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NAME: Samuel K. Wilson

DATES: 1841-1865



UNIT: Sturgis Rifles of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry

SERVICE RECORD: Enlisted August 26, 1861, and mustered in on September 12 at Washington, D.C. Served through the Peninsula campaign as a member of General McClellan’s headquarters guard. Honorably discharged for disability on September 1, 1862, in Philadelphia.

Samuel K. Wilson was 20 years old in 1861when he left his father’s farm in Manteno, Illinois, and joined the Sturgis Rifles, which  was formed mainly of men from his hometown. The Sturgis Rifles, part of the Army of the Potomac, was a company initially equipped with Sharps rifles and supported by gifts from Solomon Sturgis, an original settler in Manteno. In June 1861, members of that unit became the bodyguards of Major General George McClellan, who was then commanding Union forces in western Virginia. Private Wilson joined the rifles when they were quartered in Washington, D.C., with the task of guarding “some ladies of secession proclivities.” In April 1862, the Sturgis Rifles accompanied McClellan, now commanding the Army of the Potomac, to Virginia at the onset of the ill-starred Peninsula campaign.

Private Wilson was sick during the early part of 1862, but he recovered in time to join the rest of his unit as it took part in the siege of Yorktown. He recorded his experiences in terse diary entries, noting mostly the arrivals of officers and dignitaries to see “The General,” distant cannonading, the weather, glimpses of the wondrous reconnaissance balloons and an occasional sighting of a “very pretty daughter of Virginia.”

Wilson’s almost pleasant rear-echelon service was in stark contrast to what he experienced in June when he visited the Seven Pines battlefield and saw the many Union dead there. The Seven Days’ Battles, which soon followed, are recorded in his diary with confusion and fear. Wilson wrote about low morale in his company, noting that several men expressed “the wish that the Rebels would attack us and drive us into the Chickahominy.” He also wrote of retreating troops, burning supply dumps and Confederate cavalry in the rear. McClellan’s retreat to the James River was muddy and miserable. Wilson again “took sick with the fever” while on guard, and spent some of the march in his captain’s wagon. He was evacuated two months later to Philadelphia, where he was discharged for medical reasons in September 1862. His war lasted just under a year. Samuel Wilson died of another fever in his hometown of Manteno in 1865. He was not quite 24 years old.

Samuel’s younger brother Adolphus also joined the Union Army in 1861, but he stayed in the West with the 57th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He survived a serious wound at Shiloh, and later marched with Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas. Adolphus saved his brother’s war diary and passed it on to his oldest son, and it has been in the Wilson family ever since.

The tintype of Samuel shown above, found only recently by Adolphus’ great-great-great granddaughter Amy Wilson, was discovered behind the lining of the diary’s leather cover. Although Samuel’s role was small, he served for a short time at the center of Union power.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here