Grand Army of the Republic
It is the progressive, wide-awake man of affairs who makes the real history of a community, and his influence as a potential factor of the body politic is difficult to estimate. The examples such men furnish of patient purpose and steadfast integrity strongly illustrate what is in the power of each to accomplish, and there is always a full measure of satisfaction in adverting in even a casual manner to their achievements in advancing the interests of their fellow men and in giving strength and solidity to the institutions which tell so much for the prosperity of the community. In every life of honor and usefulness there is no dearth of incident and yet in summing up the career of any man the biographer needs touch only those salient points which give the keynote to his character.
Thus in setting forth the life record of Hon. Orlando Allen Somers, sufficient will be said to show what all who know him will freely acquiesce in, that he is one of the representative men of Indiana. Such a life as his is an inspiration to others who are less courageous and more prone to give up the fight when obstacles thwart their way, or their ideals have been reached or definite success has been obtained in any chosen field. In the life history of Mr. Somers are found evidences of characteristics that always make for achievement - persistency coupled with fortitude and lofty traits - and as the result of such a life he has long been one of the best known, most influential and highly esteemed citizens of his county and state.
Orlando Allen Somers is a native of Henry County, Indiana, where he was born on the 24th day of January, 1843. He is the sixth in order of birth of the nine children (two of whom died in infancy) of Valentine and Mary McClain (Williams) Somers. These parents were, respectively, the son and daughter of Lewis and Elizabeth Somers and Charles and Mary (McClain) Williams, and were born in Highland County, Ohio, 1808, and Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 1811.
With their parents they came to Indiana, 1829-1830, settling at and near Middletown, Henry County, much of that town being situated upon the land owned and improved by Lewis Somers, and it was here that the parents of this subject were, in 1832, united in marriage, and here resided until their removal to Howard County in September of 1852. This county had been acquired by recent treaty from the Miami Indians and was known as the "Indian Reserve", and was, at that time, a dense and, but for the occasional small "clearing", unbroken forest of giant oak, walnut, poplar, elm, beech and sugar trees - now of inestimable value - then but dreaded cumberers of the soil against which this sturdy pioneer, with his family, ranging from infancy to young manhood, with axe and saw and fire, waged battle royal in his struggle for subsistence.
Shadowed by the foliage, the partially cleared and undrained fields yielded meager and uncertain return, and but for the abundance of wild game, hunger, more to be dreaded than its prototype, the gaunt timber wolf, whose howlings made night hideous, had kenneled by the fireside. Improved highways there were none, and little need of them, for there were no products of the farm for the market. "Blazed" trails, avoiding the ponds and sloughs, connected the cabin homes and directed the way to the remote schoolhouse and post office.
The subject's father built the first schoolhouse at Sycamore and taught the first school at that place. The equipments were rude and the methods primitive. Spelling, reading, writing and arithmetic comprised the course; later, geography and grammar were added. That it might not interfere with labor, in which every member of the household participated, the forty to sixty-day school term was invariably taught in the mid-winter. The political demagogue had not yet capitalized the ills of infancy for adornment of campaign oratory. Such were the environments and opportunities of Mr. Somers from his ninth to eighteenth year. Within them he grew to robust manhood, became a proficient speller and reader, a skilled axman and an expert rifle shot.
Meanwhile comfort, if not luxury, had come to the home fireside; township libraries had been established and his boyhood dreams became realized. Books, Books, Books! Abbott's Histories, Plutarch's Lives, Farr's Ancient History, Davidson's Connexion of Sacred and Profane History and other valuable books became his constant companions - but not for long. The ill-nourished and slow-forming ideals, so long delayed, were but taking definite form under these new inspirations, when the storm of civil war broke upon the land and idols were shattered.
The Somers family was patriotic and five sons entered the Union Army. Orlando A. enlisted and was mustered into the service of the United States as a private in Company D, 39th Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, for a period of three years or during the war, on the 29th day of August, 1861, and served the full period of his enlistment. This regiment entered Kentucky in September, 1861, and was, with others, organized into the Army of the Cumberland by General Anderson, of Fort Sumter fame, remaining in that army under his successors, Sherman, Buell, Rosecrans and Thomas, until the fall of Atlanta, and thence, under Kilpatrick, with Sherman to the sea and in his campaign through the Carolinas, and was a portion of Sherman's escort when he received the surrender of General Johnson at Durham Station, North Carolina.
This regiment served as infantry in the great campaigns and battles of Shiloh, Perryville and Stone's River, after which it was mounted and served as mounted infantry in the campaigns of Tullahoma and Chickamauga, with their minor engagements, and in the great battle of Chickamauga, after which it was transposed to cavalry and designated the Eighth Indiana Cavalry, and served as such until its muster out at Lexington, North Carolina, July 20, 1865.
It is famed for having fought the first engagement of the Army of the Cumberland at Upland Station, Kentucky, October 12, 1861, and the last at Morrisville, North Carolina, April 13, 1865; also for having suffered the heaviest losses of any regiment on that most sanguinary day, December 31, 1862, at Stone's River, and in the fiercely fought battle of Averasborough, North Carolina, March 16, 1865. Because of its services and losses, it stands high upon the roll of the famous three hundred fighting regiments made immortal in history.
It was in such a regiment the young man Somers marched and fought, and whose conduct, character and courage, whether in camp, on the march or in battle, was without reproach, as many of his comrades yet living bear willing testimony.
After his discharge from military service, Mr. Somers returned to his home near Greentown, in the eastern part of Howard County, with health so shattered at that time as to disable him from manual labor. He again entered the common school with the intention of qualifying himself as a teacher in the public schools. After attending two terms, during the winter of 1864 and the fall of 1865, he was granted a license to teach and taught several terms of school, meeting with good success as a pedagogue.
In the fall of 1870 Mr. Somers removed to Kokomo and entered Howard College, where he was a student one term. He was then for three years engaged as a teacher in the public schools of Kokomo, but was compelled to quit the schoolroom on account of ill health. In 1874 he was chosen Superintendent of Schools of Howard County and he rendered faithful and efficient service in the cause of education. At the end of his term he went on the road as a commercial traveler. At the end of a year's travel, with improved health, he entered the hardware and implement business as a salesman and was later deputy sheriff of Howard County for two years.
During the administration of President Hayes he was appointed postmaster at Kokomo, the appointment, which bore the date of January 30, 1879, coming to him entirely unsought. In the discharge of his official duties as postmaster he exhibited the same high qualities as elsewhere, and so satisfactory were his services that he was retained in the office during the administrations of Presidents Garfield and Arthur and a portion of Cleveland's, retiring from office on November 2, 1885, a period of almost seven years. Upon retiring from the office of postmaster, Mr. Somers devoted his attention to the improving and cultivation of a fine farm lying northeast of Kokomo and which he made one of the best improved farms in Howard County.
In the early nineties he served a term as a member of the County Commissioners - board and court. He has been successful in all his business affairs and is now comfortably situated, being numbered among the leading men of his city. Though in his seventieth year, he is well preserved and takes a keen interest in all public events, keeping in close touch with the current happenings of the day.
Mr. Somers is a wide reader and close student, and in his spacious home, at No. 909 East Jefferson Street, he has a large and carefully selected library of choice books, in whose company he takes the greatest delight. His present location, where he has lived for forty years, is an ideal home, the house being comfortable and pervaded by a spirit of old-time hospitality, while the grounds surrounding the home are embellished with cannon and other war reminders.
Politically, Mr. Somers has been a Republican since the birth of that party, and has been active in political affairs, having served as a member and chairman of the Republican County Central Committee. During Governor Mount's administration, 1898, Mr. Somers was elected to the General Assembly, representing Howard, Miami, Grant, Huntington and Wabash Counties, and here, as in all other spheres of labor to which he has been called, he acquitted himself with honor and to the credit of his constituency. He served on several important committees and took a leading part in securing the passage of needed legislation.
In 1900 he was supervisor of the twelfth decennial census for the 11th Congressional District, composed of Cass, Grant, Howard, Huntington, Miami and Wabash Counties, and the duties were so performed as to evoke the compliments of the director of the census.
The subject has taken a deep interest and an active part in farmers' institute work, and as a representative of Purdue University has covered the greater part of the state in the interest of this work, giving much attention to the construction and maintenance of good roads. As a delegate from the state of Indiana he has attended national and international good roads conferences and has taken an intelligent part in the discussions in these conventions. He has shown a marked spirit of enterprise in supporting every movement of the community in any way.
Fraternally, Mr. Somers has devoted much of his time to the Grand Army of the Republic and other organizations of veteran soldiers, and he has been signally honored by some of these societies. In 1909-1910 he was elected department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and he accepted this splendid honor with a due sense of its high obligation and filled the office with great distinction, conferring additional luster on his name and reflecting credit upon those who selected him for this high position [Mr. Somers served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic 1916/1917].
To him belongs the unique distinction of being the only private soldier in either of the four great veteran organizations - the Army of the Cumberland, Army of the Tennessee, Army of the Potomac and Army of the Ohio - to be elected to office in the organizations. He also bears the distinction of being the only private soldier who has ever been chosen to deliver the annual oration before either of these societies. He was further selected to deliver a second oration at Chattanooga in 1912, but, because of other engagements, he was forced to decline the honor.
He is now engaged in writing the history of his regiment, in which he takes a great pride and which is largely a labor of love. He delivered the annual oration before the Society of the Army of the Cumberland at their thirty-second annual reunion held at Indianapolis on September 20-21, 1904, the address being published in the report of the society's proceedings for that year.
Orlando A. Somers has been twice married and has reared two families, of which he is justifiably proud. In 1866 he was married to Mahala Ellen Morris, daughter of William Burton and Mahala (Waters) Morris, who bore him five sons, Charles V., the youngest, dying in infancy, and Caius Eldon, Edward Olin, Lytton Lee and Percy Morris, who are living. Mrs. Somers died on February 28, 1886, and on March 24, 1887, he married Emma Heaton, daughter of John Osborne Heaton and Louisa Heaton of Kokomo, to which union were born two daughters, Jean and Gail, both of whom are at home with their parents.
As a private citizen, teacher, businessman, soldier, student, lecturer, home-lover - in every relation of life - Orlando Allen Somers has been true to his highest ideals, and in no situation has he fallen short of the full measure of a man. He has always been found on the right side of all questions affecting the public welfare and his life has been a credit to the county honored by his citizenship.
Dunn, J.P. 1912. Memorial and Genealogical Record of Representative Citizens of Indiana (Deluxe Edition), pp. 513-518. B.F. Bowen & Company, Indianapolis, Indiana.