William H. Nichols was born in December 1846. I don’t know the names of William’s mother or father, although in the 1880 and 1900 censuses, he reported that both parents were born in Pennsylvania. Those censuses, along with William’s Civil War records, also show William’s nativity as Pennsylvania, but provide no city or county. I have not found any other source that mentions William’s family—parents, siblings, or anyone else. I don’t know how William came to Illinois from Pennsylvania or with whom, and I cannot find him in the 1850 or 1860 censuses. His family line is one of my most challenging genealogical “brick walls”.
What I know of William’s story begins in Batavia, Kane County, Illinois, where William joined the U.S. Army as a volunteer recruit on August 8, 1863. He enlisted for a period of three years. His occupation was farmer and he was described as 5’4-1/2” tall, with brown hair, hazel eyes, and a fair complexion. No residence was given. William would have been just 16 years old at the time. A majority of Civil War soldiers were between 18 and 39 years of age. By law, the minimum age for enlistment was 18. However, many thousands of boys (and some girls) between the ages of 9 and 17 served on both sides of the conflict. Many lied about their age in order to enlist. As time went on, especially as casualties climbed and more soldiers were needed, recruiters looked the other way when underage boys signed up. Many were orphans or runaways, and I suspect that was William’s lot. These boy soldiers usually served as drummer boys, musicians, messengers, nurses and scouts for the troops. William mustered into the 36th Illinois Infantry, Company E, on September 1, 1863. His rank was private. Later records show him as a musician and drummer.
The 36th Illinois Infantry, known as the Fox River Regiment, was organized at Camp Hammond in Montgomery, Illinois, just south of Aurora, and mustered into Federal service on September 23, 1861 for a three-year term. The regiment was composed of ten infantry companies and two troops of cavalry, a total of 965 officers and enlisted men. It was subsequently reinforced by 221 recruits and drafted men.
A large number of troops were to finish their term of enlistment in the fall of 1864. To counteract this potential weakness at a critical juncture of the war, the U.S. Government actively sought recruits in the summer and fall of 1863. Advertisements and flyers enticed new recruits with bounties, while veteran volunteers were encouraged to re-up with a promise of extra pay and furloughs. William enlisted with the 36th Regiment during this recruitment campaign.
The Fox River Regiment traveled over ten thousand miles during its term of service, by foot, by rail, and by boat. For the majority of William’s tenure with the regiment, it was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland, one of the principal Union armies in the Western Theater during the Civil War. During service the regiment lost a total of 332 men. Eleven officers and 193 enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded in battle. One officer and 127 enlisted men were lost to disease. William contracted dysentery in August 1864, which attacked him several different times during the remainder of his service and became chronic, often requiring lengthy periods of hospitalization. He mustered out with his regiment on October 8, 1865, in New Orleans. The Fox River boys then made their way to Springfield, Illinois where they received their final pay.
Apparently, within a relatively short time after he was discharged from the Army William ended up in Tennessee, a small farming community in McDonough County, Illinois, very near the Hancock County line. I would love to know what led him there, as I’ve found no evidence of any prior connections. In his Civil War pension application, William reported that for six months after he was discharged he was unable to do physical labor because of continuing bouts of dysentery. With no family to return to or provide support, he must have supported himself during that time with his soldier’s pay. William’s pension file included affidavits from several McDonough/Hancock County residents who had become acquainted with William right after the war. (There were no affidavits from any one who knew him prior.) One friend, Asal Fulkerson, reported that he had known William since 1865 when William was about 18 years old. Asal said, “I used to run with him and we used to work together.” Van Gilchrist testified that he knew William since 1865 because the two lived in the same neighborhood at the time (in fact, William would live in that neighborhood for the rest of his life). As proof to the pension examiners that he knew William back then, Van offered his recollection that William had the measles in 1866! Siblings Mary and John Erwin reported that William worked as a farmhand for their father, Patrick Erwin, in Hancock County for two years prior to his marriage in 1870 and for several years after. Though he was surely in the vicinity, I’ve not found an entry for William in the 1870 census.
William H. Nichols and Rachel Annie Osborn were married in McDonough County on October 20, 1870. William was 23 years old and Rachel was 20. The couple welcomed their first child, Charles Elmer, in 1872. Ida came along in 1874, followed by Annie in 1877. In 1880, the Nichols family lived on a rented 40-acre farm in Hancock County. The census shows their farming operation was modest–they owned 2 horses, 1 milch cow, 3 pigs, and 46 chickens, raised small amounts of Indian corn and oats, and produced eggs and butter. In 1882, their second son Finis Ewing (my great-grandfather) was born. Elsie, the Nichols’ fifth and last child, was born in 1884.
William’s time in the Army left him with health issues that would plague him the rest of his life, including ongoing episodes of dysentery/diarrhea, and heart disease which developed later and was also attributed to his service. In 1889, he applied for an invalid’s pension from the U.S. Government. By that time, William and Rachel were living in McDonough County, where William continued to farm. In 1893, a medical examiner determined that he was “wholly incapacitated for earning a support by manual labor.” By 1900, Charles and Ida had married. Both made their homes in Tennessee Township, near William and Rachel. The 1900 census shows William’s occupation as farmer, though he must have relied heavily on Finis (then 17), who was shown as a farm laborer. When Finis married and moved to Galesburg in 1905, Annie (27) and Elsie (20) still lived with their parents.
William H. Nichols died February 8, 1906, at his home in McDonough County. He was 59 years old. William’s early years surely held their share of sadness, and he suffered with poor health for much of his adult life. But by all accounts he was blessed to spend more than forty years in a small, caring community, surrounded by family and many friends. He was survived by Rachel, all five of his children, and several grandchildren (several more, including my Grandmother Evelyn, were born after he died). William is buried in Hills Grove Cemetery in McDonough County.
We salute our drummer boy of the Fox River Regiment. Rest in peace, Grandfather William.