This distinguished soldier and statesman was born on the twenty-fifth of
July, St. James' day, 1824, in Oldham County, Kentucky. His parents, Isabella Watson and Jacob Oglesby, both of Scottish descent, came to
Kentucky from Virginia.
After following other pursuits, Jacob Oglesby became a farmer in Kentucky
where he was a man of some influence, representing his county two terms in
the legislature of the state. The profit of his farm enabled him to live
comfortably with his large family of eight children until 1833, when the
cholera, which swept through the country at that time, bereft the young family of both father and mother, a brother Woodford and a sister Isabella.
Afterward in 1836 the youngest daughter Sarah died at the age of six years,
in Illinois. Robert, the youngest son, six years old at the time of his parents' death, died at the age of twenty-one, after a year's service in
the Mexican war. The death of the parents in early maturity left the young
family, two sons and four daughters. totally unprovided for.
Kind relatives, however, came to their relief, and assumed their care.
Richard, the fifth child, and the elder of the surviving brothers, was but
eight years old at the time of his father's death, and was taken in charge
by an uncle, Willis Oglesby, who in 1836 moved to Decatur, Illinois, and
afterward lived in Kentucky and Indiana. Richard remained with his uncle
until the age of fourteen, when he started out in the world alone. His first journey was on foot, with only a small bundle, from Terre-Haute,
Indiana, back to his favorite home, Decatur, Illinois, where he sought and
found the protection of two devoted sisters, Mrs. Henry Prather and Mrs.
J.J. Peddecord. In Decatur, therefore, in November, 1838, Richard J. Oglesby, at the age of fourteen, fairly entered upon the struggle of life;
for a while he had friends and relations who always took a deep interest in
his welfare, and pointed out to him, by suggestions and advices, the best
course to pursue, he felt, and it was true, that he must rely chiefly on
his own will and resources for all the future yet to be revealed and developed. The financial crash of 1837 was then being felt throughout the
country; every one was poor. "The time were hard," sure enough. And that
common suffering, which puts all on an equality, while beset with innumerable deprivations, yet impressed upon the generation of that period
the hard lesson of self-denial, simplicity of manner, and a pure and unselfish patriotism. From the age of fourteen to seventeen years, his life
was very similar to that of other boys, working on the farm, and about town
at such employment as could be found, by the day, week, or month.
The usual amusements of those days, he says, were hunting, fishing and
"Burgooing," and on Saturday afternoon in all countyseat towns,
horse-racing, ball-playing and occasionally a fist-fight in the street to
settle up old differences, clear up the atmosphere and get ready for church
next day. Richard had his full share in the sports and pastimes of the day,
but managed to keep clear of the sterner tussels in the street.
At seventeen he went to Kentucky, still the home of his eldest sister, Mrs.
James F. Wilson, where he learned the trade of a house carpenter under James
Rankim. Returning after a year to Decatur he worked for Major E.O. Smith at
the same trade, for six dollars a month and board. Times steadily grew harder, and work at any trade more difficult to obtain; besides farming and
merchandizing there was little life in any trade or industry in the West.
In 1843 farming was next undertaken, in company with Lemuel Allen, a teacher of some repute, whose school Richard had attended for three months
the previous winter. They farmed on rented ground one mile east of Decatur,
and raised oats, corn and twelve acres of hemp. The last was duly cut and
cured, and the following winter and spring was spun into well-rope and bed-cords on a rope walk, invented by Mr. Oglesby for the purpose. On this
same rope machine was spun the two large cables used in launching the first
flat- boat sent out on the Sangamon river from Decatur. It was laden with
corn and other produce of Macon county. The whole population turned out to
see the boat take its departure on its long journey down the Sangamon to
the Illinois river and thence down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Many of
the older and wiser heads of the great company assembled on that occasion
regarded the auspicious event as the fulfilment of a prophecy made by "Abe
Lincoln" in a speech near a little corner grocery at Decatur in 1830: "That
the Sangamon would some day be declared a navigable stream open to the commerce of the world." The sympathizing crowd followed the course of the
"flat-boat" for many miles, cheering vociferously as it swept the various
and abrupt curves of the sluggish Sangamon, somewhat perilous to navigation
on account of the drift-wood, which had caught and collected into large and
compact masses, clogging the stream, in many places, from bank to bank.
In 1840 Mr. Oglesby first heard, in the way of public speaking, the very
able debate between Lincoln and Couglas in the old courtroom in Decatur.
Though he was but sixteen he had developed an admiration and attachment for
Mr. Lincoln which continued to the present time. The example Mr. Lincoln's
life afforded, having begun the study of law with a limited education at
the age of twenty-seven, became an inspiration to many young men in the West. Mr. Ogelsby like others felt its influence, and finally resolved as
soon as he could obtain the means to follow in the path illuminated by the
genius and talent of this noble man.
Therefore in 1844, at the age of twenty, he began the study of law with
Silas W. Robbins, in Springfield. In November, 1845, after the usual examinations he was admitted to the bar. It is due to the truth of
biography to state that the education of Mr. Oglesby had been limited. His
opportunities had been of the poorest kind. At the period when he began the
study of law, he could read and write, had a slight knowledge of arithmetic
and a brief acquaintance with geography; but this was all he could claim in
the way of an education.
In the spring of 1846, the war between the United States and Mexico opened
a new field of action; and we find Mr. Oglesby in that service for one year
as First Lieut. of Company C, 4th Illinois volunteers, commanded by the late Col. E.D. Baker of Illinois. Lieut. Oglesby marched with the regiment
on foot over seven hundred miles through the interior of Mexica, and was in
the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo; in the latter, he commanded the
company, Captain Pugh having been placed by Colonel Baker, in command of the
left wing of the regiment, and out of forty-one, rank and file, lost ten,
killed and wounded. It was in this battle General Shields fell wounded, at
the head of the Fourth Illinois regiment, near Colonel Baker. Lieutenant
Oglesby was left in charge of the wounded general for two days on the battle-field, as a mark of respect to the company. On his return, at the
close of the war, to his home he at once resumed the practice of law, giving it his whole attention.
But in 1849, catching the gold fever, he made one of a party of eight,
which left Decatur for California. The trip was made in ninety-five days,
and was one of uninterrupted interest and pleasure. As an evidence of the
wisdom of the venture, he states, that on the evening of the third day after his arrival in Sacremento City he repaid the two hundred and fifty
dollars borrowed, to make the journey, and had four hundred and seventy dollars in cash left.
His career as a miner was so successful that at the end of two years and
six months, though he had lost three thousand dollars deposited in a Sacramento bank, and two thousand five hundred dollars by the burning of
Nevada City, he returned to Decatur with four thousand five hundred dollars
in gold, and had more cash for a few weeks than any other man in Decatur,
then a town of five hundred inhabitants, including many promising young men.
Shortly after the return from California, the law firm of "Oglesby and
Waite" was established, which continued until the spring of 1856. At this
time Mr. Oglesby decided upon a tour abroad, and in April he left Illinois
for a journey to Great Britain and Europe, which was extended to Egypt, Arabia, Palestine and Asia Minor.
He sailed from Philadelphia in the "City of Baltimore," Captain
Lutch, landing, after a pleasant voyage of ten days, at St. George's Pier,
Liverpool. After three days in Liverpool he crossed to Dublin, and visited
various places of interest in Ireland. From Port Rush, he sailed for Glasgow, and traveled over Scotland, arriving in London late in June, where
he spent three weeks visiting points of historical interest. Parliament,
then sitting, claimed his attention several times, and he was interested to
observe the style and manners of English oratory.
In the House of Lords, he heard Lor Lyndhurst, the Duke of Argyle, Marquis
of Lansdale, Lord John Campbell, Bishop of Oxford and many other distinguished peers. Lord John Campbell he notes as the most fluent
speaker. In the house of commons among the many members whose speeches he
heard, were Lord Palmerston, then in his prime, Lord John Russell and the
famous D'Israeli. Leaving London, Mr. Oglesby spent two weeks in Paris and
environs, then proceeded to Berlin, visiting en route, Brussels, Waterloo,
Cologne, Mayence, Bonn, Frankfort, Leipsic and Dresden. In Berlin he celebrated his thirty- second birthday, and among other reflections regrets
"that he is still a bachelor." After a short time spent in that city and
Potsdam, he determined to sail from Stettin to St. Petersburg.
August the 2nd, he embarked, meeting among his fellow-passengers the famous
Colonel Colt, of revolver celebrity, who with his bride was on his way to
St. Petersburg. They arrived after three days rough Passage on the Baltic,
and on the isxth of August Mr. Oglesby celebrated another birthday, time
being then reckoned in Russia O.S.
Two weeks were spent in St. Petersburg and two in Moscow, where on the 7th
of September, he saw the present Czar and his Empress crowned in the Church
of the Assumption. From Moscow he traveled by diligence eight hundred miles
to Warsaw, a tedious journey, but having some unusual interests. In Poland
he saw the most beautiful women of Europe. Leaving Warsaw by railway from
Dresden and Berlin, he rejoices to find himself once more among the comfortable Germans. He felt depressed in spirit and body after witnessing
so much human misery in Russia and Poland. His stay in Berlin was long and
agreeable. On the sixteenth of October he was one of a party of ten Americans invited to attend King William, the Crown Prince, now Emperor,
and their court, on the annual wild boar hunt in the "King's Forest," ten
miles north of Berlin. The thirtieth of December, he left that lovely German city to visit Dresden again, Vienna and Trieste. From the last place
he sailed to Alexandria, where he beheld with astonishment the marvelous
wonders of this ancient city of Egypt. He describes among other famous monuments the obelisks, called "Cleopatra's needle," then standing on their
original sites, one of which was recently brought to New York.
Late in January, Mr. Oglesby arrived in Cairo. After a short stay, he in
company with a friend, chartered a boat and crew, and laying in a supply of
provisions, resolved to make a trip up the Nile to Thebes. They left Cairo
with the American flag flying, expecting to be gone thirty days, but found
so many mysteries along the Nile to see and study, that their journey was
prolonged, and more than forty days passed before their return to Cairo.
The ancient temples and tombs of Upper Egypt, still, as for centuries, the
marvel of the world, the great pyramids on the west bank of the Nile near
Cairo, one of the "seven wonders of the world," were all, in succession,
visited, studied and examined with the greatest possible interest and profit to the travelers from the western prairies of the
new continent, where only the great natural objects arrest the eye of the traveler. Two
week after their return to Cairo, Mr. Oglesby joined a caravan, to cross
the desert, consisting of ten travelers, two dragomen, eleven Bedouins and
thirty-three camels. On the twentieth of March they left Cairo for their
perilous march to the Holy Land. The journey across the desert was full of
eventful and startling adventures, camel-riding, tenting, tracing the scenes of scriptural history on the vast sandy plains, desert mountains and
along the shores of the Dead Sea, the halt at the city of Suez, and the ascent of Mt. Horeb and Mt. Sinai, where during the night Mr. Ogelsby read
and committed to memory the ten commandments, and with a companion repeated
them on the top of Mt. Sinai, as the sun was rising over the mountains of
Arabia and the wilderness where the children of Israel wandered for forty
years. His journal describes the scene, as the light burst upon the barren
plains and rock-riven peaks of the terrible desert, as one of surpassing
splendor. There was also a visit to the city of Petra, and Aaron's tomb on
Mt. Hor. The dangers encountered on this journey were the simoom, which overtook them one day and night, during which their suffering was terrible,
and the ugly threats and violent demonstrations of the wild Bedouins. At
Hebron the weary travelers took horses for Jerusalem, where they arrived
May the first, having accomplished a tedious and perilous journey in forty
days from Cairo. During his stay in Jerusalem Mr. Oglesby visited all villages and places of scriptural interest near the city and studied with
care and reverence the history of the holy places. After his final departure from Jerusalem, he traveled over the plain of Esdraelon, by Mt.
Carmel, Nazareth, Mt. Tabor, the Sea of Galilee, which, he says, was one of
the few places that looked as he thought it would; Magdala, Capernaum, by
the waters of Merone and snow-capped Hermon. Late in May they reached the
three streams that form the source of the Jordan, which they found clear
and of icy coldness. The next day they visited Caesarea Philippi; from there, their destination was Damascus, where they spent two weeks
sight-seeing, and once more enjoyed the comforts of civilization, good coffee, and baths. From Damascus they set out for Beyroot, halting on the
way between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, to see the wonderful temple of Baalbeck and the town of Jebel. Arriving in Beyroot, three days later Mr.
Oglesby sailed for Constantinople, landing after a voyage of eight days,
having stopped at several ports; among them Smyrna and Rhodes. After five
days spent in Constantinople, he sailed for Athens; two weeks were spent in
this classic city, when he took ship on his last voyage on the Mediterranean for Naples; from there he visited Rome, Florence, Milan,
Venice, and other famous Italian cities; crossing the Alps by the St. Gothard's Pass, He returned through Switzerland and the Rhinish States to
Berlin, where, after a brief stay, he passed through Northern Germany to
Holland, visiting the important cities. Returning to Paris he stayed four
weeks, visiting every place of interest in that gay capital, when he went
to London, from whence he left for Porsmouth, where he sailed for America,
landing in New York December, 1857. A foreign trip at this time, so extended as Mr. Oglesby's was unusual; and led, through the interest of his
friends to a series of lectures, given from his carefully kept journal, during his stay abroad. These lectures are said to have possessed great
interest by those who were fortunate enough to hear them, and he is often,
even yet, earnestly entreated to lecture again on the same subject.
At the time of the great contest between Lincoln and Douglas, in 1858, Mr.
Oglesby became the Republican candidate for Congress in the Congressional
district as then arranged. But, unhappily for his rising ambition, the district had been created to return a Democratic majority, and the Hon.
James C. Robinson went to Congress while Mr. Oglesby still continued to practice law. In 1860 Mr. Oglesby was requested by the Republican party to
become a candidate for the State Senate, and, though the district had before been largely Democratic, was elected in November at the same time
that Mr. Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He served one
term in the senate, but in 1861 was elected Colonel of the eighth Regiment
of Illinois Volunteers, and resigned his seat to go to the field as a soldier in the great civil war. It is not deemed necessary to reproduce the
stirring events of that fearful struggle. Mr. Oglesby served for one year
as Colonel and led the right of Gen. Grant's army in his advance on Fort
Donelson, and was on the field of battle for three days in attacking that
rebel stronghold, which finally yielded, with its fourteen thousand prisoners, after a severe battle on the fourteenth of February, 1862. This
was the first substantial union victory up to that time. In 1861 Colonel
Oglesby had been appointed by President Lincoln Brigadier General for gallantry at the battle of Fort Donelson, taking rank as such from April
the first, 1862. In the autumn of 1862, the great battle of Corinth was fought, on the third and fourth days of October. Gen. Oglesby commanded a
brigade in that fight, and on the afternoon of the first day fell upon the
field of battle, as was then thought, mortally wounded, the ball having passed under the left arm, through the lungs and lodged near his spine. He
passed six months of intense suffering and danger before he was able to leave his home, and still carries in his body the enemy's ball which
brought him so near the gates of death. On his recovery in April, 1863, he
was promoted to the rank of Major-General of Volunteers, by appointment of
President Lincoln, to rank as such from the twenty-ninth of November, 1862.
Still suffering from his wound, although on duty in the field, he tendered
his resignation in July, 1863; but it was not accepted. He was, however,
granted a leave of absence and returned home, where he was detailed as
president of a general court-martial which sat in Washington from December,
1863, until May, 1864. Upon Gen. Oglesby's return to Illinois in this year,
he was unanimously nominated as the Republican candidate for Governor, and
although the state had gone democratic at the last election, was elected by
thirty-one thousand majority.
On his nomination for Governor on May 25th, 1864, the President accepted his
resignation as Major- General, and he left the field of active hostilities,
for which his severe wound had long unfitted him, to enter the arena of political life, where at that time the strife was as bitter as in the
fields of war.
Gov. Oglesby is spoken of by the journals of that time as "a
liberal-hearted administrator of the high and sacred trust imposed upon him
as the official head of a great commonwealth;" "showing himself eminently
faithful, competent and able; combining in an admirable degree the qualities of a very man among men." The Chicago Tribune of January 18th,
1865, says of his inaugural: "The address is a manly, straight-forward document, devoid of pretension, replete with common sense, and admirably
written. It clearly proclaims that the same nerve, the same intelligence
and the patriotism which marked Gen. Oglesby's conduct at Donelson and Corinth will distinguish his administration as Governor."
Being at Washington when that awful national calamity, the assassination of
President Lincoln occurred, it was Gov. Oglesby's painful privilege to be
present at the bedside of his beloved friend, within an hour after the fatal shot was given; he watched over him until the end, and saw him yield
up his noble life in the cause of the country he loved and served so well.
Afterward he remained close beside the precious remains, following in the
mournful journey back to Illinois, until they were placed in the silent tomb amid the lamentations of a great nation.
Gov. Oglesby was made president of the National Lincoln Monument
Association organized May 11th, 1865, which labored so assiduously until it
obtained the means to erect to the martyred president an enduring memorial
worthy to mark his last resting place, and hold the ashes of this noble man
sacred. This stately monument was so far completed that it was formally dedicated, and the beautiful statue of Lincoln unveiled, October 15th,
1874. The Springfield Journal says: "There seems a peculiar propriety that
Lincoln's ardent friend and admirer, the eloquent and sympathetic Oglesby,
should deliver the oration, and that the President and the cabinet should
lend dignity by their presence to an occasion which will soon become historic."
Gov. Oglesby was regarded by the returning regiments of soldiers with the
warmest affection; his generous "soldier hear" responded to every demand
for assistance or sympathy coming from a man in federal blue. He was ever
solicitous for the welfare of all military organizations, and every individual soldier embraced therein.
At the end of his first term he retired to private life; but again, in
1872, his party required his services, and he was nominated and again elected governor in November of that year by forty-one thousand majority.
On the tenth day after his inaugural he was chosen by the legislature United States Senator for the term of six years, from March fourth, 1873.
Senator Oglesby was as cordially admired and respected in the senate as in
the other public positions he had occupied so honorable. He was an earnest
and industrious member, and his unblemished integrity and honesty of purpose won for him the highest regard and respect from his brother
"With proper modesty and fearlessness, he bore himself always as became a
republican senator, proud of the noble state he represented;" and his public career was honorable closed by the expiration of his senatorial term
on the fourth of March, 1879.
He is in private life the same sound and unswerving republican he has ever
been-- the same patriot,--and has the same high sense of public honor which
ought to fill the breast of every man who accepts the public confidence.
The fidelity, courage and honesty of purpose with which Richard J. Oglesby
has served his country whenever her cause has been intrusted to his hands,
certainly prclaims him worthy to bear the motto of his Scottish: "Pro Patria."
He has been twice married; first in 1859, to Anna E., daughter of Joseph
White, of Decatur; and afterwards, in 1873, to Emma, daughter of John D.
Gillett, of Elkhart. He has children by both marriages.