By the 1850s, the slavery question had totally divided the nation as never before in its history. Early in the next decade, this division led to four years of brutal, costly civil war as Southern slave states attempted to leave the Union, while Northern non-slave states fought to maintain that same Union.
Prior to the South initiating hostilities by attacking Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina, they had tried a number of legal and extra-legal measures designed to maintain, and extend, the institution of human slavery in the existing slave states and to new territories beyond.
Northern abolitionists replied by helping slaves escape bondage via the Underground Railroad, which, given the slaves’ value as property, struck both social and economic blows against the Southern plantation system. Here in the Fox Valley, a number of residents put themselves in considerable legal jeopardy by helping spirit escaped slaves to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad network. When civil war broke out over slavery, tens of hundreds of Kendall County boys and men volunteered to fight to preserve the Union and to end, once and for all, the institution of slavery.
Two county residents were directly involved in helping assure black freedom, both during the war and afterward as Reconstruction offered freed slaves a brief glimpse of what freedom could be like before pro-slavery forces regained political power and instituted Jim Crow laws.
James Glen Butler was born in Frampton, Canada, on March 20, 1837. After his father died in about 1842, he and his mother moved to Albany, New York, where he attended public school and the Boys’ Academy. In 1861, he entered Williams College in Massachusetts, but left in 1862 to volunteer in the Military Hospital at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Then, in June 1863, he enlisted in Co. E, 32nd Regiment, Pennsylvania Militia for 90 days.
Two years later, after President Abraham Lincoln approved recruiting black soldiers into the U.S. Army, Butler was commissioned as a captain in the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry and assigned as the chief mustering and recruiting officer in Baltimore. He served on detached duty as a recruiting officer until his resignation due to ill health on Aug. 5, 1865.
After his service, he returned to academics and graduated from the Theological Seminary at Auburn, New York, in May 1870. He served various congregations before ministering to the Oswego Presbyterian Church from 1893 to 1894. The Butler family became part of the Oswego community and after his retirement, the Rev. Butler presided at numerous weddings and funerals, especially those of the black farming community that had grown up along Minkler Road after the Civil War.
The Rev. Butler died Oct 19, 1921, and is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery beside his wife, Margaret, and daughter, Katie.
Meanwhile, farm boy Alfred E. Browne watched three older brothers march off to war while he stayed home and worked on the family farm near Newark. When Illinois authorized several 100-day regiments to do guard and other duties to take some of the pressure off Union combat units, Alf saw his chance. He, along with 15 of his Big Grove Township neighbors, signed up for the 146th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in the fall of 1864. Mustered in at Camp Butler just outside Springfield, they were assigned to the new regiment’s Company D.
Company D, along with Company H, was assigned to Quincy, where they were detailed to both watch over new recruits and to keep an eye on the Southern-sympathizing “Copperheads” that were numerous in the area. After President Lincoln was assassinated, Alf was one of the troopers assigned as an honor guard around the state capitol when Lincoln’s body lay in state in Springfield.
A 19-year-old in high spirits, Alf Browne enjoyed his brief military service. Writing from Quincy on Oct. 11, 1864, to a friend living in Oswego, Browne commented: “We have fine times here. Today for dinner we had a good kettle of boiled cabbage, potatoes, beef, beans, bread &c. Now don’t you think we live pretty well on this kind of fodder?”
After his hitch ended, Browne returned to Big Grove Township, where he taught school before heading off to attend Oberlin College at Oberlin, Ohio, a strongly abolitionist school. During his college days, he served during one winter as principal of a Freedman’s school in Montgomery, Alabama, under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. Immediately after the war, schools had been set up all over the former Confederacy, under the general umbrella of the federal Freedman’s Bureau, to educate former slaves, who had, by law, been prohibited from learning to read and write.
After graduating from Oberlin in 1872, Browne spent a year helping freed slaves in Texas before the growing reactionary forces that had supported the Confederacy made serving there dangerous. Returning to Illinois, he served as a principal in public schools in Sheridan, Lisbon, and in other area communities. After his father died in 1878, Browne took over the family farm near Newark, where he lived the rest of his life as an active participant in his community. He even went so far as to learn to read and write Norwegian to better communicate with his foreign-born neighbors. Alfred Browne never married. He died in July 1920, and is buried in the Millington-Newark Cemetery.
Each February, the nation observes Black History Month, an annual event that gives all of us a chance to think about how our nation has handled the problems caused by the introduction and maintenance of slavery. In many ways, we haven’t handled those problems very well at all. But as bad as things were and often continue to be, it’s encouraging to know that Kendall County people of good will have been trying their best to solve at least some of those problems for a very long time.
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