Tazewell County proposes construction of monument to honor trio of Civil War veterans

By Ken Keenan for Chronicle Media

Attending a recent press conference about the construction of the Medal of Honor Monument were (from left) Tazewell County Veteran Rich Denizen, Tazewell County Veterans Assistance Director Steve Saal, Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman, Tazewell County Veteran Bob Dent, Tazewell County Veteran Larry McClary and Tazewell County Veteran Jerry Agee. (Photo courtesy of Tazewell County)

A movement seeking to ensure that three distinguished Civil War veterans are never forgotten is underway in Tazewell County.

During a recent press conference, Tazewell County Clerk John C. Ackerman and Tazewell County Veterans Assistance Director Steve Saul, along with other county leaders, announced the launching of a ballot question effort for the construction of a Medal of Honor Monument on the grounds of the county courthouse, in Pekin.

The proposed monument consists of an 8-foot-tall black granite obelisk that would feature the biographies and photos of Dr. Thomas Murphy, William Reed and John Ayers, each a Medal of Honor recipient for their heroic actions in the Union Army’s pivotal victory during the Siege of Vicksburg, in 1863. The obelisk design was chosen to blend with the current Tazewell County Veterans Memorial.

“We rediscovered the three Medal of Honor recipients a few years ago,” Ackerman said. “The family of Murphy sent us his Civil War Medal of Honor, and then we found information on the other two recipients. Ever since then, we’ve been pressing for a monument to be built. We considered the tremendous actions of the three men and decided we should honor them.”

The proposed monument would be a simplistic 8-foot-tall black granite obelisk, which would blend with the current Tazewell County Veteran’s Memorial on the Tazewell County Courthouse Grounds.

Cost of the proposed monument is estimated to be $80,000. The Tazewell County Board stated that it could utilize existing funds or a smaller portion of the $22 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding the county has yet to utilize. If either of the funding sources are utilized, no new tax revenue would be required for construction of the monument.

In order for the ballot question to be included in the March 19, 2024 primary election, the County Board is required to collect a minimum of 200 signatures — via a circulated petition — from registered voters within Tazewell County. Once that is completed, the County Board is required to certify the ballot question. If a simple majority of voters in the primary election vote in support of the ballot question, the County Board would be required to fund construction of the monument within one year of the primary election.

“I found that we could meet the threshold of 200 signatures,” Ackerman said. “If it’s supported by the citizens, it can be constructed within one year, and it won’t require any new tax increase or any taxes at all. I feel the voters will overwhelmingly support this measure. When you look at the contributions they gave on the battlefield, these three gentlemen all went above and beyond the call of duty.”

During the Siege of Vicksburg, a grueling Union effort to take control of the last Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi River, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Murphy — a member of the 31st Illinois Infantry Volunteers — volunteered to “cross the line of heavy fire of Union and Confederate forces, carrying a message to stop the firing of one Union regiment on another,” as described in his Medal of Honor certificate.

“His regiment was being bombarded by Union military, by mistake,” Ackerman said. “So he makes a mad dash to deliver a message, voluntarily stepping forward among all the gunfire. That’s really something.”

Upon the Union’s subsequent victory at Vicksburg, which severely hindered the Confederacy’s ability to maintain its war effort, Murphy was given the honor of being the first to march into the captured city following the Confederates’ formal surrender.

After the war, Murphy returned to Tazewell County to practice medicine. He received the Medal of Honor — considered the nation’s highest military honor — in 1916 and passed away in 1920.

Reed, a teacher in Pekin when the Civil War began, joined the 8th Missouri Volunteers after Illinois’ soldier quota had been filled. During the Siege of Vicksburg, he volunteered as part of a storming party in an effort to build a bridge across a moat and plant scaling ladders against the enemy embankment in advance of the main attack.

Following the war, Reed returned to his home in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and went on to own many successful businesses. He also is recognized as the founder of the Huntingdon Orphans Home. Reed, who died in 1918, was presented with the Medal of Honor in 1895.

Ayers, a carpenter in Pekin when he enlisted in the Union Army, also was a member of the 8th Missouri Volunteers and joined Reed as a volunteer among the storming party at Vicksburg. He eventually returned to his home in Michigan and became a blacksmith, and later trained to become an allopathic doctor. Ayers received his Medal of Honor in 1895 and passed in 1913.

“All three were on the front lines at Vicksburg, and all three went into careers building back society after the war,” Ackerman said. “They saw the worst and then tried to be the best for the communities they lived in. It’s now the 160th anniversary of the Siege of Vicksburg, so it’s way past time to honor these individuals and have a monument as a landmark for future generations to learn about the sacrifices these men made.”

Anyone interested in circulating the petition to include the ballot question concerning the monument can pick up copies from the Tazewell Veterans Assistance Commission, 11 S. 4th Street, and the Tazewell County Clerk’s Office, 342 Court St. Petitions must be returned to either Pekin office by Nov. 20.