The Parson and the Lieutenant, Henry Risley and William Rumsey - Battery A 1st Illinois Light Artillery
The story of a pair of Illinois comrades who arrived in Seattle in 1889.
William Rumsey was born in Batavia NY in 1838. He moved to Chicago in 1855 and as a young man there worked as a clerk at Rumsey Bros & Co. In 1861, as the threat of Civil War loomed on the horizon, Rumsey committed to joining his friends to enlist in the Chicago Light Artillery in February after reading in the papers about a threat from a South Carolina newspaper that even though President Lincoln had been elected, he would never make it alive to Washington. The battery existed as a pre-war militia organization and was prepared and eager to answer the initial call to volunteer to fight for the Union. The battery was mustered into federal service in April 1861 and became Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery. Rumsey enlisted as a private but steadily earned promotion and ultimately mustered out at the rank of 1st Lieutenant. He was twice offered the rank of Captain, the first time with the Commissary Department in December 1861 and again offered an appointment of Captain with another battery. Both times he refused, preferring to stay with his comrades of the original Battery A.
Henry Risley was born in 1835 in a small log house south of Joliet. As an infant his family moved to a farm west of the city, living there until his father moved the family again, this time into the town of Joliet as their effots at farming had proved unprofitable and his father had been elected Sheriff of Will County. By the age of 14 he was dividing his time between schooling and working as a clerk in a store his father operated. In 1850, William made his way to Chicago and took up a position as a clerk in the Chicago post office. His work there lasted for a couple years after which he attended a select school and enlisted in the famous “Red Jacket” #4 company of Chicago’s Volunteer Fire Brigade. He worked in a variety of positions in Chicago and occasionally back in Joliet with his father. By 1860, he was in the grocery business in Chicago until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he promptly enlisted in Battery A in April 1861.
Risley earned for himself the long-lasting moniker of “Parson” Risley early in the unit’s service. The battery spent the first months of their enlistment in 1861 along the banks of the Mississippi near Cairo, Illinois in a camp that they named Camp Smith. Near the site of Camp Smith lived an older, poor couple who had become quite friendly with these Chicago soldiers. In June, the husband died suddenly and not knowing what else to do, the wife came into the camp to ask the boys for help. They willingly obliged, and staged a makeshift funeral for the man, at which time, William Risley was selected to be the “Parson” for the occasion and offered some impromptu words of scripture to console the grieving old woman. Risley was henceforth known as “Parson” Risley to his battery mates.
Battery A of the First Illinois Light Artillery served with distinction over the next 3 years, participating in battles such as Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Jackson, Champion Hill, Vicksburg, Kennesaw Mountain and the Atlanta Campaign. (A “new Battery A” was organized late July 1864 in the middle of the Atlanta campaign with some remaining members of the original Battery A that were consolidated with remnants of Battery B. Neither Risley nor Rumsey were with the battery by that point)
Battery A was referred to by the veterans later as being very much like a family, with many sets of brothers, some father and son pairs and many grouped by extended family relations or pre-war friendships. The closeness of the soldiers helped them endure the years of war and also persisted through the decades following the war. Yet, even as Risley and Rumsey would be linked by their time serving in the battery together, it was one incident in particular that bonded them for the rest of their lives.
June 13th, 1864, the guns of Battery A were positioned along a ridge facing Confederate entrenchments as the armies faced off near the town of Resaca GA. The battery was placed along the line of battle on a forward sloping hill with view of the Confederate works. On the top of the ridge above were two 20 pound Parrot cannons of a 4th Ohio battery. These guns fired over the 1st Illinois battery into the distant Confederate entrenchments. One of their fired shells burst early, directly above the Illinois artillerymen and a fragment of shrapnel tore through Lt. Rumsey’s shoulder tearing through the flesh to the bone. Rumsey later stated that the shrapnel had “killed his shoulder strap”. The unfortunate incident of friendly fire ended Lt Rumsey’s service as he was promptly removed to a field hospital. “Parson” Risley was also sent along, detailed to help care for the wounded officer.
The battery history wrote of an entertaining story that involves Parson and Lt Rumsey during this time: “An amusing incident occurred in the hospital tent at Resaca, in which Lieut. Rumsey was staying, while waiting for transportation home. He had a hard night and Parson Risley was sleeping soundly by his side, "Wanting some water in the night, he called for the "Parson." He did not waken easily and John's repeated calls for the "Parson" aroused the chaplain who was sleeping in the same tent. He supposed some poor sufferer was needing spiritual consolation of a different nature from what Rumsey was calling for, and promptly came to his assistance. Rumsey was disgusted and said " I don't want you, I want this parson by the side of me." It was a surprise to the chaplain to find there was another Parson in the same tent more sinful perhaps than he. The Parson managed to arouse enough to get on his feet, and forced the contents of his canteen into Rumsey's face. His manner of doing it, brought out the remark from Rumsey that he would make a better "wet nurse" than anything else”.
The pair returned to Illinois and be mustered out of service in 1864. Parson Risley resumed work at the Chicago post office for a time before removing back to Joliet for some years. William Rumsey worked for the Chicago Board of trade until the late 1880’s. In 1885, Lt. Rumsey was one of the first organizers of the Battery A Veterans Association and served as it’s first president. The Association organized reunions of the old veterans and both Rumsey and Risley attended these events while they continued to reside in Illinois. In 1889, both Risley and Rumsey emigrated to Seattle with their families.
Unable to attend the battery's 1893 reunion, Parson Risely wrote the following letter on behalf of himself and Lt. Rumsey, to be read to the boys in Chicago at the reunion:
"Seattle, Washington, July 17, 1893. " C. B. Kimbell, Secretary Battery 'A' C. L. A. Vet. Assn.: "Dear Comrade: Your very kind invitation to the grand reunion of the old Battery 'A' is received, and in reply would say that I deeply regret my inability to be present on that occasion, but in heart and hand I am always with you. I am at the present writing enjoying the delightful climate and scenery of Puget Sound, in the city of Seattle, where I have been for the last four years, having as good a time as possible so far away from old comrades, friends and associates. "Say to the girls and boys of Battery 'A' that 'Old Parson' is still on deck, and often, while in company with Jack Rumsey, we talk over those pleasant recollections of bygone days. Jack and myself are in all probability farther away from that beautiful city of Chicago than any other members of Battery 'A,' still our love for her and her kind-hearted and patriotic citizens that were so generous to us in those dark days, grows no less. We still cling to her and her good people, as we do to our country and the dear old flag. "Seattle, the queen city of the Sound, is well stocked with all 'kinds of choicest fruits and berries of the season, while the shores of her lovely bays are filled with delicious clams, and her waters, with all kinds of saltwater fish, the mountain streams alive with trout, all of which afford abundance of sport for the angler these delightful summer days. "Still Jack and myself have been sitting down so long waiting for suckers' that we will soon need reinforcements to make us presentable to our families. It recalls to memory a scene in '61, way down in Egypt, when Lou Mitchell was crucified for being in camp with a whole pair of pants. But such is life in the wild and woolly West. "Mrs. Risley wishes to be kindly remembered to all the girls of Bat- tery 'A,' especially to Mrs. Spencer Kimbell, Mrs. Chase and others. "Wishing you all a good time and a full house, and my kind regards to all the girls and boys, is the prayer of the only private on the Sound. Yours fraternally, H. B. Risley."
Parson Risley and Lieutenant Rumsey visited one another often during their years in Seattle. Risley. like many of the older veterans who had moved to Seattle, worked in an assortment of businesses over his years here. His work ranged from the drug business to being a night watchman. Rumsey dealt primarily in the real estate business. Both men made their homes in the vicinity of lower Queen Anne hill. Parson Risley passed away in 1917 and is buried in Seattle’s Grand Army of the Republic cemetery. Lt. Rumsey passed away in 1923 and is buried nearby in Seattle’s Lake View cemetery alongside his family.
(As an interesting postscript, there are two other members of the 1st IL Light artillery that came to Seattle, both men of Battery B, which was coincidentally commanded by William Rumsey’s brother, Captain Israel Rumsey)
Lieutenant John Rumsey photo: History of Battery "A," First Illinois Light Artillery Volunteers
Parson Harvey Risley photo: History of Battery "A," First Illinois Light Artillery Volunteers
1885 reunion of the Battery A Veterans Association. Risley and Rumsey are circled. photo: History of Battery "A," First Illinois Light Artillery Volunteers
Grave of Parson Risley near the GAR monument, Grand Army of the republic Cemetery, Seattle WA photo by author
Grave of Lt. Rumsey, Lake View Cemetery Seattle WA photo by author