1861: Garrett Voorhees Nevius to Frank F. Peats

Col. Garret Nevius (Nevins)
Col. Garret Nevius (Nevins)

This letter was written by Garrett Voorhees Nevius. He grew up “near Lodi, New York the son of John and Rachel Nevius. After his father died, an older brother took over running the farm and Garrett developed wanderlust. The story of Garrett Nevius actually began earlier in Malta, New York when Elmer Efraim Ellsworth was born. Neither could know that their lives would dramatically intersect in far away Illinois on the verge of the Civil War.

Nevius found his way to Rockford, Illinois where he went to get in on the ground floor of the new technology of photography. His first business failed, but he quickly formed another. He never made much money in the photography business, however. Perhaps he just did not have a head for business. More likely, his pursuit of other activities took too much of his time and energy.

In those days, military clubs were the rage. Young men would form local groups that would drill and march in parades wearing the most impressive military get up they could design. The clubs were part athletic clubs and part military. Their primary purpose seemed to be to impress the local young ladies. Rockford had such an organization called the Rockford Grays. Nevius joined the Grays at about the time the club began to crumble. Rockford was going through an economic downturn and the commander of the Grays – Captain Dennison – had something less than a charming personality. Nevius and Dennison clashed and the club went under.

At about the same time, Elmer Ellsworth was in Chicago – some 90 miles away – working in the patent office. He too was interested in the military craze and was particularly interested in a French military group called the Zouaves. The Zouaves were the predecessors of the French Foreign Legion and were modeled after an Algerian military group. Ellsworth studied French in order to master the Zouaves’ drills and formed a Zouave group in Chicago that toured the country. When he was not working with the Zouaves or in the patent office, he was in Rockford pursuing a young lady by the name of Carrie Spafford. It was during his romantic visits to Rockford that Ellsworth and Nevius met. The two young, energetic, good looking boys shared a number of interests and a New York background. They immediately hit it off. Ellsworth convinced Nevius to allow the Rockford Grays to dissolve. Nevius championed the effort to form a new military group called the Rockford Zouaves with Ellsworth providing advice and support.

Ellsworth changed the direction of his life when Carrie Spafford’s father – a stern Rockford banker – informed him that he would need more than charm and military drill teams if we wanted the hand of his daughter. Undeterred, Ellsworth took up studying the law as an eventual means of supporting Carrie Spafford. His pursuit of the law combined with a magnetic personality soon drew the attention of Abraham Lincoln, another Illinois lawyer who was quite taken with the young Ellsworth. Ellsworth’s relationship with Lincoln soon had his friend Garrett Nevius forming and leading the Rockford, Illinois Chapter of the “Wide Awakes.” The Wide Awakes held frequent rallies and parades on the main streets of Rockford in support of Lincoln’s candidacy for president with Nevius at the head. (Nevius’ correspondence with Ellsworth was even on personalized pro-Lincoln stationery he had made by a Rockford printer.)

Lincoln won, of course, and Elmer Ellsworth went with him to Washington – then on to New York City to form the soon to be famous Fire Zouaves. By then Ellsworth was known throughout the country after touring with the Chicago Zouaves and his death at the outbreak of the War was a national tragedy. In the mean time, Nevius was pushing the new Rockford Zouave Company. When the Civil War broke out, he led them en masse to Springfield where they were mustered in as Company D of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry with Garrett Nevins – note that Garrett Voorhees Nevius changed his name to Garrett L. Nevins – as the Captain. He thought that a less Dutch sounding name would better suit his emerging military and political aspirations. He soon became Major Nevins and the 11th went into the thick of the fighting in the west….” [See Garett Nevius for the remainder of his biography; he was killed in May at Vicksburg]

Cabinet Card of Frank F. Peats from the 1870s
Cabinet Card of Frank F. Peats from the 1870s

Garrett wrote the letter to Frank F. Peats (1834-1895) who settled in Rockford, Illinois in 1855. Previously he had lived in Chicago and Aurora with his parents, Alfred H. and Margaret Peats. In Rockford, he worked as a painter and house repairer. When the Civil War broke out, Peats enlisted with the 17th Illinois (Company B), mustering into service on July 3, 1861. He was quickly promoted to captain after the resignation of an officer. In April 1862, he received a promotion to major. In late 1863, Peats was detached from his regiment in order to recruit soldiers in Galesburg, IL. This assigment lasted until March 1864, but it is unclear if Peats mustered out of service at that time. He took part in the battles at Shiloh and Vicksburg.

After the war, Peats returned to Rockford and took up his trade of sign writing, painting and decorating. In 1872, Peats was elected the Sheriff of Winnebago County and held the office for eight years. In 1861, Peats married Bessie R. Tew.

1861 Letter
1861 Letter

Addressed to Mr. F. F. Peats, Peoria, Illinois
Postmarked Rockford, Illinois

Rockford [Illinois]
April 8th 1861

Friend Frank,

Yours of the 29th ult. was received in due season. I was real glad to hear from you. I had some time ago concluded to cross you off my list, but had delayed it from day to day in hopes that you would repent and do better, and I am glad that I did, although your repentance did not make its appearance until the eleventh hour, but better late than never. But enough about that.

I presume that you want to know all about Rockford. Well to commence with, Rockford is still where you left [it] and likely to remain so for awhile. Its good people (myself amongst the rest) are aswell as usual. there has not been anything very exciting here lately. We still keep up the surprise parties and have good times. I do the best that I can at taking care of (dear duck, of girls, that they are,) I mean, Betty, Anna, Hortense, and all others &c. We attended a party — Mr. Barbour’s — on the East side, and such a time as we had. I had 5 girls to escort over, and they had to draw lots to see who should go with me, and it fell to — well, I shan’t say who for fear it might make you homesick, and be posting up here, which I would not have by any means, O no.

But I suppose that Betty has informed you all about it. But Frank, we all miss you very much and I should be willing to give up one for the sake of having you back here. We are going to have another trip up the [Rock] River as soon as the weather will permit, and they all say that I have got to command the same craft that we sailed in last year. But by ge horn spoon, if I won’t succeed first. I suppose you understand what that means, of course. Can’t you come up and join my confederacy and help to bring them to terms? I think we could do it without any help from abroad. What say you, my boy?

But I miss you most on drill night. You are still orderly. They boys do not seem inclined to give you up — not at least until they can decided on someone to take your place. Jim Manny is the only one who is capable of filling it, but you know that the boys do not like him. I do wish you were back here. We are talking about having a camp to commence the 17th of June — the Anniversary of Bunker Hill. If we do, can’t you come up and be with us? It would please not only me but all the boys very much if you would. We shall decided in the course of a week or two if we shall have it and where.

Peats Tunic from Civil War
Peats Tunic from Civil War

What think you of the prospects of war? Rather favorable, are they not? This morning’s dispatches sound very warlike. I sincerely hope that something will be done soon. I am glad that you remembered your promise in case of active service, our Country first, my boy, and love afterwards.

Melancthon Smith has been appointed Post Master of Rockford. I know of course you are glad of it. Talcott, backed by such men as Marsh, Miller, & Church, tried hard to get it. Talcott went to Washington twice and Jason with him to enquire the thing through. But Melancthon was too much for them. To say that they feel considerably crestfallen would not be aiming anywhere near it.

Business is very good at present. Everything denotes a busy time this spring. Let it come, I say. E have not got a sign yet — are waiting for you to come back to put it up. I have not yet got my picture taken, but am in hopes I shall have by the time I write you again.

Now Frank, how long are you going to wait before you answer this? Not long I hope. But do write soon. Please excuse this scribbling for my pen is so awful poor that I can hardly use it at all. This is the last letter I am going to write with it.

Truly your friend, — Garrett Nevius

To. Sargt. F. F. Peats

P. S. Can you make out what that name is? — G. N.


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