The Truths Of Being A Civil War Reenactor

The Truths Of Being A Civil War Reenactor

I can't remember, was I born in 1995 or 1840?
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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.

Why reenact?

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.

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It's Time To Thank Your First Roommate

Not the horror story kind of roommate, but the one that was truly awesome.
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Nostalgic feelings have recently caused me to reflect back on my freshman year of college. No other year of my life has been filled with more ups and downs, and highs and lows, than freshman year. Throughout all of the madness, one factor remained constant: my roommate. It is time to thank her for everything. These are only a few of the many reasons to do so, and this goes for roommates everywhere.

You have been through all the college "firsts" together.

If you think about it, your roommate was there through all of your first college experiences. The first day of orientation, wishing you luck on the first days of classes, the first night out, etc. That is something that can never be changed. You will always look back and think, "I remember my first day of college with ____."

You were even each other's first real college friend.

You were even each other's first real college friend.

Months before move-in day, you were already planning out what freshman year would be like. Whether you previously knew each other, met on Facebook, or arranged to meet in person before making any decisions, you made your first real college friend during that process.

SEE ALSO: 18 Signs You're A Little Too Comfortable With Your Best Friends

The transition from high school to college is not easy, but somehow you made it out on the other side.

It is no secret that transitioning from high school to college is difficult. No matter how excited you were to get away from home, reality hit at some point. Although some people are better at adjusting than others, at the times when you were not, your roommate was there to listen. You helped each other out, and made it through together.

Late night talks were never more real.

Remember the first week when we stayed up talking until 2:00 a.m. every night? Late night talks will never be more real than they were freshman year. There was so much to plan for, figure out, and hope for. Your roommate talked, listened, laughed, and cried right there with you until one of you stopped responding because sleep took over.

You saw each other at your absolute lowest.

It was difficult being away from home. It hurt watching relationships end and losing touch with your hometown friends. It was stressful trying to get in the swing of college level classes. Despite all of the above, your roommate saw, listened, and strengthened you.

...but you also saw each other during your highest highs.

After seeing each other during the lows, seeing each other during the highs was such a great feeling. Getting involved on campus, making new friends, and succeeding in classes are only a few of the many ways you have watched each other grow.

There was so much time to bond before the stresses of college would later take over.

Freshman year was not "easy," but looking back on it, it was more manageable than you thought at the time. College only gets busier the more the years go on, which means less free time. Freshman year you went to lunch, dinner, the gym, class, events, and everything else possible together. You had the chance to be each other's go-to before it got tough.

No matter what, you always bounced back to being inseparable.

Phases of not talking or seeing each other because of business and stress would come and go. Even though you physically grew apart, you did not grow apart as friends. When one of you was in a funk, as soon as it was over, you bounced right back. You and your freshman roommate were inseparable.

The "remember that one time, freshman year..." stories never end.

Looking back on freshman year together is one of my favorite times. There are so many stories you have made, which at the time seemed so small, that bring the biggest laughs today. You will always have those stories to share together.

SEE ALSO: 15 Things You Say To Your Roommates Before Going Out

The unspoken rule that no matter how far apart you grow, you are always there for each other.

It is sad to look back and realize everything that has changed since your freshman year days. You started college with a clean slate, and all you really had was each other. Even though you went separate ways, there is an unspoken rule that you are still always there for each other.

Your old dorm room is now filled with two freshmen trying to make it through their first year. They will never know all the memories that you made in that room, and how it used to be your home. You can only hope that they will have the relationship you had together to reflect on in the years to come.


Cover Image Credit: Katie Ward

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10 Ways To Plan A Fun College Weekend That DOESN'T Involve Alcohol

If you're desperate to take a break from the bar scene.

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As a college student, I can attest to the mass amounts of binge drinking that occurs on the weekends and sometimes weekdays of the semester. Every plan or activity seems to involve a fifth of vodka or a glass of wine. You can't tell me that a weekend of no alcohol doesn't sound like heaven on earth. If you can that's okay, we'll just entertain the idea.

Here are 10 things you can do to substitute a night out.

1. Grab a pizza and watch the sunset at a cool spot

Whether you go to school in the city, the country or near the beach, there is always a good spot to watch the sunset. Grab your favorite type of to-go food, a friend, a few blankets and have yourself a sunset.

2. Go on a food tour

Food tours are a great way to spend a Saturday night. These tours can usually be found in most cities and big towns. You sign up and pay online, meet up with the group and a guide brings you around to the best restaurants to try a sample of food from each place.

3. Take a trip

If the weather is nice, go to the beach. Take advantage of friends who have beach or even lake houses and spend the weekend relaxing. In the winter, do the same. Go skiing or snowboarding with some friends. There are so many winter activities, you surely won't run out of things to do.

4. Visit your local puppy store

This one is my favorite. Whether you're missing your own dog or you just love dogs, visit the pet store and have a day.

5. Have a "family" dinner or game night with all of your friends

It's so important to hang out with your friends when you're sober, so invite everyone over for dinner and games. Ask each person to make and bring a dish of something, it's fun to see what people will bring. Get out a deck of cards or an old favorite board game, there are endless game possibilities.

6. Rent a movie or go to the movie theater

Movie nights are the best, you're lying if you say they're not. Put on your favorite pajamas and fuzzy socks, and invite your friends over for a movie. If you're itching to get out of your apartment, go to the movie theater and pig out on candy.

7. Rent bikes or mopeds and ride them around

Over the summer, my friends and I spent a day riding rental bikes around Boston and it was the best Sunday I've ever had. You get to see the city so much better and a whole lot faster.

8. Go bowling

Bowling is so underrated. There is nothing better than getting together some of your most competitive friends and having a night at the bowling alley.

9. Take a yoga class 

Imagine how good you'll feel the morning after taking a yoga class... totally beats your usual hangover. If you want to be even more adventurous, try hot yoga. Hot yoga is HARD but you feel like a million bucks after a nice cold shower.

10. Spend a whole day shopping 

Let's be real, we all do this anyway.

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