William Ward Orme was born February 17, 1832 in Washington, D.C. William’s parents died when he was 13 years old. He lived with a grandfather who taught him to be a cabinetmaker. At age 17 William traveled to Chicago where he worked as a bank messenger and studied law. It was said that he arrived in Chicago with 25 cents in his pocket but while he may have been short of cash he was long on ambition.
In 1850 William came to Bloomington. After a short stint in private practice with a partner, Orme became a deputy clerk in the circuit clerk office of William McCullough. Here Orme would meet other men of the law who were to become his friends, allies, and mentors.
In 1852 at age 20 Orme passed the Bar and in 1853 he married Nannie McCullough, daughter of William McCullough. Shortly thereafter he went into a successful partnership with Leonard Swett, an established courtroom lawyer. Orme’s legal work was admired by Abraham Lincoln, David Davis, and others who saw a bright future for him.
While Orme advised his brother not to “bother” with politics, he could not escape its appeal. He attended the convention at Majors Hall where the Republican Party was formed and he was involved in the Lincoln for President Club. When Lincoln was elected President in 1860 Orme did not hesitate to ask for political favors through letters and even a personal visit to Washington.
With the advent of the Civil War, Orme was instrumental in the formation of McLean County’s 94th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was elected Colonel of the Regiment. Two of his brothers also served in the same regiment. In August 1862 the Regiment left for active duty in southern Missouri.
When Orme was away from his wife, he wrote lengthy letters to her containing his thoughts, opinions, and daily activities. His descriptions of military life included many of the same complaints of other soldiers: boredom with inaction, tiresome marches, and camp illnesses. Orme had been campaigning for a promotion in rank to General. Because of his youth and inexperience, Lincoln’s response to Orme’s lobbying was that Orme first needed to “distinguish himself in battle.” His opportunity came with the Battle of Prairie Grove. After that battle he was promoted to Brigadier-General.
In this same period, Orme learned that his father-in-law William McCullough had been killed in battle at Coffeyville, Mississippi. His brother Joseph was killed by friendly fire a short time later. Both deaths came as a severe shock.
Orme was suffering bouts of illness which was later identified as tuberculosis. However after a period at home to take care of family affairs, he returned to duty and soon moved with his troops to Vicksburg, Mississippi where he participated in the siege of that city. His letters home were quite descriptive of the action and the aftermath.
Illness plagued Orme and when he was no longer able to serve in the field, he was assigned to take command of the prison Camp Douglas at Chicago, Illinois. The cold and damp weather of Chicago aggravated his illness. Unable to concentrate on his duties there, he resigned from the Army and returned to Bloomington to recuperate. In 1864, he was appointed Supervising Special Agent of the Treasury Department at Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1865 shortly after Lincoln’s assassination Orme’s ill health again forced him to resign from his duties. He died at home in Bloomington on September 13, 1866 and was buried in Evergreen Memorial Cemetery in Bloomington, IL.