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Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) was caught up in national politics soon after the school was established in 1857. Students and faculty alike talked of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the election of Illinois’ favored son as president.
Soon after Abraham Lincoln took office, campus conversation turned to South Carolina’s succession, the occupation of federal forts, and Minute Men organizations springing up. Many pondered how long it would be before the Normal men would begin military drills.
In April of 1861 Fort Sumter was attacked, prompting Lincoln to summon 75,000 volunteers willing to serve three months.
Among locals who answered the call were five ISNU men: Joseph Howell, an 1860 graduate and teacher in the University’s Model School; and students Henry Prevost, Charles Clark, Hiram Johnson, and Justin Spaulding. The Bloomington company was promptly assembled for training in Springfield.
ISNU President Charles Hovey was troubled about the war’s impact upon the Normal School, as well as his own role. He did not want to see the semester disrupted, as the need for teachers was critical. But the young men of the University were restless. They missed their peers and wondered if they were shirking their duty by remaining on campus. They talked of nothing else.
Hovey counseled against immediate enlistment. He proposed that the men instead prepare for the day they might be called to battle, pledging he would go with them. He hired a drillmaster and created a practice field.
Soon there were daily drills of the men who became known as the Normal Rifles. A few had guns, but most carried only crafted imitation weapons sawed and whittled from cast-off wood.
The women on campus lined up beside the “parade ground” and watched. They created a banner for the Rifles, which student Sophie Crist presented with emotion.
“We cannot say, ‘go forth to danger,’ and it may be to death, but if go you must, take with you this banner, which is to all the nation the emblem of our common freedom,” Crist said in a speech recorded by historians.
As the 1861 school term ended, the Rifles disbanded and their silken banner was folded away. Hovey promised to reassemble the men if necessary. He and ISNU founder Jesse Fell then traveled to meet with Lincoln, who had received Congressional authorization to accept the services of 500,000 more volunteers.
Hovey and Fell arrived in Washington, D.C., as citizens headed to watch a confrontation between Union and Confederate troops. Visitors mingled among the troops, making the scene a great military picnic. They did not realize they were about to witness the Battle of Bull Run.
By afternoon, the Union troops were in retreat. Dead and dying soldiers were left everywhere, as panicked onlookers ran for safety back in Washington. Hovey went to the battlefield, while Fell helped the wounded.
The event convinced Hovey to petition Lincoln, who consequently commissioned Hovey as a colonel. Authorized to form a regiment, Hovey called back the Rifles and began recruiting for what was established as the Schoolmaster’s Regiment. He became one of only two college presidents to lead a Western regiment. James Garfield of Hiram College, who became the nation’s 20th president, commanded the Forty-Second Ohio Regiment.
By September more than 900 men were a part of Hovey’s Illinois Thirty-Third Infantry Regiment, which trained in Missouri. There were 46 ISNU students, including 20 who had drilled with the Rifles. Other members had grown inpatient and already enlisted.
The Schoolmaster’s Regiment organized at Camp Butler in Springfield and soon moved to Pilot Knob near Ironton, Missouri, for serious training. The men saw their first engagement at Fredericktown, Missouri.
At Bayou Cache, a wounded Hovey rallied his men against a strong Confederate contingent until reinforcement arrived. He was promoted to Brigadier General for his distinguished conduct under fire.
Back on campus the regiment’s practice field grew over with weeds. Students walked across the stubble exchanging the latest news from the front. They shared letters and copies of The Picket, a little paper from the headquarters of the Thirty-Third.
The regiment remained on the move, seeing action in Arkansas and Louisiana swamps, Missouri, the Vicksburg campaign, Champion’s Hill, railroad guard duty, Fort Esperanza Texas, and Spanish Fort Alabama. The work ended when the regiment was disbanded on December 7, 1865.
Altogether 80 faculty members, 94 ISNU students, and 15 more from the Model School served in the Schoolmaster’s Regiment or other Illinois regiments. A total of 10 died, with Howell the University’s first casualty. His death occurred just a few months after he had returned on furlough to campus, where he was greeted as a conquering hero.
The loss was just one struggle the campus faced during the traumatic Civil War years. Men joined the military and women took the minimum courses required to qualify for a position in schools desperate for teachers. As a result, 506 students enrolled prior to the 1861 winter term but only 52 remained to graduate. State expenditures were questioned and teacher training scrutinized. The school’s existence was strenuously defended by President Richard Edwards.
When the war ended, Illinois State emerged ready to begin a new chapter. The University’s reputation for patriotism, which was evident with the creation of the Schoolmaster’s Regiment 150 years ago, became a point of pride. Enrollments increased as the campus flourished to become one of the most notable teacher colleges in the nation.
Editor’s note: Information for this piece was compiled by Jerry Abner ’75, M.S. ’92, from Grandest of Enterprises Illinois State University 1875-1957, by Helen E. Marshall; Educating Illinois: Illinois State University, 1857-2007, by John B. Freed; and McLean County Museum of History, Archive Collections, which supplied the photo on the opposite page.