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Oglesby, Richard James (1824-1899) | Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Name: Oglesby, Richard James (1824-1899)

Historical Note: Richard James Oglesby was born in Floydsburg, Oldham County, Kentucky in 1824, the son ofJacob and Isabella Oglesby. When he was nine years old, his parents and two of his siblings diedin a cholera epidemic. He was taken in by his uncle Willis Oglesby, who moved to Decatur,Illinois in 1836. Several years later he was sent to live with his sisters, Mrs. Peddicord and Mrs.Prather. He farmed for a while and then returned to Kentucky to learn carpentry. He stayed for ayear and then came back to Decatur and studied law with Silas Robbins of Springfield, Illinois.After admission to the bar in 1845 he settled in Moultrie County to open his practice. Shortly afterthat the Mexican War broke out and Oglesby was among the first to enlist and, at age twenty-one,was made a First Lieutenant of Company C, Fourth Illinois. He was at the battle of Cerro Gordoand Vera Cruz and also at Tampico, Matamoros and Camargo. After the war Oglesby went intolaw practice with Sheridan Wait. Their firm acted as the agent for the Indiana & Illinois CentralRailroad. In 1849 Oglesby went to California to find gold. He came back with a nest egg of$5,000 and used some of this to return to Kentucky to buy freedom of his father’s slave UncleTim. Oglesby was very opposed to slavery and believed that blacks and whites should be treatedthe same. He began to deal in real estate in and around Decatur and became quite wealthy fromthis. In 1856 he took a tour of the world, traveling to Europe, Egypt and the Middle East. Beforeleaving on his tour, Oglesby visited Peter Dumont Vroom, who had been the governor of NewJersey from 1829-1831. After the tour he returned to Decatur and in March 1859, he marriedAnna Elizabeth White, the daughter of Joseph and Mary White. They were a prominent Decaturfamily, and Anna was described as “one of the belles of the city”. In December 1859 RichardJunior was born.Oglesby had run for Congress as a Whig in 1858 and, although he lost, he had been making areputation as a fiery speaker. He was a supporter and friend of Abraham Lincoln. At the 1860convention in Decatur, it was Oglesby who brought rails from a fence that Lincoln had reportedlyhelp split with his uncle, John Hanks. He introduced him as the “rail candidate”, which brought afifteen minute demonstration from the delegates and a continuing nickname for Lincoln as the“rail splitter”. There was a public demand for Lincoln split rails, and Oglesby helped Hanks outfinancially in order to fill these orders. Oglesby also ran for the Illinois senate in 1860 and waselected, but when the Civil War broke out he enlisted very early and was chosen colonel of theEighth Regiment and commander at Cairo until General Grant replaced him with JohnMcClernand. Oglesby was promoted to brigadier general after he led the attack on Fort Donelson.At Corinth where he commanded one of the brigades that helped stop the Confederates, he wasseverely wounded during a charge. After several months of recovery he returned to service, butthe wound caused him much difficulty and he tendered his resignation. His resignation was notaccepted, and instead he was sent to Washington to act as president of a general court martial fromDecember 1863 through May 1864.He then returned to Decatur and during the 1864 convention he won the nomination for governoron the second ballot. He was elected and the day before his inauguration was scheduled, his sonRichard Junior died. Just two years earlier his daughter Anna had died and before he would leavethe governor’s mansion, his wife Anna would die of consumption in 1868. Oglesby was left withtwo small children, Olive and Robert. In spite of his personal losses, Oglesby’s term wassuccessful. Illinois was the first state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to outlaw slavery. Oglesby asked thelegislature to look at long neglected problems such as education, development of natural resources,needs of the poor and the arts and sciences. The first appropriation was made to build a new statecapitol. With Oglesby’s support, Urbana was chosen as the site of the new Illinois IndustrialUniversity (University of Illinois). He also appointed its first board of trustees. A first step was madetowards regulation of the railroads. A voter registration bill was enacted. Oglesby also advocated forprison reform, especially at the overcrowded Joliet prison. Joliet was leased to a private business thatmade money using the convicts for labor. In the post war economy, the business lost money and gaveup the lease. The legislature enacted a bill to put prisons under state control and built another prison insouthern Illinois and a reformatory at Pontiac. The office of attorney general was created, andOglesby appointed his close friend Robert Ingersoll to that office.After this term ended, Oglesby returned to Decatur and established ties with Grand Army of theRepublic posts. In 1872 the state Republican Party was divided, with some acting “more likeDemocrats”. At the convention, Oglesby gave a speech that focused on former slaves and then onGarret Smith, a prominent abolitionist who was at the convention. His speech “set the crowd onfire” and he was nominated and won the election. He had supported many Republican legislators,who in turn chose him for the U.S. Senate to replace Lyman Trumbull. After thirteen days asgovernor he resigned to go to the Senate. His style of oration did not work well in the Senate, andhe was not knowledgeable about national affairs. Although he ran for a second term, he lost toJohn A. Logan. While serving in the Senate, Oglesby married Emma Gillett Keays, a widow, andthe daughter of a wealthy land owner in Logan County, John D. Gillett. They had four children:Emma, Richard Junior, John and Jasper. When he left the Senate, he retired from politics andmoved his family to Lincoln, Illinois, where Emma had inherited property when her father died.During the next few years he speculated in silver mines in Colorado and was a member of theboard of the Western Mining Bureau. In 1880 friends had tried to persuade Oglesby to run againfor governor of Illinois. In 1883 he announced that he would run and in 1884 he was againelected. The most important issues during this term were the lake front matters in Chicago,quelling the quarry strike at Joliet, the Haymarket Riots, and his commutation of condemnedanarchists to life in prison and labor troubles in East St. Louis. In 1891 Oglesby was nominatedby the Republican caucus for the U.S. Senate, but the seat went to John Palmer.Oglesby was involved with the construction of a memorial hall for the Grand Army of theRepublic in Decatur, Illinois, and he was president of the Abraham Lincoln MonumentAssociation from 1865 through 1895. He and his wife had built a large home in Elkhart whichburned to the ground in 1891. They then built a 32 room mansion called “Oglehurst” whereRichard J. Oglesby lived out his last years, dying after falling and hitting his head on a sharpfurniture edge on April 24, 1899. He was found by his son John.

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