Biography of Sheridan Wait – trusted friend of Governor Oglesby

Sheridan Wait was born in Washington County, New York, in 1828, where he went to school and read law. This was not unusual for his family as both his father was a lawyer and his brother was a lawyer who later became a judge. Wait left New York and became a schoolteacher in Tennessee for a year or two. He then decided to move farther north and went to St. Louis on his way to Illinois. While there he met the current Governor of Illinois Augustus C. French who just happened to be in the city. The Governor advised him to open a law office in Decatur which he said presented a good opening for a young enterprising lawyer. The Governor gave him a letter of introduction to an influential friend in Decatur. This friend was probably Charles Emerson and so Wait came to Decatur in 1852.

Wait’s first law partner was Charles Emerson, the county’s first resident lawyer, who later became a judge. In 1853 Wait and Richard Oglesby (later General, Governor and Senator) formed a law partnership. The same year Wait was also advertising in Decatur’s Shoaff’s Family Gazette newspaper as an insurance agent for the Mutual Fire Insurance Company of Alton. In 1854 and 1855 Oglesby and Wait served as agents for the Indiana and Illinois Central Railroad after Oglesby promoted the railroad in 1853.

Wait and his various partners were involved in 21 cases that included Abraham Lincoln. These cases were spread out from 1851 to 1858. In 1852 he had 8 cases that involved Lincoln, in 1853 there were 4 cases with Lincoln, in 1858 3 cases and in 1851 2 cases. In 1854-1857 there was only one case per year with Lincoln.

Early in life Wait was a Democrat. In 1860 he ran on the Union Ticket and was elected mayor of Decatur for a year. He became a Republican with the start of the Civil War and later served 6 years as a member of the Republican State Central Committee. Crossing both the political and legal fields in 1862 Wait signed a petition to President Lincoln along with other members of the Macon County Bar Association to support David Davis of Bloomington in receiving a nomination to the United States Supreme Court.

Sheridan Wait is not found in the Macon County census for 1850 and 1855 census. By 1850 he had not yet arrived and the 1855 census only listed heads of households at a time when he was probably a boarder in someone else’s house or at a hotel. In the 1860 federal census Wait is listed as living in the house of famous photographer, E. A. Barnwell, along with Barnwell’s family and several others. Barnwell took the only known photograph of Lincoln in Decatur in 1860. It is probable that Wait was a boarder at the Barnwell residence along with five other non-family residents. His occupation is listed as a 32 year old lawyer born in New York with $40,000 worth of real estate and $500 worth of personal property which shows he was investing heavily in real estate.

Some of his real estate holdings can be explained through this discovery. In 1855 and 1856 Wait purchased 1,240 acres in Montgomery, Fayette and Piatt Counties through the land office from the federal government. In other business in 1861 Wait was involved in the incorporation of the Mattoon and Decatur Railroad Company. It was planned to run from Mattoon through Sullivan to Decatur. What eventually became of this railroad is not known yet.

When the Civil War started, Wait became an assistant adjutant general for Oglesby and on April 21, 1862, he received an appointment as captain. By the fall of 1862 Oglesby was leading a brigade made up of possibly 17 regiments so Wait’s duties probably included keeping personnel and other regimental records in regards to casualties, promotions, enlistments, reassignments, decorations/awards, etc. Wait was promoted to major on May 8, 1863.

Wait submitted his resignation on June 22, 1863, when he thought Oglesby would resign from the army sometime in 1863 due to the wounds Oglesby received at the Battle of Corinth in October of 1862. Wait may have felt he would be needed by Oglesby when he returned to civilian life as Oglesby was still recuperating from his wounds and they would both need to earn a living. Yet, Oglesby was asked to stay in the army and was given light duty by being assigned to hear court-martial cases in Washington, D. C. Oglesby would stay in the army until May of 1864 and then begin his campaign for Governor of Illinois.

Wait’s resignation was approved on July 10,1863, and he probably returned to his law practice and other business investments in Decatur. The postwar years would see a decline in his law practice and the rise in other business ventures. Both he and Oglesby in 1860s and 1870s invested in real estate and mining together.

In April 1865 Governor Oglesby, Sheridan Wait and Isham N. Haynie were probably the last of his old Illinois friends to see Lincoln alive before he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. The 3 men had called at the White House a little after 5:00 p.m. on April 14th but did not find Lincoln at home. As the trio were leaving Lincoln who had just arrived in his carriage called out to them to return. They spent some time discussing the war and the coming peace. Even though Oglesby’s party tried to leave Lincoln asked them to stay as he read chapters from a book by a leading humorist of the era, Petroleum V. Nasby. Lincoln read, laughed and joked with his old friends from Illinois. These moments were probably among the happiest of his last full day alive. The President was called to dinner 3 times during the visit by the Oglesby party and finally went to eat and leave for Ford’s Theatre.

Later that night the men were staying at the famous Willard Hotel when Oglesby heard a commotion in the streets and learned of Lincoln being shot. Oglesby hurried to the Petersen House, a boarding house, to see his friend. There he maintained an all night vigil near Lincoln’s bedside. Oglesby would later travel with the President’s body on the funeral train back to Springfield. Over the next almost 10 years Oglesby headed the Lincoln Tomb Association to raise funds to construct Lincoln’s Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

A year after the war Wait became active in the earliest days of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization. Founded in April of 1866 he attended a GAR convention in Springfield only a few months later in July of 1866.

In 1867 Wait was involved in the incorporation of two railroads. They were the Pekin, Lincoln and Decatur Railroad Company and the Decatur and East St. Louis Railroad Company. Among those investing in the Pekin, Lincoln and Decatur Railroad Company were well-known Decatur businessmen Lowber Burrows and Franklin Priest plus John D. Gillett, future father-in-law of Richard Oglesby who was an Illinois cattle and land baron.

In the 1871 Decatur city directory the Pekin, Lincoln and Decatur Railroad was noted as almost completed and that trains would soon be running on its entire 67 mile length by the end of October of 1871. In Smith’s History of Macon County written in 1876 it said the railroad was constructed in 1871 and was leased at its completion to the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railway Company who later took over managing it.

The 1871 Decatur city directory also said the Decatur and East St. Louis Railroad was completed to the Illinois side opposite St. Louis but they were waiting on the Eads Bridge to be completed which would carry trains over the river to St. Louis. In Smith’s History of Macon County written in 1876 it stated the 108 mile railroad was built in 1868 under the management of the Toledo, Wabash and Western Railway Company. After the completion of the Eads Bridge, the railroad’s trains could finally travel into St. Louis.

In other business Wait served one term as Commissioner/Trustee of the Illinois and Michigan Canal from February 1865 to February 1869. Yet, he did find time to see the West. In 1869 Wait and Oglesby were invited on an excursion of various businessmen and politicians to celebrate the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The six week tour started on July 5 and included stops in Omaha, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and San Francisco. Senator Lyman Trumbull and Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune, were among the nearly 40 officeholders and businessmen. The August 3 issue of the “Daily Alta California” newspaper reported that they were registered at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in San Francisco.

In the 1870 Macon County Census, Sheridan Wait was living in Decatur. His residence was listed as the Revere House, a well-known downtown Decatur hotel.

In 1871 he moved to Chicago and became involved in real estate in that region. In the 1870s Wait and Oglesby invested with Chicago bankers James and Chauncey Bowen in real estate both in Chicago and St. Louis. At the time of his death in 1879 he had also been president of the Chicago and Calumet Dock Company for 4 years.

Due to the Panic of 1873 real estate sales declined and Oglesby and Wait sometimes lost real estate to foreclosures and tax sales when taxes and loan payments could not be made. Also, in the 1870s Wait failed to receive an anticipated appointment as Collector at the Port of Chicago so his financial position grew tighter. Wait and Oglesby did get John D. Gillett to invest in their St. Louis real estate holdings which they felt had great potential but sadly his finances worsened. In 1879 Wait near bankruptcy decided to go west to renew his fortune with investments in the silver mines of Colorado but after only a month in Leadville he passed away on July 24, 1879, due to “congestion of the lungs”.

One obituary described him as quiet and unassuming. The Macon County Bar Association paid him a glowing tribute in an article published in the Decatur Republican newspaper. Another article described him as an active but not prominent politician. No mention was made in his obituary and research has not found any indication that he ever married or had children.

His funeral was held at the Governor Oglesby Mansion in Decatur on July 28th and he was buried in the Oglesby Family plot in Greenwood Cemetery. Among his pallbearers were General Jesse H. Moore, one of five generals from Decatur, Dr. H. C. Johns, Civil War veteran and husband of historian Jane Johns, and Capt. M. F. Kanan, one of the charter members of GAR post No. 1 in Decatur. His funeral was attended by the Decatur Cornet Band, a platoon of police and many veterans along with the Decatur Grenadiers and Decatur Guards units. His funeral concluded with a 3 volley gun salute.

To find Wait’s grave in Block 7 of Greenwood Cemetery go first to the grave of Anna Oglesby, the Governor’s first wife. Look behind and to the left for a rounded top marker. Wait’s original military gravestone was placed in 1897 almost 20 years after his death. In 2011 it was replaced by a free military gravestone provided by the Veterans’ Administration due to the deterioration of the previous one. Funds from private donations were collected to pay for the labor and installation of the new gravestone. Wait’s grave was one of the featured stops on the Greenwood Cemetery tour on October 1 and 2, 2011.

Article by Brent Wielt