Once Upon a Time

Letter campaign rescued Civil War prisoner

This undated photo shows William Tillson as a young man. The photo was taken in Chicago by "A. Hesler Artist." | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Mar. 8, 2020 12:50 am Updated: Mar. 8, 2020 2:08 am

Part two of two parts.

Late in the afternoon of the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia, William H. Tillson and a fellow soldier went in search of water for their company. By the time they located a spring and filled their canteens, the sun was setting. In pondering their situation, they concluded that they were behind the enemy's front line and cut off from a retreating Army of the Cumberland. They found shelter for the night in a corncrib, but no sooner had they come out of hiding the next morning than they were captured. Their ordeal as prisoners of war was just beginning.

On Sept. 22, 1863, Willie Tillson woke up hungry, but he soon realized there was nothing for prisoners to eat but "what some could get from rebel soldiers." Ordered into formation, the men began a 12-mile march to Dalton, Ga. On arriving at Dalton they were forced to hand over their canteens and blankets. Tillson confided that he begrudgingly parted with his rubber blanket. which he had "carried from Quincy through four campaigns."

The guards herded the procession through town and locked the men in a building for the night.

Come morning and before getting on the cars for Atlanta, each prisoner drew a five-day ration of 21 crackers and 1 lbs. of cured pork. Once the rations were distributed, the men were herded into box cars. When the cars were filled, the remaining blue-coated prisoners were order to climb on top. Ironically, it was one year to the day that the 84th left Quincy for Louisville, Ky. Tillson remarked that "this morning I take the cars for Richmond the capital of the Southern Confederacy now as a prisoner than a year ago a soldier to defend my country."

As the train of prisoners rolled to Atlanta, Southerners gathered along the track to see, stare and jeer at the passing "blue-bellied Yankees." Eventually, Tillson noted that there was "less bragging about the battle than there was at first."

Down the road, a number of enterprising types saw an opportunity to make money from the Yankees and began selling food to the hungry men. Tillson observed that "the boys are buying biscuits at exorbitant prices paying $1.50 to $2.00 Confederate for a dozen. He "managed to buy a pone of Indian bread for $1.00 Confederate."

During the halts, some prisoners struck up conversations with the gawkers. Tillson found one elderly woman's comments worth recording. The aristocratic lady told a Yankee soldier that "she use to like to visit Washington but not since Abe Lincoln had been there." To her, Lincoln was a monster, and it was "horrible to try to turn their slaves against them." In her heart she "believed God to be on their side."

By Oct. 1, Tillson was in Richmond and initially housed in one of the tobacco warehouses that formed the Libby prison complex. The next day he wrote a letter to his parents, but he could not mail it because it lacked a Confederate stamp.

Other than the fact that a major battle had been fought in Northern Georgia and that it had been a disaster for the Union Army of the Cumberland, little news had filtered back to the soldiers' families in the North. It was nearly a month before The Quincy Whig published the 84th's casualties. Having not heard from or anything about Willie, the Tillsons were overcome with fear and worry. All they knew is that Willie had been slightly wounded in a leg.

January finally brought word of Willie's fate. The 84th's Lt. Col. C.H. Morton, a prominent Quincy resident, who also was captured at Chickamauga and now in the Libby prison, had somehow confirmed that Willie Tillson was at Belle Isle, a Confederate prison for enlisted men. A letter from Willie dated Oct. 24 followed. He wrote: "You have probably been relieved from suspense about me sometime before you . . . receive this. ..."

Knowing Willie was alive, Robert Tillson immediately began a letter campaign to every influential person he knew, from Illinois Gov. Richard Yates to fellow Quincy resident and U.S. Sen. Orville Browning. He left no stone unturned to get Willie home.

Fortunately, for most of the Civil War, prisoners were exchanged. Early in the conflict, captured soldiers were either paroled home or sent to camps where they waited until exchanged. Once exchanged, the men returned to their regiments. By the midpoint of the war, both sides had a number of prisons that held thousands of men. However, fewer men were being exchanged. The process ended when Ulysses S. Grant was appointed Union commander in 1864. He concluded that prisoner exchanges were prolonging the war.

Browning took up Willie's case, and beginning Jan. 9, 1864, initiated weekly visits to Col. William Hoffman, commissary general of prisoners.

Hoffman oversaw the Union army's prisoner exchanges. At one point Vice President Andrew Johnson visited Hoffman, adding his clout to Willie's release.

Through Hoffman's effort, Confederate authorities released Willie, and he left Richmond, Va., on Feb. 26 for a parole camp at Annapolis, Md. The paperwork moved slowly, and two months passed before Browning obtained from the War Department "an order discharging William Tillson from the service."

The official record reads: "Discharged Apr 29, 1864 at Quincy Ill order of Sec of War wounded at Chickamauga Sep 20, 1863."

William H. Tillson lived another 70 years, dying August 2, 1934. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery.

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. & 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, 12, Feb. 2, 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 and 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.

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.