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Historian doesn’t want Civil War soldier’s story lost

4/29/2018, 1:43 p.m.
It’s such a small, unremarkable headstone for such a remarkable life. In an age when the average male life expectancy ...

By Kathleen A. Schultz

Sauk Valley Media

DIXON, Ill.

It’s such a small, unremarkable headstone for such a remarkable life.

In an age when the average male life expectancy barely topped 40, 56-year-old Peter Williams enlisted with the 29th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry, to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

Pvt. Williams engaged in nearly a dozen battles before his capture by rebel forces five months later.

He was held captive in five Confederate prisons, including the notorious Andersonville in Georgia, but was free to witness the Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2, 1865.

He was discharged from service in November 1865, seven months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which, apparently, Mr. Williams also was on hand to see.

Thanks to Dixon, Ill., historian Pat Gorman, Mr. Williams and his rich story are not lost to history.

While researching the list of Dixon Post 299 Grand Army of the Republic members buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Mr. Gorman “came across a small, very unassuming grave,” near the hill where the largest known potter’s field area is located.

On the rectangular gray stone is inscribed simply “Peter Williams 1808-1908.”

“I looked at the dates and was amazed that Peter was 100 years of age and died in 1908, something not real common nowadays but almost unheard of then,” Mr. Gorman said in an email to Sauk Valley Media.

“Curiosity got the best of me, as it usually does, and I began to look into Peter, not just to replace his missing GAR star, but to find out who he was.”

(Founded in 1866 in Decatur, Ill., the GAR was a Republican-leaning fraternal organization and advocacy group whose members served in the Union Army, Navy, Marines and the customs enforcement agency, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. It supported voting rights for black veterans, helped make Memorial Day a national holiday and lobbied Congress to establish regular veterans’ pensions, among other things.)

Mr. Gorman found, among other things, Mr. Williams’ obituary, which ran in the Dixon Evening Telegraph on May 27, 1908.

An excerpt from it outlines his service:

“Peter Williams, colored, enlisted from Chicago, February 5 1864, mustered into the U.S. service at Quincy, Ill. April 24, 1864 as a private of Company C, 29th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, under First Lieutenant John Aiken and Col. John Bross, to serve three years.

“He fought in the battles of the Wilderness, Nye River, Spottshanne, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Welden, Prebio Farm, Hatchens Run, Bermuda Hundred, Ft. Fischer, N.C., the fall of Petersburg, Appomattox, and Lee’s surrender.

“He was captured by the rebels near Richmond, Va., July 29, 1864, and confined in the prisons at Petersburg, Andersonville, Danville, Richmond and Cumberland. He was honorably discharged on Nov. 6, 1865.”

That Mr. Williams survived the war — and the scramble from prison camp to prison camp, as the Confederates tried to outrun the advancing Union Army — is miracle enough, especially considering that very few black soldiers were left alive to be taken prisoner, and those left alive often were forced into hard labor.