To Drink the Delight of Battle: A Soldier's Death in the 20th Illinois

 The first reports of the Battle of Shiloh had not quite reached the newspapers but the pall of despair had already fallen over the Harrell household in Oskaloosa, Illinois. After sustaining a ghastly wound at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February, 21 year old Private James M. Harrell died at his parents' home from the effects of the wound. "I was shot in the mouth, the ball breaking out part of the lower jawbone and lodging under the tongue, cutting one side of it loose," he wrote. "All my teeth are jarred loose, the pain of which troubles me excessively."

Unidentified Union soldier

    It was a sad ending for Abington, Virginia native who chose to take up arms to subdue a rebellion of his native state, no doubt fighting against kith and kin. The outbreak of the war found James working as a farmer at Cheney's Grove Township near Bloomington, McLean Co., Illinois in the central part of the state. Captain John Oliver Pullen of Bloomington was raising a company of volunteers, and perhaps it was this notice in the Daily Pantagraph on June 1, 1861 that captured Harrell's attention. "Captain Pullen is in town, detailed by Colonel [C. Carroll] Marsh to obtain volunteers for three years unless sooner discharged. The regiment is accepted by the general government and is likely to be called into active service and ordered wherever the most stirring events are to transpire. For young men desiring to visit the South and to drink the delight of battle with their peers, now is such an opportunity for early service as may not soon be offered again," it stated. 

    The board of commissioners of McLean County chose to pay to clothe the company, and a few days later, the Pantagraph commented favorably on the appearance of the volunteers. "We noticed that the garments of some of them were better-fitting and more substantial-looking than others, having been purchased at Arnold's Baltimore Clothing store on the south side of the public square." Arnold's was a front page advertiser with the Pantagraph. On Thursday June 13, 1861, the company was mustered into service at Camp Goodell in Joliet, Illinois and attached to the 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry for three years' service. "The 20th regiment is composed of excellent men and should the government have need of its services on the battlefield, we believe it will be found ready for the emergency," opined the Joliet Signal. "It is the best disciplined and officered regiment in the state, and we have confidence that it will win largely of honor and be a credit to the district and the state. Success to the brave boys of the 20th- may not one of them be lost."

Levi L. Arnold's Baltimore Clothing Store of Bloomington provided uniforms for the recruits of Co. C in the early days of the war. 

    The war brought the 20th Illinois into Missouri, and for months it operated in the area of Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi River and first smelled powder at the battle of Fredericktown, Missouri on October 20, 1861. The 20th soon moved to Bird's Point, Missouri and in early February took part in the Federal expedition against Fort Henry. A week later, the 20th sustained heavy losses during the Battle of Fort Donelson and among the casualties was James Harrell. Writing to a friend named Ely Gear back in McLean County from within the walls of Donelson on February 17, 1862, Harrell described his experiences in the battle that would eventually take his young life. Harrell's missive was published in the March 1, 1862 issue of the Daily Pantagraph.

Grave of Private James M. Harrell, Co. C, 20th Illinois Infantry. Harrell died of wounds on Tuesday, April 8, 1862 at his parent's home in Oskaloosa, Illinois and is buried at Oskaloosa Cemetery. 

          I once more take the opportunity of writing you of the painful scenes which have taken place within the past three days. We left Fort Henry on the 11th and marched within half a mile of the enemy’s line where we camped. The night was most beautiful and we rested cheerfully though not permitted to have fires. In the morning, the fearful roar of cannon broke the stillness of the air and our boys marched up within musket range of the enemy’s breastworks and have them a shower of balls. We were forced to fall back, however, retreating out of range of the enemy’s cannon where we formed in line of battle. When our forces moved forward again, the Rebel camp was completely invested and skirmishers were deployed on the right and left who engaged the attention of the enemy’s sharpshooters.

          The second night we were compelled to stand in line during the entire night. Twice the Rebels assayed to make their escape, but failed. In the fore part of the evening it rained and towards morning there was a fall of snow. We suffered much from cold having neither tents nor fire. The day following, we stood under a perfect shower of grape and musketry for nearly ten hours. Whenever the enemy showed fight we replied promptly. Our skirmishers did good service by picking off the Rebel sharpshooters.

George W. Harrell, James' father
with second wife Jennie

          It snowed nearly all night of the 14th and we suffered intensely. General [Lew] Wallace, in command of the Second Brigade, said the coming day would decide the contest. Accordingly, the gunboats smoked out the Rebels in the fort and at 9 a.m. Colonel Cook with 3,000 men entered and ran up the stars and stripes on the appearance of which the enemy was compelled to come out of his hole and give us a fair fight, for he was attacked on all sides. He came out and did his best, but we achieved the victory. We lay flat on the ground until the Rebels advanced within 20 yards of us, when, at the command ‘Forward!’, we sprang to our feet and poured the balls into their ranks, making them retreat and then charged on them which had the effect of mixing up their calculations. They had retreated some 20 paces when we came to stand for a moment, during which time our men fell thick and fast right and left. The order was given to charge and the enemy was driven into the entrenchments. We then retreated and were reinforced by a Kentucky regiment; fell back further to a better position and the enemy, reinforced, came at us again.

          In the meantime, there had been 20 killed in our company. One of these was George Halford; he and I were the only two from Cheney’s Grove and I felt as much attached to him as though he were a brother. He desired me, previous to entering battle, if he fell, to take what money he had in his possession and send it to you. But he was robbed of everything, even to his boots. George died like a man. I was shot in the mouth, the ball knocking out part of the lower jaw bone and lodging under the tongue, cutting one side of it loose. All my teeth are jarred loose, the pain of which troubles me excessively.

Fort Donelson surrendered on February 16, 1862

          The night of the surrender we marched into the fort. The first thing I did was to find the body of George and give it a burial as decent as the occasion would admit. I found him lying where he fell. I and three others gathered the dead of our company together. Soon there were men from every regiment to look after their dead and care for the wounded. A grave was dug, the bodies placed in it, and a board, upon which were inscribed the name of the dead, was placed at the head of each. Our chaplain [Charles Button] gave us a noble sermon and asked God’s blessing for those who had fallen in the defense of their country.

          Since the fight, two brigades came in to reinforce the Rebel garrison and upon seeing that they were trapped, gave themselves up. Many of the people are putting themselves under the protection of the old flag. It is though we have 12,000 prisoners and better than all, Generals Buckner and Johnson. Generals Pillow and Floyd escaped. We took 134 pieces of artillery, some of them very large, with a great amount of small arms. Also 2,000 cavalry horses are in our possession, some of which as good as any horses I ever saw. Many stores and much baggage were also taken. Our dead were robbed of everything.

Grave of Corporal George Halford, Co. C, 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Halford is buried at Fort Donelson National Cemetery. 


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