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May 31, 1999
Rev. Paul R. Meltzer, Pastor
Millburn Congregational Church

In every war troops have marched off to battle singing songs which captured the mood of that era. That was true of the Civil War, the first great conflict which touched this community. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 guaranteed that the South would follow through on threats of secession, and by 1861 the Union had split in open rebellion.

At first that conflict was only a distant rumble, far from people's lives here in Millburn. Although there was fervent support of the war's goal to preserve the Union and perhaps to abolish slavery, most expected in those early weeks a quick victory. Those hopes were dashed in the winter and spring of 1861 - 1862 in a series of disastrous defeats of Union troops.

At the same time that the country was pulling apart, a man trudged the streets of New York City, fighting his personal civil war. He was a famous composer who had had a string of successes, writing some of the most popular songs of the day. He had, however, squandered his success in hard drinking. He was estranged from his family now and nearly destitute. He walked the New York streets without an overcoat, shivering in the cold with holes in his shoes open to the slushy pavement, hawking a song here and there for a few dollars. In better days he had written love songs and ballads romanticizing the South. You know many of them - "Beautiful Dreamer," "Oh! Susanna," "Old Folks At Home," "Old Black Joe," for the man walking the cold streets in 1862 was Stephen Foster. But now, as the country settled in for a prolonged war and as Foster himself wrestled with his own demons, he wrote a different kind of song that Union troops were soon singing as they trudged through battle mud and slush:

     We live in hard and stirring times,
     Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;
     For songs of peace have lost their chimes,
     And that's what's the matter!

In July 1862, with the War going badly for the North, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 additional troops, followed in August with a call for 300,000 more volunteers. At the same time, Lincoln announced that if the South did not surrender by the end of the year he would issue in January 1863 an Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the rebel states.

Now the war came close to home as the abolition of slavery became an official policy and as recruiting meetings in Millburn Church and in surrounding communities stirred patriotic support. And the song everyone was singing combined words by abolitionist James Sloan Gibbons with music by Stephen Foster:

     We are coming Father Abr'am, three hundred thousand more,
     From Mississippi's winding stream and from New England's shore;
     We leave our plows and workshops, our wives and children dear,
     With hearts too full for utterance, with but a silent tear;
     We dare not look behind us but steadfastly before,
     We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.

From the recruitment effort in the summer of 1862 came the 96th Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Companies C and D of that Regiment were recruited from Millburn and the surrounding townships. The regimental history notes that more than half of Company C were from the same church, meaning almost certainly Millburn Church, and the Companies' rosters are filled with Millburn names. John Pollock, son of Deacon Robert Pollock, was elected Captain of Company C. Serving with him was Deacon William Bonner's namesake, William. Others included Andrew White, John and James Taylor, James and William McCredie, James Murrie, William Bradford Dodge's grandson, George C. Dodge, George Stewart and David Minto. Company D included Alexander and Richard Thain, George and Eli Thayer, George E. Smith, Jr., James McCann and John Chope.

How young they were! Captain John Pollock was 34 when he enlisted, but Charles Sammons from Antioch was only 14. Most were in their late teens or early 20's. Losing that many young men to war was a heavy burden on the community, and so these recruits were allowed to remain at home until the end of the summer to help with the harvest. Then the Millburn ladies provided an elegant send-off meal as Company D was mustered into service in August 1862 and marched off to Rockford for training before being shipped south in the fall of 1862. Perhaps they were singing:

     If you look across the hilltops that meet the northern sky,
     Long moving lines of rising dust your vision may descry;
     And now the wind an instant tears the cloudy veil aside,
     And floats aloft our spangled flag in glory and in pride;
     And bay'nets in the sunlight gleam and bands brave music pour,
     We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.

War, of course, is never like that. The Ninety-sixth Regiment saw some of the heaviest fighting of the War in a campaign that took them in 1863 to places like Murfreesburo, Chickamauga and Kenesaw Mountain and finally on to General Sherman's seige of Atlanta, Georgia the following year. Casualties were heavy, with 112 killed in action or dying of wounds. Primitive medical care took an equal number, with 107 dying of disease and infection. The first casualty in the Regiment was John Chope who died in Kentucky before they even saw battle. William Bonner was killed at Chickamauga. William McCredie died in the infamous Andersonville Prison. Many others bore the physical and emotional scars of battle for the rest of their lives. And back home families scanned the newspapers and waited anxiously for letters from the front and perhaps they sang another Stephen Foster song:

     Willie has gone to the war, Willie, Willie my lov'd one, my own!
     Willie has gone to the war, Willie, Willie my lov'd one, is gone!

Thomas Strang, son of Peter Strang, served in the Second Illinois Light Artillery and kept a diary during the last weeks of the War. Two February entries catch war's peculiar combination of adventure, boredom and death:

     February 8, 1865 - I was to a dance last night and had lots of fun
                        are not every lively today.
     February 9, 1865 - I am on guard today. There was a squad of our
                        men out on a scout and came in last night. Had
                        seven prisoners, killed five.

Those who did not come back from that terrible civil war lie near the battlefields where they fell. Those who did come back, and this quiet rural community to which they returned, would never be quite the same. Indeed, the entire country had changed. There would be new times of hope and, yes, new wars still more terrible. Those stirring songs they sang as they marched off so bravely are long since forgotten, quaint antiques of that far-off time. But their bravery is not forgotten. And here amid the final resting place of so many of them, we pledge ourselves to remember and to honor them and all their comrades of every time.

     We'll never give up what we gain,
     For now we know we must maintain
     Our Laws and Rights with might and main;
     And that's what's the matter!

Read more about the men of the Ninety-Sixth.
Read more of Thomas Strang's diary.
Go to our Civil War page.
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