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Elizabeth McGee

Elizabeth McGee first appears in Hardtack and Heartbreak when she is sixteen and living in the household of her brother, Hugh. Their parents had died some years before and Hugh took in Elizabeth and two younger brothers. The cause of the parent’s deaths is not known but their early deaths were not exceptional. Life expectancy at that time was in the thirties.


Hugh McGee was looking for a teacher. He lived in Grand Chain, Illinois, a small settlement on hills above the Ohio River, where they had not had a school the previous year—and not often over any past years. He heard of an educated man in Mound City and sought out J.F. McCartney who was working at a sawmill. A futile trip seeking a teaching job in Memphis left him without enough money to return to Ohio. J.F. was quick to accept the offer to open a school in Grand Chain.

A room above a store was cleared, benches were assembled, and school began in early spring 1857. Over the months, an attraction grew and, when school was out for the summer, J.F. asked Elizabeth to go to church with him.

That fall, J.F. returned to Ohio for education to prepare him to become a lawyer, but letters kept them connected as they planned for a future together. In 1859, with his education complete, he was admitted to the Illinois bar. In November of that year, Elizabeth and J.F. were married. She was eighteen and he was twenty-five.

Their daughter was born days before Lincoln was elected. After the war began, Illinois and other Northern states began to raise troops. Elizabeth begged her husband to stay home, and he agreed, hoping the conflict would be brief. After the birth of their son, he joined in early 1863 when high losses in the 131st Illinois Infantry required replacements. At that time, the 131st was part of the campaign to take the powerful fort at Vicksburg which blocked traffic on the Mississippi River.

J.F. preserved Elizabeth’s letters to him despite the hazards of weather and conflict. One hundred and forty years later, I learned they were in the possession of a great granddaughter.


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