This Regiment was organized at a time when there was an immediate demand for soldiers in the field. Permission had been given Colonel John G. Hardy, and Colonel George W. McKeaig, each to raise a regiment. The first was assigned the number One Hundred and Twentieth and the other One Hundred and Thirty-second. Colonel Hardy recruited seven companies - A, B, C, E, G, I and K - and went into camp at Vienna, Aug. 13, 1862. Colonel McKeaig recruiting three companies, D, F and H, and went into camp at Shawneetown, August 15.
In September, both organizations were ordered to Camp Butler, and soon after their arrival there, they were, at the request of Governor Yates, consolidated as the One Hundred and Twentieth Infantry, and it was mustered into the United States service October 28, by Lieutenant E. M. Curtis.
In the consolidation of the Regiment, Colonel George W. McKeaig, of the One Hundred and Thirty-second, was given the Colonelcy and Bluford Wilson, of the same organization was made Adjutant, while all the other field officers were taken from the One Hundred and Thirty-second.
The first order received for actual duty was from Colonel Fonda, which was to guard the railroad bridge at "Jimtown". which duty was performed until November 9, when the Regiment left for Alton; thence it moved to St. Louis on steamer Stephen Decatur, and reported to General Halleck from whom orders were received to report without delay to General Sherman at Memphis. Upon our arrival there General Sherman assigned the Regiment to the First Brigade, Second Division, Sixteenth Army Corps, General Morgan L. Smith commanding the Division.
November 26, it was assigned to garrison duty at Fort Pickering. While engaged in this line of duty, the men were attacked with small pox, measles, pneumonia and other diseases, and it kept the well busy, caring for the sick and burying the dead. As high as seven persons died out of Company D in one week, and the mortality was not much less in other companies.
From Fort Pickering the Regiment was assigned to provost duty in Memphis for a few days and then it took charge of the United States Navy Yard, and to picket Wolfe River from its mouth for a mile and a half.
About the 13th of January 1863, the Eighth Wisconsin, Ninth Minnesota, and the One Hundred and Twentieth, under Colonel Wilcox of the Ninth Minnesota, was transported to Hopesdale, Ark., from there we marched about fifteen miles during the night, striking a rebel recruiting camp near Marion, Ark., a little after sun up, capturing a lieutenant and twenty men on picket. A brisk skirmish followed in which the enemy was soon routed. Company E, of the One Hundred and Twentieth, captured two pet bears belonging to the enemy. After completely destroying the camp the command returned to Memphis, where the One Hundred and Twentieth resumed provost and garrison duty.
On March 30, the Regiment was moved to the foot of "Popular" street on the east side of the city, where it remained until May, when it was ordered to Vicksburg. On the way down the Mississippi, the transports conveying the Regiment were repeatedly fired into by guerrillas from either side of the river. Near Gainesville they killed Thomas Sanders, of Company D, and wounded nineteen others. We returned the fire with three volleys and had the satisfaction of learning from a gunboat captain that we had killed eight of the guerrillas. The Regiment landed at Young's Point and remained there about a week, when it marched across the point to "Hard-times", where we bivouacked for the night, crossing the Mississippi next morning in the Silver Wave to Warrenton and thence marched to the position assigned us under the sharp nose of "Whistling Dick", whose peculiar shrill whistling noise kept the boys awake and dodging both day and night.
On June 29, General Dick Taylor, with a force estimated at 5,000 to 6,000 came marching through Louisiana, routing the negroes and burning everything in his path, with the view of relieving General Pemberton, but our forces remained firm around the besieged city.
On the 2d of July the One Hundred and Twentieth and two other regiments were sent across to Young's Point and embarked on transports with others to report to General Reid, at Lake Providence, who was hourly expecting an attack from General Taylor. It was a race between the steamboats and General Taylor as to who would get there first, but we reached there about an hour first, just in time to prevent his contemplated attack, and had the pleasure of seeing him and his troops pass in review about a mile from us. His force was too - strong and saucy for General Reid to feel at ease, and all the infantry had to stand in line, elbow to elbow, all night around little "Fort Reid". The night was inky dark, but was frequently lit up by the flames of some house or negro quarters, set on fire by General Taylor's rear guard. It was estimated at the time that this raid of Taylor's drove over 4,000 negroes and poor whites into Lake Providence within twenty-four hours.
These poor, houseless people prayed all night long behind "Fort Reid", at the top of their voices, for "Massa" Abraham Lincoln and General Grant.
At daylight the One Hundred and Twentieth was ordered on board of a steamer and sent down the river to assist and succor the helpless. We seen came in sight of a fine mansion and out-houses on fire. The boat rounded-to, and had scarcely touched the shore before every man of the One Hundred and Twentieth was on a full run to the fire. As we passed through the lawn going to the house we found several women, children and nurses, crying and wringing their hands. The great anxiety seemed to be to save the "Judge's Law Books". "What Judge?" said one of our officers. "Judge Dent, Grant's father-in-law", was the reply. This naturally urged the men to extra duty, and it was not long before we had the Judge's fine library safely near his wife. We were too late, however, to save either the mansion or other buildings. Mrs. Judge Dent thanked us most cordially for the service we had rendered, and gave us all the magazines, novels and newspapers we could carry when we returned to "Fort Reid".
On the 28th of July we were ordered to Lagrange, Tenn., arriving there August 2, but when General Forrest made his memorable raid upon Memphis, the Regiment was called back to the defense of the city.
On October 10 our Brigade, under command of Colonel George W. McKeaig, joined General Sweeney at Lagrange, when we made a ten days scout into Mississippi with the entire force. At Cold Water and Davis' Mills our cavalry routed the enemy before the Infantry arrived. The One Hundred and Twentieth returned to Memphis about the 21st of October.
On the 30th of October the Regiment was sent as a guard to 75 six-mule teams to Corinth, arriving there November 2 with everything intact. Turning the teams over to General Dodge, we returned to Memphis by rail on the 4th of November.
On the 7th of November we returned to Corinth, where the Regiment remained until the evacuation of the place, on January 25, 1864, by the Union forces.
From Corinth we returned to Memphis, where we were again assigned to provost duty.
In May we were brigaded with the Eighty-first, Ninety-fifth and One Hundred and Thirteenth Illinois, with Colonel George B. Hoge commanding.
On May 30th General Hurlbut ordered the Brigade to report to General Sturgis, and on the first of June it took up its line of march through rain, mud and heat for ten days. Our cavalry struck General Forrest's whole command near Guntown, Miss. General Grierson's cavalry brought on the engagement, but was forced back, though holding the enemy's advance partially in check. General Sturgis forced the infantry on a double quick for fully four miles to the assistance of Grierson. The day was one of excessive heat, and the men were already worn out; indeed, many had been sunstruck before the order came to move. The consequence was, that those who got to the battle were out of breath, and many of the officers could not give an intelligent command. In this exhausted condition they were rushed into the fight against double their number of rested troops on ground of their own choosing. After six hours of hard fighting our forces were overpowered and compelled to retreat in great disorder. The One Hundred and Twentieth Illinois (under command of Colonel McKeaig) and the Ninth Minnesota (under Colonel Wilcox) maintained perfect discipline, and contested every foot of ground with the rebel advance from Guntown to Ripley. Here these brave colonels determined to make a desperate effort to protect the rear of our army; but the rebels came pell-mell on to the valiant little band, and in the second volley Colonel McKeaig was shot in the breast and arm, and falling from his horse, was captured by Colonel Jesse Forrest, who took care of him personally until he was exchanged.
From Ripley the retreat of the rear guard was divided into three divisions; one under Colonel Wilcox, one under Major S. B. Floyd, and one under Captain P. B. Pillow. Each had about 150 men and retreated on different roads; but they brought their little commands safely into Memphis after a retreat of 90 miles, and all the while hardly pressed by the enemy's cavalry. But Adjutant McMurtry became separated from the command, and did not get in until the 22d of June, six days after the last of the troops had gotten into camp. He was eleven days alone, and most of the time without anything to eat.
After this fight the One Hundred and Thirteenth Illinois was consolidated with the One Hundred and Twentieth. On September 30th we embarked on the steamer Belle of Memphis, with General C. C. Washburn on board, and steamed up the river to Cairo, arriving there October 1st.
The next morning we took passage on the steamer Aurora for Paducah, arriving there October 3d; moved thence up the Tennessee River. On the 6th of October we debarked at Clifton and were ordered to prepare for a five days march. At 3 P.M. we started in the direction of Nashville under command of General Washburn. We returned to Clifton on the 8th of October, and boarded our transports and moved up the Tennessee River with the view of intercepting Forrest. Without reconnoissance, our troops went ashore near Florence, Ala., to eat their dinners; but hardly had the One Hundred and Twentieth gotten ready to refresh the inner man, before the rebels opened fire upon them from a battery which had been planted on the brow of a bluff just over their heads.
We were ordered back on the transports, when the gunboats opened fire on the enemy, which was kept up until the transports were disabled. Then we were at the mercy of the stream. The boats drifted down the river for about three miles, when we were towed by the gunboats below Pittsburg Landing, which place we reached October 10th. On the 11th, the machinery of the transports having been repaired, we moved to Johnsonville, where we remained ten days awaiting orders. On the 21st of October we boarded the City of Pekin for Memphis, arriving there October 23d, and were again placed on provost duty, in which service we remained until we were mustered out of the service, which took place September 7th, 1865, when we were ordered to Camp Butler, where we received final payment and discharge September 10th.