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Speaker and Illinois Military Museum in Springfield illustrate Illinois’ place in the world

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[June 27, 2014]  LINCOLN - One of the many great speakers for the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society this past year was retired Brigadier General Stuart Reeve. Reeve is director of the Illinois Military Museum in Springfield and served as keynote speaker for the annual LCG&HS meeting in November.

General Reeve began his discussion of the Illinois Military Museum with a short history of the facility. The museum is a repository of items collected for over two centuries from the Illinois National Guard and its predecessors. The first home of the museum was the Memorial Hall in the Secretary of State building on the campus of the State Capital in downtown Springfield.

In 2003, the collection was moved to its current home at Camp Lincoln. The historic building was constructed in 1905 and used as a hospital for the army guard base. It is now dedicated solely to the museum.

The current two story museum has some of the rarest items available.

The history of the Illinois National Guard actually began before Illinois became a state in 1818. Previous to that time, Illinois was part of Virginia under French control prior to the Revolutionary War.

The inhabitants of this area at that time were a self-sufficient lot who had to fend for themselves. Part of their required personal items at that time was a rifle and powder for protection, but also to hunt for food for their families.

The Illinois Military Museum follows the course of these area citizens through to statehood when the Illinois National Guard was formed. Reeve said, “The museum details the story of Illinois citizens who volunteered to serve their state and country.”

Guard members are citizen volunteers who are called upon from time to time to help defend our state and country. The Illinois National Guard members have been engaged in every conflict that the United States has fought, from the Black Hawk Wars of the early 1830’s, through the recently ended second Iraq conflict, and Afghanistan. The members of the guard are highly trained and can fill many rolls.

In 1917 during WW I, an aviation unit of the Army National Guard formed. It is included in museum displays and now part of the extensive archives at Camp Lincoln. In 1918 during combat over France, Guard aviators produced the first four air aces recognized for heroism, one of those pilots being Reed Landis from Illinois.

Illinois even has a Navy presence in the Guard.

Reeve related some history related to one of the famous members of the Illinois National Guard. He was an unknown trading post entrepreneur at New Salem, and later a circuit riding lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Lincoln joined the Guard in the early 1830’s just in time to participate in the Black Hawk War in Illinois during 1832. He originally signed up for a 30-day enlistment as a 23 year old, then signed again for another 30 days, and subsequently made a third enlistment. Lincoln was so well liked by his comrades that he was elected to positions of leadership in his guard unit. While Lincoln saw no combat against the Black Hawk Indian tribe, he remarked later in his life that his time in the Illinois Army Guard was some of the most satisfying of his life.

General Reeve said, “The Illinois Military Museum is more than one famous person and one war.” Other illustrious Illinois residents that served in the guard include Robert McCormick, founder of the Chicago Tribune; Carl Sandburg, world renowned Illinois poet and Lincoln biographer; John A. Logan (does that name sound familiar?) and Ulysses S. Grant.

Reeve spoke further about the history of the Illinois Guard and items in the museum, mentioning that Illinois Guard members served in the Mexican War and were sent into Mexico. The museum has uniforms from this era. The Guard fought in the battle of Cerro Gordo in the Mexican War. That conflict remains a controversial subject among military historians. During his lone term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln challenged the United States government to justify the war against Mexico in his “Spot Resolution.”

Reeve continued to unroll the fascinating history of the Illinois National Guard that is represented in the museum by addressing its role in the Civil War. While former Guard member Abraham Lincoln occupied the White House as president, his home state sent over 250,000 of its citizens into that conflict. The museum has some unique Civil War items that by their very existence attests to the quality of this collection.

The first overseas deployment of the Illinois National Guard was during the Spanish American War of 1897, when a contingent of troops was sent to Cuba.

The 20th Century brought conflicts that again called upon the citizen soldiers of Illinois. Reeve mentioned the 12,000 guardsmen who were sent to New Mexico in 1916 after the attack on the small town of Columbus, New Mexico by a rogue Mexican general name Pancho Villa.

During WW I, 18,000 guardsmen went into the United States’ Army in its battle against Germany. The contingent sent to Europe was unique because it contained black officers and soldiers, a step that was way ahead of the rest of the country.

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At this point General Reeve wanted to make a very important point about the Illinois National Guard. While the Guard continued to serve in times of conflict in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, both conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said “The Illinois Guard is not just about participating in conflicts and the museum is not just about war. The small things the Guard performs are also vital to its mission and the story that the Illinois Military Museum tells.”

The Guard’s mission is also to build and heal. Highly trained Guard units provide medical care and security after natural disasters both in state and outside Illinois. The Guard builds schools and digs wells in countries around the world. “These humanitarian missions are some of the most important tasks that the men and women of the Guard do,” he said.

“The State Partnership for Peace has matched the Illinois National Guard with Poland since the early 1990’s after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Guard participates in joint exercises with Polish units.” The Guard was also called upon after the terrorism attacks of 9-11.

The Illinois Military Museum has over 12,000 items in its possession. Only a small number of these are displayed on a rotating basis. One of its most famous items is Mexican General Santa Anna’s cork leg which was captured during the war with Mexico. The display of the leg is a beautiful recreation of the incident when the leg was taken. It seems that the general had removed the prosthesis and was reclining in his coach enjoying lunch when US soldiers approached. He scrambled to escape leaving his cork leg behind. The leg was taken by an Illinois soldier and has ended up in Springfield, Illinois.

Stepping off the elevator onto the second floor of the museum and into the main exhibit area, one encounters an evocative display of Guard members who have perished while performing their duties.

Perhaps the most spectacular collection at the Illinois Military Museum is the battle flags. The museum has more than 1,000 battle flags beginning with a few from the Mexican War in 1846. The flags were used before the advent of radio communication to signal the troops.

At one time the flags hung in the Centennial Hall in the Secretary of State office. They were not well cared for and were finally removed and entrusted to the care of the Illinois Military Museum.

Some of these priceless flags are in fragile condition from age and neglect. The irreplaceable treasures are now stored in a climate controlled vault at Camp Lincoln. A different flag is removed from the vault every 90 days and displayed in the museum. The flags tell their own story of the Illinois National Guard in thread and fabric.

Stuart Reeve concluded his presentation on the Illinois Military Museum to the gathered members of LCG&HS by saying, “The museum is an Illinois asset, a national asset. It is a living history museum that changes all of the time, as the role of the Illinois National Guard changes. We have designed the museum to be a welcoming and at times a very personal place. ” He believes that the museum is a gem that is not to be missed.

The Illinois Military Museum is located on the grounds of Camp Lincoln on the north side of Springfield, just two short blocks north of the intersection of North Grand Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

You can find the updated hours and more information on the museum's Face Book page along with upcoming special events or contact Stuart Reeve at (217) 761-3384. Admission to the museum is free.

The Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society meets each month on the third Monday at 6:30 p.m. at their research center at 114 North Chicago Street in Lincoln. Each meeting features a guest speaker discussing genealogy and research and central Illinois history. The research center may be contacted at (217) 732-3200 or by email at


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