Today in History: October 8
On Sunday, October 8, 1871, fire leveled a broad swath of Michigan and Wisconsin, including the cities of Peshtigo, Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron. At least 1,200 people died (possibly twice as many) as a result of the fire. Approximately 800 fatalities occurred in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. That same night, the Great Chicago Fire erupted in nearby Illinois.
Conditions were ripe for major conflagrations that year. Rainfall during the preceding months totaled just one-fourth of normal precipitation; early October was unseasonably warm; and winds were strong. Vast tracts of forest burned for a week in parts of Michigan and Wisconsin and Chicago firefighters battled blazes daily. Contributing to Chicago's Great Conflagration were the facts that the bustling midwestern city was built primarily of wood and several woodworking industries operated within the city limits.
Holland, Michigan, resident G. Van Schelven witnessed the fire's advance on his small, prosperous city:
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon the wind turned southwesterly and began gradually to increase. The fire alarm was rung, and from this time on the fighting of the fire all along the timbered tracts south and southwest of the city, was kept up uninterruptedly. As night advanced the wind increased in force, until at midnight it blew a hurricane, spreading the fire and the flames with an alarming velocity toward the doomed city. The huge bark piles at the Cappen & Bertch tannery in the western and the Third Reformed Church in the southern part of the city, were among the first points attacked; from thence on, the devastating fire fiend had a full and unmolested sway.
"The Burning of Holland, October 9, 1871,"
Collections Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan Together with Reports of County Pioneer Societies, Volume IX, 1908, 334-41.
Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910
No one knows for certain how the Chicago fire started, though an eyewitness did see the beginnings of the blaze in Catherine and Patrick O'Leary's barn. One widely circulated rumor held the O'Leary's cow responsible for knocking over an oil-burning lamp and setting the straw afire. Whatever the cause, chaos resulted as hundreds fled their homes to escape the rapidly spreading flames.
One Chicagoan described his experience on the night of the fire:
I jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. Everybody in the house was trying to save as much as possible. I tied my clothes in a sheet. With my clothes under my arm and my pack on my back, I left the house with the rest of the family. Everybody was running north. People were carrying all kinds of crazy things. A woman was carrying a pot of soup, which was spilling all over her dress. People were carrying cats, dogs and goats. In the great excitement people saved worthless things and left behind good things. I saw a woman carrying a big frame in which was framed her wedding veil and wreath. She said it would have been bad luck to leave it behind.
"Pack on My Back,"
Hilda Polacheck, interviewer,
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
By the time the fire was extinguished, 300 Chicagoans were dead, and 90,000 of 500,000 residents were left homeless. Four square miles, including the business district, were completely leveled. Chicago rapidly rebuilt in conformance with new fire regulations. Hosting the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, Chicago again reigned as the "Queen of the West."
Learn more about the fires in the Midwest:
- Search across American Memory on the words fire engine, fire house, or fire department to see all manner of firefighting equipment, and read stories about other disastrous fires in history.
- Photographs from the Chicago Daily News is particularly rich in images of Chicago's firefighters.
- Search across the American Memory pictorial collections on the keyword fire to access images including fire fighting equipment, firehouses, and fire fighters.
- Search on Chicago fire in the collection The Nineteenth Century in Print: Books to access several books on the subject, such as Chicago and the Great Conflagration (external link) by Elias Colbert and Everett Chamberlin (1871). Read "The lost city! drama of the fire fiend! or Chicago, as it was, and as it is! and its glorious future! a vivid and truthful picture of all of interest connected with the destruction of Chicago and the terrible fires of the great North-west."
- Search the collection Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885 on Chicago Fire to find a variety of songs on the theme.
- Search across American Memory collections on world Columbian exposition for images and print materials on the World’s Fair. Similarly, search on Chicago to access hundreds of images of the rebuilt city.
Fighting for Kentucky
On October 8, 1862, Union and Confederate forces fought at Perryville, Kentucky, in a one-day battle that repulsed the South's attempt to bring that border state into the Confederacy. Although the summer of 1862 began promisingly for the Confederate cause, the fall brought failure and disappointment.
By early September, Southern armies were marching north taking the offensive on both the eastern and western fronts. Flush with victory after the Second Battle of Manassas, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland. Moving westward, Generals Edmund Kirby Smith and Braxton Bragg spearheaded a Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Their goal was to bring Kentucky into the Confederacy and refresh their armies with new recruits.
In August, General Smith led Confederate forces away from Knoxville, Tennessee, through south-central Kentucky to win an engagement at Richmond, Kentucky. Victorious, he moved on to capture Lexington—a city of considerable Southern sympathies. (Smith's name also is seen frequently as Edmund Kirby-Smith, though biographies tend to agree that the hyphen was added by his family in the years following his death. Although some sources index his name under Kirby-Smith, most contemporary sources, and most Civil War historians, have continued to use Smith.) One of the Confederacy's best cavalry officers was Lexington resident John Hunt Morgan who successfully targeted the rear of the Union lines in a spectacular raid around the Union Army.
Morgan in Kentucky
The gray figures of Morgan's men appeared out of the distance. They showed the strain of a hurried and harassed march; both men and beast were weary. Four of the men stopped before me perched on the fence and said, 'Son take these canteen and fill them with water.' I didn't refuse but hurried across the road to Mr. Alexander's Robinson's well where two or three other boys were drawing water for the Raider's men with a windlass…
After this short period of service we were mustered out; and Morgan, the raider, with his men went their way with their jangling and clanking of arms to disappear in the horizon toward old Paris.
"Morgan's Raid as Mr. Johnson Remembers,"
Grace Monroe, interviewer, circa 1938-39.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
With Smith ensconced at Lexington, Bragg positioned himself about a hundred miles northwest of the city. Meanwhile, Union General Don Carlos Buell left Tennessee in pursuit of the invaders. After much delay, Buell clashed with Bragg at Bardstown, Kentucky, where Bragg hoped to join Smith's army. Outnumbered, the Southern forces withdrew.
Parched from a long campaign in drought-stricken country, gunfire was exchanged on the evening of October 7 near Perryville over control of a few small pools of water. Union troops under command of Philip Sheridan failed to gain the upper hand, but at sunrise they attacked again.
On October 8 the encounter escalated from a fight over water to a full-fledged battle for control of Kentucky. The confrontation lasted all day without victory for either side. When the morning of October 9 dawned, Union forces moved to confront the enemy again only to discover Southern troops had retreated leaving the field in the hands of the North.
Although Bragg remained in the area for the next three months, the Confederacy never again mounted a sustained effort against Kentucky. After the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky remained in the Union, albeit uneasily allied with other loyal states.
Use American Memory to learn more about the Civil War:
- The Special Presentation Timeline of the Civil War provides a year-by-year overview of the events of the Civil War.
- Locate additional recollections of the war. Search the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection on Civil War. Narrow the selection by adding a major battle or name to the search, for example, Civil War AND Morgan.
- Search the Selected Civil War Photographs collection to find more pictures of people and battles.
- Browse Civil War Maps by subject, place, creator, or title for views of more than 2,600 Civil War maps and charts as well as atlases and sketchbooks.
- Today in History features on Civil War topics include the First Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Gettysburg, and Lee's surrender to Grant. Search the Today in History Archive on Civil War to locate these features and more.