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The Prairie Boys Go to War

The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865

Rhonda M. Kohl

Publication Year: 2013

Cavalry units from Midwestern states remain largely absent from Civil War literature, and what little has been written largely overlooks the individual men who served. The Fifth Illinois Cavalry has thus remained obscure despite participating in some of the most important campaigns in Arkansas and Mississippi. In this pioneering examination of that understudied regiment, Rhonda M. Kohl offers the only modern, comprehensive analysis of a southern Illinois regiment during the Civil War and combines well-documented military history with a cultural analysis of the men who served in the Fifth Illinois.

The regiment’s history unfolds around major events in the Western Theater from 1861 to September 1865, including campaigns at Helena, Vicksburg, Jackson, and Meridian, as well as numerous little-known skirmishes. Although they were led almost exclusively by Northern-born Republicans, the majority of the soldiers in the Fifth Illinois remained Democrats. As Kohl demonstrates, politics, economics, education, social values, and racism separated the line officers from the common soldiers, and the internal friction caused by these cultural disparities led to poor leadership, low morale, disciplinary problems, and rampant alcoholism.  

The narrative pulls the Fifth Illinois out of historical oblivion, elucidating the highs and lows of the soldiers’ service as well as their changing attitudes toward war goals, religion, liberty, commanding generals, Copperheads, and alcoholism.   By reconstructing the cultural context of Fifth Illinois soldiers, Prairie Boys Go to War reveals how social and economic traditions can shape the wartime experience.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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pp. i-4


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pp. iv-7


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pp. vii-9

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-11

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pp. xi-xv

When one thinks about the Union cavalry during the American Civil War, visions of glorified cavaliers on fiery horses, with swords blazing, usually come to mind. In reality, Union cavalry in service along the Mississippi River were hard-riding troopers, on poor mounts, performing tedious duty. Very few publications have been devoted to cavalry regiments originating in midwestern states; even such celebrated...


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pp. xvii-21

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1. The Politics of War: August 1861 to February 1862

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pp. 1-28

"We are now in the face of the enemy, and the honour of the Regt is at Stake, and not only the Regt but the State from which it hailes, to some extent, and I with hundreds of others in this Regt see with deep regret the . . . working that is going on among us,” declared Capt. George W. McConkey, Co. E, Fifth Illinois Cavalry in June 1863. Leaderless after losing their second colonel to illness in January, the regiment’s delicate internal...

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2. The Springtime of War: March to July 1862

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pp. 29-51

The day dawned warm, the western breeze carrying the scents of a change in the seasons: perfect weather for marching through Illinois. At nine in the morning on 19 February, 1,055 men of the Fifth Illinois, along with their horses and twenty wagons, rode away from their training camp, heading south. The prairie boys marched off to war with light hearts, anticipating the adventures and glory that lay ahead. Joyous...

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3. This Godforsaken Town: July to October 1862

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pp. 52-81

Curtis’s march through central Arkansas became known as “one of the most arduous and fatiguing of any made during the [C]ivil [W]ar.” Newspapers in Chicago and New York described the horrible conditions the soldiers endured while moving through the state, where Confederates blocked roads, using slave labor to fell trees across narrow passages to hinder the army’s progress. Plantation wells, the only source of cool...

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4. Under Grant’s Command: November 1862 to May 1863

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pp. 82-112

When Withers and Farnan returned to Helena in November, they brought new recruits from Illinois. Including the sixteen who joined in August 1862, the regiment received forty-seven new souls: twenty-nine from Egypt, fifteen from central Illinois, one from Maryland, and two from unknown parts. These men replaced the sixty-three prairie boys who had died of disease during the summer and fall epidemics...

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5. Redemption at Vicksburg: June to August 1863

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pp. 113-141

Throughout May, the soldiers at Helena heard the encouraging rumors of Grant’s victories in Mississippi. “News from Vicksburg is quite cheering and indicate the complete success of Gen Grant. Vicksburg is probably now in his possesion,” declared an impassioned John Mann. After leading his army through Mississippi, and winning victories at Jackson and Champion’s Hill, Grant invested Vicksburg, sealing Pemberton’s...

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6. Winslow’s Cavalry: August 1863 to January 1864

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pp. 142-164

In early August, Bussey lost command of his cavalry brigade at Vicksburg. The Fifth whispered of the Iowan’s incompetence and believed the rumors that alluded to his arrest and subsequent loss of command for his inaction at Canton. In actuality, Grant transferred Bussey with Steele’s troops to Arkansas. Bussey’s promotion to brigadier general astounded John Mann: “[Bussey] makes a poor Col and how . . . could he be appointed...

Gallery of Illustrations

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pp. 186-193

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7. The Grand Raid: February to March 1864

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pp. 165-191

After several days of intense preparation, 375 men from the Fifth Illinois marched out of their Clear Creek camp at six in the morning of 3 February, with Company C of the regiment in advance. Seley commanded the men that remained in camp, while Farnan led the Fifth detachment in Sherman’s Meridian expedition. John Mann rode with the commissary wagons, while Packard, who remained ill, “mustered up [his]...

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8. Garrison Duty: March to December 1864

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pp. 192-220

Spring witnessed many changes in the Army of the Tennessee in command and troop structure. On 9 March, Grant received the commission of lieutenant general and command of all Union forces, prompting Sherman’s promotion to the Military Division of Mississippi. McPherson expected the action in Mississippi to “be little else except guerrilla fighting and cavalry raids on the Mississippi River,” which spurred his request...

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9. Soon This Cruel War Will Close: January to October 1865

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pp. 221-243

As the last year of the war opened, the regiment remained separated: Companies A, B, C, D, E, and H garrisoned at Natchez, while Companies F, G, I, K, L, and M held Vicksburg. The historic river port in southern Mississippi became as boring as the Gibraltar, with “picket and fatigue duty order of the day.” Though the Union’s “prospects for the Surpresion of this rebelion Seems brightning” in the new year, the soldiers wanted...


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pp. 247-280


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pp. 281-291


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pp. 291-300

Author Biography

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pp. 300-329

Back Cover

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p. 330-330

Supplementary Material: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry Roster

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pp. 331-369

E-ISBN-13: 9780809332045
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332038

Publication Year: 2013