For historians, genealogists and everyday folk who appreciate well-told stories about the past, the Civil War offers a wealth of original source material, especially in the form of letters written by soldiers to those back home.
In the 1980s, Jack and Maurita Orendorff loaned the McLean County Museum of History 70 some letters written by Pvt. William H. Horine of the 94th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. The museum transcribed the letters, and the typed copies are now part of its sizable collection of Civil War correspondence.
A wry but honest humor runs through his correspondence, and at times Horine’s matter-of-fact accounting of two years worth of fighting, dying, marching and bivouacking (with an emphasis on the latter two activities) assumes a measure of poignancy. In all likelihood his schooling was sporadic and incomplete, though his expressive vocabulary, his conscious use of earthy vernacular and his ability to perfectly capture a scene with a phrase or two would put many a college English major to shame.
In August 1862, Horine enlisted in Co. K of the newly formed 94th Illinois, generally known as the “McLean County Regiment.” The 94th campaigned in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, and participated in the Battle of Prairie Grove (Ark.) and the grueling, methodical sieges of Vicksburg, Miss. and Mobile, Ala.
Raised on a farm south of Bloomington, Horine was not writing to a mother, sister, sweetheart or wife, but rather his older brother Woodson, and thus didn’t shy away from salty language and indelicate descriptions.
In January 1863, for instance, he asked for several boxes of “Grafenburgs pills” to remedy his constipation. “They come very handy when a feller wants to (expletive for defecating) and can’t,” he wrote.
In the Civil War, communicable diseases such as pneumonia and waterborne ailments such as dysentery claimed about twice the lives as enemy fire. In Springfield, Mo., still early in the war, Horine wrote of “a great deal of sickness and deaths in our regiment.” Of the 95 men who served in Co. K, 17 did not make it back home, with most falling to disease.
Horine had no sympathy for “Secesh,” his all-purpose term for those who supported the Confederacy, and he had no qualms provisioning his company via foraging. “We have been living off the Secesh pretty much since we came here,” he wrote later from Madisonville, La. “We just helped ourselves to their calves, sheep and hogs. They’re darned scarce though, and not very good what’s of them.”
The 94th played a pivotal role in the Dec. 7, 1862, Battle of Prairie Grove that ended the Confederate threat in northwest Arkansas. “The first round or two I felt like dodging,” Horine admitted to his brother, “but after firing several times I didn’t think anything more about it. I loaded and fired as deliberately as if I was shooting hogs.”
By mid-June 1863, the 94th was part of Ulysses S. Grant’s epic campaign to claim Vicksburg, Miss., the last remaining Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. After the city fell on July 4, 1863, the 94th spent a series of disease-ridden months in Mississippi and Louisiana before being shipped to Brownsville, Texas.
It was there that Horine fell ill, perhaps suffering from malaria or scurvy (the latter resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C). By late July, he wrote that “one half of the boys has got ‘scurvy’ now, and if we stay here much longer they will all have it.”
The 94th vacated Brownsville in August 1864 and the men quickly found themselves in the sands along Mobile Bay, Ala., part of the massive campaign to capture the city and its surrounding fortifications. In a letter written in early September, during the long slog up the east side of the bay, Horine admitted to a significant loss of hearing, attributing it to fevers contracted outside of New Orleans and then Brownsville.
On Dec. 1, 1864, Horine received a discharge, which was six months before the regiment as a whole mustered out. After the war, he was a farmer and grocer, passing away in 1907 at the age of 67.
William H. Horine is one of 10 Civil War-era characters featured in the annual Evergreen Cemetery Discovery Walk, scheduled for Oct. 1-2 and Oct. 8-9. This year’s walk commemorates the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the start of the war. Tickets can be purchased at the McLean County Museum of History, the Evergreen Memorial Cemetery office, Casey’s Garden Shop in Bloomington and The Garlic Press in uptown Normal.