As we close out another Memorial Day holiday, let’s take a moment to reflect on the service and sacrifice our fellow Redbirds have given for their country. One such Redbird, Joseph Gideon Howell, not only was part of the first graduating class (1860) but was the first at Illinois State Normal University who died in battle.
Howell was born September 1, 1838, in Bond County, Illinois. On October 5, 1857, Howell was among the first group of students to register for courses at Illinois State. He was a quiet student but was well-liked and earned many accolades during his studies. He was a favorite among his peers and the students he taught in the Model school. Howell was the first graduate of Illinois State, receiving his diploma on June 29, 1860, with nine other graduates who all made up the first Illinois State graduating class.
Howell taught at the Model school from 1859–1860 and was selected to be its first principal. However, during an evening town meeting in April, 1861, Howell heard the call for volunteers to the Union Army. He signed up soon after and joined with Company K of the 8th Illinois Infantry. Howell first served as a private and later earned the rank of first lieutenant, handpicked for the honor by the company’s captain. On February 15, 1862, while acting as a staff officer and aid to General R.J. Oglesby at the battle of Fort Donelson, Howell was shot in the head and killed. Howell’s body was returned to Bloomington and was one of the first to be interred in the Civil War Veterans Section in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.
Many accounts written about Howell speak to his charisma, bravery, and patriotism for his country. Of his fellow classmates, many in the Illinois State faculty expected Howell to be the standout in his class who would go on to do many great things in education. When Howell left for war, the train depot was packed with Illinois State and Model school students who all felt a sense of loss at his departure. In 1886 the Philadelphian society had his photograph enlarged and placed in its hall in his memory. The University also honored Howell by placing a memorial tablet in the Model school room where he taught, listing his achievements and service.
There are countless Redbirds who have sacrificed so much for this country. Remember to thank them and all military service members for their hard work, sacrifice, and service.