I remember seeing “The Shaft”—that’s what we grew up calling it—standing there within the square on the Jefferson Street side of the courthouse. It was 1950, the Korean War was on, and I was heading for the United States Air Force.
On my last day in Peoria, I stood looking up at that old, weather-beaten, limestone shaft, thinking a bit about the Civil War. I remember wondering why it was still located there, since we had a large, famous monument on the other side of the courthouse dedicated to the same war. I never saw The Shaft again, but I never forgot it. Funny thing, I do remember that way back in 1950, there were 43 Civil War veterans still alive.
It was October 11, 1866, and the world seemed to be lending its attention to Peoria, Illinois. Local newspapers tell us that at least 30,000 citizens jammed into the small confines of the courthouse square and lined the streets of Peoria, waiting for the start of the huge parade. Folks from all over began arriving early on that beautiful, exciting October morning. Among them were thousands of Civil War veterans, some of them clearly scarred by the ferocious “War Between the States.” It was a massive gala event that created a ton of excitement here in the heart of Illinois.
Suddenly, the drums boomed, and the band broke into a patriotic piece as the assembled parade prepared to step off on its way to the courthouse and the dedication of the Civil War Memorial Monument. At precisely 10am, four marshals riding abreast led off the parade, followed by two companies of soldiers and a carriage with “Old Abe,” the famous war eagle, sitting high on his perch. The popular Spencer’s Band played a rousing march, followed by nine companies of infantry in full uniform. Just behind them was a carriage carrying the dignitaries and speakers for the day. Gillig’s Band was next in line, and behind this colorful group were marching firemen and hundreds of walking citizens. Once the parade passed by, the spectators joined in for the lively march to the courthouse square.
General John A. ‘Black Jack’ Logan was cheered along as he and General Benjamin F. Butler waved and smiled at the massive throng. It was Black Jack’s famous war eagle, “Old Abe,” that the folks wanted to see, and a sea of cheers greeted the veteran war bird as he came into view. The wily old bird screeched and flapped his wings at the cheering mob. Among the dignitaries was Peoria’s famous orator, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, slated to give the dedication speech. Once the parade concluded, there was a mad dash to surround the now-draped monument. Atop The Shaft, covering the winged eagle was a cross of beautiful flowers. Surrounding its base were gigantic wreaths of evergreens and numerous, gorgeous flowers.
A speaker’s stand had been set up and in front of the monument, tightly-packed spectators could not possibly have moved, even if they had chosen to do so. Every square inch was packed with a human body, and young men dangled from every available tree branch.
Robert Ingersoll gave the dedication address in his usual glorious manner, followed by short speeches from the generals. The excited folks roared their approval, then silenced and bowed their heads as the Reverend Honey formally dedicated the Soldiers Monument to the fallen men who died during the Civil War conflict. Up front, perched above the crowd was “Old Abe,” delighting the massive crowd. The coverings were cast aside as the gleaming, white monument burst forth in all its glory. The large eagle at the top of the shaft brought forth screaming cheers as “Old Abe” squawked his approval.
Spencer’s Military Band broke into a patriotic piece that thrilled the crowd. There was more rousing band music, prayers, and a poem written by Peoria’s P.R.K. Brotherson was read by Colonel Ingersoll, to the mighty cheers of the frenzied crowd. There were numerous encores of patriotic songs, followed by more comments from Ingersoll and a call for three cheers for the beloved generals. It was a rollicking, exciting time for all that attended and was the talk of the town for weeks.
Once the formal activities were over, the crowd made its way up to and past the new monument, talking up to “Old Abe,” smiling, and shaking hands with the celebrities and generals. Slowly, they began to drift away, alone and in groups, until the once-festive scene was bathed in the long shadows of early evening. The cleanup crews hastened to put the courthouse square back in order, and when the moon came out it had something brand-new to shine upon. There it stood, over the years, a monument to the brave men of America’s Civil War.
The Monument Disappears
In the late 1870s, the monument was moved from the original site of Adams and Main to make room for a sidewalk. It was moved over to the Jefferson side of the courthouse where it remained until it disappeared once again, this time for good. In 1962, the old monument, faded and weather-beaten, was dismantled and put aside because of the planned razing of the old courthouse. The scheme was to restore and reassemble it next to the new courthouse, but that never happened.
The old monument had stood proud and symbolic in downtown Peoria for nearly a century. Journal Star reporters, in informative articles, stated that the remains were discovered discarded out at the Detweiller Marina. Once the newer Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated in 1899, the Shaft seemed to fade away. At one time, the courthouse square was the site of two Civil War monuments; now there is but one. Over at Soldier’s Hill, located inside Springdale Cemetery, stands a beautiful statue called The Sentinel. The lone soldier, high upon a pedestal, represents all of the Civil War soldiers.
Have you been downtown to look at our war memorials lately? Have you ever wondered how many Peorians died in the Korean and Vietnam wars? There are folks that think we should restore the 1866 monument, even though we have a magnificent one already located in our courthouse square. Any chance we should honor the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans first? a&s
Norman Kelly is a local historian and author of eight books on Peoria’s history. He can be reached at [email protected]