Joseph Woodruff was a New York native who moved to Marseilles with his family as a youth. In 1846, at 17, he enlisted in a battalion raised to reinforce Illinois volunteers fighting in the Mexican American War. Traveling from Ottawa to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas via the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the battalion then marched across the plains to Santa Fe, New Mexico where they took part in the United States victory at Cerro Gordo.
Upon returning to Illinois, Woodruff became a resident of Marseilles, and ran a mercantile business with his brother-in-law, and served as a leader in a local company of “Wide Awakes,” an organization of young free-state men who wanted to see a Republican candidate in the 1860 election.
The 39th Illinois Infantry and the Marseilles Men of Company K
Contributed by Jason Baker
Growing up, Marseilles was the town about five or six miles west of Seneca on Route 6. I knew they used to have a high school, they were rivals with Seneca, and they put on a great holiday basketball tournament. Truth be told, I did not know much more.
Which means what I didn’t know, is that not long after rebels fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, a man named Frank Marshall traveled from Chicago to Marseilles for the purpose of raising a company of recruits for the war effort.
Marshall represented a Chicago lawyer named Thomas Osborn, who was seeking to put together ten companies of 100 men each to form a regiment of volunteers to present for service to the United States and the Union’s putting down of the rebellion. Osborn was a politically connected man, savvy enough to know that the Ottawa area had provided a great crowd of support of Abraham Lincoln when he debated Stephen Douglas there in 1858. A good number of Ottawa men had already committed themselves to regiments, but Marshall was made aware of a man not far away in Marseilles who may be able to help him.
Marshall told Woodruff, and others, that they could elect their own officers if they could raise the better part of a company to join the 39th Illinois. Woodruff delivered. Just over half of the 100 men who would make up Company K of the 39th Illinois were from Marseilles, a handful of others from Morris, Seneca, Ottawa, and nearby rural townships. For his efforts, Woodruff was elected Captain of the company, and Marseilles native Donald Nicholson was made a Lieutenant.
The men left for Chicago to form with the remainder of the regiment and traveled east. They served in the Shenandoah Valley where they fought Stonewall Jackson, Charleston Harbor where they fought along side the 54th Massachusetts made famous by the movie Glory and took part in the year-long siege at Petersburg before breaking the Confederate line on April 2, 1865. They then marched west towards Appomattox and fired some of the final shots of the war before witnessing Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant. To say they traveled places—and saw things—that nobody else from Marseilles ever had would be a drastic understatement. Sadly, Joseph Woodruff gave his life in service to the Union near Fort Sumter where the war all began. On September 23, 1863, he was wounded by a shell fragment while conducting operations on Morris Island, South Carolina, and succumbed to the wounds that day. Many accounts of the men recall Woodruff’s death being a great loss as he was considered one of the regiments top leaders. He not only gave up a successful commercial business in Marseilles after already serving his country once but was a good and decent man to his men while leading them through battle for nearly two years.
Like so many major events in our history, the big names, battles, moments, and people seem like larger than life, faraway things. To get a true connection to those things; however, we need not look further than our own backyard.
I personally have an even stronger connection to the 39th Illinois other than just being a local of the area. My great-great-great granduncles Cicero and Alden Barber, from the rural Marseilles area, were both members of Company K. They both gave their lives in service of the Union as well, and I have had the distinct privilege of standing on the ground near where both made that sacrifice. When you think about relatives you have personally had the honor of knowing in life, and who they then were able to know—the past is not so far away. I am forever grateful for what all these Marseilles men did for our country.
If you would like to learn more about Company K and its Marseilles men, and the 39th Illinois as a whole, my book Chicago To Appomattox tells not just their story, but how it fit into the entirety of the Civil War. Additionally, if you had relatives you believe served in the 39th, the back of the book lists every man who served in the regiment with a brief biographical sketch of their service. The book is available at online retailers such as Amazon, or directly through my publisher: McFarland Books.
Depiction of the 39th Illinois marching through the streets of Chicago in October of 1861 on their way to trains that took them east. (Reproduced from Dr. Charles Clark’s 1889 history of the regiment)
Jason Baker is the author of Chicago To Appomattox: The 39th Illinois Infantry In The Civil War, from McFarland Books. A graduate of Seneca High School in 2002, Jason has degrees from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and American University in Washington, D.C. He has been an officer in the U.S. Air Force for 16 years. Jason, and his wife and son, currently reside in Alexandria, Virginia.
Learn more at JasonBakerAuthor.com.
Jason’s views and opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Air Force.