Medal of Honor recipient from Illinois honored after 156 years

By CHRIS KAERGARD | Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. | Published: May 11, 2019

PEKIN, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Not many people know it, but three Tazewell County residents were awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's most prestigious decoration.

It's an achievement that a few dedicated folks in the area are hoping to make more well-known, with a ceremony next weekend honoring the trio, who each earned the medal for actions during the prolonged Battle of Vicksburg in 1863.

The discovery of the honor – which has been earned by only about 3,500 people nationwide – came by happenstance. County Clerk John Ackerman was talking with deputy recorder of deeds Sharon Sciortino, who mentioned to him that the office kept military discharge papers for 980 Civil War veterans. Looking through, they saw the Medal of Honor citation for Thomas C. Murphy of Green Valley.

The Irish-born Murphy volunteered for war at age 17, and two years later was serving as a corporal in the 31st Illinois Infantry when it was sent to assault the fortifications in Vicksburg, Miss.

But some wires got crossed. In addition to coming under fire by Confederates defending the city, they were also being shot at by another Union unit.

"He volunteered at 19 years old to run in front of his men firing, in front of Confederates firing, in front of the other Union (unit) firing at him because they don't know who he is, with the message, 'Stop, you're hitting us!'" Ackerman said. "It was amazing gallantry."

It's also an amazing history lesson, says Christal Dagit, who heads the Tazewell County Museum.

"The children (locally), especially, need to know they have some deep-seated historical living-up to do," she said.

Hence the desire to raise the profile of Murphy and the other two who earned the medal from the county with a ceremony next Saturday at the Green Valley Cemetery, where Murphy was buried after his death in 1920. The event comes within days of the May 22 date on which Murphy – and the other two men – earned their medals.

And it will feature a guest officials managed to land by sheer good fortune.

Working with the county clerk's office in Salt Lake City, Ackerman got a contact for someone they believed to be a relative of Murphy.

"It just happened to be the relative that inherited the Medal of Honor," he said. A several-times-great-nephew, apparently.

"What are the odds of getting the one family member that far removed that happens to have it?" Ackerman asked rhetorically.

And the good fortune continued.

The relative offered to put the medal on loan to the Tazewell County Museum for display on an ongoing basis.

Dagit hopes that a sign can be erected eventually nearby, noting that unless people are looking for the grave and see the Medal of Honor notation on the gravestone, it passes with little attention.

Both agree that's not right for a man who returned home from the carnage of war and gave back to his community.

After seeing so much bloody combat, Murphy enrolled at Rush Medical College and practiced as a physician in Manito and Hopedale, helping to heal.

Medal of Honor discovery sparks push to make more discharge records public

State lawmakers may soon make it easier for family members and researchers to look at military discharge papers.

The move comes as an offshoot of Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman's research into local Medal of Honor winners from the Civil War.

The recorder of deeds section of that office maintains discharge papers for veterans in the county, but state law, Ackerman found, only allows the release of those papers to the veteran or a direct descendant – a son or daughter.

No one else, including grandchildren, can access them.

So, much as the official record-keepers in the recorder's office "cherish" the documents – including nearly 1,000 Civil War-era discharge papers with what he says is impressive penmanship – "they're still being stuck in a closet and not being utilized," Ackerman said.

Pending legislation he asked state Sen. Chuck Weaver and state Rep. Tim Butler to sponsor has passed the Senate unanimously and is awaiting a House floor vote.

It would allow the records to be viewed by anyone in the public – minus personal information like Social Security numbers for newer veterans – at the same time as other federal documents are released. Ackerman said that would be 62 years after being filed.

"This is a genealogist's treasure trove," he said.

The recorder's office is also likely to loan out some of those record books to the Tazewell County Museum for display and research if the measure passes and is signed into law, Ackerman said.


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