Posted by: Aaron Lisec | April 10, 2013

Contraband labor and local tensions in southern Illinois, 1863


Emily to Ben Wiley, April 5, 1863. SCRC Manuscripts.

April 5, 1863 was Easter Sunday, and Emily Wiley wrote to ask her husband Ben, stationed in Helena, Arkansas, with the 5th Illinois Cavalry, whether he had enjoyed eggs for breakfast as she had.

Emily’s news from Makanda that morning included concern over their son Willie, recently taken to St. Louis to board with an eye specialist.  She fretted that both Willie and his father were gone at the same time.  She wrote of her own health amid the constraints of a pregnancy she didn’t directly mention.

Tucked into the body of her letter is Emily’s account of an incident that hints at social and economic tensions simmering in her southern Illinois neighborhood halfway through the war.  “Last night about ten oclock four men rode up to gate and called/Maxfield went to door/they told him to tell me the boys had to leave in ten days or they would see some way for them to get away/he wanted them to come in and tell me/they told him he could tell me with an oath to it and if that did not do they would help them away/he did not know any of their names/one of them he had saw.  he said he went in to put on his p[an]ts and they had left by that time [he] was going out to have a talk with them/I was asleep and did not hear them.”  B. Maxfield is listed under B. Wiley in the 1865 Jackson County census; a Benjamin Maxfield married in Jackson County in June 1863.  Maxfield may have worked the Wileys’ farm in Ben Wiley’s absence.

Emily returned to this subject in her next letter, written April 9, 1863.  “The boys are washing some this morning expect to leave tonight or in morning/they have not decided which way they will go/they are afraid if they go north they could not get to stay and it would cost them just that much more/They are talking some of going to Cairo.  Think I shall try and go over to Shearers this afternoon/perhaps he would know which would be the best/I know he has no prejudice against them and would tell whatever he thought would be right/I got $40 for them from Daniel and some things at the store but that does not pay them up/told them whenever they got to some place where they could have someone write and let me know and I would send them the rest when I got it.”

In her book The Prairie Boys Go To War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry 1861-1865 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013, p. 70), Rhonda Kohl quotes part of this passage and writes that Ben Wiley had hired African-American refugees in Cairo the previous fall to work on his farm.  Some months later Ben was charged under Illinois’ 1850s era “Black Laws” with importing blacks with the intent to free them.   That prosecutors aspired to enforce such a law even as their fellow citizens died fighting the men who had owned these refugees illustrates just how divided southern Illinois could be at any given place and time during the war.

Emily finished her April 9 letter with a piece of related news.  “Some person set fire to those houses of Fathers in the bottom where the bl[ac]k folks were/the fire was put out before it did much damage/the man that brought them there took them to Cairo and then I think to Island No 10.”  Emily’s father was Winstead Davie, an early Union County settler who named the town of Anna after her mother.  The “bottom” was the floodplain that stretched west of Jonesboro to the Mississippi River.

Patriotic envelope used by Joseph Skipworth, 33rd Illinois Infantry.  SCRC Manuscripts.

Patriotic envelope used by Joseph Skipworth, 33rd Illinois Infantry. SCRC Manuscripts.

Emily’s letters offer a cryptic peek into the shadowy world of the southern sympathizing Knights of the Golden Circle and less organized like-minded groups in southern Illinois.  For a fictional account of wartime strains among the Wileys’ neighbors along the Jackson-Union County border, see Mary Tracy Earle’s 1902 novel The Flag On The Hilltop, free on Google books.  For more on freedmen in the Makanda area see Kay Rippelmeyer, Giant City State Park and the Civilian Conservation Corps (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010, p. 22).


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