Richard Yates, the “War Governor,” 1861-4, was born Jan. 18, 1818, on the banks of the Ohio River, at Warsaw, Gallatin Co., Ky. His father moved in 1831 to Illinois, and after stopping for a time in Springfield, settled at Island Grove, Sangamon County. here, after attending school, Richard joined the family. Subsequently he entered Illinois College at Jacksonville, where, in 1837, he graduated with first honors. He chose for his profession the law, the Hon. J. J. Hardin being his instructor. After admission to the Bar he soon rose to distinction as an advocate.
Gifted with a fluent and ready oratory, he soon appeared in the political hustings, and, being a passionate admirer of the great Whig leader of the West, Henry Clay, he joined his political fortunes to the party of his idol. In 1840 he engaged with great ardor in the exciting “hard cider” campaign for Harrison. Two years later he was elected to the Legislature from Morgan County, a Democratic stronghold. He served three or four terms in the Legislature, and such was the fascination of his oratory that by 1850 his large Congressional District, extending from Morgan and Sangamon Counties north to include LaSalle, unanimously tendered him the Whig nomination for Congress. His Democratic opponent was Maj. Thomas L. Harris, a very popular man who had won distinction at the battle of Cerro Gordo, in the Mexican War, and who had beaten Hon. Stephen T. Logan for the same position, two years before, by a large majority. Yates was elected. Two years later he was re-elected, over John Calhoun.
It was during Yates’ second term in Congress that the great question of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was agitated, and the bars laid down for reopening the dreaded anti-slavery question. He took strong grounds against the repeal, and thus became identified with the rising Republican party. Consequently he fell into the minority in his district, which was pro-slavery. Even then, in a third contest, he fell behind Major Harris only 200 votes, after the district had two years before given Pierce 2,000 majority for President.
The Republican State Convention of 1860 met at Decatur May 9, and nominated for the office of Governor Mr. Yates, in preference to Hon. Norman B. Judd, of Chicago, and Leonard Swett, of Bloomington, two of the ablest men of the State, who were also candidates before the Convention. Francis A. Hoffman, of DuPage County, was nominated for Lieutenant Governor. This was the year when Mr. Lincoln was a candidate for President, a period remembered as characterized by the great whirlpool which precipitated the bloody War of the Rebellion. The Douglas Democrats nominated J. C. Allen of Crawford County, for Governor, and Lewis W. Ross, of Fulton County, for Lieutenant Governor. The Breckenridge Democrats and the Bell-Everett party had also full tickets in the field. After a most fearful campaign, the result of the election gave Mr. Yates 172,196 votes, and Mr. Allen 159,253. Mr. Yates received over a thousand more votes than did Mr. Lincoln himself.
Gov. Yates occupied the chair of State during the most critical period of our country’s history. In the fate of the nation was involved that of each State. The life struggle of the former derived its sustenance from the loyalty of the latter; and Gov. Yates seemed to realize the situation, and proved himself both loyal and wise in upholding the Government. He had a deep hold upon the affections of the people, won by his moving eloquence and genial manners. Erect and symmetrical in person, of prepossessing appearance, with a winning address and a magnetic power, few men possessed more of the elements of popularity. His oratory was scholarly and captivating, his hearers hardly knowing why they were transported. He was social and convivial. In the latter respect he was ultimately carried too far.
The very creditable military efforts of this State during the War of the Rebellion, in putting into the field the enormous number of about 200,000 soldiers, were very promptly and ably seconded by his excellency; and he was ambitious to deserve the title of “the soldier’s friend.” Immediately after the battle of Shiloh he repaired to the field of carnage to look after the wounded, and his appeals for aid were promptly responded to by the people. His proclamations calling for volunteers were impassioned appeals, urging upon the people the duties and requirements of patriotism; and his special message in 1863 to the Democratic Legislature of this State pleading for material aid for the sick and wounded soldiers of Illinois regiments, breathes a deep fervor of noble sentiment and feeling rarely equaled in beauty of felicity of expression. Generally his messages on political and civil affairs were able and comprehensive. During his administration, however, there were no civil events of an engrossing character, although two years of his time were replete with partisan quarrels of great bitterness. Military arrests, Knights of the Golden Circle, riot in Fulton County, attempted suppression of the Chicago Times and the usurping State Constitutional Convention of 1862, were the chief local topics that were exciting during the Governor’s term. This convention assembled Jan. 7, and at once took the high position that the law calling it was no longer binding, and that it had supreme power; that it represented a virtual assemblage of the whole people of the State, and was sovereign in the exercise of all power necessary to effect a peaceable revolution of the State Government and to the re-establishment of one for the “happiness, prosperity and freedom of the citizens,” limited only by the Federal Constitution. Notwithstanding the law calling the Convention required its members to take an oath to support the Constitution of the State as well as that of the general Government, they utterly refused to take such oath. They also assumed legislative powers and passed several important “laws!” Interfering with the (then) present executive duties, Gov. Yates was provoked to tell them plainly that “he did not acknowledge the right of the Convention to instruct him in the performance of his duty.”
In 1863 the Governor astonished the Democrats by “proroguing” their Legislature. This body, after a recess, met June 2, that year, and soon began to waste time upon various partisan resolutions; and, while the two houses were disagreeing upon the question of adjourning sine die, the Governor, having the authority in such cases, surprised them all by adjourning them “to the Saturday next preceding the first Monday in January, 1865!” This led to great excitement and confusion, and to a reference of the Governor’s act to the Supreme Court, who decided in his favor. Then it was the Court’s turn to receive abuse for weeks and months afterward.
During the autumn of 1864, a conspiracy was detected at Chicago which had for its object the liberation of the prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, the burning of the city and the inauguration of rebellion in the North. Gen. Sweet, who had charge of the camp at the time, first had his suspicions of danger aroused by a numer of enigmatically worded letters which passed through the Camp post-office. A detective afterward discovered that the rebel Gen. Marmaduke was in the city, under an assumed name, and he, with other rebel officers—Grenfell, Morgan, Cantrell, Buckner Morris, and Charles Walsh—was arrested, most of whom were convicted by a court-martial at Cincinnati and sentenced to imprisonment,—Grenfell to be hung. The sentence of the latter was afterward commuted to imprisonment for life, and all the others, after nine months’ imprisonment, were pardoned.
In March, 1873, Gov. Yates was appointed a Government director of the Union Pacific Railroad, in which office he continued until his decease, at St. Louis, Mo., on the 27th of November following.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.