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John McAuley Palmer


JOHN McAULEY PALMER was born on Eagle Creek, Scott county, Kentucky, September 13th, 1817. His ancestors were of English origin, and among the early settlers of Virginia; his father, Louis D. Palmer, having emigrated from Northumberland county in that State to Kentucky, in 1793, where he met and married Ann Tutt, also a native of the "Old Dominion," in 1813. A soldier in the war of 1812, and naturally fond of adventure, he removed soon after the birth of the subject of this sketch, to Christian county, in that part of Kentucky then known as the Green River country, and purchasing a considerable quantity of' the new and cheap lands of that section, commenced a pioneer farmer's life. The son's educational advantages under these circumstances were but meagre, and such as are common to pioneer settlements; yet, such as they were, they were eagerly improved. The father also being an ardent Jackson-man. and himself unusually fond of reading, managed to secure all the books, newspapers, and political documents of the day which he could get hold of, especially those of his own party, and these, we may well believe, were eagerly read and re-read by his children. He was also, even at that early day, an earnest opponent of human slavery, and both he and his family were recognized among their neighbors as "Anti-slavery Democrats." It was, indeed, the uncontrollable promptings of his convictions upon the subject of slavery that determined him in 1831, to seek a home for his young family in the free States, which he did by settling near Alton, in Madison county, Illinois. The death of his wife, in 1833, virtually broke up the family, and in the spring of 1834, John Palmer and his brother Eli (since a noted minister) entered "Alton College," so called, an institution which had then recently been opened on the " manual labor system," by the friends of education in Central Illinois. The boys had more energy than means, and in the fall of 1835, John graduated for want of money for the further prosecution of his studies. Then he went to work for a cooper; next he tried his hand at peddling; and in the fall of 1838, he taught two quarters in a district school, acceptably to his patrons, but all the time cramming himself with all the miscellaneous information he could glean from novels, history, poetry, sermons, and newspapers. In the summer of that year, he first met with the late Senator Douglas, then just entering upon his brilliant political career; admired him, voted for him, and from him, perhaps, imbibed his first political aspirations. The next winter he secured a copy of " Blackstone's Commentaries," and after some desultory law reading, he entered in the spring of 1839 the office of John L. Greathouse, an eminent lawyer at Carlinville, Illinois, whither he walked from St. Louis, his entire capital on arriving there being fourteen dollars in cash, a well-worn suit of clothes, and an extra shirt. His brother, who was now married and settled there, offered him a home under his own roof, and he commenced his regular law studies. Less than two months after, at the request of' the leading Democratic county politicians, he be-came a candidate for the office of county clerk, but was defeated. I n December, 1839, having managed to buy cloth enough for a suit of clothes, and finding a tailor who had faith enough in him, to make them up on credit, he borrowed five dollars from his preceptor, and set out for Springfield and obtained from the Supreme Court a license to practise as attorney and counsellor-at-law, in which matter he was much indebted to the kindly interest of Mr. Douglas, as was ever remembered with gratitude during the long and bitter contests of later years. With his license, and a meagre stock of law books, given him by an elder and more fortunate professional brother, he commenced practice, with such poor results, however, at first, that he was only re-strained from seeking a new home by the want of sufficient money with which to pay his debts. He participated actively as a Democrat in the Presidential canvass of 1840; in 1841, his profession yielded him a support; in 1842, he was married; in 1843, he was elected County Probate Judge; and during the years 1844, '45 and '46, his practice became quite extensive. In 1847, he was chosen to the State Constitutional Convention, and in 1848, was re-elected to the office of Probate Judge, from which he had been ousted at the election of the previous year by a political combination. In 1849, he was elected County Judge, which office he held until his election, in 1851, to the State Senate, of which he was member during the sessions of 1852, '53 and '54. In this latter year he opposed the Nebraska bill, and being re-elected to the Senate for 1855, warmly supported the free-school system, the Homestead Law, and many other important measures. In 1856, he was President of the Illinois Republican State Convention, at Bloomington ; and was also a delegate to the National Republican Convention at Philadelphia, where he advocated Judge McLean's nomination, although personally favoring Fremont, whom he actively supported in the ensuing canvass; first, however, resigning his seat in the State Senate, on the ground that the change in his political connections since his election to that body, rendered such a course necessary both as a matter of self-respect, and of proper regard for the true principles of a representative government. In 1857 and '58, State politics occupied his attention, and in '59 he was defeated in an election for Congress. In 1860, he was elector at large on the Republican ticket, and cast his vote for Lincoln; and in February, 1861, was a delegate to the Peace Congress at Washington, where he advocated the call of a national convention for the settlement of the impending difficulties, and when that proposition failed, he favored the means of compromise finally recommended by that conference.

But when the war-cloud finally burst, the martial spirit inherited from his father, the old soldier of 1812, united with his own inherent convictions on the great questions at issue, irrepressibly urged him to action. On the second call for troops, in 1861, he came forward as a common citizen and soldier ; but his fellow-citizens knew his worth, and he was unanimously chosen Colonel of the 14th Illinois volunteers, first seeing active service under his old friend, Gen. Fremont, in the expedition to Springfield, Missouri, in which State he served during the remainder of the year, a portion of the time in command of a brigade under Gens. Hunter and Pope. On the 20th of December he was commissioned brigadier-general, and during February and March, 1862, was with Pope in the expedition against New Madrid and Island No. 10, on the Mississippi; at the former place, in command of a division, with which he firmly held Riddle's Point against a strong rebel force, who constantly strove, both by land and water, to. force their way to Tiptonville, which was the only approach to Island No. 10.  After the capture of Island No. 10, Pope's army proceeded down the river to Fort Pillow, which it commenced to bombard, but were soon ordered to join Gen. Halleck, then before Corinth. En route to that place, at Hamburgh, on the Tennessee, Pope reorganized his force, and Gen. Palmer was placed in command of the first brigade, first division of the Army of the Mississippi, composed of four Illinois regiments and a battery, which he handled with admirable coolness and skill at the battle of Farming-ton, May 8th, in which, under extremely critical circumstances, he engaged and finally, after a closely-contested fight of several hours' duration, escaped from three rebel divisions. On the 20th of the same month, he was suddenly taken ill from expo-sure, and was ordered home by Gen. Pope, remaining on the sick list until about August 1st, when he engaged in the efforts then making to raise troops, and by authority of the Governor organized the 122d Illinois regiment at Carlinville. On the 1st September, he again took the field at Tuscumbia, Alabama, where he was assigned by Gen, Rosecrans to the command of the first division of the Army of the Mississippi, and ordered to join Gen. Buell. This he accomplished by a forced march made in good order, though sorely harassed at every step by rebels, and surrounded by a malignant and treacherous populace, and reached Buell at Nashville in safety. During the subsequent so-called blockade of Nashville by the rebel forces, Gen. Palmer's and Negley's forces were the occupants and de-fenders of that city, the key-point of middle Tennessee, and right loyally they held it too. At the fierce tight of Stone's river, Gen. Palmer held a conspicuous part, his division occupying important and perilous positions, and it was in distinct recognition of his gallantry and skill on this occasion that the general was nominated and confirmed, November 29th, 1862, as Major-General of Volunteers. He was at Chickamauga, in 1863, and in Sherman's Atlantic campaign, he commanded the fourteenth corps, and he fought with distinction at Kenesaw, and Peach Tree Creek. He also took part in the "march to the sea."

Early in the year 1865, he was, at his own request, relieved from the command of his corps, and assigned to that of the Federal forces in Kentucky, which State was in a restless and critical condition; some 20,000 Kentuckians being then in the rebel army; a large proportion of the remaining population sympathizing openly with the Confederate cause; the Unionists chafing under the loss of their slaves, and the slaves them-selves, neither free nor enslaved, being as disturbed as the whites. Palmer was eminently the man for the occasion. Brave, collected, shrewd and prompt; deliberate in judgment, but strong in action ; affable and patient with all, but never influenced by designing men; he possessed also statesmanlike qualities of a high order, well adapted to grapple with and settle the various important questions which were constantly arising in this new field—questions, indeed, which eventually tended to the shaping of the national policy. 

His first and celebrated military order of April 29th, 1865, struck the key-note of loyal administration by its sharp enunciation of the fact, that the people of that department were to be protected " without regard to color or birth-place," and " whether free or not," from cruelty and oppression "in all cases ;" that, when the state of the country and the organization and rules of the civil courts should permit them to en-force justice, offenders against the local laws would be handed over to them for trial ; but that, at the same time, no person or court would be allowed to deprive of liberty, or harass or persecute any one who had taken the amnesty oath, who had deserted the rebel cause, or was engaged in serving, aiding or abetting the United States Government. 

This raised a tremendous howl of malignancy against what was termed " military coercion of the courts ; " but it was followed, May 10th, by another order asserting the freedom of the wives and children of all colored men enlisted in the Federal army, and loyal Kentuckians were encouraged to help enlistments. Slavery was melting visibly away ; the State Legislature refused to approve the Constitutional Amendment abolishing it, and so the contest went on.

At a Union Convention held in Frankfort, the general delivered an address pledging the whole power of Government for the protection of Union men and free speech, yet boldly claiming that " the time has passed in this country, when free speech is to be understood as the liberty of mouthing treason." The military supervision which he instituted of the annual election evoked numerous complaints of military interference with the rights of franchise, and indictments of army officers were common. Gen. Palmer, however, held his ground unflinchingly, and when the colored people sought employment in other parts of Kentucky or neighboring States, he assisted them by setting aside, by a military order, the statutes forbidding their transportation on lines of transit, and suspended the execution of other barbarous statutes, informing the municipal authorities that they neither could nor should molest persons made free by authority of the Federal Government. The President was entreated to remove him from command of the district, but declined; then, a suit was commenced against him in the name of the State, for aiding slaves to escape, but was dismissed by Judge Johnston, on the ground that the requisite number of States had adopted the Constitutional Amendment before the date of the indictment, and that, therefore, all criminal and penal acts of the legislature of Kentucky were of no avail. Thus, a Kentucky court gave the first practical judicial recognition of the Fourteenth Constitutional Amendment. A general order followed, proclaiming the abolition of slavery, and advising colored people to claim their rights on public routes of travel, by legal means. On the 12th October martial law in Kentucky was abrogated by President Johnson's proclamation, and on the fifteenth, Gen. Palmer telegraphed to the War Department that "department passes " were dishonored at the ferries on the Ohio, colored people being refused passage across, saying that he had ordered the Post Commandant at Louisville, to compel the honoring of said passes, a step rendered necessary by "the alarm amongst the negroes upon the report of the withdrawal of martial law." The Secretary of War, however, took the view that, under the circumstances, the Government could not properly interfere. Renewed efforts for his removal, instigated by treasonable influences, were strongly pressed, but due examination of the application and circumstances attending, convinced the administration that there was no cause for removal, and again treason and half con-firmed loyalty was baffled in its revenge. When at last even Kentucky disloyalists had come to the conclusion that the power of the United States Government, and the sentiment of the whole nation were too strong for them, and yielded, though still with a bad grace, to the legislation based on the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, Gen. Palmer re-signed his commission and returned to Illinois. He was active in the Presidential canvass of 1868, and (lid much to aid in carrying the State for the Republican ticket. In the autumn of 1868, he was elected as Governor Oglesby's successor as Governor of Illinois, and in the autumn of 1870 was re-elected, his second term of service closing January, 1873. His administration has been characterized by great ability, and what, perhaps, was hardly to be expected from one who had been so long a national soldier, a careful and almost jealous guardianship of' State rights. After the great fire in Chicago, October 8th, 1871, there was some conflict of authority unintentional, doubtless, on the part of Lieut.-Gen. Sheridan, yet involving some important questions of State and national jurisdiction, and resulting in the death of a prominent citizen of Chicago, at the hands of one of the volunteer sentinels commissioned by the lieut.-general, after the State authorities had taken command of the city. Gen. Palmer protested with great spirit against this invasion of the rights of the State, and though at first the sympathies of Chicago were with Gen. Sheridan, and Governor Palmer's course was denounced, it was not long before the people generally saw that he was right. Governor Palmer has recently declined a renomination, and taking strong ground in favor of the Cincinnati nominations, is engaged in canvassing the State for them, and for the election of the Liberal Republican and Democratic candidate for governor, Mr. Koerner.

A straightforward, honest, earnest man, a gallant soldier, an excellent administrative officer, and of such unflinching integrity, that it would be easier to turn the sun from his course, than him from what he believed to be right, Governor Palmer deserves well of his countrymen.

Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872 

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