A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN FIFTY-EIGHT TO EIGHTEEN SIXTY-SIX
Ingersoll’s reputation for brilliancy having preceded him, success in Peoria was his from the start. His services were eagerly sought. But he did not on that account neglect the theoretical side of his profession: he continued, as he had done even after entering practice at Shawneetown, the assiduous study of law. He was intensely enthusiastic. He was enthusiastic on other subjects also; but he did not allow them to occupy his attention to the jeopardy of his immediate purpose. He knew that if he was to accomplish what he hoped some time to accomplish in other fields, — the field of rationalism particularly, — he must stand upon a firm and broad economic and intellectual foundation; and he felt that the realization of this prerequisite would be coincident with a thoroughly established legal practice and reputation.
The “bench and bar” of Peoria, during Ingersoll’s residence there, included, at various times, many men of national fame or local eminence — Lincoln, Douglas, Davis, the Puterbaughs, Pinckney, Purple, Breeze, Manning, Merriam, McCune, O’Brien, and others. Ingersoll himself was wont to say, in after-years, that he never knew of another local legal aggregation of such ability.
To shine in so brilliant a galaxy, implied a star of no mean magnitude; and this Ingersoll assuredly did. As partners (beside his brother), he had, at different periods, McCune, George Puterbaugh, and Judge Sabin D. Puterbaugh, the author of Common Law Pleading and Practice and Chancery Pleading and Practice. He was always associated with the ablest men, and was the central figure in the most noted trials. He was preeminently successful, seldom losing a case. His practice, being of general character, offered fitting opportunity for the exercise of his wonderful powers and resources; and within a few years from his arrival in Peoria, he was recognized not only as the leader of his profession there, but as the peer in every respect, and the superior in most respects, of any lawyer who ever belonged to the bar of Illinois.
In 1860 Ingersoll was Democratic candidate for representative in Congress from the Fourth Congressional District of Illinois, his opponent being Judge William Kellogg, a Republican. The campaign in which Ingersoll and Kellogg were opponents is on record as the most exciting, aggressive, and bitterly contested, in the political history of Illinois. “The people of the State,” says Hon. Clark E. Carr, (The Illini, A Story of the Prairies, p. 300) a lifelong resident thereof, “seemed to give themselves up entirely to this political campaign. As I look back upon the struggle, I wonder now that lands were cultivated or that anyone found time for any of the ordinary avocations of life.” From the standpoint of age and experience, as compared with those of his opponent, Ingersoll was at great disadvantage. He was only twenty-seven years old, and had never been a candidate for an office of any considerable importance, while Judge Kellogg was many years his senior, and an experienced and successful politician, having assisted in organizing the Republican party, and having served two terms in Congress, to which he was seeking reelection. But, despite his great disadvantages, Ingersoll out-talked, outreasoned, and worsted his antagonist at every turn. However, Lincoln swept the state, to the perfect satisfaction of Ingersoll himself less than a year later, as we shall see; and the young candidate, with many others, was sorely defeated.
But the supreme fact to be noted in connection with this period of Ingersoll’s life is, that, notwithstanding the party with which he was then allied, he went much further in the denunciation of slavery than did his very opponent in “the party of Lincoln.” While Judge Kellogg admitted that he would enforce the law in favor of slavery, Ingersoll declared that he would break the law, in favor of liberty. While Judge Kellogg admitted, that, as a law- abiding citizen, he would enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, Ingersoll declared: —
“Rather than interfere between any human being and his liberty, I would be condemned to be chained in the lowest depths of hell!”
A graphic account of the Ingersoll-Kellogg contest is given by Colonel Carr, whose Illini has already been quoted, and who was an active participant in the campaign in which that contest occurred. After setting forth Judge Kellogg’s position on the question of slavery, Colonel Carr states, in another important historical work: (My Day and Generation, p. 332) —
“We Republicans, therefore, regarded Kellogg as the champion of freedom and supposed that, as a matter of course, his opponent would appear as the champion of slavery. Never was a people more astonished than were we in Galesburg when we then, for the first time, heard Robert G. Ingersoll.
“Immediately upon his nomination Ingersoll challenged Judge Kellogg to join discussion, face to face, throughout the district.
“The first joint debate * * * was held in the old Dunn’s Hill at Galesburg. Galesburg was the most enthusiastic Republican town in all that region. Most of the people were really abolitionists. One of the fundamental tenets of the founders of the town was earnest and eternal antagonism to human slavery. The town was known and recognized throughout the West, especially in the adjoining slave States of Missouri, as an ‘abolition hole.’ * * * In the debate in our city, Judge Kellogg had the opening and closing.* *
“After * * * giving the audience to understand that he was not an abolitionist, and that he favored the Fugitive Slave Law, Judge Kellogg went on to show what a sacred compact the Missouri compromise was * * * and intimated that this young gentleman who was running against him would have difficulty in persuading the people of Galesburg and that Congressional District to vote for him and by so doing favor the extension of slavery into new Territories.
“I remember with what interest I looked at that young man, whom we had regarded up to that moment as a pro-slavery Douglass Democrat, apparently unconsciously listening to what seemed to all of us to be beyond the power of any one to answer. I shall never forget how he looked as he commenced speaking, and as he warmed into his subject. It seems to me now after the lapse of all these years, that even then he was the most brilliant, the most inspiring, the most majestic, and, withal, the most convincing of orators. As the years went by while he and I was young, and as we advanced to and beyond middle life, it was my fortune to hear him frequently, and from that hour at Galesburg I have always believed that Robert G. Ingersoll was the greatest orator who ever stood before a public audience.
“His first sentence, as he commenced speaking, was ‘The Fugitive Slave Law is the most infamous enactment that ever disgraced a statue book;’ then he exclaimed — ‘The man who approves of or apologizes for that infamy is a brute!’
“This [the author continues, later] was only one of the appalling pictures the young orator painted of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, after which he exclaimed:
“‘Judge Kellogg favors and approves all these horrors, for he distinctly avows himself to be in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law. And yet he is no worse than are all the trusted leaders of your boasted Republican party. Your Abe Lincoln himself, whose name is at the head of your ticket, distinctly declares himself in favor of the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, as do all the Old Line Whigs who make up the warp and woof of the Republican party.'”
In concluding his account of this the first of about twenty similar debates, Colonel Carr thus comments upon Ingersoll’s effort: —
“It may be doubted whether there was ever pronounced by any human being so terrific a philippic against human slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. I myself had heard Beecher and Garrison and Wendell Phillips and Lovejoy and Giddings, but I never heard it equalled”
Even had we only the preceding indications of Ingersoll’s political and sociological views at the time, the question of how truly he would have reflected the ideals of his Democratic constituents had he been elected, might be safely left to the inference of an intelligent public. But no trusting to inference is here required. Indeed, the published record of events just subsequent to the campaign in question, — a record which, moreover, is vividly written in the memories of many surviving participants, — provides us with the strongest evidence that Ingersoll, as a Democratic congressman, would have stood for precisely what he had stood, among other things, as a candidate — human liberty and the sublime integrity of the Great Republic.
In this immediate connection not only, but by way of furnishing an authentic historic version of his change of political affiliations, and, incidentally, further indications of his power and influence as an orator, long before he achieved national renown, I again quote The Illini, — page 302: —
“In that campaign  there first appeared upon the hustings and before public assemblages in Illinois a man who became known as the greatest of American orators * * *. This wonderful man was none other than Robert G. Ingersoll, then the Democratic candidate for Congress in our District. Douglas man although he was, no one was so eloquent in denunciation of human slavery and of those who were plotting against the Union. To those of us who knew and heard Robert G. Ingersoll at that time, it was not surprising that on the day of the firing upon Fort Sumter he declared himself for his country and against her enemies, and that from that day forward he was a Republican in politics. No man can estimate the power and influence of Ingersoll in arousing the American people to a sense of their solemn responsibilities when the war came upon them, or in awakening them to a sense of justice and a proper appreciation of the rights of men. One must have heard him before a great audience in the open air, as we in Illinois so often did, to appreciate his great power. Every emotion of his soul, every pulsation of his heart, was for his country and for liberty; and no other man has ever been able in so high a degree to inspire others with the sentiments that animated him. No just history of Illinois can be written without placing high upon the scroll of fame the name of Robert G. Ingersoll.”
It will accordingly be seen, at least on the face of events, that Ingersoll was a Democrat until the attack upon Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, and a Republican thence to the day of his death. But to those who have alike the capacity and the candor to see beneath the superficiality of a mere political denomination, it will be convincingly evident, more especially as we proceed, that, as a matter of actuality, he was, from first to last, not primarily either a Democrat or a Republican, but an unfaltering champion of both physical and intellectual liberty, of justice, and of the American Republic, as the best means of achieving and maintaining them.
In the same year (1860), Ingersoll delivered at Pekin, Ill., the first of his anti-theological lectures of which any report has been preserved. It was entitled Progress. This lecture, which, naturally with some slight additions, was again delivered at Bloomington, Ill., in 1864, defines the meaning and the goal of progress, discusses the conditions essential to the latter, and presents a masterly arraignment of superstition, and of both physical and mental slavery in all their forms. Those present must have recognized in this peroration, — coming with the grace and ardor of flame from the heart and brain of early manhood, — a harbinger of him who, just twenty years later, was “unflatteringly” pronounced, by another great orator, “the most brilliant speaker of the English tongue of all men on this globe: — (See Chapter 5 of this work.)
“We are standing on the shore of an infinite ocean whose countless waves, freighted with blessings, are welcoming our adventurous feet. Progress has been written on every soul. The human race is advancing.
Forward, oh sublime army of progress, forward until law is justice, forward until ignorance is unknown, forward while there is a spiritual or temporal throne, forward until superstition is a forgotten dream, forward until the world is free, forward until human reason, clothed in the people of authority, is king of kings.”
Biography is replete with accounts according to which, in the immutable succession of cause and effect, occurrences of great import have followed the most trivial incidents, — according to which the lives of very great individuals have been influenced, for good or for evil, by the acts of very small ones. But of all men of genius, Ingersoll is probably the only one the supreme event of whose life hinged solely on the wanton pranks of perhaps the most despised of the animal kingdom. Nor does the shadow of tragedy that regrettably darkens the brief narrative now to be related detract from its romance.
In the autumn of 1861, in Peoria County, Ill., some pigs belonging to a farmer, got astray and were impounded. Their owner, endeavoring to free them, ripped some boards off the pound, whereupon the pound-master interfered and was shot. An indictment for murder followed; and Ingersoll was retained as counsel for the defense. There being much public feeling over the case, a change of venue was made in favor of Groveland, in Tazewell County.
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Weld Parker then resided at Groveland, whence, after their marriage, in 1836, they had removed from Boston. — But before proceeding with our story, it is necessary, in order that the event which it relates may appear in its actual significance, to introduce what might otherwise seem like irrelevant biographical and genealogical facts. Mr. and Mrs. Parker had been preceded to Groveland by Mr. Parker’s brothers and mother. The latter, Mrs. Sarah Buckman Parker, was then the widow of a wealthy shipping merchant — a descendant of Captain John Parker, who opened the Battle of Lexington with the words: “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Another descendant of Captain Parker was Theodore Parker, the Unitarian. The Buckman Tavern at Lexington, where met the minute-men, where the wounded were taken, and where marks of the battle are still visible, was kept by the father of Mrs. Sarah Buckman Parker. The latter was a remarkably intelligent and liberal-minded woman. At least one of her ancestors was unusually liberal for his day. Joseph Weld, of England, was a Protestant when all the rest of his family were Catholics. He came to America with his brother; and when, in 1637, Anne Hutchinson was tried for heresy and sentenced to banishment from the Massachusetts Colony, Joseph Weld gave her refuge for two or three months, or until the wintry elements had abated sufficiently to permit of her departure. Sarah Buckman Parker had made a study of the different religions, including Christianity, with its several creeds, and had rejected all, becoming a disciple of Thomas Paine. Naturally, therefore, at Groveland, in the thirties, she was one of the first “infidels” of the “West”; and among her many direct descendants, there has never been a single orthodox believer. Even the wife of her son Benjamin Weld Parker, who was Miss Harriene E. Lyon, daughter of a prominent resident and paper manufacturer of Newton Lower Falls, Mass., was not a Christian. In fact, if Huxley had been present to offer it, both Mr. and Mrs. Parker doubtless would readily have accepted, as the best-fitting intellectual garment, his title of “Agnostic.” And not only were they intellectual: they were mentally and socially hospitable. The latter seems well evidenced by the fact that one Boston friend came for a visit and remained forty years, another nine years, and still another three years. Many persons came long distances to converse with Mrs. Sarah Buckman Parker, who frequently visited her son. At the Parkers’ was such a library as very few possessed in those days; and Plato says that “a house with a library in it has a soul.” Certainly there was soul of strongly magnetic quality in this house; for the latter was the center of a very brilliant and influential circle. It stood on the post-road between Springfield and Peoria; and many of the best- known men of the time, such as Leonard Swett, David Davis, and Abraham Lincoln, often partook of the rare social and intellectual delights that were served within its ever-welcoming portals.
Mr. and Mrs. Parker had long been ardent admirers of the young oratorical genius in Peoria. They recognized that he was beginning to utter thoughts worthy of the men whose works consecrated the front most shelves of their library. When, therefore, he visited Groveland on the legal mission already mentioned, it was inevitable (Mr. Parker having been an eager listener to the eloquent defense) that he should receive an invitation to dinner.
At the Parkers’ that evening, Robert G. Ingersoll was impressed by two incidents — by one far more deeply than the other: He saw some books on which were the names “Volney,” “Voltaire,” and “Thomas Paine,” and he looked, for the first time, into the eyes of the woman he loved. On the 13th of the following February, in the same house, Eva A. Parker, “a woman without superstition,” became his wife.
Referring, in after-years, to the circumstances under which they met, — to the shooting of the pound-master, and the consequent trial at Groveland, — Ingersoll was wont to say, in characteristic epigram: “In the echo of that shot was the cry of my babes.”
Meantime, with all his hatred of slavery, with all his love of liberty — his veins thrilled with the blood that had made the Declaration a reality — it was natural that the young orator should relinquish, for the moment, the golden thread of eloquence, to grasp that which was then far “mightier,” for the sacred cause of “Union and Liberty” at least, than either tongue or “pen.” Accordingly, he was one of the first to respond to the Nation’s call, being instrumental in raising three regiments of volunteers, during the summer and autumn of 1861. But we are concerned chiefly with the last of these organizations.
Having obtained (in conjunction with Mr. Basile D. Meek) permission to form a regiment of cavalry, Ingersoll “Joined for service” on September 16th, and began recruiting in October. He was commissioned colonel, to rank from the 22d of the latter month, by Richard Yates, governor of Illinois. Recruits for the regiment began to arrive at Camp Lyon, Peoria, about November 1st; and on December 20th, the Eleventh Illinois Cavalry Volunteers, consisting of twelve full companies, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll commanding, was mustered into the service of the United States and mounted. It remained at Camp Lyon until February 22, 1862, when it broke camp and marched overland to Benton Barracks, Mo., near St. Louis. —
“We see them all as they march away under the flaunting flags, keeping time to the grand, wild music of war — marching down the streets of the great cities — through the towns and across the prairies — down to the fields of glory, to do and to die for the eternal right” (From ‘A VISION OF WAR ‘) It may be doubted whether there ever was another aggregation of officers and men more absolutely devoted to their commander.
March 26th mast have furnished a “crowded hour” of mingled sadness and patriotic devotion for Colonel Ingersoll; for on that day the last of his regiment departed, by boat, from St. Louis, for Pittsburg Landing, near the seat of war; and only since February 13th had “the one of all the world “been” wooed and won.” Mrs. Ingersoll had accompanied her husband to St. Louis,’ whence she was to return home. —
“And some are talking with wives, and endeavoring with brave words, spoken in the old tones, to drive from their hearts the awful fear.” (From ‘A VISION OF WAR’ )
On April 1st the regiment landed, the first battalion at Crump’s Lauding, where it joined the forces of General Lew Wallace; the remainder of the regiment, at Pittsburg Landing, about two miles from which it encamped. It was in the heat of the Battle of Shiloh, on the 6th and 7th, meeting with severe losses in both killed and wounded. In that battle, the greatest that had thus far been fought on land, Colonel Ingersoll, although it was his first experience under fire, won great admiration for his soldierly conduct and courage. His regiment was on duty between Pittsburg Landing and Corinth until the capture of the latter, and Participated in the celebrated raid in its rear. It took part in the engagements at Bolivar, Tenn., on August 30th, and at Davis Bridge, on the Hatchie River, Tenn., on September 25th, sustaining severe loss at the latter. In the Battle of Corinth, on October 3d and 4th,’ Colonel Ingersoll exemplified the same admirable qualities the possession of which he had demonstrated on the field of Shiloh. In addition to his services in these two memorable battles, and in the less memorable engagements indicated, he of course performed his full share of the extremely active and arduous duties of reconnoitring, scouting, and skirmishing that ordinarily devolve upon cavalry in the field.
During the winter of 1862-’63, his regiment was stationed at Jackson, Tenn. Having been advised that Brigadier-General (subsequently Lieutenant-General’ Nathan B. Forrest, of the Confederate army, who was on an expedition into West Tennessee, was crossing Tennessee River at Clifton, with a large force, Colonel Ingersoll’s immediate superior, Brigadier-General Jeremy C. Sullivan, of the Federal army, commanding the District of Jackson, ordered Colonel Ingersoll to proceed toward that river. Forrest’s immediate objective point, apparently, was Jackson, which is about fifty miles to the northwest of Clifton. Accordingly, Colonel Ingersoll left Jackson on the evening of December 16th, taking with him two hundred of his own regiment and one section (two guns) of the Fourteenth Indiana Battery. On the morning of the 17th, he arrived at Lexington, which is a few miles north of the middle of a direct line between Jackson and Clifton, and where he was joined by two hundred and seventy-two of the Second West Tennessee. Having resumed his march, he halted, soon after noon, about five miles east of Lexington. At nightfall, his cavalry scouts having reported the appearance of the enemy in large force a few miles in front, he fell back to within half a mile of Lexington. Here he was joined by two hundred of the Fifth Ohio, making his total force, including a reconnoitring party which had been sent ahead three days before, about eight hundred officers and men. Of these, about three hundred were poorly equipped, and had never been under fire, while two hundred more were raw recruits, having never been under fire, nor even drilled. Colonel Ingersoll’s total effective force was therefore scarcely more than three hundred officers and men, including only two guns.
About daybreak of the 18th, four and one-half miles east of Lexington, the advance pickets of the enemy were sighted; and, after considerable skirmishing, an engagement ensued. In his first assault, the enemy, who was now seen to be in great numbers, was gallantly repulsed; but Colonel Ingersoll deemed it best for the main part of his force to fall back and concentrate its efforts in another direction, in which the enemy was reported to be approaching in even greater numbers, by means of a bridge,’ (over Beech Creek) which, contrary to Colonel Ingersoll’s orders, one of the officers under his command had failed to destroy during the previous evening. No sooner had Colonel Ingersoll gained his new position than he found that the enemy was pouring in from all directions. It was then that Colonel Ingersoll exhibited, even more admirably than he had done at Shiloh and Corinth, soldierly judgment, remarkable coolness, and bravery. Sending a detachment to hold the bridge, he planted his two guns in the Lexington road, deployed the remainder of his little handful of men in a single line at right angles to the road, on either side, and awaited the assault. Nor did he wait long; for, in a moment, the forces of General Forrest — a column not only longer than his own single file, but five and six ranks deep — bore quickly down upon him, sweeping before them, on the full run, the detachment which Colonel Ingersoll had sent to hold the bridge. The members of this detachment had never before been under fire, nor felt the terrifying potency of the “rebel yell”; and it was impossible to stop them. Meanwhile, a part of Colonel Ingersoll’s own cavalry, in the rear of the guns, was ordered to advance and, as soon as those on the retreat were out of the way, charge the enemy, which was then and again repulsed. About this time, Colonel Ingersoll dismounted and stood by the guns, encouraging his men, and personally directing their fire, until a desperate cavalry charge was transformed into a hand-to-hand encounter, and until the enemy swept over and around him. But as well might a child have attempted to arrest the progress of an avalanche. For, despite Colonel Ingersoll’s personal gallantry, and that of many of his officers and men, particularly those of his own cavalry and of the artillery, many others, when most imperatively needed, could not be successfully rallied; and even had the conduct of the latter been just the opposite, the outcome of the engagement could hardly have been different from what it was. For the enemy was in overpowering numbers — variously estimated, in official Federal reports, at from five thousand to twenty thousand, including eight twelve- pounder guns. Thrice repulsed, his fourth assault (having succeeded, in spite of Colonel Ingersoll’s efforts to prevent, in sending a flanking detachment on either side) was a complete victory, twenty-two officers and men being either killed or wounded, and one hundred and forty-eight others, including Colonel Ingersoll, being taken prisoners.It is significant that General Forrest, reporting to General Bragg, six days later, concerning this and the several other engagements in West Tennessee, commends his officers “for their gallantry in the fight at Lexington,” one of them, Captain Frank B. Gurley, of the Fourth Alabama Cavalry, who captured the guns, having lost “his orderly-sergeant by the fire of the gun when within 15 feet of its muzzle.” General Forrest mentions, in this connection, only one other fight.
It is thoroughly characteristic of Ingersoll, that, even at the frightful crisis of his capture, his wit was in active evidence. “Stop firing!” he shouted to Major G. V. Rambaut, of General Forrest’s command. “I’ll acknowledge your d—- old Confederacy.” Immediately after this, the General himself rode up, and substantially the following colloquy occurred: —
“Who’s in command of those troops?” cried Forrest, pointing toward some of the flying cavalrymen.
“I don’t know,” replied Ingersoll, joculady. “Who was in command?” amended the General.
“If you’ll keep the secret,” said Ingersoll, blandly, “I’ll tell you. I was.”
At that moment began a warm friendship, which terminated only with the life of General Forrest. He never lost an opportunity to visit the Federal colonel who, “in the great days,” unwillingly but wittily became his guest.
Three days after his capture, Colonel Ingersoll was paroled by General Forrest, and sent to St. Louis, to command a camp of other paroled prisoners. There, despairing of exchange and return to active duty, he resigned his commission, and was honorably discharged, on June 30, 1863. But the Republic by no means lost his services; for, returning to civil life in Peoria, he embraced, with ardent and patriotic devotion, every opportunity to further, with his incomparable eloquence and great prestige, the cause of “Union and Liberty.”