After the U.S Army garrison at Ft. Sumter surrendered to Confederate attackers on April 13, 1861, a wave of patriotic fervor swept across the United States. Men everywhere scrambled to get their names on enlistment rolls and to pitch in to save the Union. In McHenry County meetings were held in most communities and military companies were organized. The first of these units that were accepted from our county came from Algonquin, Woodstock, and the Marengo – Union area, and were eventually formed into the 15th Illinois Infantry Regiment with other companies recruited in Illinois’ First Congressional District.
In the early months of the war people felt compelled to act and didn’t give too much thought to the consequences of their actions. For example, when these military companies were formed under the state’s authority there was no concrete time of service defined. Some men thought that they were enlisting for 30 days; others thought that their obligation was for three months, while others believed that they were enlisting for the duration of the war. Yet, they enlisted and were surprised later. Another consequence that wasn’t fully grasped is the fact that some soldiers would never return home. This consequence became apparent to the citizens of the Marengo very early in the war.
Amongst the many men that joined the 15th Illinois Infantry Regiment was Charles W. Morris, a native of Harmony in Coral Township. Charles was the son of Samuel and Sally Morris who came to Coral Township via the Erie Canal, and established a farm in the vicinity of the Harmony Cemetery. At the time the war broke out Charles was living in Mt. Morris, Illinois, where he had attended school. His Civil War enlistment record shows that he was 19 years old, had red hair, blue eyes, and was employed as a harness maker. It was in Mt. Morris that the patriotic bug bit Charles and he joined the Polo Guards being organized by Captain Morton Swift of Polo, Illinois. This company was eventually assigned to the 15th Illinois; the same regiment that Charles’ former Harmony neighbors were assigned to.
The Polo Guards were ordered to report to Camp Scott for military training in Freeport, Illinois, on May 11, 1861. The ten companies that gathered at Camp Scott on that day were still in the service of the state of Illinois, and the soldiers anticipated that soon they would be accepted into the Union Army. That day finally came on May 24th when Captain Pope, the future Major General, arrived in Freeport and the men of the 15th Illinois were sworn into federal service. That same afternoon Charles with other soldiers from the Polo Guards went for a swim in the Pecatonica River. It is believed that while in the in the river Charles suffered from cramps. He cried out for help, but before anyone could assist him he disappeared under the water. A search was conducted with no results; eventually the body surfaced on its own.
On May 27, 1861, Charles’ remains arrived in Marengo escorted by a guard of sixteen soldiers of the 15th Illinois. Eight were from the Wayne Rifles; the company formed in the Marengo - Union area, and the other eight were from the Polo Guards. The June 1, 1861, edition of the Marengo Journal reported that the escort and pall bearers “proceeded through the village with martial music, the members of the Wayne Rifles here on furlough falling into line, and a number of our citizens, together with a number of teams and wagons, making up the procession.” This procession proceeded to the Harmony Cemetery where according to the newspaper “impressive funeral rites were performed.” Over 1,200 mourners attended the funeral and “the soldiers saluted their comrade’s remains by firing several volleys of musketry over the coffin.”
Charles was laid to rest near the family homestead after his very brief service to the country. Undaunted by the tragedy that befell Charles the family contributed two more sons to the war effort; his brothers Wilbur and Edwin both enlisted in the 95th Illinois the following summer. Wilber was wounded and captured by the Rebels at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads in Mississippi, and Edwin who was promoted to Sergeant was fortunate to make it through his war experience unscathed.
Several sources on the 15th Illinois offer a brief mention of the circumstances of Charles’ death, and only one official military source documents his connection to the Marengo area. The poignant details of this story would probably have fallen through the cracks of history if wasn’t for the newspaper collection at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield which contains past issues of the Marengo Journal. The newspaper shut down operations in the fall of 1861, but not before telling the story of Charles Morris.