John Mason Loomis: A Colonel in a Kepi Hat

The will of Mary Hunt Loomis, dated 1910, reveals possessions that she and her late husband, John Mason Loomis, had kept in their Chicago home. Among these were a collection of Civil War “army souvenirs, personal and historic” including “a cannonball that fell within a few feet of Col. Loomis and the fragments of a shell which killed a horse on which the Colonel was mounted at the battle of Missionary Ridge.” An oil portrait of Loomis wearing his Union officer’s uniform hung in the home’s front hall, and a large framed photograph of the colonel was displayed in the library. This image, almost four feet tall and three feet wide, was taken between 1886 and 1900 by well-known Chicago studio photographer William Louis Koehne and shows Loomis in his military dress overcoat and, curiously, wearing a kepi hat, the flat, slouching cap issued to enlisted Union Army infantry men.

John Mason Loomis was the youngest and perhaps most adventurous of the Loomis siblings. As a young man he sailed with the merchant trade to China. In the mid-1840s he moved west, settling in Chicago. Early battles of the American Civil War inspired John, now 36, married, and well established in business, to raise a regiment for the Union army. The 26th Illinois Volunteer Infantry was mustered into service in August of 1861 with Loomis as its colonel. Regiment histories note that he expected much of these men — “unyielding in his requirement of honest and faithful service” — and earned both the respect and affection of soldiers who “honored him and loved him as a father and trusted leader.” He resigned almost three years later having “greatly overtaxed his powers of endurance.” He had led his men in 57 skirmishes and battles and had marched 6,931 miles with them. One memorial tribute described this accomplishment as “a remarkable achievement for a regiment of citizen soldiers.”

The 26th participated in decisive campaigns, including the late November 1863 battle at Missionary Ridge, Tennessee. The Union Army moved to take this strategic elevated location, and although the northern forces eventually prevailed, fighting was sometimes grueling. Loomis’ regiment found itself surrounded by intense artillery fire when it emerged into a valley with no protective cover. Years later General Roger Q. Mills, a Confederate officer at Missionary Ridge, recalled:

[a] Federal brigade came through the woods and out into the open field. There the troops re-formed their lines. The officer in command was perfectly cool. He took his time, and the troops formed as if they were on dress parade. They were within easy range and we fired into them. They broke and went back into the woods. In a few minutes they came back and formed again in the same deliberate way. When the officer in command had got them formed to suit him, he made them lie down, while he rode up and down the front, as if waiting for orders.

Mills’ commanding officer ordered his men to stop shooting, saying that it was “murder” to continue firing on soldiers in such vulnerable positions. More privately, Mills and others believed that the order came out of respect for the bravery that Loomis and his men displayed under such desperate conditions.

In early December of that year, Mary received a letter from John. He wrote, “my dear wife, The battle is over, we have whipped & driven the rebels off Missionary Ridge…My Brigade lost 450 — behaved with great gallantry. I am safe & well. …I am writing in the saddle on Pen Stanley’s back. My horse was wounded under me yesterday all right. I shall write you from the first station — all look bright.”

Mary made handwritten copies of this letter and mailed them to John’s siblings.

After the war, Loomis did much to support veterans’ groups and regiment reunions. It was undoubtedly during this time that he chose to be photographed in Koehne’s studio. Informal photos of this time, taken of Loomis during winter retreats to Jekyll Island, Georgia, show him on horseback, seated in a Union Army saddle with its characteristic hooded stirrups. John Mason Loomis wears the kepi hat of his infantry soldiers in these images, too, suggesting the power of such an object to connect him to a meaningful past.

Karen Parsons is archivist and teaches history.