White attitudes towards African Americans varied greatly throughout the Union army during the Civil War, even within regiments. Such was the case in the 7th Illinois Infantry. The respected commander of the unit’s Company G, Capt. Henry Willard Allen, publicly supported the Emancipation Proclamation—an endorsement that cost him his life at the hand of one of his own men.
Allen was born in Turin, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 1834. As a young man, he taught school in his hometown until he moved to Chicago about 1855. He settled in Springfield, Ill., around 1858, where he taught and worked in the mercantile business. He likely knew a local lawyer in the town, Abraham Lincoln.
When the Civil War erupted, Allen immediately volunteered. His regiment, the 7th Illinois Infantry, was the first 3-month regiment formed in the state. The “Old Seventh” consisted of largely local men, tying it close to the hearts of Springfield. The 7th organized just outside Springfield’s city limits at Camp Yates, where a little-known former army officer named Ulysses S. Grant started his unlikely march to overall command of the Union armies by 1864.
On April 27, 1861, the regiment marched to the Springfield Armory and was issued muskets. Once armed, the men boarded the train for Alton, Ill., and quartered at the abandoned Old State Penitentiary. The dismal facility later became the notorious Alton Military Prison for Confederate prisoners of war.
The men and officers of the 7th made the best of the situation. They drilled constantly and developed into soldiers. On June 3, they headed south on the Mississippi River to Cairo and Mound City, Ill. By the time their enlistment ended in July 25, 1861, they still had not made it outside the state.
Meanwhile, President Lincoln called for 500,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. Allen and many of his comrades re-enlisted for three years. Allen was voted captain of Company G. In February 1862, the new 7th fought at Fort Donelson, Tenn., and, less than two months later, they battled at Shiloh, where Allen suffered a severe shoulder injury. He recovered enough to fight at the Battle of Corinth, Miss., on Oct. 3-4, 1862.
More than a year later on Dec. 3, 1863, while still in Corinth, an incident occurred that set in motion a series of events leading to the death of Allen.
Stories differed about how the episode unfolded. But eyewitnesses agreed that Pvt. Thomas Gillfoil of Company H struck an “old Negro cook” of the company. When Gillfoil was arrested, some of his comrades protested, and insisted that the “old Negro” was to blame. Others took the opposite stance, and supported Gillfoil’s arrest. Among the most vocal supporters of Gillfoil was Sgt. John Meyer, a German native who served in Capt. Allen’s company. After Meyer called for his comrades to take matters in their own hands and free Gillfoil, Allen suggested that Meyer should be placed under arrest for instigating a mutiny. An angry Meyer stormed to his quarters, grabbed and loaded his Springfield rifle, and returned to Capt. Allen’s tent in a “greatly excited” manner. When Allen stepped outside, Meyer accused him of thinking that “a negro was equal to a white man” and pointed the rifle at him. Allen called again for his arrest and took a step forward. Meyer pulled the trigger. The bullet passed through Allen’s lungs. Some of the men ran to Allen’s aid, while others seized Meyer.
Allen lived for several hours. Knowing that he would not survive, he told his comrades that he wished he could have died on the battlefield. He also made a final request: to have his body brought back to Springfield for burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery.
The Springfield newspaper declared that Henry Allen had been a young man with much promise, and that he had endeared himself to everyone who knew him. When his body was returned to Springfield, the paper reported the details about his funeral. The Daily State Journal expressed Springfield’s collective sorrow by relaying that because of Allen’s murder, “a deep gloom pervades this community.” The newspaper also published a letter by Allen concerning Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A conservative Democrat, Allen ended his letter stating: “I shall support the proclamation. And conquer we must, For our Cause is just.”
The late captain was afforded the rites of a fallen hero. A company with the 58th Illinois Infantry at Camp Butler marched six miles to Springfield to participate in the funeral cortege. Also in the procession to Oak Ridge Cemetery were members of the staff of prominent Illinois democrat-turned-general, John A. McClernand, a detachment of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, fellow Masons and friends. The Daily State Register described the scene. “Tearfully the procession moved through the streets, its mournful solemnity not a little intensified by the plaintive music of the fife and drum.”
Pvt. John Meyer was tried on a charge of murder by a court martial, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. He wrote to President Lincoln and asked for mercy because he had been drunk when he killed his captain. Meyer explained, “Rum has been the cause of my ruin.”
On Feb. 10, 1864, Lincoln upheld the sentence. According to the surgeon of the regiment however, Elijah P. Burton, Meyer was erroneously released back to his regiment for two months. When the mistake was discovered, he was again taken into custody, and hanged on April 28, 1864 in Pulaski, Tenn.
Sources: Franklin B. Hough, History of Lewis County, New York; Daily Illinois State Journal, Dec. 5, 8, 10, 12 and 13, 1862; D. Leib Ambrose and Daniel E. Sutherland, ed., Shiloh to Savannah, the Seventh Illinois Infantry in the Civil War; Daily Illinois State Register, Dec. 12, 1862; John Y. Simon, ed., Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 7; The Historical Records Survey, Division of Professional and Service Projects Work Projects Administration, Diary of E.P. Burton, Surgeon of the 7th Reg. Ill. 3rd Brig. 2nd Div. 16 A.C.
Kathleen Heyworth is a native of Central Illinois. She earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Illinois, Springfield. She recently published a book entitled Private Lewis Martin and African-American Civil War Soldiers in Springfield, Illinois.