EDN Bicentennial Series: Benson Wood, a giant in late 19th century Illinois politics

Submitted photoU.S. Congressman Benson Wood.

On Feb. 19, 1896, the Effingham County Courthouse was “full to overflowing” as the county Republican Central Committee gathered to name their choices for statewide and national offices.

With R.F. Lawson of Effingham as chairman and C.E. Munday of Altamont as secretary, the committee introduced and accepted resolutions endorsing Benson Wood for Congress, Gen. H. Clark for Governor, Wm. McKinley for President, W.E, Mason for United States Senator, and Thomas B. Needles for Auditor.

The congressional nominee, nearly finished with his term as a member of the 54th Congress, was well-known throughout the State of Illinois and was a personality mentioned in numerous newspaper articles across the United States. During the course of his life, Wood gained great fame as a lawyer, a politician, an orator, and a great advocate for United States veterans. When he died in 1915, several national and state groups passed resolutions to mark his death. On McKendree College campus, a building was constructed in his honor, while in Effingham a popular and highly regarded hotel bore his name.

Benson Wood had moved to Effingham County in 1864, settling in the county seat.

His was born near Bridgewater, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, on March 31, 1839. It was there that he began his education by attending the common schools. He then furthered his knowledge at the Montrose (Pa.) Academy, and the Wyoming Seminary in northeastern Pennsylvania. Benson’s brother, Virgil, and Benson’s future wife Jennie A. Jewett, were also enrolled at the seminary. It was through the contacts made at college that Benson became aware of a position at Franklin Grove Academy in Lee County, Illinois, a location to which he moved in 1859.

For two years, Benson Wood was principal of a school, then the Civil War broke out and changed his life dramatically. He enlisted and was commissioned as first lieutenant of Company C, a unit known as the “Rock River Rifles,” the 34th Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Sept. 7, 1861. While his unit was involved in the bloody battle of Shiloh, Wood’s horse was shot from under him, but he was not wounded. Due to brave and efficient service during the battle, the young soldier was promoted to the rank of captain on Oct. 6, 1862, with the promotion being retroactive to May 1 of that same year.

Wood was involved in the siege and battle at Corinth and in the Battle of Stone’s River in the aftermath of army movements after Shiloh. The war took its toll on him and undermined his health, leading to his resignation and discharge on Jan. 29, 1863.

From the terrors of war, Benson Wood entered the University of Chicago where he studied law. By June 8, 1864, he had completed the course of study and was granted the degree of Bachelor of Law as the valedictorian of his class. By July 6 of the same year, the ex-Civil War soldier was admitted to the bar in 1864, being licensed by the Illinois Supreme Court to practice law in all the courts of the state. Shortly thereafter he traveled to Effingham to set up a law practice by forming a partnership with William Avery.

In the same year, i.e., 1864, when it became clear that the new law practice showed great promise of success, attorney Wood returned to the Pennsylvania community where he had spent his childhood to seek the hand of Jennie Jewett in marriage. Four days before Christmas, the two were wed. Then the two traveled back to the Illinois town where they would reside until their deaths.

The young couple arrived in Effingham in early January of 1865, securing housing in the Fleming House hotel. When Jennie’s father came to visit them in the fall of 1865, he decided to help his daughter and son-in-law have a place of residence suitable for a prosperous lawyer, so he purchased a building lot for them at the corner of Third Street and National Road. Additionally, he presented the couple with adequate money to build a home on that location.

The home they established there became the focus of their lives. For Benson, it was a sanctuary where he could escape the pressures of the very active life in which he was involved.

Benson Wood’s law partner moved away from Effingham in 1866, thereby leaving Wood in business for himself. For the next two years, the legal practice was simply known as “Benson Wood.” He and Jennie began to fit into the community as valued citizens.

Religious faith was central to the life the young couple cultivated together. They were both devout Methodists and participated in the various activities of the local congregation. They also became active in societal activities in the town.

By 1868, Wood was seeking another law partner. This time it was William Borton. For seven years, the law firm was involved in legal matters in the community. During those same years, Benson Wood also became quite active in politics, activity which took him outside of the small town where he practiced law.

When the Republican Party met in their state convention in Springfield in September 1870, Benson Wood was selected as a vice president of the statewide party, representing the 11th legislative district. The convention then endorsed the administration of President Grant, as well as the achievement of Republicans in general. The group selected a slate of officers to run against the other parties in the Illinois elections of that year; they also, by acclamation, nominated General John Logan for Congress.

Two years later, in a presidential election year, Benson Wood was a candidate of the Republican Party, running for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. He was victorious and became a member of the 28th General Assembly of the State of Illinois.

In 1876, the Illinois Republican Convention named Benson Wood as one of the delegates to the National Convention which was held in Cincinnati that year. In that convention, Jacob Wheeler of Mason and W.H. Barlow of Effingham were members of the State Central Committee.

During the mid- to late-1870s, Wood also was deeply involved in the Illinois National Guard. When the new military code went into effect in September of 1874, the Effingham lawyer was named as Judge Advocate General. Then when it became apparent that there were problems with the new code, in 1878 Brigadier General Benson Wood was a member of the committee called by a large convention to create a new bill for militia law.

By the end of the decade, Benson Wood’s name was well-known throughout the state, so much so that when the Republican Party was ready to nominate Shelby M. Cullom for the gubernatorial post in 1880, Benson Wood was on the short list to be nominated as Lieutenant Governor. In 1880, Wood was also being given serious consideration as the congressional nominee from his district.

Although not elected to either post whether in the Illinois executive branch or in the federal legislative branch, Wood continued to build more of a reputation for himself as a member of the National Republican Party, as an orator, while continuing his local law practice. In the last capacity, he served as counsel to Mason’s Dr. James Newton Matthews when there was an attempted assassination directed at the doctor.

Finally, in 1894, Wood became the Republican nominee of the 19th Illinois Congressional district. Although he had quite a good reputation and his oratorical skills served him well, William McKinley, at that time governor of Ohio, later President of the United States, traveled to Illinois and helped campaign for the Effingham resident. Along with a great number of other Republicans, Wood was elected to Congress serving one term during the second administration of Grover Cleveland. The headlines that year proclaimed “Next Congress Republican; Democrats lose heavily all over the country: Returns Show that in the Fifty-fourth Congress the Republicans Will Have a Large Majority.” As one of the victorious candidates, the Effingham man was a chief speaker at a “monster jollification meeting” in Vandalia which celebrated the Republican successes. And then it was off to Washington, D.C. to combat President Cleveland’s policies.

The local lawyer continued to be a popular speaker at other types of rallies in the area especially at veterans’ affairs. Typically these affairs were run by the Grand Army of the Republic. When one was conducted at Bethany in 1895, people from neighboring towns crowded into the small community.

In like fashion, Congressman Wood was among the speakers at the funeral of Representative Fred Remann from Illinois. Other addresses at the funeral were given by ex-governor Joseph Fifer and representative Sharrock.

Also in 1895, Wood had become such a major Republican leader that when the party wanted to encourage certain candidates to run for office the Effingham resident was among the chief members of the delegations sent to talk to the potential candidates.

By 1896, following the lead of Richland County, Effingham County was once again ready to nominate Benson Wood for Congress. Later other county conventions in the district did the same. This time the sentiments of the 19th district were decidedly more Democratic than in the previous election. Political pundits wrote that because of the silverite issue, the incumbent congressman was practically defeated well before the election took place. .

In the aftermath of the brief congressional career, Mr. Wood remained a vital part of the Illinois cultural landscape. In 1897, Governor Tanner appointed the former Civil War officer as a trustee of the soldiers’ orphans home in Normal. In that same year, he also was elected as a vice president of the Illinois State Bar Association. By July 1900, Judge Benson Wood presided over the 24th annual meeting of the Illinois bar.

The Effingham lawyer remained steadfast in his commitment to the veterans. For example, when at Greenville, a magnificent monument was dedicated to the memory of the 1,200 Bond County men who served in the Civil War. Wood was there representing the Illinois department of the GAR. Newspapers account him as a notable personage ranking along with the governor of Illinois, the lieutenant governor of Illinois, the commander in chief of the national Grand Army of the Republic and other national dignitaries. Similarly, that same year when a grand monument honoring Abraham Lincoln was dedicated in Rosemond Grove cemetery, near Pana, the former President of the Illinois Bar Association was one of two principal speakers who addressed the approximately 1,200 visitors. Wood was the primary speaker at Mattoon when the community dedicated its GAR headquarters building in 1903.

When Civil War General William Carlin died, Department Commander Colonel Benson Wood delivered the eulogy at the Carrollton cemetery.

When President Theodore Roosevelt visited Rockford, Illinois, in 1903 to dedicate Memorial Hall, Benson Wood was the principal speaker of the day. Upwards of 50,000 were in the city for a very inspiring day.

It was also in 1903 that thousands of people lined the streets of San Francisco to witness a huge parade of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic. A newspaper reporter wrote, “ Headed by a detachment from Illinois commanded by Benson Wood, the Grand Army detachments appeared in full muster at their appointed stations, ready to move with the main column which started punctually at 10 o’clock.”

The immensely active lawyer from Effingham was gaining such fame that residents in Shelby County tried to start a movement to draft Wood as a candidate for governor.

The next year, 1904, Wood spoke at the Illinois State Bar Association banquet. That same year the former Congressman was the chief representative of the governor of Illinois when ceremonies dedicating the Illinois monument at Shiloh battlefield were conducted. He spoke: “Long years ago it was my privilege to be on this field, and not far from this spot. I then bore a commission from the executive of my State. Among other things it imposed upon me obedience to the commands of superior officers. It was signed by Richard Yates, the War Governor of Illinois. That distinguished man has long since passed away. He sleeps in the State which honored him, and which was highly honored by his long, efficient and patriotic public service.

“More than forty years have rolled by since that time. Some of my former associates, with myself, are here again. It is my unexpected honor to hold again a commission bearing the signature of Governor Richard Yates — the distinguished son, and one of the successors in office of the great war executive of the olden time. It directs me to act, on this occasion, as his ‘representative on behalf of Illinois.’”

Through the rest of his life, Wood remained an active part of the Illinois political landscape. In 1906, he was a participant at the Cullom Conference in Chicago. In 1907, he was a delegate to the Trust Conference. In 1908, Wood was the main speaker at the dedication of the new Illinois Supreme Court building.

When he died in 1915, there were many tributes to him. Those accolades demonstrated that this honorable man was truly a giant in Illinois politics.

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