Winnetka’s Civil War Heroes

Image of Libby Prison in Richmond, VA, 1865. Winnetkan Charles Davis may have been imprisoned and died here during the Civil War.

Originally appeared in the Gazette, Fall/Winter 2012
Updated by Meagan McChesney, January 6, 2022

In the summer of 2011, former Winnetkan John Chimoures stopped by the Winnetka Historical Society’s Museum & Headquarters at 411 Linden Street with a simple question: “Why is there no Civil War star on the cenotaph?” Two Civil War soldiers’ names were consistently called out every year on Memorial Day, but neither were listed on the cenotaph.

The cenotaph was originally created as a monument to the fallen of World War I.  After even greater losses were suffered in World War II, those names were added, and the tradition was continued for subsequent conflicts. After Chimoures’ visit, the Historical Society’s staff contacted board member and Vietnam veteran Phil Hoza about the issue of the Civil War soldiers. Hoza then raised an impressive $815 in private donations to create a bronze star with the names of the Winnetkans who died in the Civil War names on it. The star was unveiled on Memorial Day in 2013.

So who were these two Civil War heroes? 

Charles Davis

The first to both enlist and die in the war was Charles Davis, a 20-year-old Winnetka resident who lived with his parents at 677 Willow. Charles (or “Charley” as he was known to friends) was the son of Seth and Eliza Davis. Seth worked as a local cooper, supplying the then-small village with the casks, barrels, and buckets needed for farming and other work.

1860 census record for Seth, Eliza, and Charles Davis of New Trier Township. Seth’s occupation is listed as a cooper. Charles enlisted in the Union army the following year.

According to oral histories conducted by historian Charles M. Scanlan in the early 1900s, Charles became a local hero prior to the war when he, along with several other Winnetkans, helped save and care for survivors of the wreck of the Lady Elgin on September 8, 1860. Charles was only 19-years-old when the wreck occurred and, according to Scanlan, was remembered with “great praise” for his efforts by survivors and fellow rescuers. 

Records indicate that Davis enlisted early on in the war. Unfortunately, the exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery. According to Mary Prouty, a neighbor and friend of the Davis family, Charley was imprisoned at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia during the war. Conditions at Libby were notoriously horrific, so it is quite possible that Charley died at the prison. Some records indicate, however, that he died in action. Unfortunately, unlike the also-infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, no comprehensive lists of prisoners at Libby have survived. Some prisoner names can be ascertained from newspaper records (like the Chicago Tribune), but we have yet to find records of Charles Davis’ imprisonment or possible death. 

CLICK HERE to learn more about the history of Libby Prison.

George Willson

George Willson was the only child of Clarissa and James Willson, who served two terms as Village president in the 1870s and 80s. George graduated from Chicago Medical School when he was 23. Shortly after, he enlisted in the Union army and was appointed assistant surgeon at a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. While courageously trying to save soldiers from yellow fever, he contracted the disease himself and died. 

The Willson House at 688 Cherry, c. 1900. George Willson lived in this house with his parents before he tragically died of yellow fever during the Civil War. 

After his death, George’s bayonet was sent home to his parents. When James and Clarissa Willson were brutally murdered inside their home at 688 Cherry Street in 1884, their late son’s bayonet was found at the scene. The bayonet was later donated to the Winnetka Historical Society. 

CLICK HERE to read more about the Willson murders.


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