OTTAWA, Ill. — The soldiers marched across the field, muzzle-loaded Enfield muskets well in hand as they prepared to face the enemy.
These stalwart new recruits to the 53rd Illinois Infantry Regiment were from Earlville and they were about to walk in the footsteps of the same young men and boys that enthusiastically flocked to Ottawa back in January 1862.
The newest recruits are re-enactors serving under sergeant and teacher Michael Roberson at Earlville High School. Roberson first caught the re-enacting bug from a fellow teacher many years ago.
Then the teachers went their separate ways until recently meeting again in Ottawa a few years ago. Roberson’s interest in re-enacting was renewed.
He could have joined his friend’s regiment. Instead, Roberson decided to form the 53rd.
“I was interested in the 53rd because one year, a kid came in with this book and he said he found it while they were renovating his house,” Roberson said. “It was titled ‘A True and Complete History of the 53rd Illinois’ by Herbert Ranstead. He was from Earlville here so I had an interest about that.”
Not only was the 53rd mustered into Federal service in Ottawa, it also was Sgt. George Poundstone’s regiment. Poundstone, originally from Grand Ridge, was wounded in combat. The flag he so closely guarded in combat was eventually returned to La Salle County a few years ago. Roberson said that history also contributed to selecting the 53rd as his local re-enactment regiment instead of joining an established company.
Once Roberson decided to recruit for Co. D, he had a meeting with some of his students last year.
Several of them were quick to enlist either as soldiers or as support characters and they began to attend different events. They started with a local event and eventually skirmished with the 21st Illinois.
“We went to Morton, they were having Civil War Days there,” Roberson said. “We went down and participated and had a pretty good time. We were having too much fun firing and running.”
His other soldiers practiced their artillery skills while some of the girls learned about dancing, clothing and other 19th century etiquette tips and tricks.
“Minus the heat and how slow we had to walk, it was good,” said Hailey Anderson. “The heat was really rough. It was hot that day.”
Anderson said the borrowed dresses were uncomfortable and yet another aspect of history she never would have considered.
“We had the hourglass shapes, different layers and they were talking to us about how (the women) would pass out so they had to carry smelling salts, actual smelling salts,” she said.
Several of the other students said they plan to work on making their own reenactment dresses over the summer.
“I might actually make more than one,” said Karly VanDorsten. “I might do a nurse one and then a casual one and a formal one. Last time when I went someone had some slivers in their fingers so I got them out for them.”
The students are learning about authenticity on the battle field and in the drawing rooms after the battles by actually participating. They get to go home to air conditioning and hot showers, a luxury real 19th century soldiers never had, but the students said it gives them a new perspective on what they had previously learned from books.
“I think it beats all the other ways to learn it,” said Jacob Benson. “You can’t get this in a book. And you get to shoot guns. I just really like this. I’ve always been very interested in the Civil War but I never thought we’d have the Civil War re-enacting. It’s something you can’t get anywhere else.”
The newest recruits plan to spend their summer drilling, training and quite possibly, camping out with other regiments over the summer. They also would welcome additional members to their growing Company.
Roberson said he has talked with teachers and students in Paw Paw and other surrounding schools. So far, only Matthew Farrell, a middle school student at Harding, has joined the 53rd. Roberson hopes interest grows as more students find a hands-on way to learn about their history.
Source: (LaSalle) News-Tribune, http://bit.ly/2r6T36M
Information from: News-Tribune, http://www.newstrib.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the (LaSalle) News-Tribune.