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Re-enactors to commemorate Civil War physician in Freeport July 23

July 21, 2011

Staff Report

FREEPORT, Ill. — The Civil War will be brought back to life briefly when re-enactors gather in the Freeport City Cemetery to commemorate the placement of a marker on the grave of a Confederate States Army physician. Saturday, July 23, at 3 p.m., uniformed and period-costumed re-enactors will gather with descendants of Richard Caswell “Bunkey” Swain to mark the laying of a new grave stone. The event is hosted by the Stephenson County Museum.

More than 20 members of the Fourth Texas Infantry will be present to provide an honor guard as the descendants of Dr. Swain dedicate a marker for his final resting place. Mike Shore will serve as the pastoral guide for the ceremony.

According to Suzy Barile, author of a biography of Freeport’s General Smith D. Atkins, Swain was a native of Raleigh, N.C., a graduate of the Medical College of Charleston in Charleston, S.C., and the only son of David L. Swain, a former North Carolina governor and for 30 years the president of the University of North Carolina (UNC), and Eleanor Hope White Swain, the granddaughter of the state’s first Revolutionary War governor, Richard Caswell.

Named for his maternal great-grandfather, Swain graduated at the age of 20 from UNC in 1858 and went to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pa., to begin his medical studies. Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election as president prompted a parade of Southern states to secede from the Union and necessitated Swain’s transfer to the Medical College of Charleston before an impending war forced him to leave school prior to graduation. In 1861, he became a physician’s apprentice in Weldon, N.C.

Weldon was a busy town along the railroad, with war supplies flowing daily from the capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., to Raleigh and other strongholds of the South. Barile reports that Swain probably treated numerous soldiers who were injured in battle and sent to military and civilian hospitals.
In the spring of 1862, shortly after his wife died unexpectedly, Swain left Weldon for his father’s hometown of Asheville, N.C., and volunteered with the 39th North Carolina Regiment. He served as assistant surgeon from August 1862 until his discharge in May 1863, treating soldiers at the military hospital in Shelbyville, Tenn.

Barile, the third great-niece of Swain, reports that over the next two years, Swain tried to establish practices in both Shelbyville, where he married a local girl, and in his hometown of Chapel Hill. But the aftermath of war, notes Barile, and the effects of what today would probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress syndrome, made it difficult for him to succeed.

At the urging of his brother-in-law, General Smith D. Atkins of Freeport, Swain moved to Shannon in Carroll County, Illinois, in early 1868. The soon-to-be-chartered village was growing and in need of a physician. The opportunity to move to Illinois with his wife, Margaret Steele Swain, and their daughter, Eleanor Louise, allowed Swain to open “an extensive practice in medicine and surgery,” according to the Freeport Weekly Journal.

Swain was attempting to board a moving westbound train on Jan. 29, 1872, when he slipped and fell under the train, and died of his injuries. In published obituaries, both the Freeport Weekly Journal and the local German newspaper noted his “generosity” and “kindly sympathy … to all with whom he came in contact.”

Swain’s remains were sent to Freeport, and he was buried in the City Cemetery beside William Eddy, a Union soldier. Upon the death of Swain’s mother in 1883, and according to her wishes, a monument was erected: “Sacred to the memory of Richard Caswell Swain, son of Hon. David Swain, and Eleanor, his wife, of NC. Born Raleigh, 11/28/1837. Died by accident on railroad near Shannon, Ill., Jan. 29, 1872. Erected by his affectionate EHWS of Raleigh, NC.”

Over time, however, the headstone was lost. A 1932 cemetery census conducted by the Freeport chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution noted only his name and a portion of the inscription remained.

But that documentation and his CSA records are what his descendants needed to request a new marker from the Veterans Administration. During a 3 p.m., Saturday, July 23 ceremony, the marker will be placed at the site of Swain’s grave by his descendants. The public is invited to attend the ceremony.

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