George Washington Palmer: Farmer, Officer, Mayor
By John Gerrity, MC ‘07
The United States has a tradition and custom of embracing national heroes. Some towns name streets, parks, and schools in their honor, so that many communities have a Lincoln Street, a Roosevelt High School, a Franklin Park, or a neighborhood named for Thomas Jefferson. It was once the practice to name children after these icons, while this was once common, it was not common for the child to live a life parallel to his namesake. George Washington Palmer did exactly that. He was a farmer by occupation, a military officer in time of war, and a politician when called on by his peers. George Washington Palmer fought in two wars, moved west during the mid 1800’s, and held public office. His example of bravery and fortitude is truly American.
George Washington Palmer was born on the eleventh of July, 1810, in Madison County, New York. The land that is considered Madison County was purchased by the state of New York during the late 18th and early 19th centuries from the Iroquois and Oneida Indians. Madison County is in upstate New York, sandwiched in between the Catskill and the Adirondack Mountains, 200 miles from New York City and in the geographic center of New York State. The most common occupation was that of farmer during the early 19th century. The soil and climate made it possible to grow hops, and the county became known for its production.
G.W. Palmer more than likely aided his father on the farm as a youth and learned his trade. His parents were both from Rhode Island. When he was in his twenties, he married a woman named Amanda, who was originally from Connecticut. During the early 1840’s, Palmer moved westward. The frontier was open and land was available for farmers such as himself. George and Amanda had three children at the time they moved to Illinois: Jane, George H., and Charles. Only two of his children, George H. and Charles, made the move to Illinois. They were both under the age of five. Palmer’s eldest daughter, Jane, who was six years older than George H. (born in 1837), did not make the move. Instead of moving to Illinois, Jane moved in with her cousin, Lucy Palmer, in Tompkins, New York. She eventually moved to Illinois and resided with her parents when she was in her 40’s. She never married and was employed as a portrait painter. Palmer settled his family on a farm in what would later be referred to as Tompkins Township, which is southwest of the city of Monmouth. He farmed his land in rural Warren County peacefully through the 1840’s.
During this time, the people of Monmouth were concerned with issues pertaining to farming, local politics, education, and entertainment. These issues were all covered on a weekly basis in the The Atlas, the paper of Monmouth at the time. (The Review did not begin circulation until 1855.) Editorials were published and responded to by the editor quite frequently. Advertisements of local businesses such as dry goods stores, tailors, and lumber suppliers. It is likely that George Palmer bought goods from Rankin’s or Babcock’s dry goods supply stores.
In 1845, the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican government had never officially recognized Texas’s independence. A large piece of land was at stake for the United States, which was needed to continue their manifest destiny and westward expansion. Between 1846 and 1848, the two nations met in what is now the southwestern part of the United States and the northern part of the nation of Mexico.
The Mexican War, Mexico, and U.S. involvement in it was covered in The Atlas weekly during the years of the war and for about a year after the conflict ended. Early on in the war, the debate was on whether or not the war was just. One reader, identified only as “G.” contributed his views on the war in an editorial published in The Atlas on December 12, 1846:
For this is our Government said to be engaged in an unjust and unholy war-is accused of abetting robbers-nay is itself called a robber by its own citizens? Is it asked, “what is the object of this war?” I answer-we will take possession of the cities and territory of Mexico, and hold them until she will do us justice; and at the same time teach her, and all other nations, that American citizens are not to be robbed and plundered with impunity.
This citizen was strongly in favor of fighting the war. The article that “G” was responding to was arguing that our nation can find other ways than war to solve our problem with Mexico. The problem being that American citizen had lands taken from them or property damaged.
Regardless of what any one individual in Monmouth, Illinois, thought, the nation was at war with Mexico. This was a topic that citizens wanted to know about, and weekly accounts of the conflicts were published. Occasionally letters from Illinois soldiers would be published. Many of the stories came from the New Orleans Picayune, which was a widely circulated paper in relatively close proximity to the war zone. The Picayune gave accounts of battles and descriptions of places that were important during the war. This would enable the readers to visualize what the American soldiers were experiencing. On the 26th of February, 1847 The Atlas gave descriptions of Mexican cities. The City of Mexico (or Mexico City) was described as follows:
City of Mexico-Like all other Mexican cities this has walls and houses of stone, with flat roofs, &c. It is well paved; a gutter four feet wide passes through the centre of each street, covered by broad flag stones removable at pleasure. All the gutters are drained into the canal or lake. The city has many large and strong Churches and other great buildings easily converted into fortresses. If its walls were repaired and mounted with cannon, and well garrisoned, it could make a formidable resistance to besiegers.
The residents of Monmouth and Warren County had an idea and understanding of what was going on in the war between the U.S. and Mexico. Despite this war’s large scale, Monmouth was relatively unaffected. This changed during the summer of 1847. Those who picked up a copy of The Atlas on Friday, July 16, 1847, would have seen a bold headline on the left-hand side of the front-page of the paper reading:
For the War!
We are requested to give notice, that the Dragoon corps, under the command of Capt. Stapp, of this place, have been received by the United States government, and will, as soon as mustered, march for rendezvous. And, to hasten their departure for the war, they will meet at the Court-house in Monmouth, on Saturday the 17th inst. At 1 o’clock, P.M.-to which place those who have joined, and such as wish to join the said company, are invited Come, Boys!-your Country calls.-To arms! To arms!!”
This was a call that was answered by ninety-one men. One of them was George W. Palmer. He met the other volunteers at the Court-house and delivered a rallying speech to the men. The company had organized through late July and planned to move out to Quincy in early August. On Thursday, July 29th, the company met to resolve some organizational and leadership issues. The officers were elected, but there was some dissention in the election. The men decided that, “a new balloting take place for officers.” G.W. Palmer was elected 2nd Lieutenant of the company.
The volunteers of Capt. Stapp’s Mounted Company left Monmouth and Warren County for Quincy and ultimately Mexico on August 4th 1847. The volunteers were sent off by the Ladies of Monmouth with a silk American flag they had made. The National Anthem was played as they headed south.
Lieutenant Palmer was older than many of the men fighting beside him. He would celebrate his 38th birthday far away from his home and his family. The company had 91 men. Their duties included carrying dispatches to Generals and scouting the land around Pueblo. Carrying dispatches and scouting may sound like an easy job carrying no danger or risk. This was somewhat true. However, Stapp’s company lost 40 men during the campaign. This high attrition rate in the company is was due to disease. Thirty-four died of disease on Mexican soil. This was common for many outfits during the Mexican War. Palmer was able to endure the conditions despite being older than many other soldiers, and returned to Warren County exactly one year after he departed, on August 4th, 1848.
George Washington Palmer’s world had been expanded immensely in just one decade. He went from being a farmer in upstate New York, to being a frontier farmer, to being an officer fighting for the United States on the foreign lands of Texas and Mexico. It is evident that he was a patriot. He did not have to go fight for his country. He had a wife, children, and a farm. He risked his life for the United States. He was not in it for the glory or money. George Washington Palmer fought because he had pride in his country; this would not be the last time he would fight.
Palmer would experience over a decade of peace after his stint as an officer. The early 1850’s was a time of organization of government and other various organizations in Warren County. The City of Monmouth was officially incorporated in 1852. Also, the Warren County Agricultural Society was formed and organized this year with Palmer being elected Vice-President. The agricultural society organized a county-wide agricultural fair. This was held on Friday the 15th of October of 1852. It was estimated that over 1,000 people attended. During the early 1850’s Palmer gave back to his community through public service in Warren County.
With Monmouth incorporated as a city, it was necessary to form a city government. It was decided that the election for city offices would be the first Monday in April each year and the city council would meet on the first Monday of each month. In the city’s second year of elections, George W. Palmer was elected Mayor of Monmouth on Monday, April 3, 1853. The people of Monmouth and Warren County who were unable to attend the meetings of the city council could read about the proceedings in the newspaper, which were published monthly.
Mayor Palmer was in charge of running the city council meetings, passing ordinances, and holding public hearings regarding issues pertinent to the city. The people were happy and commerce was thriving when Palmer took office. An article from The Atlas entitled “The Business of our City” was printed on April 22nd, 1853, not more than a month after Palmer took office. The article beings with the bold statement: “The business of our city has never appeared in a more healthful and prosperous condition that at the present time.” This surely must have made Palmer proud, that he was the mayor of a town that was thriving. He indeed was fortunate not to have inherited the office under grim circumstances. The article goes on to state:
New farms are being operated, and beautiful residences are being erected, where, one short year ago, the plows had never entered the unbroken soil. From the multitude of emigration, both of man and beast, to the far west, during the past three or four years, the casual observer would be led to suppose that a general depression, both in real and personal property, would take place. But such is not the case…Besides the improvement of buildings in Monmouth, large quantities of timber are being sawed and hewn for the erection of railroad bridges and culverts. This is giving employment to a large number of workmen, and helps to swell the tide of general activity and prosperity. Taken all in all, we think our people have abundant cause for thankfulness and congratulation in view of their present and future prospected.
With the large number of people moving westward for land and new opportunity Monmouth and Warren County were not only staying alive, but thriving. This would make Palmer’s time in office much more tolerable.
One topic that was hot during 1853 in Monmouth as well as the rest of the Midwest was railroads. Railroads were springing up all over and the desire was great for a line to go through a town. Many towns that did not have access to a nearby railway eventually died. Several articles per week ran in The Atlas about railroads and their construction in the nation and region. During the summer of 1853, there was much talk of the Peoria and Oquawka Railroad. There was hope among the people of Monmouth that the line would come through Monmouth. On June 24th, and article in The Atlas read: “This road is much needed, and we hope the citizens along the line will call meetings and be prepared to take stock at once. Let a good beginning be made at the commencement and the work be commenced speedily.” Monmouth would get its railroad. The railroad was a large contributing factor to Monmouth’s ability to stay alive through the 19th and early 20th centuries. This access created commerce within the city and county that otherwise would not have been possible.
The social climate during 1853 was very patriotic, especially around the 4th of July. There was a committee formed to plan a celebration for the fourth. It was decided that the celebration would occur in nearby Patterson’s grove. A procession, or parade, was planned to begin at 9:00 a.m. on the fourth of July. G.W. Palmer played a part in this celebration, as he was selected to read the Declaration of Independence prior to the commencement of the celebration. This would help remind the citizens of the principles their country was founded upon.
While Palmer was mayor for only a year, but there was controversy under his administration. The city council met on Monday, June 6th, 1853, and discussed issues pertaining to the budget of the city and other financial matters. The business had not been completed; the meeting was adjourned until 7:00 a.m. the next morning. The city council ordered that the roads on the public square be paved. However, the controversy that would ensue would be the result of another ordinance that was passed regarding the sale of spirits in Monmouth. The ordinance stated:
That hereafter no person, within the limits of said city, sell, barter, or exchange any spirituous liquors, wine, fermented or malt liquors, or eides, in a less quantity than one gallon without first obtaining a license therefore; and the city council of the city of Monmouth are hereby authorized to grant licenses at their discretion for the sale of spirituous liquors…
This made the legal sale of liquor possible legally in Monmouth. A license was granted to Mr. James Tourtlelott. Anti-license and temperance groups in the city were angered by this ordinance. Reverend Joseph Eliot was one of the most outspoken residents when it came to this issue. He spoke at a meeting outside the Monmouth courthouse and proclaimed that, “The liquor license must be stopped!”
The benefit of the idea of the liquor license was that it would generate revenue for the city. But, as Daniel McNeil, the chairman of the Anti-License committee wrote: “Our citizens were proud that good order reigned, and that both men and women could walk the streets without fear of intrusion. Strangers from abroad noticed our freedom from the stain of rum, and often inquired of us how we had ‘got the monster so completely bridled.” Monmouth had a relatively large number of people who were proponents of temperance, meaning that they were against alcohol in any for, and they felt that Palmer’s administration had trampled upon them. McNeil and his group signed an official protest of the ordinance at the meeting which included the statement:
We believe the said act of the city council is of ruinous policy, and unfair to the orderly and law abiding portion of the community, and unjust and unrighteous in its operation.
It will easily appear that it is bad policy for the city, for though there is brought into the city treasury the amount paid for license, yet, in truth, the cost to the city will be many times the price of license, and the operation of the system will certainly impoverish rather than enrich the treasury.
George D. Crandall filed an official complaint against James Tourtlelott for “keeping a disorderly house.” On August 30th 1853, the license to distribute liquor by the glass for Mr. Tourtlelott was revoked unanimously by the city council. The fiery group of activists for temperance would now be quelled. However, this controversy likely made Palmer unpopular possible lead to his being mayor for only one term. After the revocation of the license, an article ran in The Atlas outlining the revocation, the article concluded with: “Rum and confusion will struggle for a while, but truth and virtue will finally triumph. It has and ever will continue to do so.”
Another problem that faced the city of Monmouth was that of “mad” or wild dogs running loose within the city limits. To alleviate this problem, the council passed an ordinance on the 30th of January, 1854 stating: “That all dogs or sluts found running around at large in the city of Monmouth after this date be killed by the city Marshal and removed out of the limits of the city at the expense of the owner if known; and it is further ordered that notices be posted up immediately in all public places in said city.” This is evidence that Palmer was proactive in trying to make the city a better place to live. Some improvements G.W. Palmer made were allocating city funds to put a public chain pump for water in the city’s center square. Over half of the funds in the city’s budget were used on roads and bridges.
After Palmer’s stint as a politician, he went on as he did before farming and raising his family, which now included two more children, Allen and Harmon, born in 1849 and 1855 respectively. During the mid to late 1850’s Monmouth was a city that was thriving due to the railroad. Every week in The Atlas, there were advertisements about land or farms being for sale. However, the political climate of the United States had become stormy heading into the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. An article from the New Orleans Delta was reprinted in The Atlas during November of 1856 that outlined the views that many Southerners had about the slave trade and slavery. The article states: “Modern free society, as at present organized, is radically wrong and rotten. It is self-destroying, and can never exist happily and normally until it is qualified by the introduction of some principle equivalent in effect to the institution of Southern negro Slavery.” Just four years later, South Carolina seceded from the Union and several other states followed. The sentiment of the people of Monmouth upon news of this secession was negative. It could even be stated that the South Carolina was looked at as unintelligent and overly bold for making their move to secede. As the article describing the secession stated: “The little State of South Carolina, with a population of less than 300,000 whites and 400,000 negroes, has gone so far in her treasonable career as to pass the secession ordinance, declaring her separation from the Federal Union. Her leaders are guilty of treason by their own avowal, and if their declarations mean anything, she must soon be brought into such conflict with the general government as to bring her conduct fully within the limits of treason, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.” The country that George Washington Palmer had fought for just over a decade ago was in danger of collapse.
With the United States engaged in a civil war, the topic of the war was covered readily in both The Atlas and The Review. The neighboring state of Missouri did not employ the same views on the war as the citizens of Illinois. Missouri’s Governor Jackson attempted to secede from the Union but could not due to the fact that he could not obtain a withdrawal of Federal troops from the state. He instead opted to declare war on the U.S. Government. The war and troop movement in Missouri would be watched closely by residents of Warren County in addition to other larger scale conflicts throughout the torn nation.
About a week after Missouri declared war on the U.S. Government, President Lincoln requested the service of 10 cavalry companies from Illinois. An announcement was put in the newspapers and the details of the service were given from Illinois Governor Richard Yates. George Washington Palmer was in his 50’s, but he still answered the call to service and was commissioned as the Captain and commander of Company G of the 1st IL US Cavalry. His eldest son, George H., was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the company. The company was mustered in at Quincy, IL on July 15, 1861. The unit’s most notable battle was the Battle of Lexington, which occurred in mid-September of 1861 in and around Lexington, Missouri.
According to the census of 1860, Lexington was the 5th largest city in Missouri with a population of 4, 122. Governor Jackson of Missouri, who wanted to secede and become part of the Confederacy, felt that it was necessary to take control of Lexington. Though the citizens of Lexington did not want war, many were slaveholders, so their loyalties were with the Confederates.
The Union force that Palmer fought with was commanded by Colonel Mulligan. The force was made up of the 1st IL Cavalry, the Thirteenth Missouri Infantry, the Twenty-Third Illinois Infantry, and a small number of pro-Union Missourians. The battle actually began on September 11 with the Union forces countering a Confederate charge. The loss for the Confederates that day was considerable, but the bulk of fighting had yet to occur. An account of the battle was sent back to The Atlas by George H. Palmer. In his letter he states:
Our forces consisted of 2,700 fighting men and five pieces of cannon. The battle commenced at nine and a half o’clock, Wednesday morning, and continued day and night until Friday at 3 o’clock, p.m., when the enemy got a position that it would have been hard to drive them from, and an officer of the Missouri Home Guards, without counseling Col. Mulligan, hoisted a white flag and we were forced to surrender…All government property and all our horses were taken from us. On Saturday morning we were set across the river and commenced our march for the Hannibal and St. Jo. Railroad, a distance of 45 miles…the rebels themselves say we fought more like devils than men.-Geo. H. Palmer.
George H. failed to state in his letter that he exhibited great heroism in the battle. He was a musician, not an armed soldier, but filled in the lines when he was needed. This bravery won him the Medal of Honor. He would go on to fight in the 83rd Illinois Infantry after being dismissed from the 1st Illinois Cavalry.
This was the last military combat that George Washington Palmer would see. He did not serve the entire three year tour of duty. The commissioned officers were relieved of their duties in December. Palmer returned home to his farm and family in Warren County after his stint in the war. He did not stay in the area long after the war ended. According to the census of 1870 and 1880, he spent the later years of his life Harrison, Illinois, which is located in Winnebago County in the North Central part of the state. He continued to farm in Harrison. His wife and youngest son made the move to Harrison, while his other children stayed in Warren County. His eldest daughter, Jane, who had stayed in New York when the family moved to Illinois, came to live with her parents and youngest brother during the 1870’s and 80’s.
George Washington Palmer died on January 10th, 1889 at the age of 78. He died in a hospital in Chicago where he was being treated for bladder inflammation. His obituary was printed in The Atlas and outlined his accomplishments in his military career as well as his service as mayor. Though George Washington Palmer was not born in Monmouth and did not die in Monmouth, it is evident that this is the place that he called home, as he was buried in the Monmouth Township Cemetery. Palmer lived a true American life as a farmer, an officer, and a mayor.
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