General John Howe

Portrait of Jessie Fremont Howe, daughter of General and Mrs. Howe, born in 1862. Jessie is the great grandmother of Nancy Burnett of Phoenix, AZ, who donated the Howe letters and diaries to the Kewanee Historical Society. The portrait is believed to have been executed by Junius Sloan, prominent Chicago artist whose parents lived near Kewanee until 1867.

There’s always some “new old stuff” at the museum and this summer is no exception. One of this year’s “new stuff” is probably the most historically significant addition to the museum’s countless documents and artifacts since its founding in 1977. The new items are a diary and letters written during the Civil War by Kewanee’s own General John Howe.

The diary is a pocket-sized booklet that traces the activities of General Howe and the 124th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers, which he commanded as a lieutenant colonel, from Jan. 1, 1865 to August 17, 1865. The latter is the day that the recently-commissioned general returned to Kewanee after a three-year absence.

The letters written by Howe are three to four pages long sent to his wife Julia who lived in the family home on Park Avenue near West Park with their children. The 11 letters in legible handwriting range from April 1863 to December 1864.

Also included in the collection are six letters that Mrs. Howe sent to her children in Kewanee when she visited her husband in Vicksburg during the winter of 1864-65, the last winter of the four-year tragedy that pitted American against American.

The donation of diary and letters also includes a rare volume on the history of the 124th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. Written by the regiment’s chaplain, the book was published in 1880. The book appears to be one that the author sent to Mrs. Howe, her husband having passed away in 1873.

The donated items came last fall from Phoenix, AZ where they were in the possession of Nancy Burnett, the Howes’ great-great granddaughter. She made the gift on behalf of herself and other descendants of General and Mrs. Howe. Other diaries and letters of General Howe are known to exist, but they are in the possession of other Howe descendants.

The diary and letters are the kind of historical treasures that belong in a major museum or archive but will be kept by the society for the present. They are being stored carefully in a bank safe deposit box. Before storage, however, they were photocopied and are available for viewing and reading at the museum. And in time the photocopies will be transcribed to make the letters even easier to read. On certain occasions, such as Labor Day weekend, we plan to display one or more of the originals.

The Howe letters join other Civil War artifacts in the museum, including a uniform, caps, cooking utensils, pictures and another historically important document-the first issue of “The Volunteer,” published in September of 1862. Published by the Kewanee Advertiser, the local newspaper at the time, the eight-page document describes in considerable detail the recruitment of two companies in Kewanee in early August of 1862 and their movement to Springfield where they became part of the 124th Illinois Volunteers at Camp Butler. General Howe was elected 2nd lieutenant of Company A before leaving Kewanee, and when the regiment was organized at Camp Butler he was appointed second in command of the entire regiment and later commanding officer. Kewanee’s Kevin Skoglund, a Civil War buff and re-enactor, donated the “Volunteer” to the museum.

General Howe was born in 1822 in New York and attended school in Ohio where he met and married Julia and practiced law. They moved their family to Kewanee in 1855, just one year after its founding. He practiced law here and in 1860 was elected a circuit court judge.

When President Lincoln called for more volunteers in August of 1862, Judge Howe was instrumental in the recruitment of two Kewanee/Wethersfield companies of just over 100 members each. The 124th Regiment, led by Lt. Col. Howe, played a major role in the siege and capture of Vicksburg in July of 1863.

After the war General Howe returned to Kewanee before serving three years as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Wyoming Territory. For health reasons he then secured a federal government assignment in the southwest where he died on April 3, 1873 at Laredo, Texas. Mrs. Howe returned his body to Kewanee where he was buried in Old Kewanee Cemetery on East Street.

More of General Howe’s life story is available at the museum in numerous articles, including several by the Star-Courier’s Dave Clarke. Thus, one can visit the museum to learn more about Kewanee’s only Civil War general.

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