Remembering the Civil War dead on Route 66

Unloading the 150-year-old cannon.  Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

You’re asking yourself what the heck a Civil War remembrance in a graveyard has to do with the former U.S. Route 66.  Answer: Joliet Road/Historic Route 66 runs right past the church and cemetery, which are at the southeast corner of Joliet and Wolf Road in what is now Indian Head Park, not far from the county line separating Cook from DuPage.  But there’s more.  Which is why my two colleagues and I found ourselves leaving the big party over at the Route 66 Car Show on Saturday, September 8th and trucking over to watch a much more sedate gravestone rededication ceremony at Lyonsville.  Hey, at least I got to meet Abe Lincoln.  Well, his shadow, anyway.  More on that later.

Lyonsville Congregational Church and its cemetery predate Route 66 by nearly a century.  The Lyonsville area and next-door Countryside, both in the far southwest corner of Lyons Township, are on land that was the last settlement of the Pottawatomi before the treaty that forced them westward.  In other words, just before Europeans began moving in and Checagou became Chicago.

One of the earliest settlers in the area was Joseph Vial, whose family became prominent in the Lyonsville area and who himself helped to found the Congregational Church of Flagg Creek, which later was renamed Lyonsville Congregational, now Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ.  Vial showed up in the area in 1833, the same year Chicago incorporated as a village, and built himself a 16-foot square log cabin the following year.  Until the church congregation was founded in 1843, the locals met in members’ homes to pray; Vial’s 16-foot-square cabin was where the first such prayer meetings were held.  It also served at various times as a post office, mail depot and stagecoach stop – and, in fact, was where the first Democratic Party convention in Cook County was held (the county was huge then and encompassed what today are three counties: Cook, DuPage and Will, which meant that some delegates had to come 40 miles on horseback to attend).

Lyonsville Cemetery was started in 1848, after the church had been in operation for about five years.  Joseph Vial’s young daughter was the first to be buried there.  The surrounding area remained sparsely populated agricultural land for more than a century, until well after World War II.  And travelers on Route 66 drove through that countryside past Countryside for nearly 30 years before suburban development finally hit the Lyonsville area.

Strangers in a strange land?  Maybe!  Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

A stroll around the cemetery, beautiful in the late summer sun, is a walk through local history.  There are many Vials and their relations buried there, not to mention their friends and fellow church members.  Most were well known in the area.  Robert Vial, one of Joseph’s descendants and also a prominent member of the family, had a home in what is now the town center of Indian Head Park, just north of Joliet Road.  His frame house was moved a few years ago to a site about a mile south when development in the immediate area threatened its demise (the move was famously videotaped and shown on the HGTV cable channel).  The Robert Vial House, a historic building that has been preserved by the Flagg Creek Historical Society (now the Flagg Creek Heritage Association), is just a few blocks south of the cemetery today on Wolf Road at about 74th Street.  It sits across the city limits in Burr Ridge next to a township park, where the heritage association has its offices.  The congregation’s former parsonage, another historic wood-frame house that is half a mile north on the west side of Wolf Road, is now home to the Indian Prairie Public Library.

Joseph Vial was involved in local politics, too, and his relations were also active in the church, which was descended from the English Pilgrim tradition.  The church’s early congregation was staunchly abolitionist, so it’s no surprise that 72 men from the congregation joined the Union Army.  A plaque inside the original section of the church lists their names.  Most enlisted during a meeting right on the church grounds (150 years ago, on September 10, 1862), and many were part of the 127th Illinois Regiment, which served in the Vicksburg, Mississippi campaign.  Predictably, some soldiers died during the war; 15 of the congregation’s 18 Civil War dead are buried in Lyonsville Cemetery, two of them unknown soldiers.  In addition to the 15 grave markers, three cenotaphs in the cemetery honor Hiram McClintock, John Giebel and Henry Newby, whose bodies were never recovered from their respective battlefields.

Over time, however, some of the gravestones deteriorated or became otherwise damaged, and a group descended from local Civil War veterans raised funds to replace the 12 ruined grave markers.    That would be the Illinois department (chapter) of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Philip H. Sheridan Camp #2.  This, in turn, required a rededication ceremony – the reason we and representatives of the congregation, the historical society, and both the Civil War and more recent veterans’ groups were gathered there under the old trees on that sunny Saturday afternoon, along with several historical re-enactors (two of them professionals) and a well-preserved Civil War cannon.  Several members of the heritage association also came in period clothing.

Their presence made for some interesting moments:  it’s not often you get to see a young woman in period dress, so accurate you think you’re seeing a historical ghost, talking on a cell phone next to a grave monument.  Or a 150-year old cannon being towed in by an SUV and unloaded by seeming Civil War infantrymen while recent service veterans and a few token uniformed Confederates watch.  For that matter, the professional reenactors portraying President Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were so realistic that I recognized Mrs. Lincoln from a distance, long before I spotted the ersatz former president, without having expected either.  Honest Abe, complete with stovepipe hat, was portrayed by actor Max Daniels, who’s won national awards for that sort of thing; I made his acquaintance while the setup before the ceremony proceeded and his wife, Donna, walked around inhabiting the ghost of Mrs. Lincoln.

But the greatest impression made on me that day was the figure cut by a man who appeared to be a Union general – bearded, hatted and dressed remarkably like Gen. Ulysses S. Grant but in reality the SUVCW National Chaplain, the Rev. Jerome Kowalski.  The good reverend, of firm voice and solid conviction, hardly needed the microphone to deliver his short but sobering, arresting invocation, in which he gently reminded us both of duty and sacrifice on one hand and the futility and universal cruelty of war on the other.  When he prayed for the war dead, he included them all, Confederate and Union alike, casualties of the bloodiest war this nation has ever seen, with the hope that such monumental death would never need to repeat.

The Civil War cannon in action.   Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The 18 honored Civil War dead of Lyonsville Church were as follows:  Scott Blodgett, George B. Bruce, Anthony G. Chambers, Charles W. French, John Giebel, Hiram McClintock, William McClintock, George W. Merriam, James H. Nash, Henry Newby, Charles H. Polk, Wesley A. Polk, Joseph Stephenson, Robert W. Stephenson, John W. Unger, John Unold, and two unknown patriots whose bodies were returned to the congregation.  Some deaths were more prominent than others.  Hiram McClintock was killed at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863.  Nash contracted smallpox in 1864 and died in New Orleans.  All their stores were told, if briefly, by David C. Bailey of the SUVCW, along with that of Wesley A. Polk, a church member who saw action in the Battles of Atlanta but somehow survived the war.  After his return, Polk farmed in the area until his death in 1893.

Introductions were made at the start of the program by Steven Westlake, past post commander of the Illinois SUVCW, and Richard Andrews, current mayor of Indian Head Park.  Hazel Sharp of the heritage association recounted the relevant history of the area.  Members of the church choir performed period hymns.  The artillery salute using the cannon was followed by a rifle salute by the LaGrange American Legion Post #1941 and the playing of Taps by a lone bugler, dressed in Union garb, as the sun moved westward toward a still distant sunset.  All in all, it was a very different gathering under the sleepy trees than the one we’d left in Berwyn.  Still, I’m not sorry we were there.

Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ and Lyonsville Cemetery
6871 Joliet Rd. at Wolf Rd., Indian Head Park, IL 60525  708-246-1255

Robert Vial House – preserved and operated by the Flagg Creek Heritage Association
7359 S. Wolf Rd., Burr Ridge, IL

Until next time,
Maria

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