Rachel Jacob, NIU’s newly minted Student Lincoln Laureate, is the type of student who sets…
DeKalb, Ill. — You can’t any longer call Jeremy Knoll a Research Rookie.
The junior from Springfield, who chose NIU in part because of its Research Rookies Program, is already getting the type of attention more typically reserved for Ph.D. students and university professors.
During his sophomore year, Knoll conceptualized and carried out an analysis of Illinois Civil War monuments for Research Rookies. Last fall, he presented his findings at a conference attended by graduate students and state historians. And this summer, the research, with Knoll listed as sole author, is expected to be published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the leading historical journal for Illinois history.
“It’s a very good, very professional article,” said David Joens, the director of the Illinois State Archives and guest editor of the journal issue featuring Knoll. Joens, who also happens to be an NIU alumnus (class of ’83), says it’s “very rare” for an undergraduate to publish in the journal.
“He’s taken a thesis and made it his own, which is what you do as a historian,” Joens adds. “I’m thrilled that he’s not only an undergraduate, but an NIU undergraduate, a Huskie. It speaks well of the history department at Northern as well as the student himself.”
Knoll’s study examines Civil War monument building in Illinois from 1865 to 1929, when the Great Depression brought construction of such memorials to an end. Through analysis of period newspaper stories and speeches from monument dedications, he shows changes in who was behind the monuments, funding sources, rhetoric around dedications and ultimately the motivations of the memorial builders themselves. Themes changed to fit the context of their times.
Perhaps most notably, he found the cause of ending slavery, important to early monument builders in the decade after the Civil War, faded almost completely from monument dedications in the 20th century. Instead, these ceremonies focused on reconciliation between the North and South—a finding relevant in today’s conversations over race, social justice, representations of the past and calls in other states for removal of Confederate monuments.
It was Knoll’s roots in Springfield, where Abraham Lincoln practiced law and rose to prominence, that brought him to the topic.
“I was growing up in Springfield just about the same time as the building of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum,” he says, adding that his family nurtured his passion for history by visiting Civil War battlefields.
A top student at his high school, Knoll had multiple full-ride scholarship offers for college and conducted a number of campus visits. “NIU was the only university where I thought I had a good shot of not only conducting undergraduate research but also getting paid for it,” he says.
NIU’s Research Rookies Program encourages undergrads to conduct faculty-guided research and rewards students who complete their projects with a $500 stipend. He enrolled at NIU, double majoring in history and economics, with a minor in German language and culture studies. During his freshman year, he completed his first Research Rookies project on Civil War prisoners of war, with Professor Brian Sandberg serving as his mentor.
Then prior to his sophomore year, while Knoll was interning at the Lincoln Presidential Library, his family visited Indianapolis. It was there that he was struck by the towering grandeur of the Indiana State Soldiers and Sailors Monument, an iconic symbol dedicated in 1902 to honor Civil War and other war veterans.
“For me, it sparked questions: Why did past Americans place such an emphasis on creating these monuments?” he says. “A lot of communities in Illinois and across the country have these types of monuments in their town squares or by their courthouses.”
Knoll brought his idea for a study of Illinois monuments to Aaron Fogleman, a distinguished research professor who served as a sounding board throughout the project.
“By the end of his sophomore year, Jeremy was producing work compatible with that of advanced graduate students,” Fogleman says. “He has made important discoveries regarding Civil War monuments in Illinois that help us better understand how changing historical circumstances in subsequent generations affected memory of the war and its purpose.”
Knoll, a University Honors student whose work is also supported by NIU’s McKearn Fellows program, found the reasons for building local monuments had been little researched. But there was a treasure trove of source material.
“Local newspapers covered events leading up to and including the dedication, and they almost always reprinted dedicatory addresses, which became the foundation of my research,” Knoll says. “When you compare dedications from different places in Illinois, they share common themes.”
Scouring newspaper archives, Knoll analyzed the history surrounding more than 40 of roughly 100 Civil War monuments throughout Illinois—as well as some erected outside state boundaries.
In the article set for publication, he introduces his topic with a striking account of the Pantheon-inspired Illinois State Memorial—located in Vicksburg, Miss. The State of Illinois spent more than 20% of its annual budget on the memorial. At its 1906 dedication, schoolchildren sang “Dixie” and “America,” while Mississippi Gov. James Vardaman delivered an address that alternately praised the Illinois delegation while asserting his belief in white supremacy.
Knoll goes on to tease out broad motivations behind three periods of monument building that he identifies. While all monuments were dedicated to the Civil War, each was a product of its distinct time.
The first period spans the Reconstruction era, from 1865 to 1877, when commemoration was focused on memorializing the “unknown dead,” consoling grieving families and expressing anger at the Confederacy. Dedications were local affairs, and typically locally funded. For those who had lost friends and relatives, treason and slavery had caused these painful deaths, and the two were appropriately vilified.
“The Civil War was the first conflict in American history where there were so many missing or killed who were never returned home for burial,” Knoll says. “Many of these monuments list the names of the soldiers, in part to provide them with a grave if they had none.”
The next period ran to nearly the end of the 19th century. Local chapters of national veterans’ or women’s organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic often organized fundraising. Dedicatory speakers were more receptive to reunion between North and South, but they continued to condemn both the Confederate cause and slavery.
In his paper, Knoll writes: “The 1880s and 1890s ultimately represented emancipation’s zenith as a commemorative theme, as it largely disappeared from the popular consciousness with the beginning of the twentieth century.”
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Northerners and Southerners fought side by side. By no coincidence, this signaled the start of the final period of Civil War monument building. It was characterized by a willingness to embrace Southerners as both fellow Americans and brave adversaries, leading to an abandonment of emancipation as a commemorative theme.
“By the 20th century, abolition increasingly got pushed aside to look at the war in a more favorable light,” says Knoll, who thinks his findings are relevant to today’s audiences.
“It speaks to how the context of our own time influences how we remember and commemorate historical events,” Knoll says. “There’s plenty to be learned from Union monuments.”
Media Contact: Tom Parisi
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 areas of study while serving a diverse and international student body.