July 12, 2011

Online documents spotlight Civil War era in region

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A unique collection of Civil War-era documents spotlighting life in Southern Illinois during that period and the surrounding years is now available for viewing online courtesy of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Morris Library Special Collections Research Center.

In commemoration of the war’s sesquicentennial, the “Southern Illinois Civil War” collection has become the 100th published collection in the library’s Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI) Digital Collection. The digital Civil War collection features handwritten letters, diaries and military orders spanning the period of 1861-1865 as well as the years before and after. The Ben Wiley and Mann family papers tell the story of Southern Illinois during that time period, shining a spotlight on the home front from the perspective of women whose husbands were serving in the Fifth Illinois Cavalry.

Benjamin Ladd Wiley (1821-1890), born in Ohio and a veteran of the Mexican War, settled in Southern Illinois where he cultivated fruit orchards near his Makanda home. Appointed a lieutenant colonel in the Fifth Illinois Cavalry, he resigned a year later due to ill health and family issues but in 1863 returned to command a cavalry brigade. He served as a recruiter until his 1865 discharge and his military papers document his daily routine as commander as well as his evolving military service status.

Much of the Wiley collection is letters passed between the military man and his wife, Emily Davie Wiley (1830-1920). Emily managed the family orchards and shepherded the family during her husband’s absence. She cared for the children, including oldest son Willie as he fell ill and gradually became blind. The John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro loaned its Wiley collection to Morris Library for scanning and inclusion in the digital collection.

The Mann family papers give insight into the lives of Nancy Clendenin Mann (1829-1912) and John Preston Mann (1822-1908). The couple resided in the Mississippi River community of Liberty, about 70 miles south of St. Louis, known today as Rockwood. John Mann served from 1861 to 1864 in the Fifth Illinois Cavalry and rose to the rank of second lieutenant of Company K and later commissary for the regiment. As he saw limited action and served just a few days journey downriver during the war, he managed to save all of his wife’s letters.

The Mann correspondence offers scholars the opportunity to study life in Southern Illinois and the impact of the conflict from the perspective of Nancy Mann as she watched the war traffic steam past her front porch. She tells of political unrest and tension in a town that found some neighbors sheltering runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad while others held firm to the southern ideals and ties of their families. Her letters also tell about the couple’s four daughters and family finances.

You can access the Southern Illinois Civil War Collection at http://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm4/index_sic_civilw.php?CISOROOT=/sic_civilw.

Aaron Lisec, research specialist for Morris Library, was instrumental in compiling the collection and work is ongoing to further expand the online availability of noteworthy selections, according to Pamela Hackbart-Dean, director of the Special Collections Research Center.