This is the text of one of a series of educational brochures offered free to visitors at the Robert Green Ingersoll Museum. The complete set of five brochures is available by mail. Ordering information is available here.
Robert Green Ingersoll raised the 11th Illinois Cavalry at Peoria, Illinois. It entered service on December 20, 1861, and was mustered out on September 30, 1865. During the course of the war, the 11th Illinois lost 279 men - 245 to disease. Ingersoll was the 11th's original colonel. Under his command, the 11th Illinois fought in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi, including the battles of Shiloh and Corinth.
Ingersoll's most famous engagement - and the one that ended his fighting career - took place on December 18th, 1862. Ingersoll was scouting for Confederate forces under the command of legendary Southern general Nathan Bedford Forrest, which were then raiding into west Tennessee. Under Ingersoll's command were his own 11th Illinois, the 2nd Tennessee Cavalry, one 300-man battalion from the 5th Ohio Cavalry, and two artillery pieces from an Indiana battery.
Near Lexington, Tennessee, Ingersoll's advance force, the Ohio battalion, encountered four companies of the 4th Alabama under Captain Frank B. Gurley. Under harsh fire, the Ohioans fell back to join Ingersoll's main force. Ingersoll deployed on a hill but Gurley flanked him, forcing him to withdraw to Lexington itself. There, Ingersoll formed his units in line around the two cannon. Forrest displayed his main forces in Ingersoll's front; meanwhile another Forrest detachment struck at Ingersoll's left, routing the 2nd Tennessee. Ingersoll surrendered to Capt. Gurley. The rebels took 148 Yankee prisoners, the two cannon, ammunition, weapons, and horses. Yankee forces which escaped capture retreated in disarray to Jackson, Tennessee, where they reported that Forrest had 15,000 men - a ludicrous over-estimate.
Ingersoll and his officers were held prisoner for three days. During that time, some biographers say, Ingersoll charmed his captors with his wit - and managed to lose all of his money playing four-card draw with Gurley and his lieutenants. Other accounts claim that Ingersoll beguiled Forrest himself with his silver tongue. None of these probably fanciful tales has been confirmed by historians.
Ingersoll and his officers were paroled under the parole d'honneur system developed during the War of 1812. Parolees were allowed to return home provided they swore an oath not to fight again until - perhaps years later - they were formally "exchanged" for a captured enemy soldier. Ingersoll resigned his commission before any formal exchange took place.
It was after he lay down his uniform that Ingersoll rendered his greatest service to the Union - and paved the way for his oratorical career. From 1863 to war's end in 1865, he became a tireless and energetic speaker in defense of the Northern cause.
He also attracted attention as an advocate of the Republican party - the party of Lincoln, associated with a "hawkish" stand on the war. By contrast, the Democratic Party had urged softer lines on secession and slavery. Often Democrats were accused of having defended the Southern cause.
In the postwar years, Ingersoll became a familiar speaker before Union veterans' organizations, including the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' group with great social and political influence until the turn of the century. Union veterans and Republicans urged harsh policies toward the shattered Confederacy, such as stiff war reparations and a punitive agenda for Reconstruction.
Campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates against their Democratic opponents, Ingersoll was among the first to "wave the bloody shirt," using emotional war imagery to flog the Democratic Party in prose sometimes astonishing for its venom.
The following are excerpts from an Ingersoll campaign speech in support of Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. The bombast is typical of Gilded Age political oratory, but the vivid rage behind the language is all Ingersoll's:
"I am opposed to the Democratic party, and I will tell you why. Every State that seceded from the United States was a Democratic State. Every ordinance of secession that was drawn was drawn by a Democrat. Every man that endeavored to tear the old flag from the heaven that it enriches was a Democrat. Every man that tried to destroy this nation was a Democrat.
"Every man that shot Union soldiers was a Democrat. Every man that denied Union prisoners even the worm-eaten crust of famine, and when some poor, emaciated Union patriot, driven to insanity by famine, saw in an insane dream the face of his mother, and she beckoned him and he followed, hoping to press her lips once again against his fevered face, and when he stepped one step beyond the dead line the wretch that put the bullet through his loving, throbbing heart was and is a Democrat.
"Every man that loved slavery better than liberty was a Democrat. The man that assassinated Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat.
"... Every man that wanted the privilege of whipping another man to make him work for him for nothing and pay him with lashes on his naked back, was a Democrat. Every man that raised bloodhounds to pursue human beings was a Democrat. Every man that clutched from shrieking, shuddering, crouching mothers, babes from their breasts, and sold them into slavery, was a Democrat.
"... Soldiers, every scar you have on your heroic bodies was given you by a Democrat. Every scar, every arm that is lacking, every limb that is gone, is a souvenir of a Democrat. I want you to recollect it."
Passages like these show another facet of Ingersoll, who also composed the deathless lines "The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."
Speech at Indianapolis, September 20, 1876. From The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Dresden Edition, Vol. 9, pp. 157-187.
Historical data provided by Benedict R. Maryniak, President, Buffalo-area Civil War Round Table.