Career soldiers typically retire after 20 years of service, but the soldier standing guard in front of Kankakee County’s Courthouse has been on active duty for 132 years, with no plans for retirement.

The larger-than-life (7-foot-tall), copper bronze statue of “a soldier at parade rest,” standing atop a tall limestone and granite base, is a monument to Kankakee County men who died in the Civil War. A plaque on the north face of the monument reads:

“In Memory of the Soldiers of Kankakee County who Fought for the Union, 1861-1865. Love of Country is a Nation’s Strongest Safeguard, 1887.”

Dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument on Memorial Day, May 30, 1887, was the fulfillment of a dream first voiced eight years earlier by Kankakee dentist and Civil War veteran Dr. Andrew S. Cutler. Speaking at the county’s Memorial Day observance in 1879, Cutler “expressed the hope that in the near future, Kankakee County would erect a suitable monument to the memory of the dead soldiers.”

Reporting on the 1887 unveiling of the monument, the Kankakee Weekly Gazette noted that it “is the fruition of that hope,” and acknowledged that “probably no man in the county has so constantly kept that thought alive as Dr. Cutler.”

Fundraising for the Soldiers’ Monument was carried out by the Whipple Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Civil War veterans’ organization) under the direction of Cutler, who was the post’s commander. The campaign, which eventually would raise $6,000, began Sept. 23, 1885. A $400 donation by prominent Kankakee businessman Emory Cobb (which was the single largest contribution) “was a starter which gave impetus to the work,” reported the Gazette.

A wartime bond between soldiers became an important advantage to the fundraising effort. Col. Haswell C. Clarke, treasurer of the Whipple Post, had served on the staff of Gen. Ben Butler during the war. When seeking a source for the granite base of the monument, Clarke contacted Butler, a principal investor in the Cape Ann Granite Co. of Massachusetts. Butler arranged to have the company “deliver the monument at actual cost” for less than $2,500. The Gazette noted that, “it would cost, under the ordinary terms of purchase, $5,000.”

Unveiling and dedication of the monument would be the centerpiece of Kankakee County’s 1887 Memorial Day observance. Four days before the May 30 event, the Gazette told its readers, “arrangements are fast being completed for a great occasion. The railroads have announced excursion rates, and the city will be crowded with visitors. The dedication of the soldiers’ monument will be a feature worth coming many miles to witness.”

Although the printed schedule for the day’s activities declared that “Exercises at the Court house square will begin at 1 p.m. sharp,” weather conditions were unfavorable. A heavy and lengthy downpour forced ceremonies to be moved to the Fourth Regiment Armory on the north side of Court Street. Most of the large crowd was unable to fit in the Armory for the hourlong program, consisting of band music and speeches. By the time the program ended, the rain had stopped, and the “audience adjourned to the courtyard to listen to the dedication service. This was brief and after the form prescribed by the G.A.R. ritual.” Appropriately, the dedication address was delivered by Post Commander Cutler.

Once the monument was dedicated, the focus changed to ceremonies honoring the Civil War dead buried at Mound Grove Cemetery. (Memorial Day was often referred to as “Decoration Day” because veterans’ graves were decorated with flowers on that day.) A procession consisting of a drum corps, a band, military units, Whipple Post members, wagons bearing “flower girls” and carriages of local citizens slogged the muddy, mile-long distance along Harrison Avenue to the cemetery.

At Mound Grove, the drum corps and members of the Sons of Veterans escorted the flower girls to the graves of the 48 Union soldiers buried there. “Each soldier’s grave, previously marked by a flag, was decorated with the wreaths, crosses and cut flowers, which each little girl carried,” noted the Gazette.

The Soldiers’ Monument is the oldest and most familiar of four military memorials on the courthouse lawn. The second — a large concrete panel painted to resemble an American flag — was unveiled in 1918 by local veterans groups to honor “the brave men who have gone forth to preserve for the present and future generations that flag we know and dearly love.”

The remaining two memorials were added in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, the Sons of Gold Star Mothers erected a memorial to the county’s war dead; in 1964, a flagpole honoring Spanish-American War veterans was placed in front of the courthouse’s north entrance by the local American Legion and VFW posts.

Jack Klasey came to Kankakee County as a young Journal reporter in 1963 and became hooked on local history. In 1968, he co-authored “Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County.” Now retired, he remains active as a volunteer and board member at the Kankakee County Museum. He can be contacted at jwklasey@comcast.net.

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