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Lambert: Civil War Soldier's Fraternity Now Mostly Forgotten in Plainfield

The local post of the Grand Army of the Republic bore the name of Capt. John A. Burrell, who died fighting in Georgia.

The Inquiry

Following the end of the Civil War, what became of ’s surviving soldiers?

The Facts

The details of the individual soldiers’ post-war lives could fill a book. 

Returning home, Civil War veterans relied on the bonds of friendship that were forged during years of war service. Re-adjusting to civilian life, veterans gathered together for camaraderie as well as moral support. Within a short time, structured fraternal organizations formed.

Capt. John A. Burrell

Born in 1829 at Potter (Centre County), Penn., John A. Burrell arrived in Plainfield in the company of Jacob and Jane Goist during the late 1840s. By 1850, Burrell, then 21, was working as a mason. Eight years later, Burrell married 19-year-old Susan P. Pennington of Plainfield. Their daughter, Flora, was born in July 1860. 

Before Flora’s first birthday, the Civil War erupted. But the new father — who had honed his craft as a respected mason — did not immediately answer the call for volunteers. 

During June 1862, disastrous battles disheartened the Union forces. So, governors of 17 loyal states called for an additional 300,000 soldiers. Capt. Albert Amsden of DuPage Township raised a company of volunteers comprised largely of young men from Plainfield, including 33-year-old Burrell. 

On Aug. 1, 1862, Burrell was commissioned as 1st lieutenant of Company D of the 100th Illinois U.S. Infantry. Late that year, Amsden resigned. By order of the Illinois governor, Burrell was promoted to captain, assuming his duties at Murfreesboro, Tenn., in mid-February 1863. 

Within three weeks, as Burrell took command of his company, his young daughter died at Plainfield.

During the bloody battle at Chickamauga Creek, Ga., that raged between Sept. 19 and 20, 1863, Burrell was badly injured. He returned to Plainfield to recuperate alongside his young, stoic wife. Susan nursed him back to health and, undoubtedly, urged him to not return to battle.

However, Burrell returned to the battlefront and, sadly, was killed in action near Dallas, Ga., on May 30, 1864. His funeral was held on June 10, 1864, at Plainfield, where his body was buried. Within two years, his widow married Jonas Seely of Kendall County, himself a veteran of the Civil War.

Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Formed

One year after the Civil War ended, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded in Decatur, Ill. Initially, the fraternal organization limited its membership to honorably discharged veterans who had served in the Union Army, Marine Corps or Revenue Cutter Service between 1861 and 1865.

Local GAR organizations, known as “posts,” were named for deceased comrades and were organized by “departments” that, typically, represented a state or region. Annually, posts within a department would gather for an encampment weekend of remembrance and celebration. 

Regular post meetings followed an order similar to those of the Masonic Lodge. Each local post hosted social events, including suppers and lectures, to which both widows and members of neighboring posts were often invited. Some posts were instrumental leaders in civic endeavors.

In 1868, the national commander-in-chief of the GAR called for all posts to set aside May 30 as a remembrance of the sacrifices of fallen comrades, instituting the celebration of Memorial Day.

The GAR organization nearly disappeared in the early 1870s, largely due to the increasing number of fraternal organizations, a fading interest in the disruptive years of the Civil War, and the economic depression of 1873. Although some posts continued independently, many ceased to exist. 

About 1876, the GAR organization enjoyed a revival and many abandoned posts were re-established. The GAR grew continuously through the late 1890s, when it reached its largest membership. Over time, the bonds of service to their country evolved into political power for these war heroes.

By the outbreak of World War I, many of the GAR posts had disappeared due to a dwindling number of veterans. With only six comrades attending, the final GAR encampment was held in 1949 at Indianapolis, Ind. The last member of the GAR died in 1956 at the age of 109.

John A. Burrell GAR Post

Plainfield’s nearly forgotten post-war social organization was the John A. Burrell Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. Many of Plainfield’s post members had served under Burrell. Unfortunately, little information seems to have survived about the local post.  

Presumably, as Illinois Post No. 3, the Burrell Post was one of the first formed in Illinois. However, the post dissolved at some point and, later, was re-organized as Post 744.

The John A. Burrell Post held its meetings in Jump’s Hall, later known as Krebs’ Hall (the second floor of present-day Miller’s Old-Fashioned Butcher Shop). The Plainfield post organized a long-standing quartet that entertained with performances of favorite army songs at its gatherings. Graves of fallen comrades were identified with iron markers donated by the local post.

The Plainfield post retained a special connection to Joliet’s Bartleson Post, whose members, under Capt. Frederick Bartleson, had fought side-by-side with Burrell’s Company at Chickamauga Creek. 

In spite of dwindling numbers, the Burrell Post still was active in 1911. Then, most of the 17 remaining Plainfield veterans gathered at the Post Hall and marched together to the Methodist Church for a special Memorial Day service … 50 years after the outbreak of the war. But, when the 1914 Illinois GAR directory was published, Plainfield post rolls included only 11 members. Presumably, the John A. Burrell Post of the GAR ceased to exist a few years later.

John Bragaw, the last surviving Plainfield Civil War veteran who both served in Burrell’s Company and was a member of the John A. Burrell Post, died — fittingly — on May 30, 1933.

As pointed out, the details of the lives of Plainfield’s Civil War veterans could fill a book. Read more about their lives in the forthcoming book, Cease Firing...A Call to Duty, by Caron George Stillmunkes.  http://www.plainfieldsoldiersmonument.com/     

Next Week: Pumped Up On Plainfield

Have a question about Plainfield’s history?  Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.

Olddeegee March 29, 2012 at 03:39 PM
So little is known about Plainfield's Civil War history. McAllister's Battery was an important part of the battle of Shiloh even eliciting comments from General Sherman on their tenacity in defending the Union position, quite possibly saving Grant's troops from being pushed into the Tennessee River. A visit to the memorial in Settler's Park brings up last names that are familiar in town today. History is all around us and regardless of your feelings about modern Plainfield, we come from a great legacy. Thanks again, Mr. Lambert, for the fascinating and enlightening story. (Ever thought about a video series?)

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