Spencer C. Tilbe was a Union supporter during the Civil War, swearing his oath of allegiance in St. Louis following President Lincoln's first call for volunteers to serve in the Union Army. He served as a guard in a jail for Confederate prisoners, which was located in an old tobacco warehouse on the northwest of Center and Third streets, Hannibal. Thanks to Peter Danielsons for his help in pinpointing the location of Tilbe's grave in Hannibal's Riverview Cemetery. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
For the Courier-Post
A moment in time brought together two Hannibal men, whose lives were in many ways parallel. But for one critical juncture, the two men might have been friends, or at least business associates. Instead, the gulf that existed the moment they met was so wide that Hayward V. Surghnor (born 1839) and Spencer C. Tilbe (born 1835) might just as well lived on opposite ends of the continent.
The juncture was the emotional divide between north and south that existed in early 1860s Hannibal. The era was defined by the early years of the Civil War, when Union troops occupied Hannibal in order to protect transportation venues, while families with Southern sympathies swelled the population.
The drums of discontent were sounding across the land, from Virginia – Surghnor’s homeland - to Missouri, where Tilbe was raised from a boy.
Tilbe went to work as an apprentice in the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad shops at Hannibal circa 1860, when he was 25. His work was soon interrupted, however, by President Lincoln’s first call for 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union cause. Tilbe joined 90 other men from Hannibal on a chartered steamboat destined for St. Louis, where the men were administered the oath of allegiance at Jefferson Barracks.
Returning to Hannibal and awaiting orders, Tilbe was assigned to guard Southern prisoners confined in an old converted tobacco warehouse at the northwest corner of Third and Center streets.
Valentine H. Surghnor, at the age of 46, made the critical decision as the 1860s dawned to move his wife and large brood of children from their native state of Virginia to Hannibal, Missouri, as just as Southern sympathizers were gaining support for ultimate succession from the Union.
Valentine H. Surghnor was a southerner at heart, and carried within his persona an undying loyalty to the cause. He and his 21-year-old son, Hayward, were among the most vocal of the Confederate dissenters in Hannibal.
Hayward, oldest of Valentine and Elizabeth Brashear Surghnor’s children, walked proudly alongside his father on the streets of Hannibal as the Civil War battles were erupting across the land.
In 1919, Hayward, then 80 years of age, described his war memories to a reporter from the Quincy Daily Whig, which printed his story in its April 6, 1919 edition.
“In the year 1863,” the newspaper reported, “father and son were walking in the business section of Hannibal which was filled with Union troops. Col. Moore accosted the two and demanded to know of Mr. Surghnor’s father if he was Col. V.H. Surghnor.
“’I am,” replied Col. Surghnor, ‘and what can I do for you?’
“’You and your son are under arrest,’ declared Col. Moore, ‘because you have made remarks against the federal government.”
Taken to prison
The Surghnors were placed in the makeshift jail along with 200 other Confederate sympathizers. Two weeks later, by then tired of the lack of proper food and poor sanitary conditions, the elder Surghnor called out to a guard at the jail.
The guard was none other than Hannibal native Spencer C. Tilbe.
Surghnor, with his son at his side, demanded to meet with Col. Moore, and Tilbe passed along that request to his superior officers.
Once face to face with Col. Moore, the elder Mr. Surghnor said: “I want to know what you are going to do with me,” to which Col. Moore replied that he intended having the father shot by federal troops.
“’That doesn’t sound nice,’ declared Surghnor, ‘but I want to tell you, Col. Moore, that you can go ahead with your dastardly scheme and when you have killed me with your bullets I have just one request to ask of you and I hope that you will grant it. You see that hill over there to the south which looks like a mountain (meaning Lover’s Leap of Indian legend). I want you to dig a hole in the ground at the top of that mountain and I want you to bury my body head first with the feet sticking toward the heavens. Then I want you to plant a Confederate flag at my feet and allow it to wave through the war.’”
The newspaper account elaborated: “The defiant attitude of Surghnor apparently caused Col. Moore to do some deep thinking with the result that he ordered the release of Surghnor and his son and ordered them to return to their home and stay there for thirty days until the trouble over Surghnor’s remarks against the Union calmed down.”
The Surghnors complied.
Two days after the Quincy Daily Whig published the Surghnor military story, it followed with Spencer Tilbe’s war memories.
Interviewed when he was 84 years old, Tilbe said: “When we left Hannibal to enlist, there were a dozen or more Confederate flags flying in the city. When we returned we made Hannibal a loyal town. I was placed on guard duty during the war and our job was to keep the railroad open. This we did. There were some exciting happenings in Hannibal during those days of strife and woe.”
The newspaper noted that the only fighting in which Mr. Tilbe participated was at Monroe City where the federal soldiers were entrenched in a college building. “The Confederates had brought a couple of nine-pounders within striking distance of the town, which they shelled. Reinforcements were brought to Monroe City by the union officers and within a short time the union forces had driven away their opponents. The Confederates lost one of their big cannon to the Union forces in the engagement. The loss of life was small.”
After the war
At war’s end, citizens settled in and adjusted to the new normal.
Tilbe went back to work for the Hannibal and St. Joe Railroad, where he would continue his employment as a machinist for 26 years. He is credited with installing the first airbrake on a rail engine west of the Mississippi River during the late 1860s. He also owned a farm near Mount Olivet Cemetery where he raised fruit. He was a 59-year Mason. When he died in 1921, he lived at 1514 Fulton Avenue.
He was survived by four children, including Mrs. R. Richardson, Mrs. Nettie Mosely and Harry Tilbe, all of Hannibal.
In his later years, he was superintendent of Hannibal’s Riverview Park.
The elder Mr. Surghnor was overseer of the poor for a number of years, and lived at 904 Lyon St. He died on Sept. 23, 1881, when he was 67 years old. He and his family are buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Hayward V. Surghnor was a life-long farmer, living primarily in Ralls County. He never married. He died Sept. 29, 1920, and is buried with his parents at Mount Olivet Cemetery. There are no markers to pinpoint the graves, which are located in Section 6, Lot 2.