Mingling with the likes of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln helps teach Civil War buffs and the uninitiated alike a sense of history and community, said participants in the largest Civil War reenactment in Northern Illinois.
Civil War Days last weekend featured 600 re-enactors from seven states, with volunteers stepping into the roles of infantry, cavalry and artillery soldiers, as well as musicians and civilians from the mid-19th century. There also was a narrated battle re-enactment followed by a re-enactment of an address by President Lincoln and five Civil War generals.
"There were no Civil War battles fought in Lake County, but we did have about 400 soldiers who fought with the Union Army's 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment," said Dave Oberg, executive director of the Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum, who shared his passion for baseball from that era with the multi-generational crowd at the Lakewood Forest Preserve.
"I think people visiting Civil War Days can appreciate the sense of fellowship and community, and feel the nation's emotions during the Civil War era," said Lisa Knight, a longtime Lake County Discovery Museum volunteer from Wauconda, whose ancestors settled in the county just after the war.
Volunteering as a Confederate soldier re-enactor, Ryan Hiser said he and his wife, Rachel, traveled from Freeport, Ill., to enjoy the camaraderie of camping out alongside fellow Civil War history buffs, as well as taking the opportunity to make history come alive for novices.
"Unless we gain an understanding as to why the Civil War was fought, we are in danger of repeating the same mistakes," Hiser said.
As a crowd enjoyed the cool shade beneath a stand of trees while listening to the Sojourner Truth re-enactor singing the plaintive African-American spiritual "There is Balm in Gilead," the person portraying Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took a moment to reflect upon his work portraying the Union leader at the Old State Capitol in Springfield as well as at countless other events across the U.S. since 1997.
"The one major difference I notice when I'm playing Gen. Grant is in my everyday life, I don't normally get saluted," said Larry Werline of Springfield, who said stepping into the shoes of Grant as a re-enactor is the culmination of his lifelong love of American history.
"It's not enough to just read about history or visit historic sites — you need to smell, to feel, to taste and to be history," Werline said.
One of the most common questions he is asked by children is whether Grant had a dog, to which he answers, "No, but he had three horses."
"The children also ask me if Grant had any friends who were killed in the war," Werline said. "I tell them, 'yes, he did.' And that question always touches me."