Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois by John J. Dunphy
(The History Press, 2011, 154 pages)
I love reading books about history, but when I come across one about places I am familiar with, I usually can’t wait to read it. When the author is a good friend of mine, it is even better. I have known John for many years and his many articles and other books have taught me a lot about local history.
Most local people know at least the basics of the story of Elijah Lovejoy, the Alton newspaper publisher who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. Lovejoy’s martyrdom is part of the abolitionist story and reveals the tension and conflicts which tore Illinois apart in the years preceding the American Civil War. But the murder was only part of the overall story of slavery and the state of Illinois and Dunphy’s book gives us the backstory on Lovejoy and many other important figures in the fight to restrict slavery here.
One obscure but important person was Edward Coles, who was elected as Governor of Illinois in 1822. His upbringing had convinced him that slavery was not compatible with the enlightenment views of the Founding Fathers and he worked to make sure the state stayed slave-free, unlike the surrounding states of Kentucky and Missouri. Pro-slavery forces were determined to oppose this view and called for an Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1824 to write legislation that would allow slavery to be established. Despite widespread support for the convention, Coles’ view prevailed and it was voted down handily.
Dunphy describes in detail the efforts of Elijah Lovejoy to overcome the strong slavery sentiment in Alton, Illinois, the town where I presently live. Even though he had two of his printing presses thrown in the Mississippi, Lovejoy persisted in trying to publish his newspaper, the “Alton Observer.” Even more interesting to me was to learn of Lovejoy’s efforts to form the first Anti-Slavery Society in Illinois. As it turns out, this organization was formed in the home of abolitionist Thadeus Hurbut, now called the Old Rock House, which is located just a few blocks from where I live. Shortly thereafter, Lovejoy was to meet his fate at the hands of a mob of enraged pro-slavery activists.
There are many other fascinating parts to this book. Dunphy outlines the many important locations of the “Underground Railroad” which allowed escaped slaves to reach freedom by reaching safe havens in the North. One of the major routes for these escapees led through Alton and we learn of the buildings, tunnels and hideouts used for concealing the “passengers” that came through Alton in those days. Alton was also the site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate and the book relates the importance of this event in framing the upcoming Presidential election.
Dunphy’s book taught me a lot more about names I was familiar with but knew little about like Elijah Dimmock, Thadeus Hurlbut and Lyman Trumbull, all important individuals who made their own contributions to the abolitionist cause.
The final half of the book deals with the Civil War in our part of Illinois. There were, of course, no battles fought anywhere around our area but Alton figured in the war as an important river town that was instrumental in shipping supplies and troops to support Union operations in the South. More importantly, Alton was the site of an important Civil War prison that held thousands of Confederate prisoners captured during the war.
All in all, this fascinating book takes us back in time to a point in history where our society was extremely polarized over the issue of slavery. It explains how our local community was tied to the events that would eventually consume our nation and makes me feel good knowing that ultimately, the work of these early “radicals” like Lovejoy and Coles helped keep our state on the right track.