In 1859, a 21-year-old Lodi boy left home to make his fortune and find adventure in the west, little knowing that he would brush greatness and return to Seneca County to be buried as a hero within a few short years. Garrett Voorhees Nevius grew up near Lodi, the son of John and Rachel Nevius. After his father died, an older brother took over running the farm and Garrett developed wanderlust. The story of Garrett Nevius actually began earlier in Malta, New York when Elmer Efraim Ellsworth was born. Neither could know that their lives would dramatically intersect in far away Illinois on the verge of the Civil War.
Nevius found his way to Rockford, Illinois where he went to get in on the ground floor of the new technology of photography. His first business failed, but he quickly formed another. He never made much money in the photography business, however. Perhaps he just did not have a head for business. More likely, his pursuit of other activities took too much of his time and energy.
In those days, military clubs were the rage. Young men would form local groups that would drill and march in parades wearing the most impressive military get up they could design. The clubs were part athletic clubs and part military. Their primary purpose seemed to be to impress the local young ladies. Rockford had such an organization called the Rockford Grays. Nevius joined the Grays at about the time the club began to crumble. Rockford was going through an economic downturn and the commander of the Grays – Captain Dennison – had something less than a charming personality. Nevius and Dennison clashed and the club went under.
At about the same time, Elmer Ellsworth was in Chicago – some 90 miles away – working in the patent office. He too was interested in the military craze and was particularly interested in a French military group called the Zouaves. The Zouaves were the predecessors of the French Foreign Legion and were modeled after an Algerian military group. Ellsworth studied French in order to master the Zouaves’ drills and formed a Zouave group in Chicago that toured the country. When he was not working with the Zouaves or in the patent office, he was in Rockford pursuing a young lady by the name of Carrie Spafford. It was during his romantic visits to Rockford that Ellsworth and Nevius met. The two young, energetic, good looking boys shared a number of interests and a New York background. They immediately hit it off. Ellsworth convinced Nevius to allow the Rockford Grays to dissolve. Nevius championed the effort to form a new military group called the Rockford Zouaves with Ellsworth providing advice and support.
Ellsworth changed the direction of his life when Carries Spafford’s father – a stern Rockford banker - informed him that he would need more than charm and military drill teams if we wanted the hand of his daughter. Undeterred, Ellsworth took up studying the law as an eventual means of supporting Carrie Spafford. His pursuit of the law combined with a magnetic personality soon drew the attention of Abraham Lincoln, another Illinois lawyer who was quite taken with the young Ellsworth. Ellsworth’s relationship with Lincoln soon had his friend Garrett Nevius forming and leading the Rockford, Illinois Chapter of the “Wide Awakes”. The Wide Awakes held frequent rallies and parades on the main streets of Rockford in support of Lincoln's candidacy for president with Nevius at the head. (Nevius' correspondence with Ellsworth was even on personalized pro-Lincoln stationery he had made by a Rockford printer.)
Lincoln won, of course, and Elmer Ellsworth went with him to Washington – then on to New York City to form the soon to be famous Fire Zouaves. By then Ellsworth was known throughout the country after touring with the Chicago Zouaves and his death at the outbreak of the War was a national tragedy. In the mean time, Nevius was pushing the new Rockford Zouave Company. When the Civil War broke out, he led them en masse to Springfield where they were mustered in as Company D of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry with Garrett Nevins – note that Garrett Voorhees Nevius changed his name to Garrett L. Nevins – as the Captain. He thought that a less Dutch sounding name would better suit his emerging military and political aspirations. He soon became Major Nevins and the 11th went into the thick of the fighting in the west.
The first months of the war were much like a bigger, grander version of the Rockford military drill team. There was quite a bit show and glory, with relatively little shooting. Nevins and the 11th played a part capturing the Confederate army at Forts Henry and Donnelson (where U.S. Grant earned the nickname “Unconditional Surrender”), but those were largely battles of maneuver and the bloodshed was minimal by later Civil War standards.
Sobering reality came in April of 1862 when Nevins proved his mettle at Shiloh. Some 45,000 inexperienced rebels attacked about the same number of raw Union soldiers and what resulted was two days of sheer violence beyond anything the boys on either side ever imagined. The 11th was in camp to the right of and slightly behind Sherman's Corps when the Confederates attacked shortly after dawn. They rushed to the developing line of battle and held the right all day. Within minutes of going into action, Major Nevins took a bullet through his hand. Although the wound was serious, he returned to the front as soon as it was bandaged. The Regimental commander was also wounded and, for much of the day, the 23 year old Nevins led the entire regiment. The 11th retreated six times before sunset but kept the Confederates from overwhelming the rest of the Union Army. On the second day, when the Union was reinforced and drove the Confederates from the field, the 11th was kept in reserve. They could only muster a third of their men – in the first day’s fighting the other two thirds had found their way to the casualty list. In the official reports, the boy from Lodi was cited for his courage and leadership under intense fire and was soon promoted to Colonel Nevins. The war was no longer like the military clubs. Garrett Voorhees Nevius knew it for what it really was and he measured up.
In the spring of 1863 the 11th was part of General James McPherson’s command in the Union campaign against Vicksburg. Colonel Nevins and the remaining members of the Rockford Zouaves were part of the noose that was tightening around General Pemberton’s Army. After running down the Mississippi under the fire of the guns of Vicksburg, they joined the force that was beseiging the city. When the confederates were surrounded in the city of Vicksburg, Grant hoped to attack and break their lines before they became too entrenched. On May 19, 1863 an attack failed, but Union General McLernand convinced Grant that it had come close and that another attack could succeed. McLernand was a former Illinois Congressman who was a General because he wanted to be one and because he had the political clout to make it happen. Grant and the other professional soldiers were increasingly disillusioned with him. Nonetheless, Grant agreed to another attack on May 22 with McLernand’s Corps. The attack went off as planned and soon McLernand was reporting great success and urging Grant to order attacks by the other Corps to alleviate the pressure on his troops. On the strength of those reports, Grant ordered Sherman and McPherson to attack Vicksburg with their troops. Nevins led the 11th down a narrow ravine to get them as close as possible to the 3rd Louisiana redan before going out into the open to attack. Once he had the troops formed, the 11th charged out of the ravine and was immediately met with a murderous hail of gunfire. Garrett Nevins was killed almost immediately.
A few months before his twenty-fifth birthday, not four years after he left Lodi as Garrett Voorhees Nevius a starry-eyed New York farm boy, the body of Colonel Garrett Nevins, close friend of Elmer Ellsworth, political leader in the Lincoln campaign, and the mourned hero of Rockford, Illinois and all of the 11th Illinois Infantry, came back to Seneca County. He was buried at Lakeview Cemetery, once again as Garrett Nevius from Lodi, his dreams unrealized but his mark on the world well made.
As a postscript, Charles Dana – described as a “glorified snoop” whose job was to be at Grant’s headquarters and report directly to Secretary of War Stanton on what was going on – wrote to Stanton bitterly decrying the death of Garrett Nevins placing the responsibility solely on McLernand. The attacks had failed because McLernand’s reports to Grant had been grossly exaggerated. As a result of Dana’s letter, McLernand was fired in spite of his political pull.
As a final note, Garrett Nevius is buried alongside his brother Winfield. Winfield had a son he named Garrett for his heroic older brother. That son was my father’s “Uncle Gary” who regaled my dad, when he was a boy, with stories of his namesake and, when my dad behaved, let him hold the sword Garrett Nevins carried at Shiloh and Vicksburg. When I was young, I heard the stories of Garrett Nevius, as well. My thanks to Diane Bassette Nelson for helping me find the hero of those boyhood tales and put a conclusion to the story.
Bill Waddell 1881 E. Irvington Road #2083 Tucson, AZ 85714 (520) 207-6980 January 13, 2004