MONMOUTH, Ill. — If only this house could speak. It’s a sentiment I often express when researching Monmouth’s historic homes. A house may hold architectural and aesthetic beauty, and may last for countless generations, but in the end it’s an empty shell. It’s up to the historian to resurrect and preserve the stories of the fascinating families and individuals who lived there.
I recently came into possession of a photograph of such a home, located at 341 South Eighth St. For more than three decades, it has been the residence of Gary and Pam Youngblood and it still looks much as it did in 1910, when the photo was taken. At that time, it was the home of one Flavius E. Foster, a livestock buyer.
But today’s column is about an earlier owner of the house — a Civil War widow named Eliza A. Thompson, who with her daughter, Cordelia, lived there from 1879 until 1892.
Eliza Ann Thorn was born in Jennings County, Indiana in 1828. In 1860, she married 39-year-old farmer Mitchel A. Thompson, and the couple settled near Spring Grove, about six miles north of Monmouth. In April 1861, the Thompsons had a daughter, Mary Cordelia, whom they called Cory.
Life for the young family was idyllic, until the summer of 1862, when Thompson visited Monmouth on some errands. There, he learned that a movement was underway to recruit a local volunteer infantry regiment in response to President Lincoln’s recent call for 300,000 troops. Patriotic fervor swept the town and soon the surrounding area.
A religious man, Thompson sought guidance through prayer, and with Eliza’s reluctant approval, he enlisted Aug. 7 in Company B of the 83rd Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry, led by 68-year-old Capt. John McClanahan, a veteran of the War of 1812. The overall regiment was commanded by 55-year-old Monmouth businessman Abner C. Harding, who enlisted as a private and was promoted to colonel. Before the regiment was mustered into service on Aug. 21, arrangements were made for Eliza’s brother and sister to come from Indiana to help her run the farm and care for Cory.
On Aug. 26, the 83rd regiment moved to Cairo, Ill., and two days later to St. Louis. It was there that Thompson posted the first of what would be 74 letters home. The letters, lovingly preserved by Eliza, were discovered years later by her three granddaughters. They would become the basis for a 1976 book, Dear Eliza: The Letters of Mitchel Andrew Thompson.
From St. Louis, the 83rd proceeded to Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, where Gen. Grant had achieved his first major victory the previous February. Because the fort held little strategic significance, the regiment moved on to nearby Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, where it would remain for nearly a year. The following February, it was engaged in the Battle of Dover, in which nine of its companies resisted the attack of 8,000 men under Generals Forrest and Wheeler. As a reward for the victory, Col. Harding was promoted to brigadier general. Capt. McClanahan, however, was wounded and later died.
Due to climate, sanitary conditions and medical treatments, illness pervaded the camp. Thompson writes Eliza about his bouts with diarrhea (at St. Louis they were drinking Mississippi River water instead of well water), eye problems and troubles with his false teeth. Many of his health problems he attributed to “bilious attacks,” centered in the liver. He took Knight’s pills (containing aloe, along with scammony and gamboge — purgatives derived from plants) and blue mass — a nasty concoction that was one-third toxic mercury, along with licorice, marshmallow and rose honey. For headaches, he tried applying a mixture of vinegar and cayenne pepper to the top of his head, but to little avail.
Despite the rugged conditions of camp life, I was surprised to learn that hardtack and salt pork were not on the menu and that dining was actually quite enjoyable. Several women were hired to assist in the domestic department, including the wife of Artemus Pence, a private in Thompson’s company. Each soldier paid Mrs. Pence $7 per month to cook, and it was said that “her pies, fruit cobblers, jams and jellies were toothsome delights to the home-hungry men.”
To occupy himself during slow times, Thompson collected colorful shells along the banks of the Cumberland River, from which he fashioned dainty finger rings and breastpins for loved ones at home. For men, he made decorative canes, using walnut lumber gathered from a burned-out cottage. For Cory, he spent countless hours making a miniature cedar chest, inlaid with 87 shells.
Although he saw but one major battle and managed to stay relatively healthy, Mitchel Thompson would not live to see his beloved daughter again. On Aug. 17, 1864, his company received orders to guard telegraph repairers on the line to Smithland, Ky. Receiving reports of guerrillas nearby, the captain and 11 men went in search of the outlaws, but were ambushed by a force of 110 Confederates, who savagely mowed down the captain and seven of his men — including Thompson — mutilating their bodies.
Artemus Pence, though wounded, was able to return to camp and report the attack. He and Mrs. Pence took charge of the eight bodies, accompanying them back to Warren County, and attending Thompson’s funeral service at the Spring Grove United Presbyterian Church, where he was buried in the adjoining cemetery.
Although the church no longer stands, the cemetery is still intact, protected since 1983 by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Because of the native plants growing in the cemetery, its trustees decided not to mow the plot, and appointed the Monmouth College biology department to become its caretaker, burning off the vegetation each spring.
After staying on the farm for several years, Eliza and her brother moved to Monmouth in 1879, purchasing the property at 341 South Eighth, possibly so Cory could enroll at Monmouth College, from which she graduated in 1884. During that time, Cory supplemented her income by providing piano lessons.
In 1892, Cory married Ross McCain of Lacona, Iowa, and moved there with her mother. In 1899, Eliza wrote the following note to the Monmouth Atlas: “Our family consists of my daughter, Cordelia and her husband, A. Ross McCain, and their three little daughters. We have prospered very well financially, for the past seven years since leaving Monmouth, but have sold our well-improved farm on account of lack of church privileges, and have bought a farm near Lenox, Ia., to which we expect to move next March.”
Eliza died in 1902 and was buried at Lenox. Cory lived until 1925 and her husband until 1931. Her three daughters, who published Dear Eliza, died in 1984, 1989 and 1991.
Looking through the files of local historian Ralph Eckley, who had corresponded with the daughters, I came across a remarkable footnote about an incident that was not included in the book. On Aug. 20, 1914 — the 40th anniversary of Mitchell Thompson’s death — Ross McCain took his carriage to pick up some neighbors and their house guest for a visit at his farm. According to the daughters, “When the guest was introduced and entered the parlor she was attracted to the little cedar chest about the size of a shoe box that was on the little stand. We daughters will never forget the incredulous expression on her face as she looked at the chest as though overwhelmed by the sight, then she said to our mother, “Mrs. McCain, how do you happen to have that little chest?”
When their mother replied that her father had made it for her during the Civil War, the guest exclaimed, “You are Mitchell Thompson’s little daughter, Cory!” She then proceeded to describe in detail the hours he had spent in making the chest, as well as stories about his interests and activities, only previously imagined by Cory, who had been just 18 months old at the time of her father’s death.
The mysterious visitor to the McCain farm that day was none other than Mrs. Artemus Pence.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history from more than 35 years. Note: The book “Dear Eliza” is out of print, but Thompson’s letters can be read online at the following address: bit.ly/thompson-letters.