GREEN VALLEY — The saluting sound of gunfire rang out while a trumpet’s tune peacefully filled the background.
More than 30 citizens, young and old, gathered around a large tombstone. Next to a color guard, a local police officer carried an antique gold frame.
The small frame held a war relic of great magnitude: a Medal of Honor.
After almost 156 years, the Civil War bravery of three Tazewell County residents was honored Saturday morning at a ceremony at Green Valley Cemetery. The trio — Thomas Murphy, who is buried at the cemetery, and John Ayers and William Reed — long ago were awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of valor on May 22, 1863, during the Battle of Vicksburg. Their courageousness was recently rediscovered by Tazewell County workers going through documents at the county courthouse.
At Saturday's gathering, the small frame held Murphy's Medal of Honor. Although the light blue fabric that grasps the tarnished eagle and star is now tattered and worn, the significance of the Medal of Honor is woven into the fabric of the community. Donated by a relative, the medal will be displayed permanently at the Tazewell County Museum and Educational Center.
“It’s something to be proud of,” said Steven Saal, superintendent of the Tazewell County Veterans Commission.
He said that it's hard to realize the great sacrifices that were made in the Civil War, “especially by those from our little Tazewell County right here.” Saal recently discovered that more than 533 Tazewell County residents were killed in the Civil War.
At the ceremony, state Rep. Tim Butler presented a resolution honoring Murphy.
“It’s right that we honor our veterans, no matter when those veterans served,” Butler said. “Thomas Murphy did a great thing not only for the citizens of Illinois, but for the citizens of the United States.”
At age 17, Murphy voluntarily enlisted in the Union Army as a member of Company I of the 31st Illinois Infantry Volunteers in August 1861. According to Murphy’s Medal of Honor certificate, “He crossed the line of heavy fire of Union and Confederate forces, carrying a message to stop the firing of one Union regiment on another” while he and his company were amid the “heart of the battle.”
On Saturday, the Tazewell County Ceremonial Team performed a 21-gun salute, cannon firing and retirement of colors while a wreath was laid at Murphy’s burial site. Also present were an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and Civil War reenactment soldiers.
“It was a beautiful ceremony. I would say it was equivalent to Arlington,” said deputy recorder of deeds Sharon Sciortino. “And I’ve been to Arlington many times. I’ve been to Audie Murphy’s grave and Lincoln’s memorial, and I thought how proud Lincoln and Audie Murphy must be of what we’ve done today.”
As for Reed and Ayers, Illinois’ soldier quota was already filled at the time they enlisted in the Union Army. They both traveled to St. Louis to join the 8th Missouri Volunteers. They are buried outside of Illinois.
“You know, it’s interesting," Sciortino said. "You look at these gentlemen and all the gentlemen that have served, no matter what they did ... they have all participated in bringing us the freedom that we have today.
"It’s an honor to take a step back in history to honor these men.”