It was a typical early spring evening in Washington, D.C., a good time to go to the theatre and acknowledge the adulations of admirers. The day was Good Friday, April 14, 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago.
Well into the performance of “Our American Cousin,” a single shot rang out and the 16th president of the United States lay mortally wounded in the presidential box of Ford’s Theatre. Abraham Lincoln, who had guided the nation through four years of a bitter civil war and had set an agenda for the rebirth of the nation, became one of the last casualties of the armed conflict a few months after he had been re-elected to a second term as president.
Lincoln’s assassination did not diminish his accomplishments but made him a martyr and a legend, causing most to wonder “what if” the events of April 14, 1865 had never happened. So on this 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death and the end of the Civil War, history buffs are still trying to answer many unanswered and unanswerable questions about the man who many consider our greatest president.
But what do these great historical events of 150 years ago have to do with our little community of Lennox, South Dakota which was not founded until 1879? It may be somewhat difficult to connect the dots, but Lincoln’s life and death surely did reverberate throughout the land. How this community was affected by Lincoln’s words and actions are reflected in the lives of those men who were inspired by their commander-in-chief to join in the fight to save the Union and further the cause of liberty and justice for all.
Many Civil War veterans chose to settle in Dakota where land was available to be claimed under the homestead act signed by President Lincoln. Preferential treatment was granted those who had served in the Union forces, making it somewhat easier for these veterans to prove their land claims and gain title to this property.
According to local records and publications, at least 60 of these patriots—the Boys in Blue—settled in this immediate area in the years following the Civil War. Many of them carried on the principal of service by helping to build a better community, state and nation. These men who fought to preserve the nation joined together after the war to form the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), through which they could further serve their country and fellow veterans. A local chapter of the GAR was founded in 1883 and disbanded in 1935 upon the death of John E. Davis, its last surviving member.
Time, space and the unavailability of information limits our ability to report and give credit to each known Civil War veteran of our community but herein we will try to tell the story of the lives of some of these local veterans and how they helped shape this area. It should be noted that like during World War II, Civil War veterans varied greatly in age, some enlisting as mere boys and others in their forties and older volunteering to serve the cause of saving the Union.
John Davis certainly was a prime example of a young Yankee who not only was willing and anxious to serve his country in time of war, but to also serve others in time of peace. Born on November 28, 1848, Davis was only 16 years old when he enlisted in the Union Army, joining Co. K of the 50th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He was born in Ottawa, Illinois but in 1852 the family moved to Hudson, Wisconsin.
Young John may have had visions of chasing the rebels all the way back to Georgia but he soon learned that he would be heading in another direction. In February of 1864 his unit was ordered to go to Missouri and then later to Fort Rice in what is now North Dakota. Their mission was to suppress the Indians who were being goaded to hostility by Southern emissaries and other enemies of the Union. John survived the war unharmed but serving in northern Dakota chasing Indians couldn’t have been the most pleasant experience.
Even as the war came to an end, John Davis was still a very young man. He, like his fellow soldiers, no doubt mourned the loss of their great leader and took to heart the inspiring words uttered in Lincoln’s second inaugural address. They would help bind up the wounds of the nation and care for the widow and the orphan.
Young John farmed in Wisconsin for four years before heading west to Dakota with his wife and young family in 1876. He preempted a claim to land that later became the western outskirts of the Lennox town site. He later procured some adjoining land for a total of 400 acres. After a few years he built the large family home which was located near the present site of the Howard Opheim home. His tree claim to the west is now occupied by the Lenkota golf course and those large cottonwood trees stand as a living testimony to John Davis’ early efforts to stake his claim to Dakota soil.
But John’s goals in life were more than to simply accumulate property. He, rather, chose to be very generous, donating the land on which the first Lennox school was to be built in 1880. In succeeding years a church and then a school administration building occupied that land on Elm Street. He also gave the land to the city on which a high school was built in 1922. Today the middle school occupies that site.
Both he and his wife were very active in community affairs. They were charter members of Lennox’s first church, the Methodist Episcopal congregation which was established at the founding of the town in 1879. First English Lutheran church now is located on that church site. Mr. Davis and his son Harry were what might have been described as progressive farmers. They experimented with developing better seeds and applying new ideas to farming.
Five children were born to Mr. and Mrs. Davis. Their daughter Eva was the first white child born in what was later the Lennox town site. There were four sons, one who died before his parents’ demise. Harry, who never married, is well remembered as Lennox’s first Scoutmaster in 1912. The Davis grove where the golf course is now located, for many years provided a place for local Scouts and others to go camping.
Forever proud of their service during the Civil War, John Davis and the very few remaining veterans of that war in later years would don their blue uniforms and wide-rimmed black campaign hats and ride in an open car during a parade down Lennox’s Main Street. This writer is old enough to remember seeing John Davis and John Poll, the last two living Civil War veterans of this community, take part thusly in a local parade, perhaps on Memorial Day sometime before 1933 when Mr. Poll died. John Davis died on September 16, 1935.
John Davis lived a very full life during his 87 years, never forgetting his responsibilities to others as inspired by his commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln. Mr. Davis could rightly be proud of having helped found the local GAR chapter and then going on to serve as state commander of that organization in 1921-22. His service to both his country and community are rightly remembered 150 years after he answered the call to save the Union.