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.