Learning history the hard way
Matt Cassady (above) drills with the 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, who set up
camp for a day on the Eckley Quadrangle.
(Photo by Marc Featherly)
History major Matt Cassady experiences
the tough, everyday life of a Union soldier.
By Carlie Bliss ’04
On the sunny Saturday afternoon in April, most Illinois Wesleyan students flocked
to the quad to enjoy one of the first 80-degree days of the year. History major Matt
Cassady ’06 was no exception. But instead of sporting the standard t-shirt and shorts,
Cassady was decked out in full regalia as a Union Army Civil War soldier, complete
with a brimmed hat, water canteen, and musket.
Obviously out of breath and sweating through their authentic navy-blue wool jerseys,
Cassady and more than 15 other men assumed the identity of the 104th Illinois Volunteer
Infantry as part of a “living history” presentation that recreated what would have
been a typical Union Army encampment.
“When you start reenacting or doing living histories, it takes your knowledge of the
Civil War to a whole new level because you’re actually experiencing it,” says Cassady,
who helped to bring the event to IWU through the sponsorship of Phi Alpha Theta. The
history honors society was looking for a way to promote history on campus and decided
that a “living history” would be more effective than simply bringing in a speaker,
which had been done in the past.
“Reenactments help people see the reality of the Civil War because we’re wearing the
heavy wool uniforms and marching in the hot sun,” Cassady says. “We’re doing all the
maneuvers that they did, and that’s what really drew me to it.”
Cassady began reenacting when he was 18 years old, but his passion for history in
general and the Civil War in particular can be traced back to a paper he wrote in
the fourth grade.
“My teacher mentioned that the southern states were a separate country at one time,
and that struck me,” he says. “Being the overachiever that I was, I decided to write
an extra credit report about it, and I’ve been a Civil War buff ever since.”
After attending a reenactment with his parents, Cassady became enthralled with the
idea that he could come so close to experiencing the life of a Civil War soldier.
He chose to become involved in the 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry when he attended
one of their reenactments and realized their concern for accuracy in the portrayal
of all aspects of the war.
“Some reenactment groups are just a bunch of guys who like to get together with their
families and go out and burn gunpowder on the weekends,” he says. “I was really concerned
about the history of it and trying to experience that.”
As part of their quest for authenticity, the 60 members of the 104th, most of whom
are from the Chicago area, assume the first-person identities of soldiers who actually
fought in the war. Cassady chose to research a man named Ira McConnell and sent away
to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for information. In a strange coincidence,
Cassady was surprised to find that McConnell was originally from Streator, Ill., only
10 miles from his own hometown of Ancona. “It was kind of spooky,” he says.
Cassady’s involvement in the 104th means not only having to do research and endure
the burdensome uniforms. He also must learn the marching, drilling, and firing demonstrations
that recreate the everyday life of a Union soldier. To an outside observer, these
maneuvers may appear to be quite simple, but according to Cassady, they actually require
The reenactment season typically begins in the spring, when Cassady can expect to
participate in at least one per month. By the time summer rolls around, the 104th
Volunteer Infantry is often booked for two or more weekends each month, a schedule
that tends to taper down by September.
For Cassady, the most rewarding part of his experience with reenactments is when he
gets to interact with the public. During the living history on the IWU quad, the men
were approached several times by intrigued spectators who wanted to know more about
their uniforms, equipment, weapons, and the war in general. Cassady admits to occasionally
breaking character in his role as Ira McConnell to engage in conversations with those
who attended the event.
“When we stage reenactments, we want to educate the people,” he says. “The best part
of it is when a young child will come up to me and ask questions. If I can talk to
young people and impress upon them the importance of the Civil War and how it has
shaped our nation, I feel like I’m doing something positive and keeping the memory
of the soldiers alive.”
Cassady, who currently has an internship at the historical David Davis Mansion in
Bloomington, eventually hopes to expand his interest in history to a career as a museum
curator or author. In the meantime, he’ll continue doing Civil War reenactments.
“As General Sherman said, war is hell, and we do reenactments to show people that
the Civil War was not glamorous; it was horrible,” he says. “It’s very idealistic
to think that war will never happen again, but at least we can show people the human
side of the story that they may not get from their history textbooks. The men who
died were sons, brothers, and husbands. They were real people.”