The One Hundred and Twenty-Fifth Infantry was formed of good war material, mainly drawn from the rural precincts of Vermilion and Champaign counties, with a sprinkling of mechanics, professional and laboring men and clerks from the towns, practically all of whom could read and write, so that the war and its possible requirements were well comprehended by them before enlistment.
A brief rendezvous at Danville, the muster-in September 3, 1862, the equipment, the sad farewells, and the command moved to Cincinnati, thence across the Ohio to the heights above Covington on the "neutral" ground of Kentucky, where it relieved a provisional regiment of "squirrel hunters". Here the troops began their first military duties. Hitherto they had been provided for by kind and patriotic friends, now they were dependent on the army ration, to be eaten as cooked by novices in the culinary art. Here drill and dress parade, guard and picket duty, and a semblance of discipline, were imposed upon all. Here, too, that scourge of camp life, the measles, broke out and a large number were so disabled as to necessitate their discharge, others lingered in hospital and died, while a few so far recovered as to be returned to their command.
September 25, the Regiment was ordered to Louisville by transports, where it arrived after tedious delays on the night of the 27th. On the 28th it was put in Brigade with the Fifty-second Ohio, Eighty-fifth and Eighty-sixth Illinois, Colonel Daniel McCook of the Fifty-second Ohio commanding, which organization it maintained to the end of service with the addition, afterwards, of the Twenty-second Indiana and the One Hundred and Tenth Illinois.
October 1, Buell's pursuit of Bragg began. Overtaking him near Perryville on the 8th, there occurred the bloody battle of that name, and though not hotly engaged the Regiment had a splendid opportunity to witness the fierce struggle between others, get its first smell of hostile powder, and to observe the difference between the sharp, keen whistle of a minnie ball and the fierce shriek of shot and shell. Divided in two parts, it was all day supporting batteries, most of the time engaging the enemy. At near the close of the day the rebels made a desperate final charge on these batteries, but were handsomely repulsed by a strong line of infantry, and the Regiment was permitted to pursue flying fugitives, and swell the shouts of victory.
After Perryville, a meandering march took the Regiment to Nashville, Tenn., November 7, 1862, afterwards to Mill Creek, and then back again to Nashville about December 10, where it remained as a part of the post forces until August 1863, doing the various duties incident to post service. In the meantime the Regiment having good opportunity became thoroughly drilled. Here too those who had temporarily broken down on the Kentucky Campaign, or were disabled from sickness and not discharged, were brought up, and by the time the command was required to leave Nashville it was in fine soldierly condition.
Forming a part of General Gordon Granger's reserve Corps, the Regiment left Nashville August 3, 1863, for the front, full of strength and hope and with commendable ardor for honorable service. Rosecrans' great army was in pursuit of Bragg and all available forces were with him. The route of the Regiment took it through Franklin, Columbia, Athens, Huntsville, Bridgeport and over Lookout Mountain, to the battlefield of Chickamauga, where, on the morning of September 19, the whole Brigade came near being drawn in ambush and surrounded at Reed's bridge. On the 20th, with General Granger's Corps, supporting Thomas' left, the Regiment was under fire all of Sunday afternoon, and also on Monday at Rossville Gap.
Returning with the army to Chattanooga, and upon its subsequent reorganization, the Brigade was assigned to the Second Division of the Fourteenth Army Corps, command by General Jeff. C. Davis, and was ever afterwards designated at the Third Brigade, and thereafter took honorable part in all the marches, battles, skirmishes and sieges of that justly famous Corps, but want of space forbids an attempt to particularize.
The Regiment late in October 1863, was encamped opposite the mouth of Chickamauga River and furnished daily details to guard Caldwells Fort. About a week before the battle of Missionary Ridge, two or three rebel batteries were silently planted on the south bluff of the Tennessee and in excellent range of the Regimental camp. Just at daylight the next morning and as if designed as an accompaniment to reveille these batteries opened a terrific fire hurling their shells in the midst of about 600 sleepy half dressed soldiers, not yet accustomed to so peremptory an order to "get up". Their guns were soon silenced, however, by our own batteries, but not until they had killed the Regimental Chaplain, wounded others, and made good hiding places at a premium for a few minutes.
Crossing the Tennessee on Sherman's pontoon November 24, the Regiment engaged in the battle of Missionary Ridge November 25 and 26. Pursuing the enemy to Ringgold, Ga., it marched next day towards Knoxville to aid Burnside going as far as the Little Tennessee, and learning that the enemy had raised the siege and fled, the Regiment returned, December 18, to Chattanogga nearly barefoot and poorly clad, having accomplished a hard march in very severe weather.
February 24 and 25, engaged in a reconnoissance with the main body of the army to Buzzard Roost Gap in front of Dalton, and returning encamped at McAfees Church and Lee and Gordon's Mills until May 3, occupied mainly in preparing for the more brilliant and useful career still before it.
Thorough drill and wholesome discipline had give the troops a splendid moral but now their best powers of endurance and highest courage were to be put to their severest test. The Atlanta Campaign was to begin, with the destruction of the rebel army for its objective point.
Sherman put the Union forces in motion May 3, and the enemy's resistance began at once. The Confederates under Johnson had a leader of such matchless skill that he was not likely to leave any vantage ground for a direct attack, and from Dalton to Jonesboro the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth had reason to know that his followers possessed the fighting quantities of heroes when the shock of battle came.
Kenesaw Mountain was fought June 27, and the conspicuous part performed by the Regiment in that bloody conflict entitles it to some special mention. The Brigade charged in column of Regiment against Hardee's strongly protected fortifications, the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth in advance, with supports on right and left. At a few minutes before 9 A.M., the command "forward" was given, and the lines moved with marked precision, first at quick and then at double-quick step, until, on reaching a descent they encountered a marshy creek, lined on either side with shrubs and thickly matted vines. Already under the enemy's fire, the command relieved itself as rapidly and orderly as possible from this confusion and again turning it face towards the foe, on and up the brave men rushed, with McCook, their gallant leader, at their head, until, first encountering a line of abattis, then of Chevalde frise, some of them gained the parapet and struggled to scale the works. Here McCook fell, mortally wounded, and Colonel Harman, taking instant command, sought to encourage the wavering hopes of his followers, and secure the victory that seemed so nearly and so worthily won, when a rebel bullet pierced his heart, and his remains were borne from the field. Shot and stoned down, completely exhausted by the distance covered and the impetuosity of the charge, the brave men who survived it reformed their lines a few steps to the rear, and partly under cover of the hill, where they immediately began the construction of earthworks. The loss to the Regiment was 120 killed and wounded in the short space of twenty minutes, nearly half of whom, including five officers, were killed outright, and four officers wounded.
On the same day, Lieutenant Colonel Langley, who had been serving on the Fourteenth Corps staff, assumed command of the Regiment, and Colonel Dilworth, of the Eighty-fifth Illinois, of the Brigade.
June 29th, the dead still lying in great numbers between the lines, were in such a state of putrefaction as to have become offensive to both armies, when Colonel Langley, with nothing whiter than a Chicago Tribune for a flag of truce, shook that red-hot sheet in the face of the enemy until they ceased firing, and a truce was arranged for the burial of the dead.
On the morning of July 3, the enemy having been again "flanked out" of a position from which they could not be driven, the Regiment with others pursued through Marietta and on to the Chattahoochie River, where, July 5, it helped drive him inside his strong works.
July 18, crossed the Chattahoochie on pontoon at Paces' Ferry, advanced against strong skirmishing to Peach Tree Creek, where the Regiment fought on the 19th, and in a spirited charge at dusk drove the enemy from a very commanding height, and from this point on through the siege of Atlanta until the signal victory at Jonesboro September 1, the command was practically under fire every hour. At Jonesboro the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth was the center and guide Regiment in the assault, the Twenty-second Indiana on the right, and Fifty-second Ohio on the left, with the Eighty-fifth, Eighty-sixth and One Hundred and Tenth Illinois in second line. Just at the onset Colonel Dilworth was severely wounded and the Brigade command fell to Lieutenant Colonel Langley who led a most daring charge over the strong works and right into the heart of the enemy's camp, capturing in connection with the Second Brigade on the left an entire rebel Brigade, its general and staff, numbering in all about 1,700 men and a battery of four guns. This movement in connection with others so effectually broke the enemy's lines that he withdrew his remaining forces under the cover of night. Jonesboro proved the fall of Atlanta, for early next morning Hood moved out and with the Twentieth Corps our Slocum marched in.
A short rest at Atlanta and the Regiment with the Division made a long and laborious raid as far as Florence, Ala., in pursuit of Forrest's Cavalry, returning to Atlanta November 14, and on the 16th started with Sherman in his famous march to the sea, in which latter enterprise the Regiment did its full share of duty, procured and consumed its full share of subsistence. Another rest at Savannah and Sherman's avenging hosts were turned loose on the "sacred soil" of South Carolina, and in thoroughly "subjugating" that State it would be safe to say the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth was behind no other regiment. In North Carolina its progress was checked on the 16th of March, 1865, at Averysboro, and stubbornly resisted on the 19th, 20th and 21st, at Bentonville. The fighting at the latter place, especially on the 19th, was very severe, a full share of which fell on the Regiment, when it not only well sustained its past reputation for courage, but justly added new laurels to its victorious crown.
Goldsboro was reached March 23, and on the 10th of April, amid the shouts of joy over Richmond's fall the last hostile march was begun and ended on the 26th day of the same month, with the surrender of Johnson and his entire army to the government whose authority they had defied and whose flag they had so wantonly insulted.
A peaceful "on to Richmond" from the south, then to Washington, the "grand review", the muster out June 9, 1865, the homeward ride to Chicago, the cordial welcome, the final payment and discharge, the goody-by grasp of comrades whose souls were knit together and welded in the fires of battle were among the closing scenes of a great military drama, in which the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Infantry bore an honorable part. Henceforth it lives only in history and memory.
The casualty list of the Regiment is exceptionally large and the graves of its honored dead mark its meandering march from Covington, Ky., to Raleigh, North Carolina, and with those of our revolutionary fathers remain the heritage of a grateful and patriotic people.