Among the contenders for the first place in the nation to celebrate Memorial Day is Carbondale, Illinois, this blog’s hometown. On April 29, 1866, Major General John A. Logan addressed a small crowd gathered at the town cemetery to honor their war dead. Two years later, on May 5, 1868, in his role as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, now-Congressman Logan proclaimed May 30 as a day for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves” of fallen soldiers.
One of those fallen soldiers was Joseph Skipworth, a private in Company H of the 31st Illinois Infantry–the regiment Logan organized and led before he rose to higher command. Skipworth idolized his colonel. After the battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862 Skipworth penned some verse urging a relative back home to name a new baby after his hero.
“Delpha you had a boy/if you dont call it John A Logan dont call it at all/for John White he did fall/and John A Logan made them squall.”
( John H. White, second in command of the 31st, had been killed at Fort Donelson; Logan himself was nearly pronounced dead on the battlefield.)
Skipworth farmed in Williamson County, near the Jackson County line. The nearest post office, Fredonia, has long since disappeared. Joseph served the entire war from September 1861 to July 1865, fighting at Fort Donelson, through the Vicksburg campaign and the March to the Sea. At Vicksburg he wrote to his wife Mary Ann on the back of a captured Confederate quartermaster’s form; at Savannah he wrote her on the back of a sheet of printed checks from the Planter’s Bank.
Skipworth survived the war but not for long: he died sometime between July 1865, when he was mustered out at Louisville, and December 1866, when Mary Ann remarried. Besides his widow and four children he left behind some one hundred wartime letters. Joseph was a phonetic speller who closed each letter the same way–“your affectionate husband until death”–and he occasionally bettered more literate soldiers in his descriptions of battle and army life. A good example is his account of his first battle at Belmont, Missouri, November 7, 1861, written to Mary Ann three days later.
“I will tell you all about the great battle we had down here. I got a bayonet run through the arm and a cannonball struck a tree close to me and the splinters from the tree hit me on the head and knocked me down but thank god I got up and hope [helped?] take a man that was by my side. He was shot rite by my side and I could not load my gun anymore and I went to the hospital and had my arm dressed and fixed and all. So I got shot in the back part of my head but it did not happen to go through the skull but it raised a knot on my head. I tell you that there was no time for playing there. Every man was put to his post and fighting like tigers but there was about five to one and we stood up to them like Men…. I would love to see you and tell you how it all went off. I could not rite all about it in a week. If only I could see you I would be glad.”
Joseph Skipworth is buried in McKinney Cemetery, Crab Orchard Township, about five miles from Woodlawn Cemetery in Carbondale, where his old commander began the tradition we honor each Memorial Day.