Did Henry Day, a young soldier from the Will County town of Wilmington who served with the 39th Illinois Infantry earn a Medal of Honor in the closing days of the Civil War?
Officially, the answer is no. Day does not appear on the federal government's rolls of those awarded the country's highest military award for valor. But Civil War history books over a century old and the inscription on Day's tombstone say otherwise.
In 1861, Day had joined other Wilmington-area men in forming a volunteer unit later designated as Company A of the 39th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. According to Day's service record from the National Archives, when Day enlisted he was a 5 foot 3 inch tall schoolteacher with blond hair and hazel eyes who had been born in Troy, New York, on February 10, 1841. But the service record says nothing about a Medal of Honor. According to unit histories, the 39th Illinois spared with Confederate General Stonewall Jackson's army in the Shenandoah Valley, participated in the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and later took part in actions around Petersburg, Virginia.
On April 2, 1865, the 39th Illinois was part of the Union force ordered to storm Fort Gregg, a key fortification to the Confederate defenses around Petersburg. Day, then a corporal, was assigned to carry the regiment's flag. The 39th Illinois, originally nearly 1,000 strong, then had only 150 men available for the battle. The remains of Fort Gregg, a cresent-shaped earthworks with a deep ditch in front, can still be visited on an open field on the west side of Petersburg, far away from the other popular and better preserved sites associated with the siege. After crossing 800 yards of open ground under heavy artillery and rifle fire, the union soldiers reached water-filled ditch in front of the fort. Under withering fire, the men briefly hesitated, and then plunged into chest deep water. After wading through they began climbing up the slippery earthen work walls of the fort using their swords and bayonets to gain footholds. Men also were frantically being boosted up the wall by Col. Thomas Osborn, the former commander of the 39th then commanding the brigade the regiment was part of. Osborn was a Chicago attorney in civilian life who had studied law under General Lew Wallace. After the war Osborn would become the Cook County, Illinois, Treasurer and later the ambassador to Argentina. But outside Fort Gregg he was shouting at the men to take the fort before rebel reinforcements could arrive. As the Union troops swarmed over the top, Day was badly wounded in his chest. He was one of sixty causalities the regiment suffered from the battle. But the flag Day carried, although ripped by a rebel bayonet, was the first Union flag planted on wall of the fort. Hospitalized at Fort Monroe, Virginia, Day would not participate in the pursuit of the rebel army or be present, as his remaining comrades in the 39th were, for the Confederate surrender on April 9 at Appomattox Court House. Day was promoted to sergeant on May 1 and received a disability discharge a month later.
Day died on August 26, 1899, and is buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. His grave monument, which towers above regulation headstones around it, repeats his claim to the Medal of Honor. The medal was awarded, Day's monument says, "for planting the colors on Fort Gregg between two contending armies". During the Civil War, regimental flags carried a special almost-sacred significance.
More Medals of Honor were awarded then for enemy flag captures than any other act. In the 39th Illinois, Private Henry Hardenbergh of Bremen Township in Cook County was awarded an officer's commission and a posthumous Medal of Honor for killing the color sergeant of an Alabama regiment in hand-to-hand combat and capturing the Alabama regiment's flag during an 1864 battle. Protecting the flag also was important. Histories of the 39th Illinois provide reverent treatment of another member of Company A from Wilmington, Sergeant George Yates, who was fatally wounded while carrying the regimental flag. When another soldier picked up the flag to carry it along, Yates' grip proved so strong that Yates ended up being dragged for some distance before the flag could be wrested free. When Yates was taken prisoner, his captors found a small, blood-soaked piece of the flag in his grasp.
Day's medal award is described in the regimental history of the 39th Illinois. The detailed 554-page book published in 1889 was written by Dr. Charles Clark, the regiment's former surgeon. Additionally, the Illinois Adjutant General's report on the Civil War lists Day as a Medal of Honor recipient. Another book, "Fifteen Years Ago," an 1876 volume about Civil War soldiers from Will County written by George Woodruff, a Joliet politician and merchant, also credits Day with having received the medal. The problem is that none of those accounts take the place of the official written citation that the War Department issued to each medal recipient. And if Day did receive an official citation and it was lost by the government it will be a first. There has never been a case of a lost citation for a Medal of Honor recipient, say both Michael Williams, Executive Director of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in South Carolina, and Ed Murphy, President of the Medal of Honor Historical Society in Arizona. "The Medal of Honor is the most closely watched decoration that the United States gives out." Williams said. "It's keep track of real closely." Yet, says Murphy, the unexplainable has happened. "One odd story we've got from the Civil War is of a guy who was awarded the Medal of Honor for a deed that occurred six months after he died," Murphy said. "He's our ghost recipient. He's in the books. The medal was awarded. There's no question about it. But the dates all show it was six months after he died." "So I wouldn't be horribly shocked if somebody did eventually produce a document that proved Day had been awarded the medal," Murphy said. "It's a very, very interesting case because there are so many things pointing to this guy having it. But it would take something very solid to add him to the list."
Williams and Murphy said Day's case is a variation on the frequent problem of people who claim to have the Medal of Honor but don't. One of the most recent cases of a medal winner impostor was Judge Michael O'Brien of Kane County, Illinois, who falsely claimed to have received the medal while serving in the Navy in 1958. "Right now we're working on a guy in Michigan who claimed not only to have received the Medal (of Honor) but also the Navy Cross for escaping from a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War, overlooking the fact that no Americans escaped from North Korean prisoner of war camps," Murphy said in mid-1996.
Murphy said Day seems to fall into the category of those who believe they have been awarded the medal. "It could be that an officer slapped him on the back and said 'Day you're going to get the Medal of Honor for this'," Murphy said. "There are numerous cases like that." The most significant indication that Day considered himself a genuine recipient is that the account appears in the regimental history by Dr. Clark. "Anybody that's gone through combat like he had would find it very difficult to lie to his buddies about receiving the medal," Murphy said. "He could lie to the guys at the bar, or spin a tale for his wife and kids, but lie to the men he was in combat with who were there with him? That's a whole different level."
Besides an official War Department medal citation or an entry in his service record, another authoritative source would be Day's pension records. The pension record's would have noted his entitlement to the stipend medal recipients are paid.
Unfortunately, the pension records can not be located by the Veterans Administration, which has custody of them. "If they could ever find his pension records, I think that would probably confirm things for sure one way or another," Murphy said. The pension records also would indicate where Day died. That information could help in locating obituaries about Day or his descendants. Wilmington historian Dorthea Smith is not aware of any local record about Day's life either before or after the war. "He probably did come home to Wilmington, but we don't know that for sure," Smith said. Key issues of the local newspaper from that era that would have heralded a hero's return are missing, she said. One intriguing dead end is Day's appearance in The Battle of Fort Gregg, a sweeping panoramic painting completed in 1961 by artist Sidney King and on display at the Petersburg National Battlefield. The painting section showing Day planting the flag was reproduced in the April, 1965, issue of National Geographic to illustrate an article written by Ulysses S. Grant 3rd and Day is identified as a Medal of Honor recipient. But Chris Calkins, the National Park Service historian at the battlefield, said in 1996 that artist King's source for Day's depiction was Dr. Clark's regimental history, not official War Department records.
Interestingly enough, another member of the 39th is officially credited with a Medal of Honor for gallantry as a color bearer in the assault on Fort Gregg. Corporal Abner P. Allen of Company K received his medal on May 12 from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton when he accompanied General John Gibbon to Washington D.C. with 76 stands of captured rebel colors. Allen, who was born in Woodford County, Illinois, had been with the 39th since September 2 of 1861 and served until the regiment's muster out in Springfield, Illinois, on December 6, 1865. One week after the attack on Ft. Gregg, Allen also had the honor of carrying the state flag at the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Court House on April 9. However, unlike Day, Allen, receives only a cursory mention in the the regimental history. It is possible to speculate that Allen, the soldier able to accompany General Gibbon to Washington, D.C., collected the medal intended for the convalescing Henry Day.
One frustrated Day researcher is Larry Peet, an Army veteran from Joliet, Illinois, who earned the Bronze Star while serving as an infantryman in Vietnam. Active in many veteran projects, in 1988 Peet was attempting to raise money to restore the Civil War veteran's memorial outside the Will County courthouse. While doing research for that project, Peet first learned of Day from Woodruff's "Fifteen Years Ago." Peet's research has hit several other dead ends but he remains optimistic. Currently he is trying to obtain Day's military medical records to see if they provide any clues. "I think to myself, by golly, there's got to be some official record out there somewhere of his receiving the medal," he said. "So I'm going to still keep digging." "What I want is to open an envelope some day and have a sheet of paper fall out that's a copy of Henry Day's citation for the Medal of Honor," Peet said. "Then I can see that he gets the credit he is due."
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