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Cairo, Illinois

National Historical Society Photo

Cairo, Illinois during the Civil War.

This picture was taken looking east accross the Ohio River.



The Civil War brought many changes in the countryside of the United States, most notably are the cities, and towns that are now infamous, or famous for the battles that were fought at these locations. Unfortunately there are other cities that played a major roll in their involvement in the Civil War and are barely mentioned or never mentioned at all, one of these cities is Cairo, Illinois.

Most of the written material on the Civil War deals with the major battles, campaigns and the officers that have gain notoriety in their profession, both for the north and the south. What has been lacking, and the goal of this attempt, is to bring information to the table about the logistics behind the line that kept the war movement moving forward. Cairo, Illinois is one of these stories that have been overlooked. The 42nd Wisconsin was stationed there from September 1864 to June 1865 as well as other regiments had before them.

Cairo is located at the southern most tip of Illinois, at the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. This peninsula was first visited by Father Louis Hennepin, the French explorers and missionary priest in March of 1660. He and his party stayed but for a short time before continuing their journey along the Mississippi. His observation of the river in this area was, "…the banks of the river are so muddy and so full of rushes and reeds, that we had much to do to find a place to go ashore." In 1699 another French Canadian priest, Father Jean Francois de St. Cosme had visited the site for one night during the month of December. His find of this spot unremarkable and continued on his journey down river. The site of Cairo was once again passed by exploration of Father Francois Regis in 1700.

Another visit was made by Sieur Charles Juchereau de St. Denis a couple of years later. He and a party of about thirty of his countrymen, built a fort and tannery a few miles north from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Within a year the party had killed and skinned thirteen thousand buffalo and had stored the skins for shipment back to France. The local Cherokees of the area watched the Frenchmen collect their stores of skins and furs, waited for the convenient occasion and with united forces and an attack upon the men of the settlement killing almost all of the men and seizing the whole valuable collection of furs.

In wasn’t until sometime between 1835 and 1840 before the City of Cairo really came into it’s own, being established officially in 1855. Construction in the area included the formation a levees, a dry dock, a shipyard, sawmills, an iron works, a warehouse and residential cottages. By the end of 1840 the population of Cairo was at 2,000. Cairo struggled as a river town until the Illinois Central Railroad link opened up commercial traffic to Chicago. In 1859, Cairo shipped six million pounds of cotton and wool northward, and seven thousand barrels of molasses and fifteen thousand hogsheads of sugar. In 1861 the population of Cairo was 2,200, of that number, 55 were Negro. Then came the Civil War.

Cairo was one of the most important pieces of real estate in the country, during the fall and winter of 1861-62, both the Union and Confederacy realized its strategic importance.

Records show that many people never expected an invasion of Cairo. In fact, Illinois State Senator Lyman Trumbull wrote to a friend, stating he never believed Cairo would be attacked, but that Governor Yates was "omitting no preparation to be ready in case an attempt was to be made." He specified that there were plenty of men and materiel at Cairo, and more nearby ready to be moved at a moment's notice. He reported that on May 10, 1861 Yates had shipped 2,700 men with 15 pieces of field artillery, plus six-pounders and one twelve-pounder to Cairo from Springfield .

Much to his credit, Governor Yates had already ordered a contingent of soldiers and artillery to Cairo, soon after Fort Sumter surrendered. By June of 1861, 12,000 Union soldiers were in and around Cairo, Villa Ridge and Bird's Point, across the Mississippi River. The latter piece of real estate, named after Adam Bird, a founder of Cairo, was important because any artillery placed there would command the Cairo waterfront. Trumbull also pointed out that another 38,000 men were within a 24-hour ride.

In order to further strengthen Cairo as a military camp and as a naval base, the energetic Governor Yates managed to round up 7,000 new guns, 6,000 rifled muskets, 500 rifles and 14 batteries of artillery, in the autumn of 1861, which were shipped to the city and installed in record time. These additions made Cairo a formidable installation indeed. Cairo became an enormous military camp with a huge parade ground and clusters of barracks on all sides. Countless dress parades were witnessed by hordes of reporters from the roof of the St. Charles Hotel. Military protocol became the order of the day for the entire city; it was to become the fabric of its citizens' lives for the next couple of years.

Located at the tip of a peninsula, Cairo was surrounded by water on two sides; therefore a levee, some 15 feet high, was built around the city. Because the land was flat and low, it became extremely muddy during heavy rains or swollen-river stages, in spite of the levee, which made it a virtual mud pond. It must be remembered that during that time, paved roads were a rarity in Illinois, as they were throughout the Midwest.

The only year-around access to Cairo was by the Illinois Central Railroad, which entered over a causeway across a morass of swamp to the north of the city. Once within city limits, the road split and ran in a loop along the levee, around Camp Defiance and up the western shore to rejoin the junction again. Over this railroad came many divisions of soldiers and equipment that were destined to go downriver to split the Confederacy by capturing the fortifications in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and finally clear down to the Gulf of Mexico. Also, over these tracks came such luminaries as generals Grant, McLernand, Buell, Halleck, McMillan and, from time to time, top members of Lincoln's cabinet.

General Fremont also established a naval base on the Ohio River side of Cairo. It consisted mainly of the floating wharfboats of Graham & Halliday Company and Given, Haynes & Company. The wharfboats were simply flatboat hulls covered with shed-like structures. (The Western Navy Headquarters was located in the Graham & Halliday craft, within which held forth Captain A.M. Pennock, U.S.N., who was appointed commandant of the station.) It was here the gunboats from Carondelet and Mound City were fitted out with crews and ordnance.


From the Photographic History of the Civil War
Ohio St., Cairo, Illinois

The street parallel to the levee, under which were moored the wharfboats, was called Ohio Street, and along it were the Quartermaster's office and warehouse, Post and District Headquarters and the Ohio Building, in which General Grant had his quarters while in Cairo. Also on Ohio Street was the famed, magnificent, five-storied St. Charles Hotel, the focus for not only reporters and visiting dignitaries, but for many important social functions for Cairo's elite citizenry.


From the Photographic History of the Civil War
Cairo, Illinois

West of Ohio Street, along Halliday Street, a throng of saloons and bawdy houses served the military personnel until they were closed down by General John A. McLernand on October 11, 1861. Further west was Commercial Avenue which contained such old and established firms as Koehler's Gunshop, a drug store, the city's post office, the popular Atheneum Theater, plus a blacksmith and a harness shop. A block south of this site was the huge parade grounds.

Cairo quickly gained the attention of the entire country, drawing many reporters to observe the military build-up. The New York Times referred to Cairo as 'the Gibraltar of the West, along with a heavy chain of torpedoes stretched across the Mississippi." However, there is no evidence that such a chain existed and, if it did, it would have been a menace to all navigation and not only to the military.

England's famous novelist Anthony Trollope visited wartime Cairo in 1862, and wrote a dismal report on the city. He complained that "the inhabitants seemed to revel in dirt." "..the sheds of soldiers… bad, comfortless, damp and cold." He also crabbed about the hotel accommodations there, especially the bathroom facilities.

There are few recorded exceptions where incoming troops took a liking to Cairo. Most of these troop had an immediate dislike for their station, and in short time this dislike would grow into revulsion. Cairo’s climate was humid, disease carrying mosquitoes and rats were everywhere and the tenderloin operators cheated and even robbed many of the soldiers. What really made things worst for the stationed soldiers were the periodic flooding of the town. Even it’s levee defenses could not hold back the rising rivers and massive flooding. These floods decimated the town turning it’s unpaved streets and the troop’s bivouacs into a sea of mud. As one Wisconsin volunteer wrote, " I have witness hog pens that are palaces compared with our situation here." The only benefit to the abominable living conditions at Cairo was it encouraged Soldiers to train hard for an invasion of the South. As one private reported, "..nothing would suit them better!" Scattered around Cairo were a variety of installations for the citizenry, as well as the military, including stables, a hospital and a wheelwright shop. A fort was constructed at the apex of the heart-shaped city that consisted of a flat-topped mound upon which were placed three 24-pound cannons and an 8-inch mortar. Contemporary drawings also reveal a command house and a ship's mast for the colors. This facility was first named 'Fort Prentiss , after the Union officer Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss, who had served honorably in the Mexican War. The name was later changed to "Fort Defiance" until the fort was dismantled after the war was over. Today the site is named Fort Defiance State Park.

Life at Camp Defiance was rigid but not intolerable. A regulation poster informed the troops that, after 8:00 PM., there would be no "loud singing, no cheering or firing arms.' Soldiers were urged to attend Sabbath services "in an orderly and Christian-like manner." Apparently food was no problem. There were plenty of G. I. provisions, and locally grown fruit was plentiful. One soldier wrote to his wife that peaches were for sale every day in camp and that he had spent most of his money buying the' fruit. He also wisely predicted a big battle soon to come in Kentucky. The powerful installations at Cairo appeared to be more than enough to repel any marauding Confederate force from downriver. As an extra precaution against a force coming down the Ohio, two more batteries were placed along the levee to the north. Even more batteries were placed to the north on the Mississippi side, lest any threat come from that direction. With Cairo in strong Union hands, the Mississippi was made secure from its confluence with the Ohio to the north. In 1861, among Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, only Kentucky was a declared "neutral' and the truth of its neutrality seemed a variable. When President Lincoln called upon the governors of these states for troops, on April 15, all refused to mobilize men for the Union. It was as if they were sitting on a political fence, marking time and waiting to see what direction even were taking. Meantime, Kentucky's Governor Magoffin, who later grudgingly declared his state neutral due to popular demand, declined to object when General Johnston established Rebel fortifications on Kentucky soil. These forts would soon be challenged not only by the thousands of troops assembling in Cairo, but by the flotilla of Yankee ironclad gunboats.

With the exception of regiments like the 42nd Wisconsin, whose war time station was at Cairo, and who’s job was to keep the peace, regulate the movement of troops and supplies, hunt down deserters, and transfer prisoners north to Chicago, most troops stationed for a short time in Cairo and were en-route to the South to fight in the war. Most of these troops stationed at Cairo were from Illinois and a few were from the neighboring states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio

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