John Durham: Medal of Honor Recipient, Circus Performer, Newspaper Editor, and Missionary Preacher.
John S. Durham was born on June 8, 1843 in New York. When he was seven years old, he ran away from home and was adopted by a showman named Stahl, who changed Durham’s name to Mark Cromwell. When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, he was living in Wisconsin and he enlisted in the St. Croix Rifles at Prescott, Wisconsin. On April 27, 1861, the 1st Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry was organized for three months service at Camp Scott in Milwaukee. The St. Croix Rifles were mustered in as Company F, First Wisconsin Volunteers. He enlisted under the name John S. Durham. On October 8, 1861, the 1st Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry was mustered into service and on October 22, the 1st Wisconsin was ordered to Louisville, Kentucky and were to report to Union General William T. Sherman and the Department of the Cumberland, under the command of Union General Don Carlos Buell. On October 30, 1861, the 1st Wisconsin arrived in Jeffersonville, Indiana across from Louisville. While camped at Jeffersonville, they received “severe and constant drill.” On November 9, 1861, the Department of the Cumberland became the Department of the Ohio and on November 15, 1861, Union General Don Carlos Buell took command of the newly formed department. On November 14, the 1st Wisconsin crossed the river by ferry and proceeded by steamer Baltie to West Point, Kentucky. On December 2, the 1st Wisconsin was assigned to General James S. Negley’s 7th Brigade, of General Alexander McCook’s 2nd Division. On November 3, the 1st Wisconsin left West Point for Camp Nevin.[i]
On March 2, 1862, the 1st Wisconsin marched to Nashville, Tennessee and arrived at Edgefield. On April 2, the regiment marched to Columbia. On April 5, Colonel John Starkweather was appointed brigade commander and the 1st Wisconsin was assigned to his brigade. By June 7, the 1st Wisconsin arrived opposite Chattanooga, Tennessee. The regiment marched to Stevenson, Alabama. From June 29 to August 18, the regiment was camped at Battle Creek and later Mooresville, Alabama, near Huntsville. In August 1862 Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his Army of the Mississippi began his invasion of Kentucky. On August 19, Colonel Starkweather’s brigade, along with the 1st Wisconsin, boarded trains for Nashville. Starkweather had formed the 28th Brigade and was assigned to Union General Lovell Rousseau’s division of McCook’s Corps. Lieutenant Colonel George Bingham was placed in command of the 1st Wisconsin. On September 28, the 1st Wisconsin arrived in Louisville and the 21th Wisconsin, under Colonel Benjamin Sweet, was added to the brigade. On October 1, the 1st Wisconsin marched out with Buell’s army to try and capture Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi.[ii]
On the evening of October 7, the 1st Wisconsin was camped at Mackville and on October 8, the 1st Wisconsin woke up at 3 a.m., had breakfast, and at daylight moved towards Perryville. Starkweather’s brigade arrived near a belt of woods. No firing took place, so the 1st Wisconsin began to fix a light lunch. While they were having their lunch, General Rousseau arrived and ordered the brigade to march by the flank to a crest of a ridge that gave them a view in all directions, with the exception of their front, where a section of woods was located several hundred yards from their position. Starkweather’s brigade was on the extreme left of the Union line. Union General James Jackson’s division was a short distance in front of Starkweather. The 1st Wisconsin supported Captain Asahel Bush’s 4th Indiana Battery and Captain David Stone’s 1st Kentucky batteries. Bush and Stone began shelling some Confederate troops over on a hill about a half mile away. In front of the 1st Wisconsin and the batteries, below the brow of a hill in a cornfield was the 21st Wisconsin, who had been in service only two weeks and had been marching the whole time, and had never properly drilled. The Confederates under Confederate General George Maney’s brigade, consisting of the 41st Georgia, 1st, 6th, 9th, and 27th Tennessee Infantry, had charged the raw Union troops in their front under Union General William Terrill brigade, of General James S. Jackson’s division, consisting of the 123rd Illinois and 105th Ohio Infantry, along with Lt. Charles Parson’s battery, and overran their position. Maney’s men continued to pursue the fleeing Union troops. The 21st Wisconsin located in a cornfield was also thrown into confusion as the fleeing Union troops passed through their ranks. Maney’s men attacked the untrained 21st Wisconsin and broke their lines. The scattered troops under Terrill’s brigade and the 21st Wisconsin rallied in the rear of the 1st Wisconsin.
Between 3 pm and 4 pm, the Confederates under Maney and Confederate General Alexander P. Stewart of Cheatham’s division left the woods and made a charge on Bush’s battery. General Rousseau rode down the 1st Wisconsin’s line and twirling his hat upon his sword point, called out to the 1st Wisconsin: “Now, boys, you stand by me, and I will by you, and we will whip the hell out of them!” About the same time, the 1st Wisconsin rose to their feet and began to fire. Bush’s battery was silenced in less than a minute, because nearly all the men and horses were shot down. Hand to hand combat broke out over the control of the battery. According to Colonel Starkweather, he saw Sergeant Henry Kaylor, the color bearer of the 1st Wisconsin, fall from a wound and as he fell he handed the bullet riddled flag of the 1st Wisconsin to John Durham. The staff struck Durham on the head, knocking him down, but Durham arose with the colors in his hands and advanced towards the oncoming Confederates. Starkweather said to Durham: “Up the hill, my brave boy.” Durham went forward in the face of one of the most deadliest rifle fire Starkweather had ever witnessed. According to Starkweather, he witnessed Durham carry the colors to the front of the caissons of Stone’s 1st Kentucky battery and to the right of Bush’s Fourth Indiana battery. The 1st Wisconsin, along with oblique fire from the 79th Pennsylvania Infantry, managed to drive the Confederates back. Starkweather also wrote that he witnessed Durham fight with the color sergeant of the 1st Tennessee Infantry and the capture of their flag, overpowering the color sergeant at the muzzle of Captain Bush’s gun Number 1. Starkweather wrote that Durham’s actions was “so grand, encouraging, and inspiring, to all the men who witnessed it,” that he promoted Durham on the spot to sergeant and color bearer.[iii] First Lieutenant P. V. Wise also witnessed Durham’s act of bravery and wrote that after Durham seized the flag from the dying color sergeant, he “started forward and advanced midway between the lines of battle of the opposing armies. Fearing the Rebels would get the flag, I ran out to him and, touching him on the shoulder, ordered him to halt. He stopped and remained standing fast until the regiment in line came up to him. The flag was riddled all to tatters and the staff was shot in two pieces. The flag could never be used again.”[iv] Sergeant Elias H. Hoover, of Company F, 1st Wisconsin, wrote that “three color bearers were shot down, and the last time they were picked up by John Durham, of my company, who carried them safely from the field.”[v] Durham was only nineteen years old during the battle. The Confederates rallied and continued to attack until they were completely exhausted and fell back, leaving the 1st Wisconsin in control of the hill. The 1st Wisconsin, with support from the 79th Pennsylvania, and the 24th Illinois, managed to hold back Maney and Stewart’s men until the men of the 1st Wisconsin were able to grab some drag ropes and pull Bush’s battery back into a safer position. The Union soldiers, with remnants of Jackson’s division and Starkweather’s brigade, fell back to a safer position behind a stone wall, which today is referred to as Starkweather’s wall. Darkness and the exhaustion of Cheatham’s division prevented any further attacks on the 1st Wisconsin Infantry. After the battle of Perryville, Captain Asabel Bush and the 4th Indiana Battery presented the 1st Wisconsin a full regiment of colors and guidons as a recognition of the bravery displayed by the men of the 1st Wisconsin Infantry for rescuing their guns.
Out of the 319 men of the 1st Wisconsin who went into the fight, sixty men were killed, twelve died of wounds within a week and 140 men were wounded. The regiment was left with only sixty men for a total loss of 49.0 percent of their regiment.[vi] For his actions at the Battle of Perryville, the United States Army awarded John Durham with the Medal of Honor. His citation stated that he was awarded “for extraordinary heroism on October 8, 1862, while serving with Company F, 1st Wisconsin Infantry, in action at Perryville, Kentucky. Sergeant Durham seized the flag of his regiment when the color sergeant was shot and advanced with the flag midway between the lines, amid a shower of shot, shell, bullets, until stopped by his commanding officer.” The issue of the general order was November 20, 1896. The reason why Durham did not receive his citation for so many years after the Civil was because his comrades were looking for John Durham. After the war, Durham changed his name back to Mark Cromwell.
After the Battle of Perryville, the 1st Wisconsin fought in the battle of Stone’s River, Tennessee, the Tullahoma Campaign, the Battle of Chickamauga, the siege of Chattanooga, the Atlanta Campaign, and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. On October 13, 1864, the regiment was mustered out of service.
After the Civil War, John Durham joined Colonel John O’Neil and the irregular army of Irish-American troops called the Fenians. On June 1, 1866, O’Neil and eight hundred Fenians crossed the Niagara landing at Fort Erie. Another two to three hundred Fenians crossed later that day until the USS Michigan interrupted their crossings. An advance force of 250 men of the 17th Kentucky Fenian regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel George Owen Starr landed in Canada. The British formed both local Canadian militia and British garrison troops to defend against the invasion. On June 2, the Fenians took a position on Limestone Ridge near the town of Ridgeway. The Fenians attacked 850 Canadian militia, along with two local companies from Caledonia and York, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker of the 13th Battalion. During the battle, the Canadians were routed. The Fenians turned back to Fort Erie where they fought another battle. When Canadian and British reinforcements arrived, the Fenians returned to the United States. The capture of Ridgeway was the only armed victory for the cause of Irish Independence between 1798 and 1919. The battle of Limestone and Fort Erie were also the first modern industrial era battle to be fought by Canadians and the first to be fought by Canadian troops and led by Canadian officers.[vii]
After the Fenians were unable to take Canada, Durham walked back to Detroit and from there he went to Tennessee and took part in the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. Afterwards he joined the circus and performed as a strong man. He changed his name to Signor St. Cyr. He added bareback riding, along with magic and a prestidigitator. While at the circus he met Nellie Gypsey and married her. After the circus business, he went into several theatrical ventures and wrote several short sketches. After leaving the theatrical business, he moved to Kansas and began the publication of the newspaper Mirror. While working in the newspaper business, he converted to the Baptist religion and became a mission preacher. He became the superintendent of the Baptist mission of James Street in Kansas. He also joined the Grand Army of the Republic and became a lieutenant in the Kansas National Guard., Company E, 1st Regiment.[viii]
In 1902, he was admitted to the Soldier’s Home in Leavenworth, Kansas and on January 12, 1918, he died at the home. He was buried in the National Cemetery in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Years after the battle of Perryville, a dispute arose as to which regimental flag was actually seized during the hand to hand combat between the 1st Wisconsin and the Confederates and who actually seized the flag. According to E. B. Quiner’s Military History of Wisconsin, (1866) he wrote that Private Morris S. Rice of Company H, of the 1st Wisconsin Infantry, took the Confederate flag. In 1905, in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, according the Marcus Toney, of the 1st Tennessee Infantry, wrote that the 1st Tennessee, 6th Tennessee, the 27th Tennessee, and the 41st Georgia were on Cheatham’s right. During the night on October 8, while moving the wounded, one of the Wisconsin soldiers said to Toney: “We captured the 1st Tennessee regiment’s flag.”[ix] Toney said to him: You may have found it on the battlefield, as there was no friendly hand to bear it away. Toney stated that the flag was not captured and the flag was cut into pieces and carried home by the men as souvenirs at the surrender of the Confederate army at Greensboro, North Carolina. Toney stated that the flag of the 41st Georgia was actually captured during the battle. In response to Toney’s article, J. D. H. wrote to the Atlanta Constitution stating that the flag of the 41st Georgia did not fall into the hands of the enemy, but was carried off the field by W. W. Turner and Captain Robert O. Douglas, who was adjutant of the 41st Georgia, still had the flag.[x] Since no one would claim ownership of the flag after the war, the flag ended up in the Wisconsin Historical Society and later the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Most historians feel that the flag that was captured was the 1st Tennessee’s flag.[xi]
[i] Lieutenant Edward Ferguson, 1st Wisconsin, Company A, The Army of the Cumberland under Buell, War Papers, 424-425. [ii] E. B. Quiner, Military History of Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois, 1866, 428. [iii] He Saved the Flag: A Singular Kansas Man Honored by Congress: John S. Durham is the Versatile “Mark Cromwell” of Kansas City, Kansas-His Many Sided Career, Kansas Semi Weekly, December 2, 1896, [iv] He Saved the Flag: A Singular Kansas Man Honored by Congress: John S. Durham is the Versatile “Mark Cromwell” of Kansas City, Kansas-His Many Sided Career, Kansas Semi Weekly, December 2, 1896 [v] Sergeant Elias H. Hoover, Co. F, 1st Wis., Wolf Creek, Wis. Battle of Perryville: The 1st Wisconsin Did Its Share In That Action, Hoover, Vol. VIII, No 46. Whole No. 410, p. 3. [vi] The National Tribune, Battle of Perryville, terrible Casualties of the 1st Wisconsin in that action, L. E. Knowles, Company G, 1st Wisconsin, New City, Kansas [vii] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fenian-raids [viii] Ibid. [ix] Marcus B. Toney, Nashville, Tennessee, October 27, 1905, Atlanta Constitution, October 30, 1905 [x] J. D. H., Atlanta, Georgia, October 30, 1905, Atlanta Constitution, October 30, 1905. [xi] Susan Lampert Smith, Handiwork Hundreds died to save returns home, Wisconsin State Journal, 1C, September 20, 1998.