This is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. And this is the story of one of his soldiers. And the soldier’s great grandson. And the words of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s soldier was six weeks short of his nineteenth birthday when he and several other boys and men from the Moultrie County town of Lovington, Illinois and from the nearby county seat of Sullivan answered the President’s call to put down a rebellion by the southern states. This was territory familiar to Abraham Lincoln. It had been part of his area as a circuit-riding lawyer years before. Some of the President’s family members still lived in Decatur, where the soldier would live out his days after the war.
The men who signed up that September 4, 1862 became Company A, 126th Illinois Infantry. This soldier became a fifer, a soldier who played a loud and piercing instrument sometimes used for signaling, audible over the sounds of artillery at times, or so the story goes. Drums were more often used, though, as signals from commanders. The fife and drum unit of each regiment more often played music to inspire the soldiers to victory or to build morale. During battle, fifers often became medics because fifers weren’t needed when the armies had collided. Over time, bugles gained favor as a signal instrument.
Lincoln’s soldier was witness to battle early. By late November the unit was in Tennessee, one of only two states with more battles and skirmishes than Missouri had. They were part of the campaign that opened a penetration point in the South’s Mississippi River flank that ultimately led to Sherman’s famous March to the Sea.
By early 1863, they were becoming part of Grant’s move against Vicksburg. The 126th Illinois was part Sherman’s exterior line during the siege from May 28 until the city fell on July 4. A monument marks where the unit served.
Lincoln’s soldier, the young fifer, moved with his unit to Arkansas three weeks after the end of the Vicksburg operation to move against Confederate-held Little Rock. They fought at the battle of Bayou Fourche, sometimes called The Battle of Little Rock on September 10, a Confederate effort to slow the Union advance so Confederates could evacuate the Arkansas capital. The Union forces, however, forced the Confederates out of their positions and took Little Rock later that evening.
Union forces quickly moved to secure their positions in northern Arkansas and moved the 126th Illinois to DeValls Bluff, an important port on the White River for the delivery of troops and supplies as federal forces increased their control of the state.
Lincoln’s soldier and his unit spent the rest of the war in the Pine Bluff area before being mustered out on July 12, 1865. It is likely he walked back to Illinois by way of Missouri. A total of 202 of his colleagues did not survive the war but only six were killed or mortally wounded in Action. All of the others were lost to disease.
He returned to Decatur, married, and he and his wife had several children. He died sixty years after his Civil War service ended. Two of his daughters remained in the family home while other family members scattered, occasionally returning for visits. A family photograph shows all of the children and grandchildren together with Lincoln’s soldier and his wife.
One of the grandchildren, then living in Kansas, moved back to Decatur to find work because the Dust Bowl and the Depression had wiped out opportunities in Kansas. And it was in Decatur that the great-grandson of Lincoln’s soldier was born and where he often visited the home of the Civil War fife player. And when he was nine years old, the soldier’s grandson and his wife, and the great-grandson moved to the Moultrie County seat of Sullivan.
Last April, the great grandson of Civil War musician Pvt. Robert T. Priddy was the narrator for a performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the Jefferson City Symphony.
Other, more prominent, figures have filled the same role in other performances of this uplifting work. Few, probably, have felt the responsibility of honoring Mr. Lincoln and one of his soldiers more than the great-grandson did that night. But in truth, it is not the speaker of those words in such performances that is important. It is the words themselves and their near-scriptural eternal meanings that count.
One final note: The great-grandson, unlike his musician ancestor, Mr. Lincoln’s soldier, cannot read a note of music.