Two men. Both from Ohio. Both moved west and settled in Sterling, located in Whiteside County, Illinois. One an attorney. One a bookkeeper at the Henry & Hapgood's bank. Both heroes that took care of the men under them. One, Colonel Edward Needles Kirk, the attorney, organized the 34th Illinois Infantry, calling themselves the "Rock River Rifles" in September of 1861. The other, William C. Robinson, the bank bookkeeper, signed up and was made a Sergeant in Company A of that regiment.
Colonel Kirk was promoted to Brigade Commander prior to the Battle of Shiloh. Kirk was wounded in the shoulder on the morning of April 7, 1862 leading his troops. Sergeant Robinson led his squad as the 34th helped push the Confederates south and claim victory in a very bloody battle.
They marched from Corinth, Mississippi to Louisville, Kentucky via Nashville, Tennessee. They returned to Nashville at the end of November, encamping five miles south of the city until December 26th. General Kirk, having returned to duty after recovering from his wound, was again the Brigade Commander. In the meantime, Robinson had been promoted to 2nd Lt. on June 12th.
The 34th was on the right wing in the order of battle when the army pushed the Confederates south from Triune toward Murphreesboro on the 27th. On the 30th, they encamped just off the Nashville and Louisville Pike, not 400 yards from the enemy's position. General McCook ordered extra campfires lit to fool the enemy into thinking there were masses of troops in this position. Turned out that they showed the Confederates exactly where they were.
General Sheridan ordered his troops up at 4:00 A.M. the next morning, New Years Eve, prepared for the coming of the enemy. And come they did. General J.P. McCown's Division rushed through the fog and mist across an open field at 6:22 A.M. firing at the pickets, Companies A and B of the 34th. Five color bearers were shot down in front of the battery just behind. General Kirk had two horses shot out from under him before he was shot in the head, leading the 34th Regiment forward in ranks of two against the Confederate ranks of 10. He was carried to the rear. In those 10 minutes, 21 men died and about 100 were wounded, about 1/3 of the regiment's companies in the field. As the rest began to give ground, they found that Wharton's cavalry had ridden around to their rear and captured 64 members of Company A.
The surgeons tended to General Kirk, but they did not remove the bullet in his head. When he was well enough, he returned to his home in Sterling. The captured men were split up, some sent south to prison camps, some sent to the Union Army parole camp in Annapolis, Maryland, and the balance, to the prison camp at Belle Island, located in the James River outside of Richmond, Virginia. Included in the group was Private Joe Meyers of Company A.
At home, Kirk was in tremendous pain while he tried to recuperate. In desperation, he went to Chicago and had a Dr. Brainard perform surgery to remove the bullet in his head. The bullet was removed and he was taken to the Tremont House hotel where he later died on July 21st after almost seven months of agony. His body was taken to his Sterling home to lie in state until his funeral, later taken back to Chicago where it was interred at Rosehill Cemetery as one of 16 generals entombed there.
In his obituary, it stated that William Robinson was taken prisoner on October 13, 1863 near Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was sent to Belle Island in Virginia when he identified himself as a sergeant in order that he would be with enlisted men, instead of at Libby Prison with officers. He was losing weight due to the meager food that the prisoners received. The men received ½ pint of rice soup and ¼ loaf of cornbread, sometimes twice a day, sometimes once. It was literally a starvation diet. He was hopeful, though, that he would be exchanged soon and rejoin his unit.
By December 1, 1863 a large number of new prisoners had arrived. Among them was John L. Ransom, a Sergeant in the 9th Michigan Cavalry. Ransom started a diary of his life as a prisoner of war, writing in three journal books he bought with money he had with him at the time of his capture outside of Rogersville, Tennessee on November 22nd. Eventually, he would survive 5 different prison camps, including the notorious Andersonville, and escape back to his unit. Ransom's diary is a notable one, written as a contemporary journal of being a prisoner and the conditions of prison life at the time the events occurred.
Robinson met Ransom through Ransom,s friend and fellow soldier in the 9th Michigan Cavalry, George Hendryx, who was captured on September 9. Hendryx was one of nine tent mates of Robinson, who had a squad of 100 men assigned to him by the camp commandant. His responsibilities to the men included distribution of food and clothing (when furnished by charitable organizations in the North). Unfortunately, it was discovered that Robinson was, indeed, an officer, so he was sent to Libby prison in January 1864. On April 9, he was exchanged, according to the obituary, and returned to his unit, being promoted to 1st Lt. in Vinings, Georgia on May 1. He stayed with the regiment on Sherman's march to the sea. By the time they arrived in Savannah, Ransom had been transferred from the hospital there to another prison camp from where he escaped and rejoined the 9th Michigan for the journey north.
On May 9, the 34th fought at Rocky Face Ridge just north of the town of Resaca, where another battle occurred. After Resaca, Sherman and Johnston would continue their chess match toward Atlanta, bodies strewn the whole way. On June 27, The 34th was also a part of the 15 regiment disastrous charge up Cheatham's Hill at Kennesaw Mountain, one decision that put punctuation on Sherman's famous quote, "War is Hell." Robinson was one of the casualties on the charge, receiving a minor wound. He was also wounded at the Battle of Jonesboro on August 31, for which he was promoted to Brevet Major. The men continued on the March to the Sea after the fall of Atlanta, arriving in Savannah on December 21st.
After the first of the year, 1865, Sherman marched 425 miles north in 50 days fighting the remnants of Johnston's army. During that time, Robinson was promoted to Brevet Lt. Colonel after the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina on March 19 and to Captain of Company A March 26. Johnston finally gave up the ghost, surrendering on April 26, ten days after Abraham Lincoln was shot and 18 days after Lee had surrendered to Grant in Virginia.
The 34th went on to Washington, D.C. and marched in the Grand Review on May 24, a part of the 65,000 troops led by General Sherman himself down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the last 5 miles of a 944-mile march in 11 months. A proud day indeed for these war weary veterans. They returned to their home state and were mustered out on July 12, 1865.
Private citizen Will Robinson returned to his home after a trip on the railroad to Springfield, Illinois from Washington, D.C. He left Sterling, moving back to Dixon, some 12 miles away, to resume his banking career. He had lived in Dixon with his father previously, working for the Roberts & Eels Bank as Cashier. In 1868, he moved back to Sterling after his father's death, taking over his father's hardware and farm implement business. By 1876, life had changed dramatically for Will. He married Margaret Wilson, daughter of the Rev. Samuel Wilson and his wife Anne, on December 21 of that year. Together they had a son, Samuel, born in 1878.
In 1879, Will met with his half brother, Washington Dillon, to discuss starting a barbed wire manufacturing company. They named the company Northwestern Barbed Wire Company.
Unfortunately, his health was failing. In 1882, he left for California to seek a better climate, but died March 1,1883, so he was not able to see the tremendous growth of the company. In the 20th century, renamed Northwestern Steel and Wire Company and under the leadership of the Dillon family, the company was the largest employer in Sterling, amassing more than $400 million in annual sales, prior to ceasing operations after 122 years of success.
Dillon remains a prominent name in Sterling. Will's enduring legacy is that the GAR post was named after him, the Will Robinson Post #274. Otherwise, he has melted into obscurity, except for helping start a company that contributed so much to his community for over 100 years.
Sterling can be proud of General Edward S. Kirk and William C. Robinson, always known as Colonel Robinson after the war. These two heroes, one leaving his blood on the battlefield at Stones River and the other surviving the horrors of a prisoner of war camp and leading his Company A home in victory. Creation of the Northwestern Barbed Wire Company started a company that gave so much to his community for over 100 years.
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