Lucy Harmon celebrated her ninth birthday on February 18, 1864. She received a picture from her father, Colonel Oscar Harmon, for that special day.
“I send a picture to Lucy for her birthday present,” the Colonel wrote in a letter to his wife. “I have nothing else to send.”
The Civil War had divided the nation and Harmon was camped with the 125th Illinois Volunteer Infantry near Rossville, Georgia. The vast majority of soldiers in the regiment were from Vermilion and Champaign counties. Colonel Harmon was in command of the 125th.
Lucy lived in a big house at the edge of Danville on the south side of what would one day be East Main Street. The house was just a short distance east of the Great Western Railroad tracks and station. A train had carried her father and his regiment off to war on those tracks two years earlier.
She was just a little girl but she never forgot that September day when her father left.
“That sad day is a never-to-be-forgotten memory,” Lucy wrote. “Friends were coming and going with heavy hearts and sorrowful faces, some bringing flowers and other offerings.”
Shortly before leaving his home Colonel Harmon gathered his family about him and they knelt and he prayed to the “God of Battles” for protection and guidance in the coming conflict. Then he left and assembled his regiment and marched them to the Great Western Station accompanied by a band and cheering people.
Danville was growing in 1864 when Lucy celebrated her ninth birthday. The 1860 population was 1,632, but that number would more than double during the decade. Colonel Harmon fondly titled his home and few acres of land a “little farm.” It would eventually be swallowed up in the city’s expansion. Harmon, a successful lawyer, was looking forward to returning after the war and continuing his practice.
“When I get home, intend to have a large glass show-case made to put my war clothes, saddle, bridle, sword, pistol and other things in, and keep as long as I live. Don’t you think it will be a good idea,” he wrote in the same letter he sent his picture to Lucy in.
Then came the last morning of the Colonel’s life. “Monday morning, before sun rise June 27,” he wrote to his wife. “Last night orders came to move at sun-rise this morning, and movements indicate that we are going to push the enemy. I shall have to cut this note short, therefore my dearest, and if nothing happens, will write you again in a day or two...”
That morning the Colonel was killed and dozens of his men fell with him in the assault he led on the Confederates at Kenesaw Mountain, Georgia. (Also spelled Kennesaw Mountain.)
His death was devastating for the family. Lucy remembered her mother Elizabeth leaned heavily on her friends and church in the dark days following the receipt of the telegram. But Elizabeth was a strong woman and she recovered and the family continued to live in Danville.
On May 15, 1878, Lucy married Reverend Simon J. McPherson in a ceremony in the Presbyterian Church. Following the wedding, Lucy and her husband left Danville and lived in Chicago and New Jersey, but she never forgot the father she lost when she was 9 years old.
She preserved the Colonel’s letters and collected newspaper articles and letters sent to the family after his death.. She had them printed in a book, “Life and Letters of Oscar Fitzalan Harmon.” The volume summed up the life of one of the finest men and leaders to ever call Danville home. Lucy sent the books to her Danville friends with a small card pinned inside stating, “With the Compliments of Lucy Harmon McPherson.”
She also honored her father in another way. When her son was born March 9, 1883, she named him Oscar Harmon McPherson. Lucy was only 9 when she lost her father, but in those nine years he built a lasting place in her heart.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.