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Monmouth College to receive Civil War general's artifacts

By Jeff Rankin
Taken in Matthew Brady’s Washington, D.C., studio in 1868, this portrait of Congressman Abner C. Harding is among the artifacts that will be presented to Monmouth College on Saturday.
A trove of personal effects belonging to a renowned Civil War general and railroad builder will be presented to Monmouth College by his descendants on Saturday.

During the 10 a.m. ceremony in Hewes Library, an officer’s sword, a family Bible, an engraved walking stick and a photographic portrait by Matthew Brady will be among the items presented to college president Mauri Ditzler by family members of Gen. Abner Clark Harding.

Harding (1807-1874) was one of the principal founders of Monmouth College in 1856, having donated the land for its first building and the endowment for its first professorship. Born in Connecticut, he settled in Monmouth in 1835, where he plied his trade as an attorney until failing eyesight made him abandon that career. In 1851 he formed a company to build a railroad from Peoria to the Mississippi River, eventually selling the route to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy line for a tidy profit.

At the age of 55, despite poor eyesight and health, Harding enlisted as a private in the Union Army, but was immediately elevated to colonel and took command of the 83rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, a regiment populated heavily with Monmouth College students. Assigned to guard the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, he held off a Confederate force that outnumbered his troops 10 to 1 at the Battle of Dover in 1863, a feat that resulted in a field promotion to brigadier general.

Following the war, Harding successfully ran for Congress on the Republican ticket. One of his most significant accomplishments during  two terms in office was personally securing the charter to build a railroad bridge across the Mississippi at Burlington. He also served as first president of the National Bank of Monmouth. He is buried in the Harding family plot in Monmouth Cemetery.

Harding descendants from Washington, D.C., California, Iowa and Wisconsin will be in attendance for the ceremony, which will be held in conjunction with Family Weekend activities. Tom Best, a lecturer in the college’s history department, will present a talk on the life of Gen. Harding. The public is invited.

The artifacts will serve as the nucleus for a future permanent exhibit celebrating Monmouth College’s military heritage. Among its alumni are four Medal of Honor winners, including George H. Palmer, a nephew of Gen. Harding, who distinguished himself at the Battle of Lexington, Mo. One of Palmer’s direct descendants is expected to attend the ceremony, bringing with him Palmer’s medal and a Confederate battle flag captured at Lexington.