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Barry Schrader
Columnist

 

I currently write a column every other Tuesday for the DeKalb Daily Chronicle. The column will also appear on this website and be added to the archives.

The Articles started December 2007.

 

If you've missed any please follow the links on the dates to catch up.

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Samuel Churchill’s heroics 150 years ago

By Barry Schrader Senior Columnist...................December 9, 2014

Note to readers: Barry Schrader’s “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. Grant’s 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. Samuel’s 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 Samuel’s 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 military honor.

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115