Note to readers: Barry Schraders DeKalb
County Life column will appear every other Tuesday.
A young man named Samuel Churchill left his native Vermont
to travel to DeKalb County in the spring of 1861, first to work
for C. W. Broughton and eventually to teach school at the age
of 18, according to family records.
But the Civil War had begun, and Churchill was swept up
in the fervor to join 300,000 other young men sought by President
Abraham Lincoln to fight for the Union.
He entered service as a private in Battery G of the Second
Illinois Light Cavalry and trained on the cannons, then went
onto a gunboat to fight in the Battle of Fort Donelson, on the
Cumberland River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border. After a
few more engagements, Samuel and his comrades joined General
U.S. Grants forces in Tennessee.
Then came the Battle of Nashville, where Union forces led
by Gen. George Thomas met with the Confederate Army under Gen.
John Bell Hood for two days, Dec. 15 and 16, 1864.
Young Samuel was assigned to a 12-pound Napoleon cannon
battery. In his autobiography, he wrote that their gun detachment
of eight men took up a position near an abandoned brick house
and began loading their gun, all the while men and horses were
being slaughtered around them from Confederate guns not more
than 240 yards away.
The first cannoneer took the sponge staff to prepare the
barrel for loading ammunition, but a volley of fire from the
rebels caused him to panic and flee behind the nearby house.
His terror spread to his comrades, who joined him in retreat.
Samuel Churchill shown during his early days in the
Union Army, with a photo of him late in life an inset (upper
left), and his Medal of Honor (upper right). (Photos courtesy
of Owen family)Samuel Churchill's great-great grandson, Taylor Owen,
visiting one of the Nashville battle sites a few miles from where
his ancestor earned the Medal of Honor. (Photo provided by family)
But Samuel stayed with the gun, single-handedly loading and firing
the cannon 11 times before a nearby soldier, J.A. Thorpe, saw
his plight and came to his aid. Others followed. Samuels
heroics had held off any rebel advance, and they were eventually
driven back and defeated.
For this gallant action in the face of enemy fire, he was
awarded the highest honor that can be bestowed on a soldier
the Medal of Honor. To the best of my knowledge he is the only
DeKalb County man ever to receive this medal.
The losses on both sides over two days of intense fighting
were horrendous. The Union side lost 400 men, with another 1,740
wounded. The Confederates suffered even greater casualties, some
4,462 dead, wounded or missing. Total forces engaged were 55,000
Northerners and 30,000 Southerners in that one battle alone.
Churchill had been given the rank of corporal before the
battle and was eventually promoted to Quartermaster Sergeant.
He fought until the end of the war and was finally mustered out
in September 1865.
Never returning to DeKalb County, Churchill instead settled
in Missouri and later Kansas. Sharing several pages from his
autobiography, his great-great grandsons, Taylor Owen and J.
Churchill Owen, plus spouse Elizabeth Owen, gave me so much material
I could spread this into a series. I am grateful for their response
to my inquiries.
Getting back to Samuels life, I found it fascinating
that for a while he sold barbed wire for H.B. Scutt & Co.,
which was based in Joliet. Samuel was in Lawrence, Kansas, at
the time, and one year his sales reached $200,000.
He later ran a grocery business and held several offices
in the Grand Army of the Republic. He served as assessor for
the City of Lawrence and then was elected a councilman. In 1959,
the government honored him again by naming the armory in Lawrence
the Samuel J. Churchill Armory.
It was 50 years later, on Sept. 15, 2009, that the DeKalb
County Board of Supervisors proclaimed a Commit to Courage
Medal of Honor Day in his memory and to recognize
the importance of educating our community about the sacrifices
of all members of our armed services.
So next Monday we can pause and remember that exactly 150
years ago a young soldier who had enlisted in DeKalb County was
engaged in battle, displaying courage which earned him the highest