Usually when people first meet me, I don't really mind telling them about myself and things that I enjoy. However, there's usually a fact about me that I don't exactly lead with, and that's my beloved hobby. That's something I'll usually save for... eh... some other time. Usually people will stumble across it on their own as they go back through my Facebook or something. I'm not really embarrassed about my hobby, it's just a bit difficult to explain.
To condense it all, I really enjoy leaving all electricity and modern technology behind, wearing wool clothing in the summer heat, being strapped down with 35 pounds of gear and a 10-pound rifle, marching several miles a day in all my gear, speaking with a strange old-fashioned vocabulary, subsisting off meat that has spent a month in a barrel of salt and crackers with the consistency of a rock, and sleeping outside in the rain. Seriously, it's a passion.
I am a Civil War reenactor.
Nope, that is not a dusty old image from 150 years ago that is specially preserved in a photographic collection in the Library of Congress - that's me in the summer 2014. I do everything I can to get every detail as close as possible to what you would have seen in an original soldier of the North or South all those years ago. I style my hair and facial hair in ways that were popular with men in the 1860s - and conveniently enough are still kind of popular today. All my clothing was reproduced from original artifacts - the people who make all the clothing basically do it as a second job, they're that good at it. I read letters and diaries from the time period to help me replicate how these guys talked, joked, and viewed things. I won't lie, it can be a lot of work and a lot of money, but I positively love it.
If I had a dime for every time I've been asked this question... Explaining why I reenact is tough for me. There's a lot that goes into it, and a lot that keeps me doing it, but I've got three big motivators.
1. I just love history
Everybody's got that one thing that they can look at and say, "That's my sh*t, man. That's my thing." My thing is - and always has been - history. I've loved it since I was a kid. History became my passion because I learned early that our heritage is part of all of us and everything around us. For instance, I've connected my beloved university's history to what I do. A lot of early Penn Staters joined the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers and fought through the war. The picture above is me at their monument at the Gettysburg Battlefield, at the very spot where many of them laid down their lives.
Everyone in the past had a story, just like us. They had a home and people they loved, just like us. They laughed, cried, celebrated, mourned, got pissed off, had bad days, had things they were stressed about, had favorite ways to relax after a long day of work... just like us. The only difference is that we live in different circumstances.
I think about that all the time, and I want to learn the stories of these people. That's why history became one of my majors at Penn State. After writing a historical thesis the length of a small book, I'll shortly be getting my history degree with honors.
My love of history has branched out from just mid-nineteenth century America, and every now and then I'll start into a kick about some new topic (lately its been the Roman Republic). But the Civil War Era is what I'm best at, and what I feel the most emotionally attached to.
2. Reenacting has given me so many great friends and memories
(Yes, that's me in the center - it was fall of 2012, and it was one of the last times I wouldn't have a beard.)
This hobby has connected me to the coolest people, and they're from all different walks of life. I've stood shoulder to shoulder with punk rockers, pastors, bankers, construction workers, real-life combat veterans, movie producers, frat boys, people with Ph.D.s, you name it. We come from across the country - sometimes from across oceans - and from all different places on the political spectrum. When we get to the reenactment (what we call an "event"), all those differences go aside. For a weekend, we all have a release from the world of today, and we can escape into another life.
Now, don't get me wrong, we're just playing soldier here. But there's something about being in tough situations with folks that makes you really bond to them. We all have stories that we share a part of. My buddy Chase (the guy on the right in the picture) and I will always remember marching 17 miles in the blazing sun for 8 hours, walking across the Potomac River, and finally collapsing at the edge of a cornfield when we joined in an effort to recreate Confederate soldiers marching to the Battle of Antietam. Some of us will remember sitting in a dark forest last summer, telling ghost stories in the pitch black night while we sat on reserve on sentry duty and tried to pick out the sounds of Confederate footsteps from the croaking of bullfrogs.
I've made so many memories with these guys. Some of them are inside jokes, like the way the words "buttered carrots" can make us cringe and roll on the ground laughing. Some of them are moments that make me get goosebumps and say, "Wow, that actually happened," like very early one September morning in 2012 when a couple thousand of us watched the smoke from our rifles blot out the rising sun (which you can watch in the video below).
3. I want to commemorate our nation's greatest tragedy and teach people the lessons of our past
If there's something I want to make very clear, it's this - I hope to God I will never understand the things a Civil War soldier experienced. They saw their brothers, sons, or fathers cut down next to them on smoky battlefields. They watched their best friends waste away and die from disease. They felt pain, sorrow, and misery.
My own ancestor, Private Jeremiah Stailey served in the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, and he felt those things. When the war began, he was so excited to march off to war that he lied about his age to enlist - he had only just turned 16. He was wounded in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 - the bloodiest single day in American history. He was captured at the Battle of Wilderness a year and a half later, and was sent to the infamous prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. He almost starved to death in Andersonville, and when he came out, he was a walking skeleton. It ruined him. He went home and married, but he only lived another ten years or so. The man died in his early 30s.
I don't want to glorify war, killing, and death. This is where the deeper part of my soul comes into this hobby. There are some reenactors out there who just don't do it right. When they reenact a battle or something for the public, they make it into something like a carnival sideshow. I don't believe in that. Not all reenactors are exactly the same. Some just do it casually and don't really think about the bigger picture of what we're doing. My friends and I aren't those sorts of guys. Yeah, we have fun doing this. But there's a hell of a lot more to it.
See that picture? That's real. Those are real Americans. Dead and left out on the battlefield for days in the rain and sun. They were someone's husband, boyfriend, brother, son, or daddy. But no more. That's the truth of history.
I'm sorry if that's an unpleasant picture to look at, but that's why I do this. In the end, I don't give a damn about cool uniforms, fun times, and hanging with buddies. That doesn't matter compared to this.
I reenact to teach people what those men lived through, and to teach people what those men died for.
I don't participate in a whole lot of battle reenactments anymore. They can be really impressive and can help you get a sense of what a battle in the Civil War was like. But the thing is, we will never know. We'll never know what it's like to sob over your best friend's corpse after he died in your arms behind the firing line. We'll never know how it feels to march a mile over open ground, knowing that staring you dead in the face are thousands of rifles and cannons that will fire at any minute and wipe out you and your friends. We'll never know the horrific feeling soldiers wrote about when they spent the night next to a battlefield from earlier that day, and they were kept awake all night by the screaming and moaning of the wounded left out in the field. I hope we will never know what that is like.
Instead of battle reenactments, I prefer to do what we call living histories. In a living history, we'll set up camp somewhere and just show the daily life of these soldiers to members of the public. We'll do these at national parks or different historical sites, and anyone can come visit us free of charge. We'll do some drill, maybe do a firing demonstration, things like that. But the part I think is most important is just standing face-to-face with the public and just talking about what these men endured. Sometimes we'll speak in "first-person" and act like we actually are Civil War soldiers - this lets people get to interact firsthand with these men (kids especially love this).
But other times, we'll just talk normally. We'll be honest about who we are in real life. If someone asks, I'll tell them I'm a 22-year-old student at Penn State University, and I'll tell them why I do this stuff. I tell them why I'm so emotionally attached to this conflict and the men who fought it - because it's a part of me and my own heritage. I help them connect to it too, and soon they feel attached to it too.
The Civil War isn't always easy to talk about. It's something that's very much still apart of our country's passions.The controversies of that war are still with us today. Look for instance at the recent debates over the Confederate battle flag. There are questions remaining from the Civil War that we're still trying to answer.
Here's my view of it though:
Our Civil War was a national tragedy. Brother fought brother - at times, literally. Whole towns had their young men wiped out or limping home maimed for life. Some families lost everything in that war. There were a hell of a lot of widows and a hell of a lot of orphans. 750,000 people died in that war. That was 2% of the American population then. Can you imagine if 2% of our population died today? For four years, America's fields, rivers, towns, and streams ran red with the blood of Americans who should have lived in peace and brotherhood with each other.
But great good came from this tragedy. An entire race of people who were enslaved, abused, tortured, murdered, and traded like livestock were set free. From the fires of this war, African-Americans took their freedom and rose like a phoenix as citizens. America proved that democracy could survive, and that this nation would persevere. But this all is still relevant.
Racism is still alive in this country (that's right, I said it). Americans are becoming more and more divided by hatred and anger. People are forgetting the blood that was shed to keep this nation alive.
That's why I do this.
I do this so we may never make the same mistakes that we did over 150 years ago. I reenact to teach people what that war was like and how terrible it was. I reenact so that, in the immortal words of Lincoln, "these dead shall not have died in vain." That's how I honor the men in blue and gray who laid down their lives. That's why I do all this crazy stuff. Don't get me wrong, from a distance, this hobby looks weird. But beneath the surface, there is a deep and heartfelt purpose.