The Champaign, Havana & Western stood on the main track. The clock had struck eleven just 10 minutes before and Jeremiah did not hear that either. Nor did he hear the switch engine pushing a car full of tile, creeping up behind him. Railroad workers and bystanders started to shout, but Jeremiah was oblivious to their cries of alarm and the railcar struck him in the back. Campbell struggled to clutch the car to prevent falling, but, in sickening slow motion, his leg became caught under the car and his body was pulled beneath its undercarriage. As the cries of alarm changed to shrieks of horror, the heavy steel wheels severed both of Jeremiah’s legs just below the hips.
Crying “Take me out; take me out,” Campbell died within eight minutes. Railroad workers took the lifeless body to Bullard’s undertakers. That afternoon, Coroner Bendure interviewed eight witnesses to the grisly accident and ruled that the death undoubtedly had been accidental. Jeremiah Campbell’s mother and some relatives – he had been single – drove their buggy up from Moweaqua, returned the body to their home and buried him there a few days later.
Jeremiah Campbell had been in the employ of M.K. Carroll and his saloon at 150 N. Franklin St. (near today’s Decatur Public Library). He had, in fact, lived next door at No. 152 N. Franklin. His handicap probably precluded Jeremiah tending bar – as patrons expected the barkeep to respond to their requests, without having to repeat themselves. However, Jeremiah Campbell, who stood 5’8″ tall and had grey eyes and dark hair – would have been beloved in that old saloon, not for what he could hear, but for the incredible stories he could tell.
Jeremiah Campbell was not an itinerant drifter or a deaf man to be pitied, but a soldier – and a distinguished one at that. In October 1861, he enlisted as a private in Company E of the 32nd Illinois Infantry Regiment. Commanded by the famous Colonel John Logan, and suffering 268 dead in the Civil War, the regiment had a distinguished combat record and Campbell could tell of its deeds at the Battle of Shiloh, the Siege of Vicksburg and the Assault on Kennesaw Mountain. On March 21, 1865, at Bentonville, North Carolina, a Confederate Minié ball struck Campbell behind the right ear, exiting the left side of his nose. At the same time, a second bullet smashed into the front of his right shoulder, exiting his back below his shoulder blade. Rebel troops captured Jeremiah Campbell and treated his wounds before Yankee troopers captured the hospital. The first wound would cause total deafness in Campbell’s right ear. It had been a miracle that he had survived.
Jeremiah Campbell stayed in the Army after the war, serving three years in the artillery (which did nothing to improve his hearing) before finding himself in Company K of the 7th Cavalry in 1872. In 1876, after visiting Illinois on a 34-day furlough, he returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory just in time to go on the Great Sioux Campaign on May 16, 1876. Now a sergeant, on June 25, 1876, Jeremiah found himself at a place called the Little Bighorn, where with his comrades in Company K and six other cavalry companies defended a small hill against 2,000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors – just after those same warriors had annihilated General George A. Custer and five companies of the regiment.
Sergeant Campbell and most of the seven companies survived that engagement, although his hearing was further impaired by that deafening action. Later that year, Campbell got into trouble; he was court-martialed and was reduced to private. He finished his term of service in January 1877 as a private “of good character” and left the service.
The Army never left Jeremiah Campbell and he ended up with the rough and tumble characters of Carroll’s saloon in our own Decatur, Illinois as they sang:
Our hearts so stout have got us fame,
For soon ’tis known from whence we came,
Where’re we go they dread the name,
Of Garry Owen in glory.
For more by French MacLean visit his website: www.thefifthfield.com