In 1861, officers for companies and regiments being formed across Illinois, including Vermilion County, went to the state capitol in Springfield to sign up for Mr. Lincoln’s Army. The assistant adjutant general in charge of forming the Illinois units was a then-mostly unknown West Point graduate named Ulysses S. Grant.
Earlier this month, that scene was recreated as troops from across the state flocked to the “old” state capitol for the annual Civil War encampment. The weekend started with an Education Day on Friday, as more than 500 students got an up-close and personal look at life in the mid-1860s. On the next two days, the event was open to the general public.
Billed as a medical encampment, the event focused not only on the medical side of the Civil War, but also on the life of the everyday soldier. Several local living history presenters participated in the event. Activities were scheduled all day both inside the building and on the grounds.
It was an honor for me to be there again this year to portray Col. Benjamin Grierson, who would later become a major general. I was joined by Charles Hall and Mike Auter as we presented a program on “Grierson’s Raid” through Mississippi.
My character, an unlikely Union cavalry leader, was an Illinois music teacher and band leader before the war. He skillfully led 1,750 cavalrymen on an expedition through the heart of Dixie 150 years ago this spring. The John Wayne movie “The Horse Soldiers” was based on that raid.
We spoke in Representatives Hall, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858. Standing there in front of the same giant portrait of George Washington where Lincoln stood to speak many times, and where his body lay in state always seems to bring on a sense of the true essence of Lincoln. You can almost “feel” his spirit there by your side.
Most of the remaining buildings from the early 1800s have an antique look and feel to them. That doesn’t give you the real sense of what people of that time period saw because the furnishings were relatively new at the time. In the 1960s, the Old State Capitol was taken apart and carefully reassembled stone by stone. Inside, replica furnishings were built to give them the look they would have had in the time of Lincoln and Grant, rather than looking old and worn like 175-year-old chairs and desks.
My wife, Rhea, portrayed Mrs. Grierson. I also participated in a “Meet the Generals” program there along with a Chicago-based group portraying Generals Grant, Lee, Custer, Jackson and Stuart.
Tara Auter told the story of Jennie Hodgers, who had taken on the identity of a man. She called herself Albert Cashier, and served as a private in the 95th Illinois Infantry. When “her” identity was revealed several years after the war, many of her fellow soldiers expressed shock that Albert was a woman, having played the role of a man so well. They also cited her bravery in battle. She was buried with full military honors near Saunemin in Livingston, County.
Emily and Eugene Bencomo of Oakwood were among the event organizers. While his wife operated their sutlery — a kind of traveling general store to serve the soldiers — he sat outside the tent and talked about medicine in the Civil War time period and also entertained with a pennywhistle musical instrument.
Don Smith of Tilton took on the role of a Union artillery officer, and with his cannon crew demonstrated loading and firing one of the big guns from the 1860s. His wife, Marilyn, who is a nurse, answered questions about the nursing profession during the Civil War period.
Danville teachers Deborah and Anna Kelly, and Natalie Missaggia were part of a sewing circle demonstration and organized two fashion shows. Most of the female participants in the event were also featured in the fashion show.
Matt Worley and his son, Andrew, worked with me on the infantry drill on Friday and portrayed soldiers from the 35th Illinois Infantry the rest of the weekend.
James Bolin and his wife Diane, from near Hillsboro, Ind., portrayed a mid-1800s blacksmith and his wife, complete with a forge and 1800s era tools, making various items from hot iron. More than 100 other living history presenters from around the Midwest took part in the event. Nationally known period musicians, including the 97th Regimental String Band and Chris Vallillo, performed.
Mike Burke with the Old State Capitol Historic Site said, “This year’s encampment was a great success as we continue to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Illinois’ role in the Civil War. The encampment was also the kickoff for our summer-long ‘History Comes Alive’ program.”
He added, “From mid-June through Labor Day weekend, many Springfield sites and museums will be brimming with free live performances and fun activities that will transport you and your family back in time to the Springfield that Abraham Lincoln knew and loved.”
Burke said that about 4,000 people attended the weekend activities.
To learn more about summer activities at the Old State Capitol, go to www.visit-springfieldillinois.com, and click on the “History — It’s Alive all Summer Long” link. You also can find the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau on Facebook or by calling 800-545-7300.