The 117th Illinois Regiment

The “McKendree Regiment”: The 117 th Illinois Volunteers and McKendree Civil War Reenactment

When the North and South went to battle in the mid-nineteenth century, McKendreans quickly prepared to serve. At least 150 who were students before or after the Civil War served, and it is most likely all were volunteers. Not less than thirty faculty and students became military officers. In September of 1862, McKendreans formed the 117th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers. After training at Camp Butler, the 117th headed out to face the enemy, fighting in six battles and thirteen skirmishes, including being present at Vicksburg under General Ulysses S. Grant.

From 1845 to 1862, Risdon M. Moore was a student, tutor and professor at McKendree College. Moore started forming the “McKendree Regiment” on August 5, 1862, soon after President Abraham Lincoln’s request for 300,000 additional men. As of September 19, he became the regiment’s colonel.

Photo of the 117th Regiment ReunionThe 117th finally departed on November 11. Having received defective rifles and thus without arms, the regiment was stationed at Fort Pickering for two years. Twice, it was sent to General Grant at Vicksburg, a key Confederate hold on the Mississippi River. In December 1863, it chased the well-known Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been raiding western Tenn. and northern Miss. On April 9th, 1864, the regiment fought at the Battle of Pleasant Hill and came out victoriously. In June, Union General Sturgis’ command fell under heavy assault by Forrest, the troops badly broken up. According to Moore, the general should have been held responsible for “that disgraceful affair.” Thus, the 117 th set out “for the work that Sturgis failed to do—whip Forrest.” The Northern troops fought in several succeeding engagements and “chastised Forrest severely.” The regiment later rushed off to Nashville in late 1864 to support General George Thomas against Confederate General John Bell Hood, then chased Hood’s men to the Tennessee River, which resulted in the capture of many Confederate prisoners and artillery pieces. The McKendree Regiment’s final battle was fought at Fort Blakely on April 9, 1865, the same day that the great Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The 117th Illinois Regiment participated in a total of 35 engagements. It was mustered out on August 5, 1865.

Civil War Reenactment Photo of the Civial War Reenactment

The McKendree campus traveled back in time to the mid-nineteenth century on the weekend of April 7-9, 1995. Over these three days, McKendree and the residents of Lebanon were blasted nearly 150 years into the past when various events took place on campus and in town, the climax being an exciting reenactment of a Civil War skirmish. Overall, 12 cannons, 27 cavalry, some 80 civilians dressed in period costumes, and nearly 150 reenactors representing Confederate and Union soldiers were involved in this weekend of activities.

The events began with a reenactment of the best of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Later, Lebanon’s Looking Glass Theater staged a production of “Our American Cousin”—the play Lincoln had seen when he was assassinated—and “A Visit With Lincoln.” Other activities for the public included a parade through town, a Civil War-era fashion show and a ladies’ tea. A commemorative ceremony was held in honor of those who had served in the “McKendree Regiment.” A reactivation of the 117th also occurred, with the mustering of both students and faculty into the regiment. A grand ball where participants dressed in formal period attire was thrown in Peasons Hall, now the site of the 1828 cafe. A Latin Catholic field mass and a Methodist church service in Bothwell Chapel, both of which were conducted as period services, also took place. Finally, a skirmish was fought in Lebanon and on the front lawn of McKendree campus between the Confederate and Union reenactors.

Recently, the McKendree Historical Society and Phi Alpha Theta have discussed the possibility of hosting another Civil War reenactment in the near future. With enough money and volunteers, it could organize and sponsor a reenactment on campus in the spring of 2010.

Sources: Centennial McKendree College History, 1828-1928 ; “The McKendree Regiment: or the 117 th Illinois Infantry”by Risdon M. Moore in The McKendree Pigskin, 1905; McKendree College Bulletin, Summer 1995 issue.

First photo: 117th reunion. Second photo: taken from the McKendree College Bulletin, Fall 1994