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On November 28, 1850, Cheney married Mary Briggs. The couple celebrated the birth of their son, Royce, on July 28, 1854. In 1856, John and Mary moved their small family west, eventually settling in Dixon, Illinois, with John's younger brother Person and his family. The two brothers formed "Cheney & Co." and ran the Waverly House Hotel near the railroad depot. John later left the hotel business to his brother and was primarily a grain dealer by September 1861.
In response to Lincoln's first call for troops, a recruiting meeting for Company A, 13th Illinois Infantry Regiment was held in Dixon on April 21, 1861. More men volunteered than were needed, so John Cheney withdrew his name the next day, allowing him to remain at home with his pregnant wife and young son. The family welcomed a daughter, Grace, on July 8, 1861.
John Cheney again volunteered for military service on September 24, 1861, and was authorized to raise an artillery company. Captain Cheney's recruiting was successful. "Cheney's Battery," Battery F of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery Regiment, departed Dixon for training at Camp Butler in Springfield, Illinois, on January 14, 1862.
Cheney's story continues in his letters and diaries.