These Soldiers Never Left Alton But Risked Their Lives
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in the 5/2/20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL)
It happened again. An unknown party — well, unknown to me — placed a small American flag on the grave of another Civil War Union soldier in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Godfrey.
I know the grave well because I must drive by it each time I go the cemetery to visit the graves of family members. This was the first time I have ever seen it decorated with a flag. Did my column in last Saturday’s Telegraph about finding a flag on the grave of Civil War veteran John Hale, Sr. inspire someone to decorate another Union soldier’s grave?
Lawrence Havens’ obituary appeared in the March 2, 1904 edition of the Alton Evening Telegraph. He is identified as “a long time resident of Alton” who lived on Main Street and left behind a wife and six children. Like Hale, Haven’s funeral was held at what the obituary called “the Cathedral,” which was Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church on State Street. He was 67 at the time of his death.
Unlike Hale’s obituary, however, Havens’ obituary contains no mention of his service during the Civil War. His tombstone notes that he served in Company C of the 144th Illinois Infantry. Hale belonged to the 7th Illinois Infantry, which made history by being the first Illinois unit to serve in the Union army. Its men also earned distinction by purchasing Henry repeating rifles, which gave them a tremendous advantage over foes armed only with single-shot muzzle-loading muskets.
History has largely overlooked the Illinois 144th Infantry, however. It engaged in no battles with Confederate soldiers. In fact, its troops never even left the area.
Organized in Alton and mustered into service on Oct. 21, 1864, the Illinois 144th Infantry consisted of nine companies. Companies A and B included a number of men from Alton and Upper Alton, as well as neighboring communities such as Piasa, Brighton and Woodburn. Every man in Company C, in which Havens served, was from Alton. Even its captain, Augustus DeLange, as well as its first lieutenant, Charles Robideau, and second lieutenant, John Barnard, were Alton residents.
If Civil War historians have paid scant attention to the Illinois 144th Infantry, at least part of the blame must be assigned to the unit itself. The Illinois Adjunct General’s report, which I consulted when writing about Hale, contains much information regarding the Illinois 7th Infantry. The author of this report noted the existence of the 144th Infantry but then conceded, “Notwithstanding diligent effort was made to obtain historical mention of the services of this Regiment, none was sent into the office and hence it was not in our power to say anything authentic concerning the campaign of the Regiment.”
For information regarding the 144th, one must go to sources such as the web site of the Madison County Historical Society. The section titled “Guarding the Alton Prison” states, “Six successive regiments guarded the Alton facility while it functioned as a military prison. The last garrison was composed of the 144th Illinois Infantry.” While there isn’t any information about Havens’ Company C, the site notes that James Manchester, a member of Company B, “was on detached service on Smallpox Island for several months.” Telegraph readers who perused my April 11 column will know that assignment to Smallpox Island comprised hazardous duty indeed.
Modern medicine was in its infancy during the Civil War and the germ theory of disease had not yet been universally accepted. According to the web site, 1,159 men served in the Illinois 144th Infantry. Sixty-nine lost their lives to infectious diseases such as smallpox, rubella and measles. Service in a unit that saw no combat whatsoever didn’t ensure that the men of the Illinois 144th Infantry would survive the Civil War. Soldiers such as Havens put their lives on the line for the Union. They deserve to have American flags placed by their tombstones.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois and Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947.