MATTOON, Ill. — As a part of Grant Days, a group of Downs Tri-Valley High School students, under the shade of a Civil War-era tent dressed in era-appropriate garb, spent their break from marching and shooting drills Saturday avoiding the heat and playing game after game poker.

All using Civil War-era cards and money, the high school re-enactors embodied what soldiers in the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment might have been doing during the off hours in the war.

Josh McBride, re-enactor, said those in the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment were considered degenerates who drank and gambled all the time, but on the battlefield, they exhibited what great soldiers should.

“It was written in (Ulysses S.) Grant’s memoirs that (the 21st Illinois) were drunks and terrible people,” McBride said. “We gambled. We would get in trouble. We would get kicked out of bars. We would get court martialed. But once on the battlefield, we were the best unit.”

And like the historical unit they depict, those of Company D of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment, all of whom are about as old as the Civil War soldiers they portray, are a rowdy bunch, McBride said.

“We gamble; we mess around; we play baseball and we have fun, but when we get on that battlefield, it is serious time,” McBride said.

Their re-enactments vary in size and scope. There can be about seven to 10 guys portraying an encampment, as was the case on Saturday at the Civil War Memorial Ellipse and Camp Grant Municipal Park as a part of Grant Days.

Or, they can be a group of over 18 representing a unit in a battle re-enactment.

But for all in Company D of the 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment, living out this regiment’s history has become a part of their lives.

The re-enactment group goes out to several events during the year to embody Civil War soldiers and also World War II soldiers as one of a couple of extracurriculars those in the group participate in.

“We are just out here to have fun and burn some powder,” McBride said.

Outside of their drill demonstrations where they fire black powder charges with no projectiles, they played cards and portrayed other practices of those during that time period. While they were not able to do it Saturday, Keegan Behary, re-enactor, said outside of the demonstrations, they also play baseball and other games, some of which they make up with the tools and items available during that time.

Throughout their encampment re-enactment, the “soldiers” only do things those during that era would do.

Eli Maurer said re-enacting has provided interesting context and perspective to the time period.

“It just makes you think,” Maurer said. “They had to do (things we do today) in the Civil War. It’s like, how did they manage to do that? We actually find out how they managed (through re-enacting).”

Tyler Kaufman said it adds a whole different layer to history that could not be experienced from looking at a picture or reading a book.

To look at a photo of a union soldier is a very different from that of actually becoming one, he said. Kaufman noted merely understanding the equipment they had has given him a better understanding of the Union soldiers.

“When you hold the musket, you think, ‘Oh, it’s just another gun,'” Kaufman said. “Whenever you actually hold one of those things, and it’s 10 pounds, and you have to carry it with one arm. You come to understand it completely on another level.”

While unusual in this area, seeing these Civil War soldier re-enactors, especially among the halls of Tri-Valley High School, has become a common in Downs with a whole event, Civil War Days, dedicated to the history of the war with re-enacted skirmishes with cannon and muskets.

Mark McBride, adviser and founder, said the group is a big part of the school now.

“Our community is very supportive. Our school system is very supportive,” he said. “We are probably the only school system in the nation where nobody blinks an eye if you walk across a commons room carrying a weapon.”

Steve Thompson, local Grant Days organizer, said the event offered at the ellipse Saturday was meant to demonstrate the types of events that could be offered in future as the Civil War memorial located at North First Division Street and Shelby Avenue is developed further.

No upcoming events have been scheduled so far to follow up Grant Days, Thompson said.

Source: Journal Gazette and Times-Courier,

Information from: Mattoon Journal-Gazette,

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the Mattoon Journal Gazette.