Once Upon a Time

Quincy soldier wrote of trials of being prisoner of Civil War

Robert Tillson posed for this undated photo. During the Civil War, his son Willie was captured and became a prisoner of war. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Mar. 1, 2020 12:50 am Updated: Mar. 1, 2020 12:59 am

Part one of two parts


William, or Willie as he was known, was the eldest son of Robert Tillson, an early and prominent Quincy resident.

Arriving here in 1828, Tillson opened a store on the southeast corner of Fourth and Maine streets. In 1832, the store also served as Quincy's post office when Andrew Jackson appointed him postmaster -- a position he held for 12 years.

Through many enterprises, but especially land speculation, Tillson became a wealthy man. At his death, The Whig reported that at one time he was "one of the largest land owners in this section of the state."

From October 1862 to October 1864, Robert Tillson and Co. had contracts to manufacture and deliver to the federal arsenal in St. Louis leather horse equipment and infantry accoutrements. Tillson and Co.'s business with the War Department amounted to nearly a half-million dollars.

Against his father's wishes, 20-year-old William H. Tillson answered President Lincoln's July 2, 1862, call for 300,000 volunteers, and on Aug. 12 he enlisted in a local company.

Men from not only Adams but Brown, Fulton, Henderson, Knox, McDonough and Mercer counties came together in Quincy and were mustered into service as the 84th Illinois Volunteer Infantry on Sept. 1. Willie was in Co. E.

By Sept. 23, 1862, the regiment was on a train for Louisville, Ky. Five days later the newly minted boys in blue were in the field, whether they were ready or not, looking to confront the rebels. Fortunately for the 84th, it would be another three months before its members would see battle.

At Stones River on Dec. 31, the 84th finally met the enemy. During most of the battle, Willie Tillson was ill and with the regimental wagons in the rear. He wrote home saying that he had not done his part and that he had not even fired his gun at a rebel.

On Sept. 20, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, Willie Tillson finally did his part. But unfortunately when the battle ended, he was missing in action. A number of letters by family and friends, inquiring about Willie, were sent to the regiment. The 84th's Col. Louis Waters responded and detailed as much as he could. He wrote that Willie had been his "orderly and was an earnest and faithful boy" and that he had been "very anxious to participate in a battle. ..." He explained that Willie had not been in the first day's fighting, but on the second day "he picked up a gun and went into the fight in earnest."

Waters was aware that Willie had been slightly wounded, and as much as he thought of him, he could not spare the time to look after him. In the end, all he could say was that he hoped Willie had survived "to enjoy the reputation he made, for he fought well."

Until the afternoon of the 20th, the Union men and the rebels had fought to a stalemate. However, the battle took a sudden and unexpected turn when a misconstrued order opened a hole in the Union line. The error was immediately exploited by a rebel attack that poured through the gap. Part of the Federal line collapsed and fled in retreat. In the confusion and chaos that followed, soldiers were separated from their companies and regiments.

Sometime, probably before the debacle, Willie and John Chowning volunteered to find water and fill as many canteens as they could carry for their parched company. They succeeded in obtaining the water, but as Willie later wrote: "We little knew how dearly we would pay for it."

It had taken some time to find a spring, and the two suddenly realized as Willie penned that "our army [had] gone we knew not where" and "we found ourselves to be within the rebel lines with little chance to escape. ..."

After spending the night in a corncrib, the pair headed out at sunrise. "We had not gone more than twenty rods," Willie recorded, "when we were started by a loud and sharp command to throw down those guns. We turned around and found ourselves ... confronted by a company of rebels who were not more than fifty feet away-- resistance of course was useless. We threw down our guns and surrendered. ..."

The rebels soon rounded up about 20 blue-coated soldiers at or near the spring.

The disheartened Yankees were marched to the rear of the rebel army where a roll of the prisoners' names, regiments and companies was completed. While this transpired, Willie observed that "some of the rebels are very kind and give part of their rations to some of our hungry boys." Here also two more boys from the 84th were found.

With the paperwork complete, the prisoners were formed into a column and marched to Ringgold, Ga., where they were supposed to board railroad cars bound for Atlanta. Sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. the column halted near Ringgold's depot, where the prisoners were turned out into an open field to sleep. Willie noted that "this was a hard day ... having marched more than twenty miles without anything to eat and some men being wounded." Pointedly he remarked: "This day is memorable for being my first day as a prisoner."

When he was captured, Willie by mere chance had with him some paper and a pencil. Consequently, he made notes chronicling the trial and hardship. Even more remarkable is that he was able to hide and keep his daily record from the guards. Afterward he would write that "there is no period of my life which is more eventful and which will be looked upon with more wonder and satisfaction than my experience in the hands of the rebels."


Phil Reyburn is a retired field representative for the Social Security Administration. He authored "Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, The Railroad Regiment" and co-edited " 'Jottings from Dixie:' The Civil War Dispatches of Sergeant Major Stephen F. Fleharty, U.S.A."



"Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, Vol. V, Containing Reports for the Years 1861-1866." Springfield, Ill.: Phillips Bros. State Printers, 1901.


Quincy Whig, Oct. 17 and Dec. 12, 1863.


Browning, Orville H. letters (Feb. 22 and March 24, 1864) in the Tillson Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.


Morton, Charles H. (Nov. 11, 1863) in the Tillson Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.


Pease, Calvin C. and Randall, James G. "The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning Vol. 1, 1850-1864." Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925.


Tillson v. United States, "Report of Cases Argued and Decided before the Supreme Court of the United States, Book 25, 1879."


Tillson, John letter (Oct. 20, 1863) in the Tillson Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.


Tillson, Robert letters (Sept. 30, Oct. 12, 1863; Jan. 1 and 12, Feb. 2 and 9; and March 9, 1864) in the Tillson Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln

Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.


Tillson, William H. letters (Oct. 24 and Dec. 12, 1863; March 14, 16 and 18, 1864) in the Tillson Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.


Tillson, William H. Illinois; Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Detail Report, Illinois State Archives, Springfield, Ill.


Waters, Louis H. letter (Oct. 17, 1863) in the Tillson Family Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Ill.


William H. Tillson Diary, 1863-1864. Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.