Confederate veteran became prominent area resident

Russ Kasper
For Rantoul Press

It can be said that no war will keep one’s faith from overcoming hard times.

This was especially true 150 years ago during the American Civil War. In 1841, The Rev. Adam Hodam and his wife, Eliza, presented a baby boy to their union, James Harrison Hodam.

His first four years were spent growing up in a religious environment in Ohio. In 1844, the family moved to Roane County, Va., where James’ father began farming a 300-acre tract. Besides farming, the family was deeply committed to serving their God and became active in the church.  

Adam deeded off a piece of his land to make room for a log church and local cemetery. James was active in building the church from the ground up.

Life was hard. Farming was hard work and required everyone to commit their all to ensure the family could survive one season to the next. Their faith is what drove them during these harsh years.

It was in 1860, when politics within the United States took a turn that would later be known as a Civil War. Southern states were contemplating the need to secede from the Union, dividing our great country into two separate nations, the Union and the Confederacy.

In 1861 political turmoil was at its peak, and the Northern sympathizers fled Virginia, and that state seceded from the Union, becoming the first new state in the Confederacy. A call to arms began, and an army was built.

James Hodam answered the call, and with a few friends set out on foot across the wilderness of Appalachia to join the Confederate forces building in southern Virginia.

Hodam enlisted in the 17th Virginia Calvary. He was involved in many major battles between the North and South, while campaigning in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

He was a meticulous writer and doodler. He maintained a journal of all of his adventures. In his journal he recorded day-to-day life of being a soldier, its hardships, its comical moments, his love for family and the horrors of war.

He noted that he survived the Battle of Gettysburg, where on the first day of battle he was knocked unconscious by a shell burst that killed his horse. He goes on to tell how he survived typhoid fever and later a gunshot wound to his thigh in August 1864 at a battle near New Creek, W. Va.

His most memorable account comes when his unit was still engaging the enemy just west of the Appomattox Court House, when Lee surrendered to Grant April 9, 1865.

As second sergeant for his unit, it was his responsibility to escort his men to the court house to surrender. For him and the other members of his unit, the war was now over.

After the war he returned to his home in Spencer, W. Va., where as a Confederate veteran he was treated as persona non grata by the Union politicians.

Life was already tough throughout the war-ridden country. Food, jobs and dignity were scarce for the losing veterans. Finally in 1868, Hodam decided to leave his family and his beloved West Virginia to follow his heart. It began an adventure that would take him to Livingston County, Ill.

At this point you might ask why a Confederate soldier would move to Illinois, a state known for anti-slavery and equal rights for all.

It was his heart that drove him here and the love of a woman whom he met in West Virginia while on campaign with the Confederate Army.

His love was Sarah Harshbarger, a young girl from Augusta County, Va., whose family left the war-scarred South for a more promised land in 1867.

At this time they were engaged for some three years. With his future bleak, plus the difficult political situations facing him in West Virginia, Hodam made his way north on foot and by boat to get to Illinois and reunite with Sarah. In 1868, they were married. After the marriage they moved to the Harwood Township, surrounded by the new towns of Rantoul and Ludlow.

It was there they made their home and became leading citizens.

Life was not all peaches and cream. Life was hard. James earned money by husking corn for $1.25 per day and breaking virgin prairie sod for other farmers. Most of northern Champaign County was a vast prairie with many swamps and marshes.

In the early days of farming this land required the digging of ditches to drain off the swamp water and cut sod to get to the fertile dirt below. This was all done by hand.

The land was mainly barren of usable timber for building suitable homes for the new pioneers. Early settlers carted lumber from as far away as Danville. Winters were extremely harsh during the early years. Many family members perished at early age due to the frigid winters and harsh conditions living on the prairie.

Hodam and his wife were determined to survive. He purchased three work horses and started breaking sod at $3 per acre for a neighbor in the spring of 1869. By summer 1869, Hodam had saved enough money to buy 80 acres of prairie land in Harwood Township. It was here he started to make Illinois his home.

Despite his Confederate background, Hodam and his wife became prominent citizens in their new community. James was well respected and considered an honorable and upright member of the community. It was from this respect that he was elected town clerk as a Democrat in a strongly knit Republican township.

He continued farming well along in his life, and rented out his farm and moved into the small town of Gifford in 1899. After a short respite, he went back to West Virginia to get his ailing father, the Rev. Adam Hodam , now 81 years old, and Adam’s second wife Amy Peck Hodam, and move them back to Gifford to live out the rest of their lives.

James and the Rev. Hodam were regulars among the townfolk roaming the Rantoul streets and partaking of the modern shops found there during the turn of the century. He continued to write in his journal daily, even after all the many years after the war.

He explained that religion was still an important part of his life. Most of the preachers were on a circuit, so attending church required one to travel to Rantoul, Ludlow and Gifford. One would ride into the town in the morning, attend morning church, enjoy a communal meal with the other parishioners, attend afternoon service and then return home in the evening.

It made for a long day when most farmers only took off Sunday as a day of rest and reflection. Finally a Methodist minister set up a church and school in Gifford and made a more permanent church family for which Hodam and his family began attending in the 1880s.

In 1875, when the railroad was completed in Rantoul, stations were added in Harwood and Dillsburg. Hodam wrote how farmers now had a means to get their crops to the big cities. It increased the cash flow for area farmers who now could get better prices for their crops.

Hodam’s eldest son, Robert, took advantage of this situation and quit teaching and went into the grain-buying business.

In 1903, James, his father Adam, and Adam’s wife Amy, all died. Their earthly remains were interred at Maplewood Cemetery.

His wife, Sarah Harshbarger Hodam, survived until 1921. She, too, was interred with her husband, along with their daughter Anna Eliza Hodam.

Their footprint remains local in the Rantoul community. Their daughter Cordelia married Francis Chumbley of Rantoul and resided here until her death in 1962. The Chumbley and Harshbarger families have living desendants in the Rantoul area.

Although no Hodmans remain in Rantoul today, his memories of Rantoul and East Central Illinois linger in his book “The Journal of James H. Hodam,” a copy of which is available for review at Rantoul Public Library.

“No parting words shall e’er be spoken
In that bright land of flowers,
But songs of joy and peace and gladness,
Shall ever more be ours.”
“We’ll never say good by in Heaven,
We’ll never say good by,
For in that land of joy and song,
We’ll never say good by.”  
James H. Hodam, March 1902

Russ Kasper is a researcher for the Rantoul Historical Society.

Categories (2):News, People


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