DIXON – It’s such a small, unremarkable headstone for such a remarkable life.
In an age when the average male life expectancy barely topped 40, 56-year-old Peter Williams enlisted with the 29th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry, to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
Pvt. Williams engaged in nearly a dozen battles before his capture by rebel forces 5 months later.
He was held captive in five Confederate prisons, including the notorious Andersonville, but was free to witness the fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865.
He was discharged from service that November, 7 months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia – which, apparently, Williams also was on hand to see.
Thanks to local historian Pat Gorman, Williams and his rich story are not lost to history.
While researching the list of Dixon Post 299 Grand Army of the Republic members buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Gorman “came across a small, very unassuming grave,” near the hill where the largest known potter’s field area is located.
On the rectangular gray stone is inscribed simply “Peter Williams 1808-1908.”
“I looked at the dates and was amazed that Peter was 100 years of age and died in 1908, something not real common nowadays but almost unheard of then,” Gorman said in an email to Sauk Valley Media.
“Curiosity got the best of me, as it usually does, and I began to look into Peter, not just to replace his missing GAR star, but to find out who he was.”
(Founded in 1866 in Decatur, the GAR was a Republican-leaning fraternal organization and advocacy group whose members served in the Union Army, Navy, Marines and the customs enforcement agency, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. It supported voting rights for black veterans, helped make Memorial Day a national holiday, and lobbied Congress to establish regular veterans’ pensions, among other things.)
Gorman found, among other things, Williams’ obituary, which ran in the Dixon Evening Telegraph on May 27, 1908.
An excerpt from it outlines his service:
“Peter Williams, colored, enlisted from Chicago, February 5 1864, mustered into the U.S. service at Quincy, Ill. April 24, 1864 as a private of Company C, 29th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, under First Lieutenant John Aiken and Col. John Bross, to serve three years.
“He fought in the battles of the Wilderness, Nye River, Spottshanne, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Welden, Prebio Farm, Hatchens Run, Bermuda Hundred, Ft. Fischer, N.C., the fall of Petersburg, Appomattox, and Lee’s surrender.
“He was captured by the rebels near Richmond, Va., July 29, 1864 and confined in the prisons at Petersburg, Andersonville, Danville, Richmond and Cumberland. He was honorably discharged on November 6th, 1865.”
That Williams survived the war – and the scramble from prison camp to prison camp, as the Confederates tried to outrun the advancing Union Army – is miracle enough, especially considering that very few black soldiers were left alive to be taken prisoner, and those left alive often were forced into hard labor.
In fact, the Confederate Congress passed a resolution declaring that captured black soldiers “be put to death or be otherwise punished” rather than be held as prisoners of war, and later adopted another resolution providing that all captured “negroes or mulattoes,” slave or free, be tried for inciting insurrection and face the death penalty.
That Williams went on to survive 4 decades more is extraordinary.
“His life during the war must have been as close to hell as any soldier could have known,” Gorman wrote. “Peter, in my opinion was a hero!”
The 1860 Census counts 7,600 African-Americans in Illinois. Williams was one of more than 1,800 to enlist during the Civil War, which ran from 1861 to 1865 – although black men were not allowed to enlist until President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, the regiment with the largest number of African-Americans from Illinois, began enrolling men at Quincy in November 1863; its most noteworthy action was at the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Virginia on July 30, 1864, the day after Williams was taken prisoner.
A few other things about Williams’ later life can be gleaned from the scant records that Gorman has found.
His wife, Elizabeth Williams, known as Lizzie, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on Dec. 26, 1833, and moved north to Sterling in April 1865, the month the war ended.
She was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Sterling when she and Peter married in 1871, when she was about 38, and he was 63. They lived for 10 years in Harmon before moving to Dixon in 1881.
They were living at 529 N. Jefferson in 1900, and counted city founder Father John Dixon as a close neighbor.
Peter died 8 years later.
“To every small boy of North Dixon, Uncle Peter and his sway-backed sorrel mare and rickety spring wagon were a sort of landmark, an accustomed sight which was daily watched for,” his obituary reads.
“His venerable appearance, gray haired, bowed and feeble, and with all his genial good nature won for him a warm place in the hearts of all who knew him and he was respected by white and colored alike.”
Peter and Lizzie had seven children, only four of whom were alive at the time of Lizzie’s death on Dec. 9, 1914: Henry, Charlotte, Solomon and Rebecca.
Lizzie had lived in Dixon until that Sept. 5, 1914, when she fell ill and was taken to Providence Hospital in Chicago, where one of her daughters lived.
She was brought back to Dixon to be buried next to Peter.
Their son Solomon served with the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, stationed at San Louis in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. He rose to the rank of sergeant before his honorable discharge.
On Oct. 30, 1900, he and Hattie West of Delavan, Wisconsin, married in Chicago and returned to Solomon’s hometown, where she worked for the city hospital.
The historical society has created a file for the Williams family, and Gorman is eager to fatten it with any information he can find about what happened to the children and their descendents.
He also would like to get a headstone for Lizzie’s grave, which is unmarked.
PETER WILLIAMS' OBITUARY
The following obituary for Peter Williams appeared in the Dixon Evening Telegraph on May 27, 1908. Its language – accepted at the time – has not been edited for today’s standards:
Uncle Peter Williams Dead
Venerable Negro supposed to have been over 100 years old
After completing a span of over 100 years, Peter Williams, an aged colored man and for many years a resident of North Dixon, passed this life this morning at 3:30 o’clock and with his death is removed one more of the venerable old men who are growing so scarce in our community.
Uncle Peter Williams has been a part of the life of Dixon ever since the close of the Civil War, when he returned after a prolonged imprisonment in various Confederate prisons, broken in health but possessed of vital recuperative powers that again brought him into his strength and vigor and preserved his life for over forty years. To every small boy of North Dixon, Uncle Peter and his sway-backed sorrel mare and rickety spring wagon were a sort of landmark, an accustomed sight which was daily watched for.
His venerable appearance, gray haired, bowed and feeble, and with all his genial good nature won for him a warm place in the hearts of all who knew him and he was respected by white and colored alike. With his good wife “Aunt Lizzie” as she is wont to be called, he resided in a modest residence north of the railroad track where for years he was a close neighbor to Father Dixon.There he spent the declining years of his life and all who hear of his death will be grieved.
Taken from the war records we have the following account of his service during the Civil War:
“Peter Williams, colored, enlisted from Chicago, February 5 1864, mustered into the U.S. service at Quincy, Ill. April 24, 1864 as a private of Company C, 29th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, under First Lieutenant John Aiken and Col. John Bross, to serve three years. He fought in the battles of the Wilderness, Nye River, Spottshanne, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Welden, Prebio Farm, Hatchens Run, Bermuda Hundred, Ft. Fischer, N.C., the fall of Petersburg, Appomattox, and Lee’s surrender. He was captured by the rebels near Richmond Va., July 29, 1864 and confined in the prisons at Petersburg, Andersonville, Danville, Richmond and Cumberland. He was honorably discharged on November 6th, 1865."
The exact age of the old man is not known, but it is estimated that he was over one hundred years of age, and all the facts go to support the belief.