John M. Palmer

Palmer as Major General During Civil War
Palmer in 1879 History of Macoupin County

      John M. Palmer was a Civil War general, governor of Illinois, and U.S. Senator from Illinois. He was by far the most noted man to come out of Macoupin county. Indeed, he was one of Illinois’ most noted statesmen. While he was born in Kentucky, his formative years were spent in the Bunker Hill-Woodburn area.

      He was at heart a Democrat, but before the Civil War became a Republican, and served as a governor under that label, but later returned to the Democratic party and became a U. S. Senator. He again went against his party and became an unsuccessful third-party presidential candidate.

      John McAuley Palmer was the third child in a family of seven boys and one girl, born Sept. 13, 1817 on the Eagle Hills in Scott county, Kentucky. His father and mother were natives of Virginia. The family was of English ancestry and among the first settlers in Virginia.

      His father, Louis D. Palmer was a cabinet-maker, but soon left that trade to become a farmer. He was also an avid reader and a man of more than average intelligence. He was a Jeffersonian Democrat and opposed to slavery.

      His mother was Ann Hansford Tutt, a native of Culpepper county, Virginia.

      When John Palmer was in his infancy, the family moved to Christian county, Kentucky on the Tennessee line near the Cumberland River and remained there until 1831, when Louis Palmer purchased a farm and settled in Madison County, in an area known as Paddocks Prairie, about ten miles from Alton and the same distance from Edwardsville. There was no Bunker Hill as yet. He moved to Jerseyville in 1844 and later to Litchfield, where he died in 1869 at the age of 88.

      John Palmer attended school in a log one-room schoolhouse in Kentucky and helped his father cultivate tobacco. He also hunted and fished there as a boy.

      He told later he began his studies with Noah Webster’s spelling book and Linley Murray’s Grammar. He was studious and a great reader but he stuttered until manhood, resulting in many a boyhood fight when he was teased by the other boys. He eventually became an accomplished speaker.

     Palmer later wrote of the trip from Kentucky to Illinois. “After passing along the road which still runs some three miles west of McLeansboro, in Hamilton county, for a few miles, we came to Moore’s prairie, the first we had ever seen, and as we advanced toward Edwardsville the prairie grew more extensive. The prairies then were scarcely marked by improvements, except very near the timber borders, for the early settlers dared not go out on the far-stretching plains. Many persons told us that the prairies would never be settled, and for years I believed that prairie land more than two or three miles from the timber was practically valueless...”

      Palmer said, “The period to which I refer was one of great prosperity in Illinois; lands were entered, purchased from the United States at $1.25 per acre… I remember that one winter, with a younger brother, we cut saw logs on government land, and by that means earned forty-eight dollars. My father added the balance needed, two dollars, and the amount of expenses at the land office, and I entered forty acres of land in my own name, which, after attaining my majority, I conveyed to my father. The next spring and early summer I drove a prairie team, four yoke of oxen attached to a twenty-four-inch plow; I worked at home when needed, and finally, in the summer of 1834, my father ‘gave me my time.’”

      John was 14 when the family came to Illinois. Two years later his mother died, and that broke up the family. After that he was pretty much on his own, and he realized he did not have enough education. His father said he could not help him other than giving him his “time,” which was gladly accepted. It was the custom then for boys to work for their fathers until age 21, so this gave John a five years advantage.

      Alton College, later called Shurtleff, opened about this time with a plan of manual labor and John worked to pay for his education and board. He and his brother entered the college in 1834. He remained there one year when he had to quit to earn more money to pay for more clothes and books. He would attend school for a time and then work to make more money.

      When the family first came to Illinois John became acquainted with Larkins Stark, a cooper living in Madison County. Stark later moved and settled on the prairie, which later became Bunker Hill. He offered Palmer board and clothes if he would learn the cooper trade. After he learned to make barrels, Stark paid him wages. He became skilled enough to make 50 cents a day. After paying his debts and buying suitable clothing, he bought books and newspapers.

      He wrote: “In August, 1836, I was living in the south part of Macoupin county and attended house-raisings and other amusements of like character… The elections were then held on the first Monday in August, and although not a voter, I attended an election held at the house of a Mr. Wood, south of where Woodburn now is.”

      “There were three judges and two clerks in the election. One of the qualifications required of a voter was residence in the state for six months previous to an election. I remember there was a man named Hoskins, whom I had not seen before, offered to vote, and when asked how long he had lived in the state said he came here in the month of April previous; the senior judge, after telling he had not been in the state long enough, hesitated a moment, then asked him if he had ‘had the chills?’ He answered, ‘Yes, I had one yesterday, and feel one coming on me now.’ The judge answered, ‘Put him down and let him go home; the chills are as good as a six months’ residence.’ His vote was recorded. It may be well enough to say by way of apology for the judges, that there was a large bottle of whiskey on the table, of which they had partaken liberally.”

      In 1837 he met a clock-peddler by the name of Henderson who owned a number of wagons and employed men to peddle clocks through the country. John accepted an agency from him and began selling clocks in Madison county and afterwards, in other counties.

     He did well enough in this line but decided he would like to become a lawyer. He bought a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries and while teaching school near Canton during the day, read law at night.

      About this time he met Stephen A. Douglas, who took a liking to him. Douglas was at the time a candidate for congress.

      After school closed in the spring of 1839, Palmer returned to Alton, and then went to St. Louis. His brother had become a Baptist preacher stationed at Carlinville and John walked there from St. Louis, arriving in March 1839. Through the influence of his brother, he entered the law office of John S. Greathouse and again began studying law.

      While he studied law, he became involved in local politics and ran for Macoupin county clerk, but lost by a margin of 121 votes. In the summer of 1839, although he had not been admitted to practice law, he made his first appearance at the bar and won the case.

      In December that year he bought a new suit of clothes, borrowed five dollars and a ride to Springfield, and applied for a license to practice law. In Springfield he met Stephen Douglas, who presented his application to the court, which appointed Douglas and J. Young Scammon of Chicago as examiners. Palmer passed their exam and received his license. He was 22 years old.

      It was while in Springfield that he met Abraham Lincoln, another young lawyer, and they became friends.

      He supported Van Buren in the 1840 presidential campaign and was married in 1842 to a Carlinville lass, Malinda Ann Neeley. They were to have 10 children. Two years later, at age 26, he was elected Probate Judge of Macoupin County and served for the next three years. In 1846, when the war with Mexico broke out, he raised a company and was elected captain, but the regiment was full and his company was refused.

      The next year he was elected a member of the Illinois constitutional convention. His term as Probate Judge ended and he ran for re-election but his anti-slavery remarks were held against him and he was defeated. The next year his opponent resigned, and Palmer was again elected to fill the vacancy.

      In 1851 he was elected to the state senate. This was during the troubled times when slavery was the issue, and while not an abolitionist, Palmer was very much anti-slavery. At this time he had a run-in with his old friend, Stephen A. Douglas, and the two became enemies for several years. They did make up before Douglas’ death.

      Palmer had always been a democrat, but in 1856, when the Republican Party was formed, Palmer was the president of the first Illinois Republican Convention, which met at Bloomington, and a delegate to the national convention in Philadelphia that nominated Fremont. As soon as he announced his allegiance to the new party, he submitted his resignation as state senator, having been elected as a Democrat.

      Fremont was defeated in 1856, but Palmer was back in the thick of things two years later, when Lincoln and Douglas vied for the senate seat from Illinois. He then ran for congress but was defeated. In 1860 he worked for Lincoln’s election and when Fort Sumter was fired upon, Palmer put aside his law practice and organized the 14th Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, and was elected its colonel. The regiment was ordered to north Missouri.

      He was quite successful as a military commander and was quickly promoted to brigadier general and later major general.

      At one time Palmer became ill and was sent home to convalesce, taking with him as a personal attendant, a young Negro boy who had joined them at New Madrid. The boy tended him in his illness and Palmer soon returned to the army. The boy refused to return with him and was left with a family in Carlinville. Palmer was then charged with breaking the law by bringing a slave into the state. During the trial there was no evidence to prove the boy had been a slave and since he was colored and could not testify himself, Palmer was found innocent.


      After aiding in the formation of another regiment, Palmer returned to service in the south. He tried several times to resign but President Lincoln would not accept his resignation and kept giving him other assignments. He was made commander of the Kentucky District.


      He took charge Feb. 18, 1864, and found total chaos. The emancipation proclamation had left a remnant of slavery in the state and state laws conflicted with national. Army officers were arrested and brought before the courts for obeying orders of their superiors. The state was overrun with confederate deserters and bush-whackers. The Negroes flocked to the cities looking for freedom. State authorities were hostile. The problem was not solved until the constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery was adopted by the states.


      Prior to the ratification of the amendment, Negro slaves from all over the south came to Kentucky, and Gen. Palmer declared them free, which was contrary to Kentucky law.


      He continued to speak on behalf of the former slaves. As governor, before the 15th amendment had been ratified, he appointed a Negro notary public in Chicago and later made a Negro commissioner of deeds for Illinois. He also championed the laboring man and farmers, and opposed the business tycoons of the day. He broke ranks with the Republicans during Grant’s presidency because of the corruption in government. While governor he vetoed legislation in Illinois he believed to be dishonest. He supported the eight-hour work day, the abolition of child labor and the right of labor to organize.


      The Gazette on Nov. 18, 1896 wrote: “Ex-Senator John M. Palmer has tendered his services, free of charge, to the colored citizens to assist them against the Alton Board of Education’s plans to separate the races in the schools. General Palmer, by the way, was counsel for the Quincy colored people in a similar case, and secured a decision in favor of his clients in the Supreme Court.”


      His resignation from service finally became effective Sept. 1, 1866 and he moved to Springfield.


      He was later elected governor of Illinois as a Republican, serving from 1869-73. He afterward changed his party and became a Democrat, and as such was elected United States Senator and served in Washington from 1891 to 1896.

      At the democratic state convention of 1890 he was nominated by the democrats for U. S. senator and was elected in the spring of 1891.

      When the Democratic Party made the silver question the issue in 1896, he refused to support the platform and was nominated as a candidate for president by the gold democrats. His bid for the presidency failed.

      And on Sept. 26, 1900 the Gazette announced: “As we are going to press, word comes to us by phone of the death of Gen. John M. Palmer in Springfield...”

      This account is about one-fourth of a chapter on Palmer in my book “Macoupin Goes To War.” I’ve just tried to find some of the main points and to stress the local connection.