It was 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861 when Brigadier General P.G.B. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter. The time for talking was over, the Civil War had begun.
President Lincoln called for those loyal to the Union to enlist. In the words of Luke 22:36, “He who hath no sword, let him sell his coat and buy one.”
The Village of Lane (Rochelle) answered the call on July 23, 1861. A crowd gathered in front of the Bain Building and watched with pride as 64 men, 29 from Lane, gathered to form a volunteer cavalry. Local resident John R. Hotaling was elected captain of the group. The crowd cheered and called for a speech. Nick Hotaling, John’s brother, obliged.
He pointed toward the American flag, “It is against this that they have made war. It is to defend this that we have come. It was Washington’s flag, it is yours and mine. I have followed that flag over continents and seas-from frigid zones to the equator. I have saluted it beneath every star that shines upon the round world. In all my wanderings it has floated over me. In strange lands it has been my friend and my pride, my guardian and my protector. That flag stands for humanity! I stand for that flag. And by the God who gave me breath, I will fight for it now.”
The group supplied their own equipment. Their greatest pride was in the horses. Lane was renowned for the high quality of its horses, and the local breeders made sure that only the best were provided for “their” cavalry.
The next morning the boys began their trek south through Mendota, LaSalle, onward to Bloomington. From Bloomington they are transported to Springfield, Illinois. It is here at Camp Butler, on Aug. 12, 1861, they are mustered into state service. From Camp Butler they traveled to Carbondale, Illinois. and then Duquoin for additional training in horse maneuvers. Training was intense and very competitive. The units would be rated alphabetically, with A being the best. For the Ogle County men there was no second grade, they wanted A, and nothing less would suffice. And so it was the contingent from Lane became Company A, 2nd Illinois Calvary.
Shortly after training, Company A moved to Birds Point, Missouri. From this location the northern forces would lead a desperate fight for control of the Mississippi River.
One of the first from Ogle County to distinguish himself was Harvey R. James of Oregon. Harvey was intelligent, strong and almost scarily brave. Harvey was to become the “James Bond” of the 1860s. General Grant needed information on the enemy strength and positions across the Mississippi River. Harvey James volunteered. Harvey crossed the Mississippi at night and worked his way past enemy lines. Throughout the night he located enemy emplacements, artillery locations, ammunition depots and other important information. This alone would have established Harvey as a hero.
There is more. Harvey was caught and faced a trial for being a spy. Harvey was found guilty and sentenced to die at sunrise. Harvey was locked in a small shed and placed under guard. During the night Harvey took a small saw blade that was concealed in his boot and cut through the lock on the door. He then knocked his guard unconscious and fled back to the Mississippi River.
Morning found Harvey back at Birds Point reporting to his officers and General Grant himself. Harvey continued in the secret service for several more months until he was injured and could no longer face the rigors of the spy business.
With the information supplied the Union forces chose to attack Belmont, Missouri. This was not only the first major combat for Company A, but also the first major combat directed by Ulysses S. Grant. The Illinois cavalry fought at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg and the Battle of Atlanta.
At different times the Ogle County lads served as personal escorts for General Edward Ord, escorts for General Logan and frequently were chosen by General Grant for use in battle. Grant was extremely proud of his Illinois troops and they were proud to serve under his command.
Dr. Gould of Lane worked endless days amputating arms and legs in a battle to save lives.
Henry Phelps of White Rock accidently stole the surrender papers from Vicksburg, signed by Generals Grant and Pemberton. He had intended to steal a horse, the surrender papers just happened to be on the horse. He gave them back.
Captain John R. Hotaling of Lane (Rochelle) was promoted to major and led troops in several campaigns.
J.A.B. Butterfield of Oregon survived the war, only to be lost when the sidewheeler Sultana exploded while returning northern prisoners.
Through countless battles and skirmishes Company A faced the enemy and held their lines. They witnessed the evils of slavery and the savagery of combat. As they reached the end of their enlistment they lost their horses. The fearless steeds, bred in Lane, were taken by the army.
When the Union troops were routed at the Red River Expedition in 1864, Colonel Nathan Dudley asked Colonel Benjamin Marsh commander of the Illinois forces which included Company A, “Can you hold this line for five minutes?” Colonel Marsh replied, “I can hold it until I die.”
The soldiers from Lane, Ogle County never forgot the words of Nick Hotaling, “That flag stands for humanity! I stand for that flag. And by the God who gave me breath, I will fight for it now.” Fight they did with honor and pride.
Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.