Michael Hickey was one of my great-great-great grandfathers. He was born October 8, 1840 just outside Shawneetown in Gallatin County in southeast Illinois, on the banks of the Ohio River. Michael was the son of Michael and Mary Keane Hickey. He had one sister, Hanora, and family lore says that he had a brother, John (although no record of any brother has been located to date). Michael lost his mother sometime before his 10th birthday and his father died shortly thereafter in September 1856, before Michael turned 16. Michael’s father (Michael Sr.) had come to America from Ireland in 1839 and had settled in the small Catholic community of Pond Settlement in Gallatin County, Illinois, having received a Federal land grant of 120 acres.
Orphaned at age 16, Michael inherited his father’s farmland, but went to live with his uncle and neighbor, Patrick Keane. Hanora’s fate after 1856 is unknown. Patrick Keane operated a small one-room schoolhouse on his property, and likely provided his nephew with a proper Catholic education. Michael spent the next five years after his father died working a plow and possibly working in the salt mines of southern Gallatin County.
The Maloneys were another Irish Catholic family that had settled in the Pond Settlement area of Gallatin County. Arthur and Catherine Casey Maloney arrived in New York in 1849 with their children Daniel, Lizzie and Michael, and quickly made their way to Illinois by way of the Ohio River. Two of their children, Catherine and Patrick, remained behind in County Limerick to care for elderly family members that could not make the journey to America. Catherine finally arrived in America in 1860, and legend has it that Patrick settled in Australia.
Michael, then only 19 years old, met Catherine shortly after her arrival in 1860 and was instantly smitten with her. This was a very tumultuous time in America, and 1860 was an election year. The issue of expansion of slavery into the territories and the Kansas-Nebraska Act had bubbled over into bloody conflict and guerilla warfare in Kansas and Missouri. Increasing sectionalism threatened to divide the country. The formerly dominant Democratic party was divided among sectional lines over the issue of slavery, and the party split into northern and southern factions. This split allowed Republican Abraham Lincoln to win the presidency with only 40% of the popular vote and without winning a single southern state (many of which did not even place his name on the ballot) or border state. Running on a platform that included the prohibition of expansion of slavery into the territories, many southerners equated Lincoln’s election to a direct assault on their sovereignty and way of life. In response to Lincoln’s election, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina officially seceded from the Union. South Carolina was followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana in January 1861 and Texas in February 1861. Lame duck President James Buchanan denied that the southern states had a legal right to secede, but also refused to intervene, arguing that the federal government had no right to use force to prevent secession. As a result, nearly all federal arsenals and forts in the southern states surrendered to the Confederate troops. In addition, Buchanan’s Secretary of War, Virginian John B. Floyd, was alleged t o have sent large stores of arms and ammunitions to federal arsenals in the southern states, in anticipation of the ensuing war.
This was what Lincoln inherited when he accepted the oath of office on March 4, 1861. There were only a handful of U.S. military installments in the southern states that had not peacefully surrendered to the Confederacy. At this point, war was all but inevitable, but which side would be the aggressor was still to be determined. For a variety of reasons, including international perception, neither side wanted to fire the first shot. Lincoln had three options: (1) surrender the last of the U.S. forts in the south, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, (2) engage the Confederate forces at Fort Sumter, or (3) force the hand of the Confederacy and make them fire the first shot. Lincoln chose the third option. In April 1861, Fort Sumter was surrounded and running out of supplies, and Lincoln ordered merchant ships to the fort to resupply it, knowing that the Confederates would not allow the fort to be supplied. The Confederacy resolved to attack the fort and force its surrender before the supply ships arrived. On April 12, 1861, the Confederate troops, under the command of Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, opened fire on the fort, forcing its surrender the next day. The war had begun.
President Lincoln immediately put out a call for 75,000 volunteer soldiers, with a quota from each state, to enlist for 90 days to quash the rebellion. In response to that call for soldiers, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina refused to send their sons to fight against their southern comrades, and voted to secede and join the Confederacy.
All the while, Michael Hickey was living in southern Illinois, an area at the crossroads of northern and southern hostilities. The Ohio River was the natural border between Kentucky (a declared neutral) and Illinois and Indiana. While most men in Gallatin County were Union men, southern sympathizers were not exactly rare. However, for the Irish immigrants of Gallatin County, the United States had provided an opportunity for prosperity and an escape from the harsh conditions of Ireland. These men yearned for an opportunity to fight for their newly adopted homeland. Michael Hickey was no different. In August 1861, at the age of 20, with no living immediate family members, going off to war seemed like an adventure he could not pass up. Undoubtedly, he bid farewell to Catherine Maloney and promised he would return to her. Along with many other young men of southeastern Illinois, he set off for the state capital, Springfield, to enlist. Arriving at Camp Butler on August 25, 1861, he was mustered in as a private in C Company, 29th Illinois Infantry, a regiment consisting of men from southern Illinois (C Company consisted of nearly all Gallatin County men). It was a company of brothers, cousins, and friends, a common theme among regiments and companies in the Civil War. The 29th’s initial commanding officer was Col. James Reardon, a Gallatin County man. The regiment was initially assigned to the division of Brig. General John A. McLernand, also a Gallatin County man. The 29th remained at Camp Butler for about two weeks learning basic drill instruction and receiving small arms training. In September, the regiment would move to Cairo, Illinois, a strategic location at the southernmost tip of Illinois, at the intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and a staging ground for the invasion of the Confederacy in the west.