This week in the Civil War - January 29, 1862
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Retired professor traces his ancestor's footsteps during Civil War

MATTOON, Ill. — Two summers ago, Bruce Hannon decided to follow in his great-grand-uncle's footsteps during the Civil War.


In this photo taken Jan. 22, 2012, Bruce Hannon retraces the wartime journey of his great-grand-uncle and Union Army private John Phelan during the Coles County Historical Society annual meeting in Mattoon, Ill.  Journal Gazette & Times-Courier,Ken Trevarthan)., AP Photo

The journey covered nearly 3,000 miles through six states. But instead of lacing up his hiking boots, Hannon, a retired professor from the University of Illinois, drove over a two-week period in June 2010 to learn about his family roots firsthand.

"I could have walked that, too, over four years' time, but I'm not sure about sleeping on the ground," Hannon said.

He did it to see what his ancestor and his comrades of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment, as well as their commanders, saw as they marched into history during the Civil War.

"I thought about what it took to be a private in the Civil War," Hannon said during his presentation Sunday for the annual meeting of the Coles County Historical Society in the historic Illinois Central Railroad Depot in Mattoon. "I wanted to be where he stepped or camped and fought.

"It is hard to wrap my head around how the soldiers did it. And to think about how the generals did it when they ordered men into battle. It must have been hard to keep from losing your sanity."

Hannon had no diaries or old letters to fall back on from his ancestor: John Phalen was an Irish immigrant who did not learn to read or write. He probably joined the Union Army for an enlistment bonus of a few hundred dollars to buy some farmland in Piatt County after his military service, Hannon said.

Regimental records of the Illinois 21st Infantry helped Hannon map out the wartime odyssey of his ancestor, which started in Mattoon by enlisting under future president U.S. Grant, then an officer mustering in Illinois troops and overseeing their training during the summer of 1861.

The well-written letters of Allen Patton, another 21st Regiment soldier from Palestine in Crawford County, also helped Hannon with his research. Unfortunately, Patton died early in the war at the battle of Stone's River in Tennessee. Hannon visited Patton's gravesite at Palestine.

Over a fortnight, Hannon visited small towns in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, and said he saw beautiful Southern scenery and well-preserved Civil War battlefield sites including Stone's River, Perryville, Chickamagua, Missionary Ridge and Kennesaw Mountain.

His travels offered him insight into the fear that overcame some soldiers. In the heat of battle, some soldiers would lose track of the loading of their muskets and leave the ramrod down the musket barrel before they placed the percussion cap and fired.

"The shooting of these rods looked like arrows flying through the air during the battle," Hannon said.

He also experienced the shocking effect of cannon fire from the Civil War era when he attempted to photograph artillery re-enactors at the Chickamagua battlefield park.

"I wanted to get a photo of the flash from the cannon. When it went off it was so loud I nearly dropped my camera. I think everyone from that war must have been deaf after the war with the cannon fire and the muskets going off by them," Hannon said.

He learned that Pvt. Phalen was wounded seriously two times during the war. He was lucky, though, considering the casualty rates of the 21st Illinois through the war.

was a really shot-up regiment. They had to take them out of action after some battles," Hannon said. "Phalen was 5 feet 8. I think the smaller the soldier the longer they lived through the war."

His great-grand-uncle prospered for a time after the war, purchasing farmland at White Heath near Monticello. Then many years after the war, the old soldier's luck ran out.

On an extremely hot summer day, he was walking to town along a railroad track. His old war wounds hobbled him at times, so he apparently laid down to rest along the tracks and fell asleep. A train killed him that day.

Phalen is buried in St. Mary Cemetery at Champaign. Hannon now knows more about the man in that grave than ever before.

Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette,



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