Few young mid-western girls in the early 1850s had the advantage of advanced education. Local resident Almira Jane Williams, born in Quincy on February 23, 1838, was one of the fortunate adolescent females able to pursue further education. Her parents, Archibald Williams and Nancy Kemp, married in Quincy in 1831. At thirteen, Almira had completed the schooling obtainable locally. Her father, the Hon. Archibald Williams, considered one of Illinois’ most important attorneys and a friend and colleague of Abraham Lincoln enrolled her in the newly established Christian Female College (now Columbia College) in Columbia, Missouri.
Almira was registered as a member of the college’s first class in 1851 and graduated on July 4, 1854. A distant relative, John Augustus Williams, operated the college where study included philosophy, arithmetic, ancient history, grammar, ancient geography, and composition.
Almira returned to Quincy under heartbreaking circumstances. Though she was one of nine children, only five lived to adulthood. Just months before Almira’s graduation her mother died in childbirth on March 16, 1854. The Quincy Daily Whig reports that the funeral was held the following day in the family home. It is likely that Almira learned later of her mother’s death. The new infant sister, Nancy, named after her mother, was likely a responsibility of Almira on her return. The independence of her school years followed by personal tragedy was embedded at an early age and became thematic in her life.
In 1860, Almira was twenty-two, living in the family home and little Nancy was six years old. In November 1860, she married Dr. Charles Henry Morton, twelve years her senior.The couple never had children of their own. Though Morton had previously practiced medicine and operated a drug store, he changed his livelihood to the real estate business when he married.
A few months after the Civil War began, Charles Morton was commissioned as a Major in the 84th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment on August 9, 1862. Slightly wounded at the Battle of Stone River in December of 1862, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on July 24, 1863. On September 20, 1863, Morton was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga and sent to the notoriously overcrowded and harsh Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia where “food was scarce, prisoners slept on the bare floor with no blankets and conditions were filthy.” He was imprisoned for six months.
During Morton’s enlistment, Almira was one of the founders of a local Civil War support group, the Needle Pickets. She served in one of the five local military hospitals and assisted in helping the families of soldiers. When Morton was reported ‘missing in action” Almira received a pass from Governor Yates to go anywhere within Union lines to search for her husband.
Her search was in vain. Morton eventually received a parole in March, 1864, and was mustered out June 8, 1865. As reported in military records before being mustered out, Morton was not the same man after the imprisonment. Almira, who was with her husband for the last six months of his service, commented in later depositions that during that time he was “morose, morbid and suspicious of his brother officers.” She commented further that he became “suspicious of everybody and thought everybody, including myself, was conspiring against him.” Morton carried a pistol day and night.
Though changed, life resumed in Quincy. Early in their marriage Charles and Almira had planned to travel together to Europe. However, it was Almira who made the journey. With Quincyan Aldo Summer, and a “spicy correspondent” of Keokuk’s Daily Gate City, Miss Kate Perry, Almira sailed to Europe in October of 1872. Summer and his family had previously traveled to Germany in 1870. The trio set out to spend a year traveling in Germany, England, France, Switzerland and Italy. With several letters of introduction and a general plan they visited close to one hundred cities. She especially loved Dresden and expressed that six months in Dresden would not be a day too much.
Almira wrote dozens of descriptive letters to her husband relating the news of theater attendance, museums, art galleries and the public receptions with royalty such as one for Emperor William of Germany. Her observations were sprinkled with personal changes in perspective and particular enticements. News and notes of fellow Quincy travelers on somewhat simultaneous visits were also included. “Myra,” as she was known, recalled on their wedding anniversary, November 27, twelve years previously, that Charles had said they would go to Europe in five years.
Morton’s health and mental stability continued to deteriorate and after twenty years of marriage and three years of Civil War trials, Morton ended his life. In the early morning hours of May 26, 1880, he committed suicide with a single gunshot wound to the right temple. The Quincy Daily News indicated that he was found in bed at the residence on Sixth Street by his wife.
In 1880, as a highly educated widow in need of income, Almira worked for several months at the District Internal Revenue Service in Quincy. She left town in 1881, and for the next twenty years lived primarily in Washington, D.C. where she held a clerical position in the government.
In 1885, however, while living in Omaha, Nebraska, Almira filed an application for a Civil War Widow’s Pension. She was denied, appealed three times, and in 1890, the cause of Col. Morton’s war despondency and chronic physical ailments were finally viewed as “consistent with the history of similar cases of mental disease.” Morton suffered from what is today called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, often called “Soldier’s Heart” in the aftermath of the Civil War.
A fragile Almira returned to Quincy a year before her death and lived with family at Sixth and Cedar. Several years earlier she had been severely injured when a bicycle rider ran into her. A progressive paralysis resulted. She died on August 26, 1904 at the age of sixty-six and is buried next to her husband at Woodland Cemetery in Quincy.
Almira Jane Williams. Manuscript folder 920.
“Death of Mrs. Almira Morton,” Quincy Daily Whig, August 27, 1904.
“Died.” Quincy Daily Whig, March 17, 1854.
Hattenhauer, John. Col. Charles H. Morton, 1826-1880, 84th Illinois Infantry, research file. Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.
Letters (excerpts) from Almira Morton to her husband, C. H. Morton, on her trip to Europe, October 1872 to August 1873. 41 letters. Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.