Richard J. Oglesby, Governor 1865-8, and re-elected in 1872 and 1884, was born July 25, 1824, in Oldham Co., Ky.,—the State which might be considered the “mother of Illinois Governors.” Bereft of his parents at the tender age of eight years, his early education was neglected. When 12 years of age, and after he had worked a year and a half at the carpenter’s trade, he removed with an uncle, Willis Oglesby, into whose care he had been committed, to Decatur, this State, where he continued his apprenticeship as a mechanic, working six months for Hon. E. O. Smith.
In 1844 he commenced studying law at Springfield, with Judge Silas Robbins, and read with him one year. He was admitted to the Bar in 1845, and commenced the practice of his chosen profession at Sullivan, the county seat of Moultrie County.
The next year the war with Mexico was commenced, and in June, 1846, Mr. Oglesby volunteered, was elected First Lieutenant of Co. C, Fourth Illinois Regiment of Volunteers, and participated in the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo.
On his return he sought to perfect his law studies by attending a course of lectures at Louisville, but on the breaking out of the California “gold fever” in 1849, he crossed the plains and mountains to the new Eldorado, driving a six-mule team, with a company of eight men, Henry Prather being the leader.
In 1852 he returned home to Macon County, and was placed that year by the Whig party on the ticket of Presidential Electors. In 1856 he visited Europe, Asia and Africa, being absent 20 months. On his return home he resumed the practice of law, as a member of the firm of Gallagher, Wait & Oglesby. In 1858 he was the Republican nominee for the Lower House of Congress, but was defeated by the Hon. James C. Robinson, Democrat. In 1860 he was elected to the Illinois State Senate; and on the evening the returns of this election were coming in, Mr. Oglesby had a fisticuff encounter with “Cerro Gordo Williams,” in which he came out victorious and which was regarded as “the first fight of the Rebellion.” The following spring, when the war had commenced in earnest, his ardent nature quickly responded to the demands of patriotism and he enlisted. The extra session of the Legislature elected him Colonel of the Eighth Illinois Infantry, the second one in the State raised to suppress the great Rebellion.
He was shortly entrusted with important commands. For a time he was stationed at Bird’s Point and Cairo; in April he was promoted Brigadier General; at Fort Donelson his brigade was in the van, being stationed on the right of General Grant’s army and the first brigade to be attacked. He lost 500 men before re-inforcements arrived. Many of these men were from Macon County. He was engaged in the battle of Corinth and, in a brave charge at this place, was shot in the left lung with an ounce ball, and was carried from the field in expectation of immediate death. That rebel ball he carries to this day. On his partial recovery he was promoted as Major general, for gallantry, his commission to rank from November, 1862. In the spring of 1863 he was assigned to the command of the 16th Army Corps, but, owing to inability from the effects of his wound, he relinquished this command in July, that year. Gen. Grant, however, refused to accept his resignation, and he was detailed, in December following, to court-martial and try the Surgeon General of the Army at Washington, where he remained until May, 1864, when he returned home.
The Republican, or Union, State Convention of 1864 was held at Springfield, May 25, when Mr. Oglesby was nominated for the office of Governor, while other candidates before the Convention were Allen C. Fuller, of Boone, Jesse K. Dubois, of Sangamon, and John M. Palmer, of Macoupin. Wm. Bross, of Chicago, was nominated for Lieutenant Governor. On the Democratic State ticket were james C. Robinson, of Clark, for Governor, and S. Corning Judd, of Fulton, for Lieutenant Governor. The general election gave Gen. Oglesby a majority of about 31,000 votes. The Republicans had also a majority in both the Legislature and in the representation in Congress.
Gov. Oglesby was duly inaugurated Jan. 17. 1865. The day before the first time set for his installation death visited his home at Decatur, and took from it his only son, an intelligent and sprightly lad of six years, a great favorite of the bereaved parents. This caused the inauguration to be postponed a week.
The political events of the Legislative session of 1865 were the election of ex-Gov. Yates to the United States Senate, and the ratification of the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States, abolishing slavery. This session also signalized itself by repealing the notorious “black laws,” part of which, although a dead letter, had held their place upon the statute books since 1819. Also, laws requiring the registration of voters, and establishing a State Board of Equalization, were passed by the Legislature. But the same body evinced that it was corruptly influenced by a mercenary lobby, as it adopted some bad legislation, over the Governor’s veto, notably an amendment to a charter for a Chicago horse railway, granted in 1859 for 25 years, and now sought to be extended 99 years. As this measure was promptly passed over his veto by both branches of the Legislature, he deemed it useless further to attempt to check their headlong career. At this session no law of a general useful character or public interest was perfected, unless we count such the turning over of the canal to Chicago to be deepened. The session of 1867 was still more productive of private and special acts. Many omnibus bills were proposed, and some passed. The contests over the location of the Industrial College, the Capital, the Southern Penitentiary, and the canal enlargement and Illinois River improvement, dominated every thing else.
During the year 1872, it became evident that if the Republicans could re-elect Mr. Oglesby to the office of Governor, they could also elect him to the United States Senate, which they desired to do. Accordingly they re-nominated him for the Executive chair, and placed upon the ticket with him for Lieutenant Governor, John L. Beveridge, of Cook County. On the other side the Democrats put into the field Gustavus Koerner for Governor and John C. Black for Lieutenant Governor. The election gave the Republican ticket majorities ranging from 35,334 to 56,174,—the Democratic defection being caused mainly by their having an old-time Whig and Abolitionist, Horace Greeley, on the national ticket for President. According to the general understanding had beforehand, as soon as the Legislature met it elected Gov. Oglesby to the United States Senate, whereupon Mr. Beveridge became Governor. Senator Oglesby’s term expired March 4, 1879, having served his party faithfully and exhibited an order of statesmanship beyond criticism.
During the campaign of 1884, Mr. Oglesby was nominated for a “third term” as Executive of the State of Illinois, against Carter H. Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, nominated by the Democrats. Both gentlemen “stumped” the State, and while the people elected a Legislature which was a tie on a joint ballot, as between the two parties, they gave the jovial “Dick” Oglesby a majority of 15,018 for Governor, and he was inaugurated Jan. 30, 1885. The Legislature did not fully organize until this date, on account of its equal division between the two main parties and the consequent desperate tactics of each party to checkmate the latter in the organization of the House.
Gov. Oglesby is a fine-appearing, affable man, with regular, well defined features and rotund face. In stature he is a little above medium height, of a large frame and somewhat fleshy. His physical appearance is striking and prepossessing, while his straight-out, not to say bluff, manner and speech are well calculated favorably to impress the average masses. Ardent in feeling and strongly committed to the policies of his party, he intensifies Republicanism among Republicans, while at the same time his jovial and liberal manner prevents those of the opposite party from hating him.
He is quite an effective stump orator. With vehement, passionate and scornful tone and gestures, tremendous physical power, which in speaking he exercises to the utmost; with frequent descents to the grotesque; and with abundant homely comparisons or frontier figures, expressed in the broadest vernacular and enforced with stentorian emphasis, he delights a promiscuous audience beyond measure.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.