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Civil War Era History

Gabriel Durham - The First to Fall at Gettysburg

Story by Jack Klasey
Kankakee Daily Journal
April 29, 2017

Gabriel Durham

Gabriel Durham was four months short of his 20th birthday when he enlisted as a member of McClellan's Dragoons on Aug. 2, 1861.
Kankakee County Museum Photo Archive

On the morning of April 12, 1861, a shell from a Confederate cannon struck Fort Sumter, S.C., setting off the Civil War. Two years and 79 days later, on July 1, 1863, a Confederate artillery shell burst above a ridge near Gettysburg, Pa. A large piece of that shell struck and severely wounded a young Union cavalryman from Kankakee, Gabriel Durham. He was the first Union soldier to fall in what would become one of the bloodiest and most significant battles of the Civil War.

When the war broke out, "Gabe" Durham and his older brother, Jerome, were printers, operating a weekly newspaper called the Kankakee Union. In August 1861, 19-year-old Gabe took a train to Chicago and enlisted in McClellan's Dragoons, a cavalry company. The Dragoons served as the escort and bodyguard unit for colorful and controversial Union Gen. George B. McClellan. In December 1862, McClellan was relieved of command, and the Dragoons were reorganized as part of the 12th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry.

Durham Book Store in downtown Kankakee

David L. Durham, younger brother of Gabriel, operated a book and stationery store in downtown Kankakee for many years in the late 1800s. In this photo of a tightrope walker performing on Court Street near East Avenue in the late 1860s, the Durham name is visible on the second building from the right.
Kankakee County Museum Photo Archive

When Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee began marching his army northward in June 1863, the 12th Illinois was part of the Union's 1st Cavalry Division, which was assigned to determine where the rebels were headed. By late June, both the Union and Confederate armies were in southern Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, a town of 2,400 people.

On June 30, Maj. Gen. John Buford, commander of the 1st Cavalry, positioned his troopers along McPherson's Ridge, one-half mile northwest of Gettysburg. That night, the cavalrymen could see the campfires of Confederate forces under Gen. A.P. Hill, only 3 miles farther to the northwest along a road known as the Chambersburg Pike.

Buford's men, similar to most Union cavalry, were trained to fight either on horseback or dismounted. On the morning of July 1, about 2,200 men of the 1st Cavalry, in units from New York, Indiana and Illinois, were spread along and in front of McPherson's Ridge. The men of the 12th Illinois, including Durham, were dug in just to the north of the point where the Chambersburg Pike crossed the ridge.

By 8 a.m., Confederate soldiers had crossed a creek at the base of McPherson's Ridge, and charged the Union lines. The cavalrymen, firing from behind fences and rock piles, drove them back in a 20-minute firefight. Both Union and Confederate artillery kept up a steady bombardment, with pauses only to reload their cannons. Despite the ferocious rifle and artillery fire, the entrenched Union troopers suffered only a few minor injuries.

After about one-half hour of fighting, ammunition was running low for the 12th Illinois, and the troopers' canteens had run dry as well. Durham volunteered to make the hazardous trip to the rear for new supplies of ammunition and water. An account by Ed DeReamer, a fellow Kankakee cavalryman, was related years later by local historian Burt Burroughs:

"As he started out, he carried also seven or eight canteens, expecting to bring back a supply of water. The field … was raked at intervals by artillery fire of the rebels. (He) had gone a considerable distance when, suddenly, there was a report of a battery and Gabriel Durham threw up his arms and fell to the ground, his left hip shattered by the shot."

DeReamer went to his aid, moving him to cover in a small grove of trees. The company surgeon stopped the bleeding but predicted the wound would prove to be fatal. Durham was moved to the Lutheran Seminary building in town, which was pressed into service as a field hospital for hundreds of casualties from both sides.

Durham clung to life for more than three weeks, finally succumbing to his wounds on July 23. According to one account, he died in the arms of his father, Pleasant Durham, who had traveled to Gettysburg to be with him. His body was returned Kankakee for a funeral service at First Methodist Church and burial in Mound Grove Cemetery.

In the bloody three days of fighting at Gettysburg, more than 3,000 Union soldiers died; Durham, who was fatally wounded on July 1, generally is considered "the first to fall."

12th Illinois Cavalry Monument

The 12th Illinois Cavalry monument stands on McPherson's Ridge, not far from where Gabriel Durham was fatally injured by a shell fragment on July 1, 1863. Listed on the monument are the five cavalrymen from the 12th Illinois who were killed at Gettysburg. Standing to the left of the monument is Dr. B.F. Uran, first president of the Kankakee County Historical Society. He visited the battlefield in the early 1900s.
Kankakee County Museum Photo Archive