Friday, June 03, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Death of Stephen Douglas

On June 3, 1861, Stephen Douglas, 48, died in Chicago.

Although he was Lincoln's chief rival for the presidency in the November election, Douglas spoke forcefully and often in support of the Union cause and Lincoln's prosecution of the war.  After Fort Sumter he traveled to the West (what we now consider the Midwest), rallying thousands of men to arms.  Already in ill health, the effort wore him down.

He fell ill around the first of May.  It started off as a cold, then a fever set in.  He was confined to bed.  His condition worsened; a severe attack of inflammatory rheumatism set in.  He had suffered through painful bouts of rheumatism before, but now it sapped his strength.  He rallied on May 19 and was allowed to go outside briefly for some fresh air.  The next day he was sicker than ever.  The rheumatism assumed "a typhoid character."  Other ailments piled on -- an ulcerous sore throat, "torpor of the liver" and constipation. 

In the end, he drifted in and out.  He would seem to be slipping away, then rally for a bit.  He received the last rites of the Catholic Church.  He rallied long enough to dictate a letter.  It was addressed to Virgil Hicox, leader of the Illinois Democrats, but meant to be publicized to all his supporters.  It urged all to stand strong for the Union against those who would "obliterate the United States from the map of the world."

As his wife Adele held his hand and sobbed, he drifted away for the final time just after dawn.  Someone in the room must have asked if Douglas was in any pain.  His final words were:  "He...is...very...comfortable."

The news was immediately telegraphed to Lincoln.  The White House and many government buildings were draped in mourning.  As the news spread, more and more tributes were paid to him throughout the nation.  Busts and portraits appeared everywhere and people draped their homes and businesses in mourning.

Douglas's body lay in state at Bryan Hall, a public auditorium on Clark Street in Chicago.  A steady stream of people passed through for two days to pay tribute to the great man.  His funeral was held on June 7, and he was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan.  The state of Illinois bought the gravesite and commissioned Leonard Volk to construct a large monument over his grave.  The Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial was completed in 1881.

Also on this date, in western Virginia, a small but significant skirmish took place that became mockingly known as "the Philippi races."

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