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HISTORIC HOUSE WAS HOME TO
CIVIL WAR WIDOW
If only this house could
speak. It’s a sentiment I often express when researching Monmouth’s historic
homes. A house may hold architectural and aesthetic beauty, and may last for
countless generations, but in the end it’s an empty shell. It’s up to the
historian to resurrect and preserve the stories of the fascinating families and
individuals who lived there.
One of those stories concerns
a house located at 341 South Eighth Street in Monmouth. A plain wooden homestead,
undistinguished except for a tower with a mansard roof, the residence has been
home to countless families, but one of its earliest owners was a middle-aged
mother, whose husband had been killed in the Civil war. Along with her daughter, she occupied the
house from 1879 until 1892.
Eliza Ann Thorn was born in
Jennings County, Indiana in 1828. In 1860, she married 39-year-old farmer
Mitchel A. Thompson, and the couple settled near Spring Grove, six miles north of Monmouth. In April 1861,
the Thompsons had a daughter, Mary Cordelia, whom they called Cory.
Life for the young family was
idyllic, until the summer of 1862, when Thompson visited Monmouth on some
errands. There, he learned that a movement was underway to recruit a local
volunteer infantry regiment in response to President Lincoln’s call for 300,000
troops. Patriotic fervor swept the town and soon the surrounding area.
Thompson sought guidance
through prayer, and with Eliza’s reluctant approval, he enlisted in Company B
of the 83rd Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry, led by 68-year-old Capt. John
McClanahan, a veteran of the War of 1812. The overall regiment was commanded by
55-year-old Monmouth businessman Abner C. Harding. Before the regiment was
mustered into service, arrangements were made for Eliza’s brother and sister to
come from Indiana to help her run the farm and care for Cory.
In late August, 1862, the
regiment reached St. Louis. It was there that Thompson posted the first of what
would be 74 letters home. The letters, lovingly preserved by Eliza, were
discovered years later by her three granddaughters. They would become the basis
for a 1976 book, “Dear Eliza: The Letters of Mitchel Andrew Thompson.”
From St. Louis, the 83rd
proceeded to Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, then to Fort Donelson on the
Cumberland River. The following February, it was engaged in the Battle of
Dover, in which nine of its companies resisted the attack of 8,000 men under
Generals Forrest and Wheeler. As a reward for the victory, Col. Harding was promoted
to brigadier general. Capt. McClanahan, however, was wounded and later died.
Due to climate, sanitary
conditions and medical treatments, illness pervaded the camp. Thompson writes
Eliza about his bouts with diarrhea (at St. Louis they were drinking Mississippi
River water instead of well water), eye problems and troubles with his false
teeth. Many of his health problems he attributed to “bilious attacks,” centered
in the liver. He took Knight’s pills (containing aloe, along with scammony and
gamboge—purgatives derived from plants) and blue mass—a nasty concoction that
was one-third toxic mercury, along with licorice, marshmallow and rose honey.
For headaches, he tried applying a mixture of vinegar and cayenne pepper to the
top of his head, but to little avail.
Despite the rugged conditions
of camp life, dinner fare was far from primitive. Several women were hired to
assist in the domestic department, including the wife of Artemus Pence, a
private in Thompson’s company. Each soldier paid Mrs. Pence $7 per month to
cook, and it was said that “her pies, fruit cobblers, jams and jellies were
toothsome delights to the home-hungry men.”
To occupy himself during slow
times, Thompson collected colorful shells along the banks of the Cumberland
River, from which he fashioned dainty finger rings and breastpins for loved
ones at home. For men, he made decorative canes, using walnut lumber gathered
from a burned-out cottage. For Cory, he spent countless hours making a
miniature cedar chest, inlaid with 87 shells.
Although he saw but one major
battle and managed to stay relatively healthy, Mitchel Thompson would not live
to see his beloved daughter again. On Aug. 17, 1864, his company received
orders to guard telegraph repairers on the line to Smithland, Ky. Receiving
reports of guerrillas nearby, the captain and 11 men went in search of the
outlaws, but were ambushed by a force of 110 Confederates, who savagely mowed
down the captain and seven of his men—including Thompson—mutilating their
Artemus Pence, though
wounded, was able to return to camp and report the attack. He and Mrs. Pence
took charge of the eight bodies, accompanying them back to Warren County, and
attending Thompson’s funeral service at the Spring Grove United Presbyterian
Church, where he was buried in the adjoining cemetery.
Although the church no longer
stands, the cemetery is still intact, protected since 1983 by the Illinois
Nature Preserves Commission. Because of the native plants growing in the
cemetery, its trustees decided not to mow the plot, and appointed the Monmouth
College biology department to become its caretaker, burning off the vegetation
After staying on the farm for
several years, Eliza and her brother moved to Monmouth in 1879, purchasing the
property at 341 South Eighth, possibly so Cory could enroll at Monmouth
College, from which she graduated in 1884. During that time, Cory supplemented
her income by providing piano lessons.
In 1892, Cory married Ross
McCain of Lacona, Iowa, and moved there with her mother.
Eliza died in 1902 and was buried at Lenox. Cory lived
until 1925 and her husband until 1931. Her three daughters, who published “Dear
Eliza,” died in 1984, 1989 and 1991.
On Aug. 20, 1914—the 40th
anniversary of Mitchell Thompson’s death—Ross McCain took his carriage to pick
up some neighbors and their house guest for a visit at his farm. When the guest
was introduced and entered the parlor she was attracted to a little cedar chest
about the size of a shoe box that was on the little stand. With an incredulous
expression on her face she said to Cory, “Mrs. McCain, how do you happen
to have that little chest?”
When she replied that her
father had made it for her during the Civil War, the guest exclaimed, “You are
Mitchell Thompson’s little daughter, Cory!” She then proceeded to describe in
detail the hours he had spent in making the chest, as well as stories about his
interests and activities, only previously imagined by Cory, who had been just
18 months old at the time of her father’s death.
The mysterious visitor to the
McCain farm that day was none other than Mrs. Artemus Pence.
For Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.