Amidst the fierce fighting on the morning of June 27, 1864, men of the 125th Illinois Infantry were being cut down by the dozen in front of the “Dead Angle” position in the Confederate salient. When brigade commander Dan McCook fell mortally wounded, Colonel Oscar Fitzalan Harmon assumed command, only to be killed himself a few minutes later by a bullet to the head.
A quick look through Harmon’s pension file at fold3.com, courtesy of the National Archives, shows that he was much more than a colonel leading a regiment in an attack at Kennesaw. Like so many of these men, he was also a husband and a father. By adding just a few personal details on to his story, we can understand and appreciate his sacrifice so much more.
Oscar Fitzalan Harmon was born in New York in 1827. His parents were Ira and Corrina Harmon, who lived in the northwestern part of the state. After working as a school teacher, Oscar began practicing law, being admitted to the New York bar in 1850. A few years later, he moved to Illinois, and met Elizabeth Catherine McDonald Hill, who was a young widow with two children from her first marriage.
Oscar and Elizabeth were married on February 21, 1854. Presiding over their wedding was Enoch Kingsbury, a Presbyterian Minister, in Vermillion County, Illinois. One year later, almost to the day, Oscar and Elizabeth welcomed their first child. Lucy Bell Harmon was born on February 18, 1855. Two years later, Charles A. Harmon was born on October 21, 1857. Next up, Fanny D. Harmon was born on September 10, 1860, and rounding out the growing family, Corinne R. Harmon was born on March 15, 1863.
Oscar enlisted in the Union army as the colonel of the 125th Illinois on September 4, 1862, in Danville, Illinois. Thus, he was already in the army when his youngest child was born in early 1863.
On June 26, the day before the assault at Kennesaw Mountain, Oscar Harmon took the time to write home to Elizabeth. His letter is quite moving, as it displays his thoughts on the eve of his death, as well as his love both for his family and his country.
Well dearest I must close in conclusion I must say, I still love you and think I am the most fortunate man in the world in having as good a wife. You have been very kind to me and more so if possible since I have been in the army. The remembrance of these things my dear one, as I pass along, affords me much kind happiness and my pleasure and when I look forward with a great deal of pleasure when kind providence I hope will permit us to see each other face to face. I feel if I escape this campaign that I am pretty safe.
I have so far, for your sake been prudent and do not expect to be rash. It does not [s]how that a man is any braver than others who keep their places. If I fall, expect me to fall in my proper place. Then no blame can attach to me. Let us hope for the best, Kiss my darlings for me. Give my compliments to my friends. I am better along very well now. Had a potato this morning, it was glorious, and a pickle too.
When Harmon was killed at the Dead Angle on June 27, 1864, it was a tremendous blow to his family and all those who knew him in Danville, Illinois. His remains arrived home a week and a half after the battle, and on July 10, a funeral procession was held, with a riderless horse, a special hearse and funeral march, and thousands of onlookers there to pay their respects.
After Harmon’s death at Kennesaw Mountain, Elizabeth applied for a widow’s pension. In 1865, her pension was awarded at 30 dollars per month. Despite this money, Elizabeth was 41 years old and faced with raising four very young children on her own. She would experience heartbreak once more in 1871, when on March 19, her second child, Charles, passed away. What caused this death, the pension file does not indicate, but it was no doubt a terrible loss for a family which had already sacrificed a father and a husband on the fields of Georgia several years before.
Note: The excerpt from Oscar Harmon’s letter to his wife on June 26 is found in Brad Quinlin’s latest book, “Under the Shadow of a Grim and Silent Kennesaw: Letters from the Kennesaw Mountain Battle Line,” published by Brad in 2013.