Diary of

Captain James L. Burkhalter

Co. F, 86th Illinois Volunteer Infantry

Dedicated to the memory of Captain James L. Burkhalter

Recreated in diary form, for his (many times) great grandchildren and decendants.
November - 1998

Captain Burkhalter's Georgia War

Based on the journals, diaries, and records of James L. Burkhalter, Commanding officer of Company F, 86th Illinois Infantry, this narrative in his words is a composite portrait of Maquon's soldiers of 1864 and their march with General Sherman to the sea. With special illustrations commissioned for this book, drawn by George T. Johnson, commander, U.S.N.

Voices of The Prairie Land
edited and with narrative by Martin Litvin
preface by Russell Freeburg
original illustrations by George T. Johnston, Commander, U.S.N.
Antique photos selected by Leon E. Benson
Mother Bickerdyke Historical Collection ~ Galesburg, Illinois 1972

Original diary held in the Knox College Archives, Galesburg, Illinois.Other archival materials - correspondence and genealogy held in the archival records of Savena Burkhalter, sister of James L. Burkhalter.


Knox county has various communities - Galesburg, Knoxville - a few north and a few south, and each is characterized by an accumulation of memories, facts, incidents and disputes - all of them contributing to the sum of local history.

Sixteen miles southeast of Galesburg is the village of Maquon, in an agricultural region. While the present population may not be subject the same influences as those which preceded it, the 1899 Knox County History says that in the year 1880, Maquon had a population of 548. Ten years later, in 1890, the encyclopedia also says that the town could only boast of 501.

Could it be reasonable assumed that in ten years, Maquon had lost only forty-seven people through normal attrition, or had even more faces vanished, but some of their number been restored through the cycle of birth and new settling families? None of this will ever be definitively known, unless some local student starts comparing the information on grave stones and in church records, as well as devoting some time to the pages of the weekly newspaper that was once available there.

During the 1880-1890 period, the community was so small that quite likely some resident there could have, with not too much effort, from sheer memory accounted for most, if not all of the people who had departed from, or arrived in, the village. While this kind of informal record-keeping results more frequently in story-telling than in historical documentation, on its own terms, it is unique and valid. But history relies mainly on what is written. The best kind of historical writing is full, brutally frank, greatly detailed and continuous.

An exciting collection of Maquon-associated writings came to light a few years ago. It was in the early stages of my research on the Civil War background of Knox County, relative to the life and times of Mother Bickerdyke.

While I was seeking other material, I reviewed those few editions of Knox County history which were published during the last part of the 19th century. That search for contemporaries of Mrs. Bickerdyke was in the hope of finding their possible descendants, and those people - I felt sure- might have writings that were contemporary for those distant days. The 1878 Knox County History, as well as the 1886 book, contained pictures of and articles about James L. Burkhalter. he had been an officer in the Civil War with the 96th Illinois Infantry. I knew the 86th had fought with General Sherman in the Georgia Campaign. And usually wherever General Sherman had been occupied, Mother Bickerdyke was not far away. The thought occurred to me that possibly James Burkhalter might have left diaries. But ho could I, in 1968, find the Burkhalter heirs?
During my Galesbury youth, an old man named Mr. Burkhalter had lived next door to my home. He lived in a small cottage. I knew Mr. Burkhalter was probably no longer alive. Also, there had been a lady who often was a substitute teacher in the public school system; once or twice, she was in charge of classes I had attended. She had been Mrs. Burkhalter. I remembered her son, a tall, thin boy, with dark hair and glassed, but I had no idea how to find them.

In the Fall of 1968, Bess A. Donaldson and I were in touch about her father, Henry A. Allen of Galesburg, and his role in the Civil War. A series of articles was published then in the home town weekly newspaper, The Galesburg Post. The Post published my articles for several years and it arrives in my mail every Monday. The 1968 articles told of a planned reunion in Galesburg, to be held by the former members of Miss Strong's Kindergarten Classes, which had flourished in the town around the turn of the century. The man who was backing the project was Mr. James B. Allen. I mentioned this to Mrs. Donaldson on the telephone one Sunday morning and she replied; "Why, I know Jim Allen. He's my second cousin."

I asked Mrs. Donaldson if she thought any of the people attending Mr. Allen's reunion would be descended from Knox County veterans of the Civil War. She urged me to make an inquiry, a minute after we ended our chat, I called Mr. Allen in Galesburg. I explained my project to him and he then informed me that he was grandson of Captain James L. Burkhalter and that he had Captain Jim's diaries.

I offered to transcribe them.

"No those pages are awfully faded," he said. "I can barely make out some of the word. Besides," he went on. "There's nothing in 'em."

I urged him to send the diaries to me and let me be the judge of whether or not anything was in those writings. Three, and then four, months passed, and still the diaries hadn't arrived.

James Allen visited Bess Donaldson in Florida. In March, after he was back in Galesburg, I once more asked to see the diaries and that time, they materialized.

Not only were the pages faded, the entries were dispersed. ("For the last half of March 10th, see the bottom of February 2nd") And so forth. Captain Jim had simply run out of space and on certain days and availed himself of margins and corners elsewhere. He had ,however, annotated everything thoroughly, the final result showed.

It became necessary to read each word with a magnifying glass while holding the book in a shadow, for too much light tended to "wash" the indentations away. Once started, I sat for five days and nights, almost non-stop, writing in longhand every last word that was in the three diaries and them mounting the fragments into their proper places. By then, it was abundantly clear that Mr. Allen had been wrong about something. Far from nothing being in them, the diaries were packed with information that was frank and ample.

I started to type the manuscript and then phoned Jim Allen again. I urged him to under-take a further search for other possible Civil War writings of Captain Jim, and that was when the journals were uncovered. Those, along with various statistical records, have now been added to the first material. At long last, Captain Jim has his book, a book I believe he always wanted to put together.

Various considerations quite likely prevented him from doing any post-war preparation of the material. His family grew and he had to support it. Also, a great flood of memoirs and histories appeared after the War, many of which purported to tell 'the truth' and some probably did. Of the Civil War books that I have read which were written by actual participants, few tell their stories as frankly and as maturely as he did.

Burkhalter and the men under his leadership were residents of Maquon. The chronicle he set down is theirs as well as his.

"Now it is Monday and a most beautiful day,"" Jim wrote on June 27, 1864. "The sun rose clear and splendid, with not a cloud to mar the blue sky." But, he continued, ". . . we are destined to die and be blind to tomorrow's sun, which will rise above a terrible carnage . . . our brigade is ordered to charge the rebel works . . . the stupidity of this order is enough to paralyze me..."

He did not know that before the day was half finished, his good friend, Colonel Daniel McCook would be fatally wounded.

That morning, they were before Kenesaw Mountain, in Georgia. He wrote about an impending battle, one of many, yet there were places in the story for:
"obtained from the quartermaster today some stockings for myself, one pair for Alex Snyder, John Freehold (one pair) and also a pair each for Wm. Caulkins and Wm. S. Coon, etc." Or: "Johnny Mire needed a new dress coat. Tim West had to have stockings and Sergeant's chevrons."

A colored boy, a runaway slave named Chester Ewing, is a part of this story, along with his Uncle Tom. On Sunday morning, July 10, 1864, near the Chattahoochee River in Georgia, Captain Jim wrote this entry:" Some runaway slaves came through our lines this morning and went all through camp, seeking work. Chester, a boy of about 15, followed by an older man, around 50, came to see me. The man is called by Chester "Uncle Tom," but from the way Uncle Tom watches the boy, I am inclined to think that he is really Chester's father. Chester is hungry and ragged and so is the man.

Uncle Tom said they had run away from a bad master named Ewing. I am going to put them down as Chester and Tom Ewing."

About a formal parade early that Spring, he could say: " the general appearance and conduct of the review was not very satisfactory to my gaze. Principally attributable to the miserable music made by the 52nd Ohio Regiment band."

Candor there is plenty in this narrative, as well as strength of character.

"This day, as also on many others, I became excessively weary and footsore, so that it was with the greatest difficulty that I kept up with my command. The interest which I feel in my company and my desire to command it in future, as in former engagements, alone have held me in my place. If my will was no better than my physical strength, I fear that I should fail on many occasions."

That will was a key factor in Captain Jim's day-to-day- existence and sustained him through repeated disappointment. One instance is mentioned in his entry for March 28, 1864. After talking about the weather and adding that the company was on picket for the day, Jim wrote: " Had an election for Major. Candidates were Captain Thomas and Captain Burkhalter - resulted in the election of Captain Thomas. Vote stood Thomas - 14; Burkhalter - 7."
When the war was nearly over, Burkhalter was breveted to the rank of Major, but as he never mustered for it, he never considered himself anything but a Captain. for the rest of his life, he was Captain Jim.

Still, there were compensations. On the enlistment roster prepared in Maquon during the summer of 1862, Jim Burkhalter's name heads the list, with "carpenter" as his occupation. Fifteen years after Jim returned to civilian life in Maquon he had advanced sufficiently to buy a position in the stock of a thriving Galesburg financial institution, the Farmers & Mechanics Bank. He started as a director. Three years later, in 1884, he became the bank's president and held that post for twenty-five years. The bank is now more than a century old.

The personal history of James Lewis Burkhalter is comparable to that of countless men who were alive in that era. He was born in a small eastern community at a time when the mere idea of railroads was revolutionary. His parents were David and Mary Ann (Marks) Burkhalter and his birth occurred in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on April 15, 1835. Jim was the eldest of eleven children, seven of whom were boys. His parents were of German descent and only spoke German. None of the young Burkhalters learned English until they were old enough to attend public school. Jim's father was a carpenter.

In 1840, when Jim was five, his parents moved to Meadville, Pennsylvania. He grew up there on the farm and obtained his formal education in the district schools. He also attended the Saegerstown Academy. After finishing, he taught school for a short while. He also studied law, with a notion of becoming an attorney. But Jim abandoned all those things in his late teens and returned to Meadville. He found work as a carpenter and stayed in Meadville until he was twenty-one. That was in 1856.

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Many thanks to Michele Dawson, gr-gr-granddaughter of Capt. James Burkhalter, who submitted this information.

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