Richard Yates, the “War Governor,” 1861-4, was born Jan. 18, 1818, on the
banks of the Ohio River, at Warsaw, Gallatin Co., Ky. His father moved in 1831
to Illinois, and, after stopping for a time in
Springfield, settled at Island Grove, Sangamon County. Here, after
attending school, Richard joined the family. Subsequently he entered Illinois
College at Jacksonville, where, in 1837, he graduated with first honors. He
chose for his profession the law, the Hon. J. J. Hardin being his instructor.
After admission to the Bar he soon rose to distinction as an advocate.
Gifted with a fluent and ready oratory, he soon appeared in the
political hustlings, and, being a passionate admirer of the great Whig
leader of the West, Henry Clay, he joined his political fortunes to the
party of his idol. In 1840 he engaged with great ardor in the exciting
“hard cider” campaign for Harrison. Two years later he was elected to the
Legislature from Morgan County, a Democratic stronghold. He served three or four
terms in the Legislature, and such was the fascination of his oratory that by
1850 his large Congressional District, extending from Morgan and Sangamon
Counties north to include LaSalle, unanimously tendered him the Whig nomination
for Congress. His Democratic opponent was Maj. Thomas L. Harris, a very popular
man who had won distinction at the battle of Cerro Gordo, in the Mexican War,
and who had beaten Hon. Stephen T. Logan for the same position, two years
before, by a large majority. Yates was elected. Two years later he was
re-elected over John
It was during Yates' second term in Congress that the great question of the
repeal of the Missouri Compromise was agitated, and the bars laid down for
reopening the dreaded anti-slavery question. He took strong grounds against the
repeal, and thus became identified with the rising Republican party.
Consequently he fell into the minority in his district, which was pro-slavery.
Even then, in a third contest, he fell behind Major Harris only 200 votes, after
the district had two years before given Pierce 2,000 majority for President.
The Republican State Convention of 1860 met at Decatur May 9, and
nominated for the office of Governor Mr. Yates, in preference to Hon.
Norman B. Judd, of Chicago, and Leonard Swett, of Bloomington two of the ablest
men of the State, who were also candidates before the Convention. Francis A.
Hoffman, of DuPage County, was nominated for Lieutenant Governor. This was the
year when Mr. Lincoln was a candidate for President, a period remembered as
characterized by the great whirlpool which precipitated the bloody War of the
Rebellion. The Douglas Democrats nominated J. C. Allen of Crawford County, for
Governor, and Lewis W. Ross, of Fulton County, for Lieutenant Governor. The
Breckenridge Democrats and the Bell-Everett party had also full tickets in the
field. After a most fearful campaign, the result of the election gave Mr. Yates
172,196 votes, and Mr. Allen 159,253. Mr. Yates received over a thousand more
votes than did Mr. Lincoln himself.
Gov. Yates occupied the chair of State during the most critical period of our
country's history. In the fate of the nation was involved that of each State.
The life struggle of the former derived its sustenance from the loyalty of the
latter; and Gov. Yates seemed to realize the situation, and proved himself boy
loyal and wise in upholding the Government. He had a deep hold upon the
affections of the people, won by his moving eloquence and genial manners. Erect
and symmetrical in person, of prepossessing appearance, with a winning address
and a magnetic power, few men possessed more of the elements of popularity. His
oratory was scholarly and captivating, his hearers hardly knowing why they were
transported. He was social and convivial. In the latter respect he was
ultimately carried too far.
The very creditable military efforts of this State during the War of the
Rebellion, in putting into the field of enormous number of about 200,000
soldiers, were ever promptly and ably seconded by his excellency; and the was
ambitious to deserve the title of “the soldier's friend.” Immediately after the
battle of Shiloh he repaired to the field of carnage to look after the wounded,
and his appeals for aid were promptly responded to by the people. His
proclamations calling for volunteers were impassionate appeals, urging upon the
people the duties and requirements of patriotism; and his special message in
1863 to the Democratic Legislature of this State pleading for material aid for
the sick and wounded soldiers of Illinois regiments, breathes a deep fervor of
noble sentiment and feeling rarely equaled in beauty of felicity of expression.
Generally his messages on political and civil affairs were able
andcomprehensive. During his administration, however, there were no civil events
of an engrossing character, although two years of his time were replete with
partisan quarrels of great bitterness. Military arrests, Knights of the Golden
Circle, riot in Fulton County, attempted suppression of the Chicago Times and
the usurping State Constitutional Convention of 1862, were the chief local
topics that were exciting during the Governor's term. This Convention assembled
Jan. 7, and at once took the high position that the law calling it was no longer
binding, and that it had supreme power; that it represented a virtual assemblage
of the whole people of the State, and was sovereign in the exercise of all power
necessary to effect a peaceable revolution of the State Government and to the
re-establishment of one for the “happiness, prosperity and freedom of the
citizens,” limited only by the Federal Constitution. Notwithstanding the law
calling the Convention required its members to take an oath to support the
Constitution of the State as well as that of the general Government, they
utterly refused to take such oath. They also assumed legislative powers and
passed several important “laws!” Interfering with the (then) present executive
duties, Gov. Yates was provoked to tell them plainly that “he did not
acknowledge the right of the Convention to instruct him in the performance of
In 1863 the Governor astonished the Democrats by “proroguing” their Legislature.
This body, after a recess, met June 2, that year, and soon began to waste time
upon various partisan resolutions; and, while the two houses were disagreeing
upon the question of adjourning /sine die/, the Governor, having the authority
in such cases, surprised them all by adjourning them, “to the Saturday next
preceding the first Monday in January, 1865!” This led to great excitement and
confusion, and to reference of the Governor's act to the Supreme Court, who
decided in his favor. Then it was the Court's turn to receive abuse for weeks
and months afterward.
During the autumn of 1864 a conspiracy was detected at Chicago which had for its
object the liberation of the prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, the burning of
the city and the inauguration of rebellion in t he North. Gen. Sweet, who had
charge of the camp at the time, first had his suspicions of danger aroused by a
number of enigmatically worded letters which passed through t he Camp post
office. A detective afterward discovered that t he rebel Gen. Marmaduke was in
the city, under an assumed name, and he, with other rebel officers – Grenfell,
Morgan, Cantrell, Buckner Morris and Charles Walsh – was arrested, most of whom
were convicted by a court-martial at Cincinnati and sentenced to imprisonment,
-- Grenfell to be hung. The sentence of the latter was afterward commuted to
imprisonment for life, and all the others, after nine months' imprisonment, were
In March, 1873, Gov. Yates was appointed a Government Director of the Union
Pacific Railroad, in which office he continued until his decease, at St. Louis,
Mo., on the 27th November following.
Source: Portrait and Biographical Album of Whiteside Co., Ill.; Chicago: M. A.
Leeson & Co., 1887, pages 159-160
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