Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
A century and a half ago this week, Confederate troops bombarded Fort Sumter in South Carolina, essentially prompting President Abraham Lincoln to say to the South, “It’s on.”
The American Civil War officially had begun. It would rage on for four years until Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee threw in the towel on April 9, 1865.
This epic conflict that sometimes pitted brother against brother remains the bloodiest war in U.S. history. At least 620,000 soldiers died.
No Civil War battles were fought on Illinois’ soil. Even so, the Land of Lincoln played a crucial role in the war’s outcome, and an army’s worth of events are taking place statewide to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial (illinoiscivilwar150.org).
Only three states — New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio — produced more Civil War soldiers than Illinois, which sent 259,092 boys and men to fight to preserve the Union.
“Illinois troops were instrumental to the victories at Shiloh [Tennessee] and Vicksburg [Mississippi], so much so that both places have memorials to the Illinois soldiers who fought and died there,” said David Blanchette, communications manager for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
More bragging rights: “We supplied the two most important leaders of the Civil War: Lincoln and Grant, neither of whom were born here, but they both achieved their fame here,” Blanchette added.
Both leaders’ homes — Lincoln’s in Springfield and Grant’s in Galena — are among the many spots across the state that are worth a visit during the war’s sesquicentennial.
The faces, letters and sketches of those who fought in Illinois regiments are featured in the new exhibit “Illinois Answers the Call: Boys in Blue.” It opened Tuesday at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, home to a robust Civil War collection. The exhibit puts a human face on the conflict — and you’ll be surprised at how young that face is. Some Illinois soldiers weren’t even teenagers. Open every day through Sept. 4, weekdays starting Sept. 5; alplm.org.
Across the street from the library is the always interesting Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, where the “Team of Rivals” exhibit details the difficult decisions Lincoln had to make in the runup to the Civil War, from the selection of Cabinet members to his response on the Fort Sumter attack. Through Aug. 15; alplm.org.
Springfield, of course, is full of Lincoln sites. The state capital is where Honest Abe cut his teeth in law and politics, started a family and built a political base that led to the presidency. Pick up a free ticket to tour the Lincoln Home at the visitor center, 426 S. Seventh St.; nps.gov/liho/index.htm.
Don’t leave without swinging by Oak Ridge Cemetery to visit the final resting place of Lincoln, his wife and three of their four sons. Tuesday evenings from June 1-Aug. 31, Civil War re-enactors from the 114th Illinois infantry will hold flag-lowering ceremonies at the site; call ahead to confirm times at (217) 782-2717.
When the Civil War broke out, military veteran Ulysses S. Grant left his little rental home in Galena to join the U.S. Army. Grant worked his way up from colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment to commander of the Union army, a post he held when Lee surrendered.
Returning home to Galena, the war hero was rewarded by locals with a stately house at 500 Bouthillier St., open to the public for tours; granthome.com.
The house is one of the venues for the Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society’s Grant Birthday Weekend and Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration Friday through Sunday. Take a tour by lamplight of Grant’s home, visit with re-enactors from both sides — the Blue and the Gray — and check out a new exhibit, “Images of U.S. Grant: Soldier.” Go to galenahistorymuseum.org for a full lineup of events.
Civil War re-enactments will take place at Grant Home Park April 30 and May 1 and Sept. 24-25; (815) 777-3310.
Ever heard of Col. Benjamin Grierson? Neither had I. Until Ron Gray of the Grierson Society set me straight: “He was one of the most successful cavalry officers of the Civil War, famous for a raid through the South that allowed Grant to capture Vicksburg,” said Gray, chairman of the 16th annual General Grierson Civil War Days, June 17-19. Expect cannons, re-enactors on horseback, a period-dress ball and tours of the Grierson Home and grave site in the war hero’s hometown of Jacksonville; griersonsociety.com.
This once-powerful city at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers is where Grant began his all-important thrust into the South. Stop by Cairo’s Custom House Museum, whose Civil War exhibits include a replica of the gunboat U.S.S. Cairo, sunk by a Confederate torpedo in 1862.
Nearby, Fort Defiance State Park sits on what used to be a massive Civil War encampment. And Mound City National Cemetery — about three miles north of Cairo at the intersection of Routes 51 and 37 — contains the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers.
By the way, it’s pronounced care-oh.
Trace the city’s rich history on the self-guided Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail. Walk in the footsteps of Lincoln, who engaged in his final verbal smackdown here with Sen. Stephen Douglas. It’s also where Confederate soldiers were held captive, died and buried. And where local resident Sen. Lyman Trumbull authored the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. Get the trail guide and audio tour at visitalton.com/lincoln.
On April 16, costumed docents will be at seven sites along the trail between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to bring the tales of Alton’s past to life; (800) 258-6645.
More than 12,000 Civil War POWs were incarcerated at Rock Island Arsenal, whose museum tells their stories through exhibits that include a collection of Civil War-era small arms. The museum’s new database lets visitors search for the names of former captives; riamwr.com/museum.htm.
Find out how technology helped lead the Union to victory — and how the War Between the States impacted technology — at an exhibit running through Aug. 21 at the Lake County Discovery Museum. It’s a great place to bring the kids to learn about submarines, reconnaissance balloons, ironclad ships, railroads, telegraphs — you know, all that stuff that existed before iPhones and Wii; lakecountydiscoverymuseum.org.