Quintessential America

The Army of Average Guys, One By One

A Barrington man offers his firsthand experience from the front lines of the Civil War.

by DAVID RUTTER

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Heroism raises average people to unexpected grandeur. It arrives one person at a time, one hope at a time, one act of yearning selflessness at a time. It is mysterious and stunning.

Nov. 10, 1862
From Lexington, Ky.

“Dear Daughter, Tell your mother to take care and not hurt herself doing too much. I was very fond of the gloves she sent me as my hands were nearly froze holding the guns at night while on guard. I am in good health and am getting fat … You must be good girls and do what your mother tells you… Tell mother to sell the horses if (she) can to any to advantage. Tell her I wish I was back with her again. I would stay with her, not that I dislike soldiering but I think it was too bad to leave you at all. But there is no help for spilt milk … We must do the best we can. I think the war will be over by the month.”

You affectionate Husband and father,
Norris Hamilton

The Civil War, seen looking over our shoulder, only seems like massed armies slashing at each other, gallant horsemen, withering cannon fire, the terrible turmoil of mechanized modern warfare. It was a giant tableau splashed in grey, blue, and bloody red.

But it was visceral, human heroism. One regular person at a time raised to grandness. One family at a time. That was the equation of duty that would decide if the Union would survive, if America would survive.

It would require ordinary people to be extraordinary.

Norris McGregor Hamilton had committed himself to that duty. Why? Only his heart knew, and that evidence is hidden now.

He could have stayed home at his Cuba Township farm north of Barrington. Maybe he should have. But when he wrote wife Nancy and his three daughters – Janette, Mary, and Ann – from aside the flickering campfire that night, he knew he was wrong. The Civil War would not be over in a month. No one in Company C of the brand new 96th Illinois Infantry Regiment thought that. They were just regular guys.

They all had signed up knowing the easy glories of a bright, shiny, and quick war were no longer likely. They gathered from Cuba Township, Antioch, Millburn, and Waukegan. They were very young. Many were teens with a sprinkling of older farmers, professionals, and tradesmen.

They would be remarkable heroes. One by one.

Nov. 23, 1862
From Danville, Ky
.

“Dear daughter, … There is a great many soldiers dying here out of the hospital, both Union and Rebel … As to getting a furlough, I don’t think I can. If I do, I think it would cost too much to come home. I remain your loving husband [for wife Nancy] and father until death.”

Norris Hamilton

In the first months, any hope of rectifying the Confederacy with a sharp, decisive punch had been replaced by reality. Both sides were obstinate. Many men would have to die.

When Abraham Lincoln called the nation – and his home state – to arms, he told them he needed 600,000 more troops to save the Union from insurrection. Illinois would send 150 infantry regiments and 256,297 soldiers to answer Abe’s call.

Hamilton and 108 friends from Lake County rode at the crest of that wave. Company C was one of 10 in the regiment. Three others also were Lake County’s “sturdy farm boys”, as the state adjutant general called them when he swore them to service, and six companies originated for Jo Daviess County. Political chums had told the state their two counties would raise their own regiment and share the honor of thrashing the Confederacy.

And share the terrible burden of pain and death.

Norris “Mc” Hamilton was Scot Canadian by birth and had a settled, prosperous life. He was 44 then, 5-foot-7, brown-haired, blue eyes, clean shaven, though he would grow a lush beard in combat and complain mightily about the sticky mess that camp molasses left on his face.

He should have been too old to be a private in Mister Lincoln’s Army.

But when John Pollock, the son of Millburn’s spiritual leader, rode the county’s roads and paths to challenge his friends to enlist, Hamilton could not resist his sales pitch. Save the nation from treason, Pollock said. Preserve the Union, he said. Give me three years of service, and you will return the Union to its faith.

They sang abolitionist James Sloan Gibbons’ anthem, “We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.” Pollock’s friends elected him Captain of Company C.

No one smirked at patriotism then. No one in Cuba Township doubted the nation had to be saved. Traitorous Southern slaveholders would not doom it, either.

June 28, 1864
From Kennesaw Mountain, Tenn.

“Dear wife and daughters … The Rebels charged us seven times over the evening of the 20th. And each time we repulsed them. Our own men buried nine hundred of them. And twice that many wounded. Our loss is put down at two hundred and fifty… I hope God will protect me from the Rebel bullets, and send me safe home to you if it His good pleasure. Tell the girls to be good girls, so that we may all meet in heaven where parting will be no more.”

Norris

Hamilton had known most of those who signed up together that summer of 1862. That’s how regiments were self-raised then. Irish signed up with Irish. Germans with Germans. Italians with Italians. Whole towns and townships signed up, often together.

And when they died in the Civil War, those communities usually died together.

Besides, the Union would pay him $13 month in private’s pay, less deductions for uniforms and laundry.

So Norris Hamilton went to war. But he would not come home.

July, 26, 1863
From Wartrace, Tenn.

“Dear Nancy …. I have not felt so lonesome since I enlisted as I have the last few weeks. I was in to the Captain about a furlough but he said he could not get one for himself even tho he has been sick.”

Your affectionate husband, Norris.

Hamilton wrote often, but soldiers then were blessed with that desire. It was the only link to home. Besides food, tobacco, and sanitation, no resource was more prized than paper and ink for letters.

There was time for it. There was eloquence.

Eighty percent of all soldiers in the Civil War were infantry, and the vast bulk of their time was divided between camp life and marching to the next armed encounter. In the Union Army, the average was one day of battle for 29 days of sitting, marching or drilling. More soldiers died of disease than bullets.

Normally Hamilton and Company C had the full Union theoretical-but-never-real marching ration of 1 lb. of hard bread, 3/4 lb. of salt pork, or 1 1/4 lb. of fresh meat, plus sugar, coffee, and salt. Maybe, pickled cabbage. Fresh meat and coffee often disappeared as did good health. Scurvy proliferated. The Union army responded by issuing desiccated “corn husks, tomato skins, carrots and other kinds of vegetables too numerous to mention.”

After two months of training, Hamilton and Company C were delivered by train to the banks of the Ohio River in November 1862. Over the next three years, they walked 5,000 miles across Kentucky and back, and from one end of Tennessee to the other.

Hamilton saw his family only once more, during five months of recuperation after a single musket ball pierced both sides of his face at Chickamauga, the second bloodiest battle of the war. They made him a corporal for which the pay still was $13 a month.

It was a hard 5,000 miles.

Dec. 2, 1864
From Nashville, Tenn.

“Dear daughter Annie, We expect to have great battle at this place. I had to quit writing and go out on a skirmish line, and finish my letter out there. The Rebels are not as fond of charging us as they were at Franklin … I think you are sensible about staying at home this winter and going to school and try to be a good scholar, for it will be no load to carry. Remember me to mother and Janette and Mary.”

From your affectionate father, Norris.

Two weeks after he wrote his last letter, Hamilton and Company C charged a Confederate skirmish line in the battle of Nashville in 1864, the last major confrontation of the Western campaign.

They had begun with 109 friends. By Nashville, they had been reduced to 17.

As they approached the Rebels nine days before Christmas, a bullet crashed through Hamilton’s head. He died before he hit the ground.

Gen. Robert L. Lee surrendered four months later. The Union was preserved.

At the time of his death, the Union owed Norris “Mc” Hamilton $25. It was paid in full to Nancy.

Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this story, order your copy of Quintessential Barrington’s special edition due February 2015. This special edition is the official publication for the 2015 Sesquicentennial. Order forms are available at Village Hall at 200 S. Hough St., or online at www.qbarrington.com.

David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.