Memorial Days in Elgin a century ago were highlighted by parades with former Union soldiers marching in prominent position, while the few Confederates who participated were relegated to the end of the processional.
That all changed in 1913 when former Confederate Captain William Creighton saved the life of Elgin's oldest Union veteran a few days before the holiday and found his placement in the next parade quite different.
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William Creighton came to Elgin in the years following the Civil War to work on telegraph lines being strung through Elgin. He would eventually make the city his home, taking up residence on the near west side.
Once the overseer of a plantation with more than 400 slaves, Creighton fought in the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas. It was a conflict in which 10 soldiers of the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry -- a unit made up of Elgin men -- lost their lives.
"Pea Ridge was the worst and bloodiest battle in which I was ever engaged in," said Creighton following a 1912 interview -- a year in which he marched at the end of Elgin's Memorial Day parade.
"Five times we assailed the Union batteries, climbed to the top of their fortifications, and were beaten down.
"The horses were shot from under me. In the trenches below, our men were heaped up five feet deep. I still limp slightly from the wound in my leg," he added.
Unlike many, Creighton took a conciliatory attitude following the war.
"They licked us and that is all there is to it," he added in his 1912 interview. "I thank God to this day that the Union is still one."
Creighton's standing in the community took a decided change several days before Memorial Day in 1913. Ninety-one year old Lieutenant James Depew, a veteran of both the Mexican War and the Civil War, was crossing the railroad tracks in downtown Elgin. As he prepared to board a passenger train, unbeknown to him, a freight train was approaching as well.
The crowd shouted warnings and onlookers turned their faces away, expecting Depew to be instantly killed. Hearing the cries, Creighton ran across the tracks and seized DePew by the shoulder, swinging him clear of the oncoming train. He then jumped to avoid being hit by the engine himself.
DePew thanked Creighton for saving his life and then boarded the train to Bloomington, where he was being honored for his service in the Mexican War. The elder veteran said he was uninjured with the exception of a sore shoulder. The 75-year-old Creighton credited his ability to accomplish the successful rescue to "good habits" and "constant exercise."
Several days later, when Elgin's Memorial Day parade stepped off in the city's downtown only a short distance from where the lifesaving event occurred, plans were quite different from in recent years. Creighton and a Confederate comrade, Edward Halpin, were "escorted from their usual positions in the parade and placed in the front ranks with the post commanders maintaining their Guard of Honor."
R.R. Parkin, Grand Army of the Republic commander, announced, "Captain Creighton, a few days ago you saved the life of our oldest comrade from death. From this day on, until the last roll call has been sounded, you and your comrades are no longer able to march with the line of blue. Your place is in the front rank of the Grand Army of the Republic with a Guard of Honor. Forward March."