Monmouth, Ill. —One of Monmouth’s prominent early families is largely forgotten today, in part because its imposing home on Broadway no longer stands, but its amazing multi-generational legacy of military service may stand unparalleled in American history.
It is perhaps fitting that the patriarch of the family, whose home stood at 402 East Broadway and who once served as mayor, was named George Washington Palmer.
Born in Madison County, N.Y., in 1810, Palmer was the son of Major Gen. Noyes Elias Palmer, who served in Dutton’s Second Regiment of the New York State Militia in the War of 1812. His grandfather, Col. Elias Palmer, was a lieutenant in Wadsworth’s brigade during the Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War. One of his direct ancestors was also a direct ancestor of Gen. Ulysses Grant.
George Palmer followed his father’s occupation as a farmer in New York and in 1832 married Amanda Clark Harding, the sister of one of Monmouth’s future leading citizens, Gen. Abner Clark Harding, who settled in Monmouth in 1838. The Palmers and their three children followed him to Warren County in the early 1840s and took up farming in Tompkins Township. When war broke out with Mexico, Palmer joined Capt. Wyatt Berry Stapp’s mounted company in the summer of 1847 and was elected second lieutenant. He returned to Monmouth the following summer, having spent a year scouting and carrying dispatches.
Moving to Monmouth after the war, Palmer built a handsome Greek Revival residence at the corner of Broadway and North Third Street. Continuing to farm, he was active in the Warren County Agricultural Society and local politics. In 1853, he was elected mayor of Monmouth, serving for just one year.
After the Civil War broke out, President Lincoln issued a call for 10 cavalry companies from Illinois to quell secessionist activities in Missouri. Although he was in his 50s, Palmer volunteered and was commissioned captain of Company G of the 1st Illinois Cavalry. His son George H. Palmer enlisted in the same company as a bugler. Although only a 20-year-old Monmouth College student, the younger Palmer would uphold his family’s tradition of military service in an impressive way. On Sept. 20, 1861, the company was thrown into combat against Confederate forces in Lexington, Missouri. The Confederates had captured a house being used as a Union hospital and were directing field operations from its second floor. Two companies of Union infantry were sent to retake the hospital and Palmer impulsively tagged along.
The lower floor was easily seized, but no one of the troops would follow an order to charge up the stairway to the Confederate snipers above. Palmer wrote in his journal, “I ran forward and jumped onto the second step of the stairs and turned to the men and said, “If you will follow me I will lead you! We must drive them out!’ They cheered and came forward like dear brave men as they were. And on we went with a yell and a rush.”
With the young bugler in the lead, the second floor was soon retaken. Although Confederates recaptured the hospital the following day and compelled the Union forces to surrender, Palmer’s heroism was not forgotten. In 1896, as a veteran of the western plains Indian wars and just three years before he retired from the Army as a major, Palmer was awarded the Medal of Honor on the basis of his selfless action on the staircase 35 years earlier.
Although Palmer’s father, Captain Palmer, mustered out of the war in December 1861, it’s interesting to note that his brother-in-law, Abner C. Harding (also in his 50s), volunteered the following summer and was named colonel of the 83rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He would be promoted to brigadier general for heroism at the Battle of Fort Donelson in Feb. 1863.
George Washington Palmer had seen his final battle and returned to a life of farming, moving after the war to a farm in Harrison, Ill. He would die in 1889 in a hospital in Chicago, where he was treated for bladder inflammation. He, his wife and son George are all buried in Monmouth Cemetery.
Yet that was not the end of heroism for the Palmer family. A son, Rodney Allen Palmer, born in Monmouth in 1848, became a celebrated balloon ascensionist in Delavan, Wisconsin. Under name Professor R. A. Palmer, Practical Aeronaut, he wowed crowds, hanging from a trapeze wearing flesh-colored tights and a blue bodice and going as high as a mile in the air. In one exhibition, he attached a Rocky Mountain bear to the balloon rigging and when the balloon caught on a roof, it toppled to the ground and the bear fell to the street. Although it sustained severe bruises, the bear recovered. Professor Palmer died at the age of 25, after having made more than 160 successful ascensions. As a member of Buckley’s Roman Hippodrome and World Festival Circus in the spring of 1874, he performed an ascension for the townspeople of Delavan, before the circus went on the road. A guy line failed to cast off, which resulted in the balloon rolling over and dragging him along the ground. When the balloon began to ascend he was severely injured from being smashed against the wall of the Park Hotel. He continued to perform, but died five months later from respiratory complications.
But wait, more Palmer heroics were yet to come. Lt. Guy G. Palmer, the son of Medal of Honor recipient George H. Palmer, joined his father in the 16th U.S. Infantry in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. Charging up San Juan Hill, he was the first American officer to plant a U.S. flag at the top of the hill.
Guy Palmer’s brother, Bruce Palmer Sr., fought in the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, achieving the rank of brigadier general. Bruce’s son, Bruce Palmer Jr., became deputy commanding general to Gen. William C. Westmoreland in Vietnam in 1967 and became Army vice chief of staff under Westmoreland in 1968.
When Monmouth industrialist William S. Weir decided to build his Tudor Revival mansion at 402 East Broadway in 1894, he had the central part of the former Palmer residence moved five blocks north to 510 North Third St., where it continued to stand for 75 years, until it was razed for a parking lot for Garfield School.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.