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On the record ... with Larry Werline

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 9:34 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 9:34 a.m. CDT

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SYCAMORE – Larry Werline of Sycamore has been busier than ever since retiring.

Since 1997, he had been a part-time Ulysses S. Grant impersonator. With his retirement last year, he began performing full-time. This year the role will take him to seven states for 50 engagements, in addition to giving free presentations on Tuesdays and Fridays at the old state capitol in Springfield this summer.

He has always had an interest in teaching history, but he decided not to become a history teacher because at the time all history teachers were expected to coach a sport, which did not interest Werline.

“I went into industrial management instead and that worked out fine, but now I’m living my dream being a living history teacher,” said Werline, who often speaks in character at elementary schools.

“Students listen more carefully that way,” he said. “They are immersed in the period, and as such, if I can suspend disbelief, then they can get into it, just like going to a movie.”

Werline spoke with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg last week about impersonating the one-time Illinois resident who went on to become the 18th president and Civil War general who won the war for the Union.

MidWeek: Which came first: The resemblance to Ulysses S. Grant, or the interest in him?

Larry Werline: Neither. It was a strange set of circumstances. I had been a Civil War re-enactor for about 10 years. ...I was also a member of the board of directors for an international enterprise software users group. Before one of our annual meetings with 300 or 400 people at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, the president turned me and said she wanted me to do the opening act at the reception. She said, “You do that Civil War stuff, don’t you? We’d like you to come as Gen. Grant.” At the time I didn’t have a beard, and I just had a captain’s uniform but nothing higher (in rank). I started looking for a fake beard and none of them looked good. I ended up growing a beard just for the occasion and when I finally put it all on in front of the convention, I looked in the mirror and I was stunned at how much I looked like this guy. It was a successful meeting and afterward people were asking me, “Hey, before you shave your beard off, why don’t you come to my school or my church and give a talk?” I ended up doing a lot of talks, and went on from there.

MW: Do you focus strictly on his military history, or do you also discuss his role as president?

LW: I have his entire president’s wardrobe as well. He liked wide collars, and buttons that were covered in cloth. I found his coat from being president, and he wore this distinctive top hat. That top hat was a hard one to find. I went to New York looking for one and no one had a beaver top hat. I could get wool felt or satin, but I couldn’t get a beaver hat with the right crown. Finally I ended up buying one from a movie (prop) maker. I described it and he said, “Oh, you want the Grant hat.” It was a nice hat but it wasn’t genuine beaver. Then a friend of a friend came from New York to a re-enactment and he had a hat in a bag. He said, “If this fits you, it’s yours.” This French top hat, actually in beaver, was the right size and fit so I do have the beaver top hat now. I do (re-enactments as) the president occasionally, but most people want Gen. Grant.

MW: How much time and effort have you put into studying Grant?

LW: I read a lot of books on Grant, and now when I do, there are only a few items in the book that are new. But every time I learn something new, I think, “This gem is worth reading the whole book.” ...I learn something new about him every year. It’s kind of fun.

MW: Where have you traveled to teach others about Grant?

LW: This year I have gigs in eight different states: Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and one in Pennsylvania.

MW: What was Ulysses S. Grant doing 150 years ago this year?

LW: He was in a very important point of the Vicksburg campaign. He sent his troops down the opposite bank of the (Mississippi) river to try to capture Vicksburg (Miss.). after they had failed on five previous attempts. ...They wanted to run the (artillery) batteries across the river on boats so they could get behind the Confederates. At that juncture Battery G from Sycamore and DeKalb got involved. They were crossing the river at night and another boat rammed them, and they lost all six of their cannons, two of their men, and all of their horses. At that point Grant stopped the boat to move it, and they resumed in the morning.

MW: In July of 1863 Grant’s troops captured Vicksburg. How important was that victory?

LW: Some say it was the most important victory of the war, and pretty much everyone agrees that it was the most brilliant campaign of the war, the way Grant came from behind to cut supply lines and dividing Confederate forces. ...He kept them so off-balance that he was able to fight five land battles in Mississippi and win all five while dividing the Confederate army in two. ...In fact, the Germans studied that campaign extensively in World War II.

MW: When President Lincoln appointed Grant to become commander of all of the Union Armies, what was his battle plan from that point forward?

LW: That’s what Lincoln asked him at the ceremony receiving his third star (lieutenant general). Lincoln told Grant, “We have receptions and parties for you every night this week, and then a nice office in the War Department.” Grant replied, “Thank you, Mr. President, but I have had enough of this show business. I am leaving town tonight.” Lincoln was a bit stunned and asked Grant where he would go. Grant said he would make his headquarters in a tent and communicate with (Lincoln) and the other armies by telegraph, and “I’m going to put that tent by Army of the Potomac, the army that fights (Confederate General) Robert E. Lee.” …Grant told Lincoln that we weren’t using our resources properly. “We outnumber them, we out-man them, we out-gun them, we have more industry; the trouble is, they have more interior lines.”

MW: Some historians criticize Grant’s campaigns as being too brutal. What is your impression of the campaigns?

LW: Consider what would have happened if they had continued to fight the war as it had been before. Everybody fights each battle and loses a lot of people, then everybody goes home to lick their wounds and a few months later they do the same thing. It was just piling up casualties. Grant’s point was to keep going forward – yes, he knew he’d take casualties and he was expecting it, but he knew he could replace his troops but the Confederates couldn’t. He ended it sooner that way.  

MW: What actions did President Grant take to preserve the freedoms and protections of the newly-liberated slaves?

LW: Grant sent the army into the south primarily to defend the right to vote. He felt the way to freedom was through the ballot box. He felt if he could get the freed men to vote, and to protect that vote, they would have the power to do what they needed for themselves. He did that and he did it well. They went down there and crushed the Ku Klux Klan for a period and many blacks elected themselves into office. It was quite successful when he was president, but when he left they repealed Grant’s civil rights laws and pulled the army out.

MW: I read that President Grant established Yellowstone as the first national park. What else did he accomplish during his presidency?

LW: Yes, I usually give that as a trivia question; most people answer Teddy Roosevelt. I think one of the most noteworthy things was that he turned England from an enemy to an ally. Up to that point, England and the United States were always arguing over something. When he became president, they were at odds over war reparations, fishing rights and the boundaries in the northwest. The Senate was actually wanting to go to war with England, but Grant secretly sent a delegation to England and signed a treaty to settle all those things. It ended the animosity toward each other.

MW: When and where in Illinois did Grant live?

LW: He became an Illinois citizen in 1860, one year before the outbreak of the war. He moved to Illinois because he wasn’t doing well in Missouri, near St. Louis, in supporting his family. His father had established a leather goods store in Galena and his brother was running it, so he got a job working for his brother as a clerk and salesman. He did that for a year until the outbreak of the Civil War.

MW: I also read that he trained Union volunteer regiments in Illinois in 1861. Do you know where that took place?

LW: At this point, he (a graduate of West Point) knew more about training than anyone in the Galena area, so they had him start up a regiment there. He took that regiment down to Springfield, where everybody got mustered in. Gov. Yates was giving out commissions for colonels and lieutenant colonels through politics, but Grant wasn’t politically connected so the governor gave him a job as assistant adjutant general in the state house, mustering in and doing paperwork for all the thousands of troops coming in. He was getting tired of that. He wanted a regiment where he could fight. …Then the governor made him a colonel and gave him command of the 21st Illinois Regiment. The regiment had been totally undisciplined and the governor thought maybe Grant could whip them into shape, which he did very quickly.

MW: When you give presentations, do you give them in the first person as if you were the general?

LW: Always first person. I don’t even want people to introduce me with my real name. It’s a living history, and I want to make history come alive, but I can’t do that if I can’t suspend disbelief.

MW: How much does the uniform weigh? Is there a lightweight one for summer wear?

LW: It weighs a lot, and it gets heavier as the day goes on. It’s pretty heavy wool, but that’s what you had. There were only three types of material back then: wool, silk and cotton. Of the three, only wool was durable enough that a soldier wouldn’t wear it out too quickly. You could make a lighter-weight version of wool (garments), but it isn’t going to stand up in the field.

MW: Are the uniforms custom-made for you?

LW: You can buy off-the-shelf uniforms, but all officers have their uniforms made for them. I have had my uniforms made for me, or had them modified for me after I got them from somebody else.

MW: When you give presentations, who do you find is the most interested in hearing your oral history?

LW: I think the younger kids, and I go to the fifth grades, connect with Grant’s youth pretty well. They understand some of the things he did. The adults find the end of the war fascinating – Appomattox, the surrender and how Grant and Lee actually ended the war.

MW: Do you have ancestors who fought in the Civil War?

LW: I have ancestors on my mother’s mother’s side. As it turns out one was in the Confederate army and five were in the Union army.

MW: What do you try to teach people about Grant that they probably don’t already know?

LW: One of the things that everybody seems to know about Grant is that he was a fall-down drunk, but that just wasn’t true. At times in his life he was a teetotaler, but other times he was a moderate drinker but he didn’t drink a lot. He had a problem with alcohol, so he didn’t drink too much of it. People thought he was drunk because he had a funny gait, but he had malaria at one time and it affected his walking pattern and it looked like he was staggering.

MW: Do Grant’s politics or personality remind you of any modern politicians?

LW: He’s like an Eisenhower. He was a West Point graduate and was a soldier first and he went along with what politicians said. When he ran for president, he had to choose which party he was going to be with. In both cases, both Eisenhower and Grant chose the Republican party.

MW: How many Grant statues, parks and memorials have you visited?

LW: Wow, I haven’t counted them all. I have been to all the major battlefields, and his home in St. Louis.

MW: Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

LW: Nobody. He is in a sarcophagus, which is an above-ground vault, so he’s not buried. He’s not underground.

MW: Are you pretty popular when you go to Galena?

LW: Yes, in fact I am going there this weekend. It’s fun walking down the street as Grant – there are a couple of shops that will let you in and give you free food.

MW: Are there other Gen. Grant impersonators who do what you do?

LW: I know of one in Memphis, one in Gettysburg and another one in Illinois. There are others, but they don’t do it in first-person.

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