotion to brigadier general in July 1862, Tillson took over command of the 10th with the rank of colonel.

The 10th's first major action was the campaign for Island No. 10 in April 1862. Afterward the regiment participated in the advance and capture of Corinth, Miss. Ordered to Nashville, Tenn., in September 1862, the 10th remained in the Tennessee capital until July 1863 when it made a serendipitous march to Chattanooga.

Here they made up part of Grant's relief force for the trapped Army of the Cumberland. The 10th would take part in the assault on Missionary Ridge, which lifted the siege. Afterward Col. Tillson proclaimed that "Grant has done the biggest thing of the war here. All his combinations and movements harmonized so admirably and his success was so thorough." "The army was strong in numbers," he noted, "but weak, awfully weak in power, if moving & subsisting barefooted and ragged, half fed so that no pursuit could be long kept up." He estimated: "This army needs two months of your curitive (sic) to get over the terrible blow between the eyes that it rec'd at Chickamauga -- and the steady depletions of strength consequent in its subsequent isolation & almost investment until Grant's arrival."

With its three-year enlistment up, Tillson and the 10th elected to stay on until the war was finished. The unit "veteranized" on Dec. 27 and returned to Illinois for a 30-day furlough in January 1863. While back in Illinois, Col. Tillson used political connections to have the 10th removed from the brigade commanded by fellow Quincy resident, James D. Morgan. Responding to Gov. Yates on Feb. 8, 1864 Grant wrote: "I have been aware for some time of the feeling of Col. Tillson towards Gen. Morgan and regarded the good of the service requiring their separation ... " Five months passed and Grant again addressed the issue in a letter to Sherman. "Unpleasant relations have existed for a long time between these officers, on being apprised of which, I addressed a communication to Maj. Gen. Thomas in form of a request ... asking that this Reg't. might be transferred out of Gen. Morgan's command. ... " General Thomas responded: "This application seems to have been made by Col. Tillson who is a captain in the Regular army to gratify a personal pique, and he appears to have endeavored to use political and family influence to obtain his wishes, both of which are highly unbecoming an officer of the Regular Army." For this reason Thomas declined to transfer the 10th. Tillson's request, however, would eventually be granted when Sherman reorganized the army for the "march to the sea."

Beginning May 2, 1864, Tillson and the 10th were part of Sherman's campaign to capture Atlanta. On the march through Georgia and the capture of Savannah, Tillson commanded a brigade of which the 10th was a part. From January to April 1865, Tillson and the 10th campaigned in the Carolinas. On March 10, 1865, John Tillson was appointed brevet brigadier general United States Volunteers. He remained in the army after the war, but resigned his commission in February 1866.

Phil Reyburn is a retired field representative for the Social Security Administration. He authored "Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-Ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, The Railroad Regiment" and co-edited "Jottings from Dixie: The Civil War Dispatches of Sergeant Major Stephen F. Fleharty, U.S.A."


Church, Charles A. History of the Republican Party in Illinois, 1854-1912: Rockford, Illinois: Wilson Brothers Printing and Binding Co., 1912.

U.S. Serial Set 1903, p. 380, line 1618. Increase of pension for Ann E. Tillson. Copy at the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County (Illinois).

The History of Adams County, Illinois. Chicago: Murray, Williamson & Phelps, 1879.

Landrum, Carl A. Quincy in the Civil War. Quincy, Illinois, 1966.

Quincy Daily Herald, August 7, 1892.

Quincy Daily Whig, November 4, 1856, November 1, 1858.

Quincy Whig, August 7, 1892.

Simon, John Y., ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. 10 vols. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

Tillson Jr., John. Photocopy of original letter dated December 19, 1863 is at the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County (Illinois).