Ely Lilly – more than a pill pusher

Eli Lilly(  (July 8, 1838 – June 6, 1898) was a businessman, and if you were to mention his name to anyone in business, they would immediately think of the giant pharmaceutical company still in existence that bears his name. But Eli, like Louisa May Alcott, Lew Wallace, Walt Whitman and so many famous for other things, was involved in the American Civil War.

Eli Lilly, circa 1885

Eli Lilly was born the son of Gustavus and Esther Lilly in Baltimore, Maryland on July 8, 1838. His family was of Swedish descent, and emigrated to America from France in 1789 as revolution swept the country, and anarchy made them fear for their lives. The family stayed only briefly in Baltimore, moving on to Kentucky, and then Greencastle, Indiana, between Indianapolis and Terre Haute, where Eli mostly grew up. He attended public school. Coming from a Methodist background, the Lilly family was prohibitionist and anti-slavery, part of the motivation for moving to Indiana from the slave state of Kentucky. Since his parents were not rich, after completing the usual grammar school through age 16, he was apprenticed to learn a trade, typical for boys in the 1850s. Eli worked for a printer for two years, but it didn’t interest him, and he switched to an apprenticeship with Henry Lawrence at Good Samaritan Drug store in Lafayette, Indiana. This proved to be a turning point for Eli – he prospered and learned chemistry and drugs. During this apprenticeship, he met Emily Lemon, daughter of a local merchant, and the two quickly fell in love, marrying in 1860. They moved to a home of their own, and Eli established his own drug store. It seemed the beginning of an ordinary and idyllic life.

Emily Lemon Lilly

But in 1861, the Civil War started. Eli was a patriot, and felt he owed his country service. He enlisted in the Union army, and owing to his popularity and leadership skills, recruited a company of men to serve with him. He was elected captain of the 18th Light Artillery, under Col. Wilder’s Lightning Brigade. Emily, meanwhile, was pregnant with their first child, Josiah, born while Eli was away fighting.

Some thought Eli too young and inexperienced to command, but he proved them wrong, becoming a competent and courageous officer. The company first saw action at the Battle of Hoover’s Gap, June 24, 1863. Eli’s company, under General Rosencrans, was part of the Tullahoma campaign to dislodge Confederate Braxton Bragg from Tennessee. Eli’s men had just received the new Spencer repeating rifles. He directed fire, and prevented the battery from being taken, then counterattacked providing valuable support to Wilder’s brigade, ultimately securing the Union victory. He was not quite twenty-five years old.

Recruitment poster for Eli Lilly’s company

In August, 1863, Lilly’s battery arrived at Chattanooga, Tn., to take part in the Second Battle of Chattanooga. This time Eli’s troops operated at a longer distance, sinking two gunboats on the river, and bombarding the town. The Confederates were outraged, because he shelled the town on a Sunday, catching many of them at worship and prayer. Over a period of two weeks, the battery bombarded the town, eventually causing Bragg to withdraw further south. Lilly was promoted, first to major, then colonel.

On September 18, 1863, Rosencrans and Lilly’s battery met Bragg on his northward march, attempting to regain the city of Chattanooga – the result was the battle of Chickamauga, one of the bloodiest of the war. Over 30,000 men were killed or wounded on both sides.

Battle of Chickamauga

Due to poor information, Rosencrans mistakenly created a gap in his line, exploited by Confederate General Longstreet. Wilder and the Lilly brigade were on the Union right, opposing Hindman and Hood.

The tactical errors of generals made the battle a Confederate victory. Following the battle, Eli was given command of a cavalry regiment. During a battle in Alabama during 1864, he was captured by forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest, and spent the remainder of the conflict as a prisoner of war.

Following the war, Eli was released and returned home to Indiana. His business sense told him that there were opportunities in the depressed South. He purchased a cotton plantation, and moved his family to Mississippi. While it was a good business move, it turned out a disaster for Eli personally. His wife Emily, pregnant with their second child, came down with malaria and died. The baby could not be saved. Grief stricken, he moved first to Paris, Illinois and then Indianapolis. With his son Josiah, he started a new drug store and drug wholesale company, starting with three employees and $1400.

From this humble beginning, Eli’s reputation for quality and fair dealing gained him success. His little store grew and today, Eli Lilly company is a $34 billion enterprise with over 33,000 employees.

During the Panic of 1893, Lilly created a commission to help the poor who were adversely affected. His work with the commission led him to personally donate enough funds to create a children’s hospital in Indianapolis to care the many of the children family’s who had no money pay for normal medical care. Many tried to get him to run for political office, but Eli preferred to concentrate on philanthropic causes. Eli Lilly died in his Indianapolis home on June 6, 1898.