As a former history teacher and a former U.S. speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert knows a little something about human conflict.
That background is one reason why the Wheaton Center for History invited Hastert to Sunday's opening of the center's new Civil War exhibit, "War of the Rebellion: On and Off the Battlefield."
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Hastert, a Wheaton College alumnus, declined to speak in detail about the recent rancor in Washington during his presentation, but he alluded to it when he talked about the importance of continued rigorous study of the Civil War.
"The lessons that the war can teach us are great," Hastert said. "As (President) Lincoln said: 'A house divided cannot stand.' We still have differences of opinion today. But those can be overcome."
The Civil War exhibit includes numerous rare documents and artifacts from the war -- photographs, weapons, letters -- most of them from soldiers with connections to Wheaton.
For example, visitors will be able to see a handmade cavalry campaign map created by Capt. Henry W. Chester, a former Wheaton resident. There are materials that document the abolitionist movement that took place at Wheaton College, along with numerous transcribed letters from soldiers.
Many of the items in the exhibit were donated to the center by families of the Wheaton soldiers.
"We're so grateful to have this material," said Alberta Adamson, president of the center. "These artifacts help bring history alive, especially for young people."
Hastert, who retired from Congress in 2007 after spending 20 years in the U.S. House, said young people sometimes make the mistake of thinking that historical events happened so long ago that they're no longer relevant. He then told a story about the time he saw one of the last survivors of the Civil War at a parade celebrating the end of World War II.
"We're not that far removed from it, really," he said. "People who lived through it were still alive during many of our lifetimes."
Hastert urged residents and teachers to take advantage of the center's exhibit, especially as a way to bring the Civil War home to young people.
"There's the old saw that says those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well, too often we tend to repeat history, rather than learn from it," he said.
For information about the Civil War exhibit, contact the center at (630) 871-6601.