Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Spotlight: Peter Garrison

Peter Garrison and family, c. 1877.
(Click image for more info.)
In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I'd sidestep the Murray clan for a moment and pop over to my dad's side of the family to talk about Peter Garrison, one of my ancestral Civil War veterans.

To orient you with the Great-grandparent Key in the sidebar, my great-grandmother Stella Lowen Barnett was the daughter of Edwin Allen Barnett and Amy Belle Garrison. Peter Garrison was Amy's father, making him my third great-grandfather.

Peter Garrison was born in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, on November 15, 1837.[1] Around the spring of 1845, when Peter was about seven, his parents, William and Amelia (Oman) Garrison, decided to move west to Illinois, "with Lee County as their destination."[2]

The Garrisons did not choose this destination at random. In the 1830s, the government had declared the land in Lee County and surrounding areas up for grabs to any settler willing to clear and farm it; in response, a wave of land-hungry pioneers swept westward from Pennsylvania and other (mostly northern) states. The Garrisons were part of this wave, but they did not come alone: at least one, and possibly two, of William's brothers also migrated from Pennsylvania to Lee County around 1845, and one of his older sisters had made the same move back in the 1830s.[3]

Once in Lee County, William bought a patch of government land, then turned around and sold it, moving to neighboring Ogle County to run a sawmill. After a few years, he returned to Lee County and bought a new farm in what is now Nachusa Township, where he finished raising his family and spent the rest of his life.[4]

Wherever William Garrison went, his ever-growing family followed. He and Amelia may have had as many as fifteen kids--several of whom they lost to stillbirth, childhood diseases, or tragic accidents. Peter was one of the nine who made it to adulthood.[5] As the second-eldest son in such a large family, Peter Garrison would have been put to work around his parents' farm as soon as he was old enough to carry a bucket, dig a hole, or swing an axe. When William took to running that Ogle County sawmill, he would have relied on the labor of his eldest sons to keep it going, even though they were still only children. And when William gave up the sawmill and bought a new farm back in Lee County, he would have counted on the sweat of his sons' brows to help get it up and running.

Until a little over a year after the Civil War broke out, Peter's life was that of a typical pioneer farmer's son. Then, in the summer of 1862, President Lincoln issued a massive call for volunteers to swell the Union forces. The governor of Illinois echoed Lincoln's call in a series of rousing speeches, prompting thousands of young men across the state to enlist.[6] Peter Garrison was among the early volunteers, signing up on August 12, 1862, for service in Company G of the 75th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.[7]

According to a history of Peter's regiment, Company G "was organized at Franklin Grove, Lee county. Its members were from that vicinity and adjoining towns."[8] The recruitment drive in Franklin Grove was intense, whipping the community into a patriotic frenzy. Lincoln Hall--a local meeting-place normally used for dances and church services--"rang with cheers, and the schoolhouse fairly trembled with stamping, as the patriotic gatherings assembled night after night."[9] Franklin Grove was in Peter's township, and although it's impossible to know if he attended any of the recruitment meetings, there must have been a strong brotherly vibe among the soon-to-be soldiers of Company G: most of them were men who shared ties of community, family, and allegiance. Peter had probably known many of the men he joined in the enlistment line since boyhood. At least two--John W. N. Garrison and William L. Girton--were very likely kin.[10]

Peter Garrison was an utterly typical Company G enlistee. On the day he signed up for service, Peter was a 24-year-old bachelor who probably still worked on his father's farm. His company was about two-thirds bachelors and positively overflowed with farmers, the vast majority of them between the ages of 18 and 29. Many of Peter's companions also probably belonged to pioneering families, since most were born within the United States but outside of Illinois, in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. Only Peter's physical description was unique to him: he had light, perhaps somewhat reddish hair, blue eyes, and a light complexion, and at 5 feet, 8¼ inches, he stood slightly taller than the average American soldier of his time.[11]

All the companies of the 75th Illinois Infantry, in fact, "were composed almost entirely" of men much like Peter: "farmers and farmers' sons, and young men in the country towns...very few of whom had seen actual service in war."[12] Albert Crary, a soldier of Company C (organized in Whiteside County just to the west of Lee), paints an even fuller picture of the 75th Illinois:
The regiment was made up of boys from the farm; boys who had been brought up in town with few hardships, many of them ready to graduate from the high-school; doctors, lawyers, barbers, clerks from the stores and quite a goodly number of old men whose only plea for enlisting was that they desired to accompany their sons and care for them in case of sickness, or to bind up their bleeding wounds in case worse came to worse on the field of battle. And all these mixed in with probably a dozen or so who had some little experience in military affairs during the early part of the war.[13]
By late August, Company G and all the other companies that would form the 75th Illinois had gathered at Camp Dement, in the nearby town of Dixon, for training. Dixon would have been a familiar place to Peter and many of his fellow enlistees, since it housed the Lee County government and sat at the junction of several major railroad lines. Any of the local boys who'd ever taken a train or had business at the county courthouse would certainly have been to Dixon. With Camp Dement so close to the towns and farms that most of the recruits called home, neighbors and family must have visited often. Indeed, according to the regimental history, "The camp was thronged with visitors and friends" eager to watch "the regiment...learning to be soldiers": "loading, firing, bayonet exercise, kneeling, alignment, marching, and wheeling."[14] The atmosphere at Camp Dement must have tingled with a mixture of patriotic enthusiasm and nervous apprehension. As Company C's Albert Crary remembered,
ten Companies, numbering 1,000 men were drilling from six to ten hours a day and preparing for active duties in the field. And on the second day of September, a regular United States mustering officer was on the ground and mustered [all the companies] into service as the 75th Illinois Infantry, and when the moment came for us to be sworn in, the words "for three years or during the war" fell pretty heavily upon our ears. But then, we were in it for keeps, hence we took our little medicine as brave boys always do. (68-69)
All the members of the 75th Illinois evidently signed up to fight until the war ended or three years had passed--whichever came first. Perhaps some of them felt that having the balls to enlist showed that
They were men, who, now the Republic was in imminent peril, resolved to throw themselves into the deadly breach, that it might be saved. Forgetful of self, and rising above the sordid views of gain, soldiers [they] were now to "gird on their armor," march forth to battle, and, breasting the leaden and iron hail of the enemy, stand the avowed champions of the national honor and safety.[15]
Even the most battle-hungry, though, must have had some reservations about spending three years under a hail of lead.

The regiment had only officially existed for about three weeks when it received its marching orders. Between about September 27 and September 29, the men of the 75th sped southward by train, chugging four hundred miles from Dixon, Illinois, to where the Ohio River separates Jeffersonville, Indiana, from Louisville, Kentucky. There they stopped for a few days to take on supplies and join up with the Army of the Ohio, a much larger Union force. The Army of the Ohio and a Confederate army had been chasing one another around Tennessee and Kentucky for some time, and now the 75th and other newly formed regiments joined in that chase.[16] There would, however, be no more speedy train rides "with drums beating and flags flying" (Crary, 69). The next hundred miles, the 75th covered on foot. For such inexperienced soldiers, it was a grueling, blister-raising march through weather by turns rainy and hot, with "the dust so thick," at times,
that it almost smothered a man, perspiration standing in great drops on his face, only to be mopped off with a 'kerchief, or if he wasn't lucky enough to have one, with his dust covered blue coat sleeves. It was march, march, march, fifty minutes by the watch, then, with a ten minute's rest in order to take breath and reflect upon soldier life, as we found it. Then to think that a term of "three years, or during the war" was before us. (Crary, 71-72)
The evening of October 7 found the Union forces encamped along a ridge of hills just outside Perryville, Kentucky; the Confederate army they'd been chasing waited just out of reach. The next day, barely two weeks after leaving Dixon, the 75th Illinois Infantry saw its first action, in the Battle of Perryville.

I won't go into the details of the battle here; I'll leave that for a future post. But here's the extremely quickie version, from the 75th Illinois's perspective: while the 75th watched and waited for orders, the rebels attacked another part of the Union army, mowing down many seasoned soldiers. No reinforcements were sent until the Confederates had already blasted a hole in the Union lines; then, the green 75th was sent to fill the gap.[17] The results were predictably bloody: almost a quarter of the regiment's men were killed or wounded. The casualty rate was worse in Peter's company, which lost at least a third of its men to death or injury--including Peter himself.[18]

Fortunately for me, Peter Garrison was reasonably lucky: he took a bullet in the thigh but survived the battle and went on to start a family. The surgeons, though, were unable to remove the bullet, which remained painfully lodged in his left thigh, and he spent most of the rest of his military career in hospitals, unable to return to duty. On March 18, 1863--just over five months after he was shot--Peter was declared officially disabled, discharged from military service, and sent home. (His Certificate of Disability for Discharge appears at right; you can click on it for a larger view.) Unfortunately for him, those five extra months he spent in the army permanently wrecked his health. Whether it was post-traumatic stress, the effects of breathing gunsmoke, the cold of winter, dirty hospital conditions, or all of the above, Peter left the service not only disabled by his wound but also plagued by persistent lung trouble (the "Incipient Phthisis Pulmonaris" his disability certificate mentions), possible heart problems, and some kind of mysterious internal infection.

The story Peter's pension record tells is a sad one: he spent the rest of his life bouncing from one odd job to the next, from one state to the next, and from one doctor to the next, as he struggled to support his family through the ups and downs of his physical and mental health. At first, his pension was set at $8 per month, but it was immediately reduced to $4--apparently because pension officials felt Peter hadn't been shot up enough. ("G[un]. S[hot]. W[ound]. left thigh only," wrote the man who rejected Peter's appeal of the lower rate; "no increase.") Even bearing in mind that the dollar was worth much more back then than it is today, $4 was a tiny sum: another veteran whose records I viewed at the National Archives got more than twice that amount to ease the discomfort of his hemorrhoids. In order to receive even this small benefit, though, Peter had to submit to regular checkups. If he wanted to apply for an increase in benefits, there were yet more examinations. And, whenever he moved to a new town, he had to officially inform the pension board of that fact--and break in a new doctor. All of these bureaucratic requirements generated a lot of paperwork, which pads out Peter's pension file to roughly 75 double-sided pages. Those pages are loaded with genealogical information, but that fact doesn't make them pleasant to read.

Peter's injured leg troubled him for the rest of his life. While he probably did suffer permanent nerve damage from the initial wound, it's likely that he would have had a much easier time if not for the Confederate bullet he still carried. Usually described as a "ball" by Peter's doctors, the offending projectile may have been more like a musket ball--round, pitted, and rough--than a sleek, modern bullet. Lodged deep in his muscle tissue, that little piece of metal continued to cause pain, do damage, and generally screw with Peter's leg decades after the entry wound had healed. It shifted with Peter's muscles as he went about his daily life, moving in a slow, tearing dance around his femur. Across fifty-five years of medical examinations, rarely did any two doctors find it in exactly the same position.
Bullet location, 1888 Bullet location, 1892

Upper label: something like "Ball inlet" 
Lower label: "Ball now here we feel it distinctly"

Upper label: "cicatrix"
Lower label: "Ball"
The above two diagrams from Peter's pension record show how far the bullet could move over a relatively short period--in this case, four years. (In both diagrams, the entry wound is shown just below Peter's left hip, while the "ball" is much lower down, closer to his knee.)

Today's surgeons would probably have little difficulty removing such an object, but then, we have the benefit of x-rays, MRIs, CAT scans, and other imaging systems, as well as increasingly precise surgical tools. The battlefield surgeons who treated Peter were likely inundated with other, much more seriously injured patients, and the only bullet-finding tools at their disposal were eyes, scalpels, and fingers. Had they done a more probing search for the bullet, they might have done more damage, before they found it, than the Confederate soldier who shot Peter in the first place. In later years, Peter's doctors almost always described the bullet as being "embedded" or "deeply embedded" in his muscle tissue and/or "sinews." Again, they may have decided it was riskier to try to remove the bullet than to leave it be.

As for Peter's other health problems, they seem to take so many different forms in so many different doctors' reports that I can't sort them all out. It's clear that he had some kind of trouble with his lungs when he left the military, and that that was part of the reason he was discharged. Almost no mention is made of any lung condition, though, until 1878--and then only fitfully for a few years. Then his condition begins to worsen steadily, with his lungs apparently slowly filling with fluid. As his breathing grows more difficult, heart problems pop up--but only sporadically, and they seem different with every examination. Some doctors hear nothing unusual in his heartbeat; others find a heart murmur or other cardiac irregularities. By 1892, 55-year-old Peter looks like a man on death's door:
My left [leg] is weak. It disables me from working. I have to limp. My leg is Painful from my thigh to foot. My lungs have troubled me ever since I left the service. My breath is short. I cough[;] expectoration is streaked with blood. I have pains in my chest. I can do but very little work. I am suffering from Nervous Prostration.
And yet he lived twenty-five more years, and what finally got him was completely unrelated to any of the chronic problems documented in his pension file: on May 19, 1917, his kidneys gave out.

The picture Peter's pension record paints of his life is probably too grim. Peter Garrison, in those pages, is a frail, impoverished, slightly desperate man who never seems quite able to get his paperwork in order. And yet, somehow, he managed to support himself and his wife while raising seven children--and long afterward. They were able to afford multiple cross-country moves; and when they settled down for good--amid the palm trees and citrus groves of 1890s Azusa, California--they had enough cash to buy a house, which they owned free, clear, and unmortgaged by the 1900 census. (Later census records show that the house stayed unmortgaged and in the family through at least 1920.) At this point, I don't know what the logistics were, but it's clear that Peter had some kind of steady income other than his veteran's pension.

I have no idea whether Peter talked about his Civil War experience in later years, or how he felt about it. Virtually the only thing that is remembered about him in my branch of the family is that he did serve, and was wounded, and carried a rebel bullet to his grave. But the fact that he was buried in the Civil War veterans' section of Oakdale Memorial Park seems a fair indication that his brief time in Company G of the 75th Illinois Infantry permanently changed his sense of identity.


[1] According to Dad's Tree and Peter's Civil War veteran's pension records. All the census records I have found for Peter also support this data.

[2] Frank E. Stevens, "Harriet E. Garrison, M. D." in History of Lee County Illinois (Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1914), 2:305.

[3] The two brothers were Mathias F. Garrison (see his bio sketch here) and (possibly) John Garrison. Right now, I can't prove that the John Garrison who (census records show) was born in Pennsylvania and lived in Lee County from 1850 onwards was William's brother John Garrison. The older sister was Elizabeth, who married Joseph Brierton. Mr. Brierton was born in Pennsylvania and arrived in Lee County in 1837, according to History of Lee County, Together with Biographical Matter, Statistics, etc. (Chicago: H. H. Hill and Co., 1881), 178. This migration date is probably approximate. Two of Joseph and Elizabeth (Garrison) Brierton's sons--William S. and Emanuel--are profiled in Portrait and Biographical Record of Lee County, Illinois (Chicago: Biographical Publishing Co., 1899), on pp. 251-52 and 731-32, respectively. Joseph and Elizabeth's marriage is further attested to in Historical and Biographical Annals of Columbia and Montour Counties, Pennsylvania (Chicago: J. H. Beers and Co., 1915), both in volume 1 (p. 540) and in volume 2 (p. 1252).

[4] See "William Garrison," in History of Lee County, Together with..., 544. The 1850 U.S. census shows the Garrison family living in Taylor Township, Ogle County; ten years later, the 1860 census puts them in China Township, Lee County. William Garrison's farm lay in China Township until February 4, 1871. On that date, Nachusa Township was formed out of a portion of China, according to a "Lee County Fact Sheet" posted on the Illinois State Archives website. The Garrison farm happened to fall within the new township.

[5] Here I draw on 1850 and 1860 federal census records; the bio sketches of William and Harriet cited in notes 2 and 5; and profiles of William's sons John (History of Lee County, Together with..., 549-50) and William H. (Memorial and Biographical Record...of Butler, Polk, Seward, York, and Fillmore Counties, Nebraska [Chicago: George A. Ogle and Co., 1899], 958-60). The nine children who made it to adulthood were (in order from oldest to youngest) John, Peter, George L., Hester A., Hannah, Elizabeth E., William H., Harriet E., and Martha J.

[6] According to William Sumner Dodge, A Waif of the War; Or, the History of the Seventy-Fifth Illinois Infantry, Embracing the Entire Campaigns of the Army of the Cumberland (Chicago: Church and Goodland, Publishers, 1866), chapter 1.

[7] According to Peter Garrison's Civil War veteran's pension record; his entry in the Illinois Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database; and p. 618 of Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, vol. 4, rev. Brigadier General J. N. Reece, Adjutant General (Springfield, IL: Phillips Bros., State Printers, 1901).

[8] Dodge, 26.

[9] Adella Helmershausen, "China Township," ch. 21 in Stevens, vol. 1, p. 318. 

[10] Peter's uncle Mathias F. Garrison married a Girton (see his bio sketch), and a sworn deposition by M. F. appears in William L. Girton's widow's pension record, making it likely that William was related to M. F.'s wife. John W. N. Garrison (who was not Peter's brother John) swore to the fact that he visited Peter in a field hospital in a deposition he made for Peter's pension records. At this point, I'm not sure how, exactly, J. W. N. was related to Peter, but it seems certain that he was: in the 1870s, Mathias F. Garrison, Peter Garrison, Peter's brother William H. Garrison, and John W. N. Garrison all moved to to the same township (Franklin Township) in Fillmore County, Nebraska. According to William H. Garrison's bio sketch, William more or less named the township, so the Garrisons definitely had close ties to the place.

[11] My analysis of typical Company G characteristics comes from a perusal of Company G enlistees' entries in the Illinois State Archives' Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls Database. The data in this resource is not always accurate (giving Peter's height as a mere 5' 3/4", for example), but the general picture it provides is consistent. The physical description I give of Peter appears throughout his pension record. See, for example, his Certificate of Disability for Discharge, a scan of which appears towards the end of this post. The possibility that his hair may have been reddish is my slightly fanciful speculation; official descriptions just give his hair color as "light." When Peter's four sons registered for the draft during WWI, two of them--William Lloyd and Guy Garfield--were described as redheads. (I viewed scans of all four Garrison registration cards via's database "World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.") This doesn't mean, of course, that Peter's hair actually was the least bit red. As for my speculation that Peter "probably still worked on his father's farm" when he enlisted, the 1860 U.S. census shows Peter as the only young man in his father's China Township household; with five younger sisters and a teenage brother to support, his labor would probably still have been needed in 1862.

[12] Dodge, 27.

[13] A. M. Crary, The A. M. Crary Memoirs and Memoranda (Herington, KS: The Herington Times Printers, 1915), 70-71. Crary sometimes lifts whole passages from Dodge, but he is also much less pompous and usually renders Dodge more readable.

[14] Dodge, 28-29. 

[15] Ibid., 27-28. Sometimes I don't know whether to hug Dodge or shake him by the shoulders: I can't help but admire how vibrantly purple his prose can be.

[16] Dodge, 19-33, and Crary, 69-73. Neither Dodge nor Crary states that the 75th traveled by train, but in 1862, that would have been the only way to move 1,000 men 400 miles in 2 days.

[17] My quickie summary of the Battle of Perryville from the 75th's perspective is based on Dodge, Chapter 3, and Crary, 73-77. To understand the battle a bit better, I also did some light research: I downloaded battle maps from, read the "Battle of Perryville" Wikipedia article, and browsed some of the articles and accounts at the Battle of Perryville website ( The accounts in Dodge and Crary seem to tally with the other research I've done so far.

[18] I have left these figures rough because I'm not sure how accurate they are. Page 76 of Crary lists the following regimental losses: "43 killed in action, 154 wounded, and a dozen or more taken prisoners" or otherwise missing. I haven't made a thorough study of how many men were actually in the regiment, but Crary estimates there were about a thousand at Camp Dement. A list of the original members of Company G appears on pp. 617-618 of Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois, vol. 4; 88 men are listed, and 14 of those are identified as having been killed at the Battle of Perryville or as a result of wounds sustained there. In one of the published Lee County histories I regularly consult, I found a list (perhaps only partial, I don't know) that named 15 additional men who were wounded (but not killed) at the Battle of Perryville. I cannot now locate that list, but by comparing it with pp. 617-618 of the Adjutant General's Report, I came up with my rough Company G casualty figures. I'll try to track the missing source down and update this note.

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