During the War for Southern Independence, more than 259,000 Illinois men served, but not all wore Union blue. There are numerous documented reports of small pockets of men, mainly from the southern reaches of the State, serving in Confederate armies.
Cairo, Illinois, in particular, supplied a number of men to the 10th Kentucky Cavalry, and other Southern-leaning Illinoisans were scattered across various units in all branches of Southern service. But none of the Illinois Confederates earned the notoriety of the ‘Southern Illinois Company,’ which had its origins in a secessionist meeting in Marion, Illinois in April 1861.
While thousands of Southern Illinoisans fought for the Union cause, some of their neighbors did not share that feeling. Among them was Henry Hopper, a Williamson County telegraph operator who, disgusted by President Lincoln’s call for troops, called for a meeting in a local tavern to discuss, among other things, secession of the southernmost 18 counties Illinois.
Twelve men showed up for the meeting, including merchant Thorndike Brooks and planter Hibert Cunningham, whose sister, Mary, was married to local congressman (and future Union general) John A ‘Blackjack’ Logan. Also in attendance was John M Cunningham, Hibert’s father and Logan’s father-in-law. Brooks himself had two brothers who fought for the North, and Cunningham claimed that ‘Blackjack’ later promised to join the Southern cause, which Logan strenuously denied.
This group, who would be dubbed ‘Jeff Davis’ Twelve Apostles,’ drafted a resolution condemning Federal intervention, cheering Southern independence, and calling for Southern Illinois secession. The Federals got wind of the secessionist movement and sent troops to quell the situation, but to no avail.
Finally, Cunningham called for a rendezvous of men to cross the Ohio and enlist for the Confederacy. Twenty-eight men of Williamson County showed up, followed soon by six from Jackson County. All silently made their way toward Kentucky, boarded a steamer across the river on 27 May and received a hero’s welcome in Paducah. Eventually, the 34 Illinoisans, along with 65 other recruits, became Company G of the Fifteenth Tennessee Infantry, with Brooks as captain. Despite its partial compilation of men from other States, the unit was known as the ‘Southern Illinois Company.’
At Belmont, Missouri, on 7 November 1861 the company faced Logan and his 31st Illinois Infantry, also mainly composed of Southern Illinois men. Brooks, Cunningham and the rest also would fight well at Shiloh, where they were part of a brigade commanded by Bushrod Rust Johnson – who, ironically, spent his later years on his Macoupin County farm in Central Illinois. Five in the company lost their lives as a result of Shiloh.
Of the Southern Illinoisans in the 15th Tennessee, only Brooks was still in active Confederate service at the end of the war. Ten did not re-enlist at the expiration of their one-year terms in July 1862 and six others deserted. Hibe Cunningham was among them; in September 1863, he walked into ‘Blackjack’ Logan’s tent at Vicksburg and asked for a Federal commission. His request was later granted, giving him the unique distinction of captain’s rank in both the Union and Confederate armies. Another Illinois Confederate, Private John Finegan, was captured at the battle of Perryville in October 1862, paroled, and spent the rest of the war as a volunteer nurse at Federal hospitals.
Only a handful of the company ever returned to Southern Illinois. One was Cunningham, who became a lawyer. Brooks became a wealthy merchant in Baltimore, and both rekindled their relationships with ‘Blackjack’ Logan after the war. Any hard feelings had cooled by then, but the mere existence of the Southern Illinois Company was a product of the heated emotions among Illinoisans in 1861.
Also see: Little Egypt & the Golden Circle