George Messer of the 107th Illinois Infantry was “a good man and a man that I thought a heap of. He was liked in his company and regiment but he is now gone where there is no trouble, no war, nor no fighting. Tell his wife that he is buried nice and was well cared for whilst sick.” So wrote a fellow soldier following the discovery of George’s death from chronic diarrhea late in December 1863 at the Lamar House Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee.
There is nothing remarkable about George Messer to distinguish him from the thousands of men who answered their country’s call for volunteers to put down the rebellion. He was a simple carpenter from rural Illinois who sought to acquire his share of the American dream — a home to call his own and a loving family to love and support. But his sense of patriotic duty caused him to put those dreams on hold until the rebellion was ended. Unfortunately for George — and the family he left in Illinois — that day did not come before he succumbed to the disease that plagued him throughout most of his term of service. Though he never fired a gun at the enemy, he did not desert nor shirk his duty when he was capable of fulfilling it like several others in his regiment. Though he saw others less qualified than himself rise to positions of leadership in the regiment, he maintained his spirit and did his best to comfort and give hope to those he left behind in Illinois.
George was a devoted husband who wrote faithfully and regularly to his wife during his absence — at least twice a week and sometimes more. His voluminous correspondence provides us with a record of the 107th Illinois Infantry that is rare and reveals the internal machinations and jealousies of the regiment that unit histories do not characteristically reveal. In short, it is a good read.
George Messer (1833-1863) was the son of William H. Messer (1804-1892) and Hannah McClure (1796-1861) of Richland County, Ohio. He had an older sister named Rebecca Messer (1831-1904) who was married to David Bell (1829-1912) in January 1853. Sometime in the late 1850’s, George Messer came to Illinois with his parents and his older sister’s family to settle in Creek Township in Dewitt county. It was here that he met and married Charlotte (“Lottie”) Kelley (1839-1907), the daughter of Alexander Kelley (1813-1882) and Lucinda Anderson (1816-1869). They were married on 27 March 1860 at her father’s resident by John J. McGraw, Justice of the Peace.
Nothing in the correspondence that remains in this collection suggests that George and his father had a very close relationship. Whether it was always that way is not known. It appears that George was much closer to his mother and she may have been the one to promote George’s education which was above par (as judged by his vocabulary and writing skill) with the average prairie pioneer of Illinois. “We miss her very much,” wrote George after his mother’s death on 24 November 1861. In a little over a year, George’s father had remarried and if the relationship between George and his father — whom he called the ‘Old Man’ — had not been bad before, it certainly was afterwards. A dispute arose over the ownership of personal property between the two that was not resolved prior to George’s enlistment nor ever fully resolved during his term of service with the 107th Illinois Infantry. The abuse suffered by his wife attributed to the Old Man and others while George was away in the service of his country gave him considerable frustration and challenged his charitable proclivities.
In the late summer of 1862, the Lincoln administration announced its intention to introduce a draft in order to raise the troops necessary to continue the prosecution of the war. In response to patriotic meetings held in Dewitt county, numerous citizens stepped forward to volunteer pledging that they would do their duty and meet the county’s quota without a draft. One of those stepping forward was George Messer who had been managing his father-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s business affairs — in addition to his own — while they were serving with the 41st Illinois Infantry. It was undoubtedly a difficult decision for George who had been married only two years and had two young children at home — “Katie,” less than a year old, and an infant son (“Baby”) born on 21 August 1862. Shortly after enlisting, Katie died. The cause of death is not revealed in the correspondence but she seems to have contracted a disease. The infant son was named William Alexander Messer though he is inexplicably referred to as “Eddie” throughout all of George and Lottie’s correspondence.
Enlisting with George in Co. F, 107th Illinois Infantry in August 1862 was a young man named William Wesley McNulty was born in Ohio on 29 December 1844. Enlistment records for Wesley (“Wes” or “West” as he was variously called) indicate that he stood 5′ 6″ tall, had light hair and blue eyes. His relationship to George and/or Lottie has not yet been confirmed but it is clear they were related and his correspondence with Lottie referred to her as his aunt. There are brief references to Wesley’s father in the letters and we learn that he was a photographic artist who resided in Sandusky, Ohio in 1863. There are allegations that he was a philanderer but no proof was offered.
The only letters in the collection written by Wesley McNulty were to Lottie after receiving news of George’s death and it is from these letters we learn of the disposition of George’s effects and of his burial in Knoxville.
The letters reveal a close personal kinship between George and Wesley suggesting that Wes was a biological nephew of George’s rather than Lottie’s. Unless separated by sickness, the two were nearly always together while in the service and George mentioned Wes to Lottie in nearly everyone of his letters. Though he may have been a nephew, George treated Wes almost as a younger brother for, indeed, he had no other known brother. Wes survived the war and there is evidence that he married in the 1870s but he eventually became disabled from his exposure and sickness during the war and was admitted to a Home for Disabled Soldiers in Milwaukee. He died in 1916.