Civil War re-enactors bring history to life
Posted: November 17, 2012
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — Scott Sturdivant’s SUV is a time machine of sorts.
About once a month, he and his family pile into it and drive straight back to the 19th century.
The Sturdivants are amateur Civil War re-enactors, and reliving the past is one of their favorite pastimes. They’re so into it that a room in their Shawneeland ranch house is crammed with Confederate uniforms, hoop skirts and haversacks.
This afternoon, Scott, wife Karen, 21-year-old son Joshua and 4-year-old grandson Elijah, will don their period garb and march with 2,000 other re-enactors in the annual Remembrance Day Parade in Gettysburg, Pa.
The event is part of the Gettysburg Address anniversary. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous speech on Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of Soliders’ National Cemetery — four-and-a-half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, which was the war’s bloodiest engagement, with 51,000 casualties.
Sturdivant, who directs the work release program at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Frederick County, is footing the bill for the family trip.
“I don’t think I’m crazy, but some people do,” the 50-year-old quipped. “My sister thinks we’re dumb for re-enacting on the losing side. She’s always asking, ‘Why do you want to fight for the guys who lost?’”
A Prince William County native, Sturdivant has many reasons, but his interest in the Civil War starts with his own family tree — two of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy, and he remembers the stories his grandmother used to tell, one in particular about a soldier relative who came upon a house and stole a pan of hot cornbread from a mother and her children, even though she begged him not to.
“He was just so hungry,” he said sympathetically.
Though some may argue otherwise, Sturdivant insists that re-enacting isn’t a way to keep fighting a war that ended almost 150 years ago.
“I’m a Southerner at heart,” he confessed. “But I have no problem putting on a blue uniform.”
Re-enacting, he said, is a way to learn about history by getting momentarily lost in it.
“It brings home to me a small taste of what these people had to go through.”
And, he added with a smile from underneath the brim of a wool re-enactor’s cap, “It’s fun. I get to spend time with my family and sit around a campfire. It’s just like hunting or fishing or any other hobby.”
A passion for history
Civil War re-enacting draws all types of people, from forklift operators to physicians.
Some women even paste on a beard or mustache to ride in a cavalry unit.
And it’s not just an American obsession — The War Between the States attracts re-enactors from around the world.
Each October, a man from Germany travels to the Cedar Creek battlefield south of Middletown to be a Confederate cavalryman.
The 30-something, affectionately called “Hans” because none of the other re-enactors can pronounce his name, is one of about 2,500 re-enactors who help stage the annual Battle of Cedar Creek on land where it was originally fought in 1864.
“His feeling is that U.S. history is very rich and that he learns something every time he comes here,” said Tim Stowe, president of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the battle site. “In Germany, people can’t go out and re-enact World War II or World War I. That could be crazy.”
Stowe, on the other hand, is content to stand on the sidelines and watch.
At last month’s 22nd re-enactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek, he snacked on a bag of kettle corn as cannons boomed and galloping horses thundered past. A man stood on the back of a car and, over a loudspeaker, offered play-by-play commentary of the action on the battlefield.
A civil engineer, Stowe got hooked on the Civil War as a boy. He said his mother would make him till the garden, and he couldn’t believe all the amazing artifacts the earth churned up.
“I’d find bullets in my very own backyard in Winchester,” he said. “It was just neat learning about all that history and that it occurred right here.”
But he admitted it’s hard to distinguish what separates his interest in the Civil War from those who re-enact it, though he said it probably boils down to “a pure passion for history” on their part. “They are very knowledgeable about the war and want to do all they can to tell the story and share the history.
“If you drill down a little further,” he said, “camaraderie and being with friends is the other common thread.”
Re-enactors also help preserve battlefields by volunteering their time to stage re-enactments like the one at Cedar Creek — grand spectacles that people pay to see and that take months of planning so they come off like a well-rehearsed ballet.
Even the 160 horses at the Cedar Creek re-enactment go through training to get accustomed to the sound of mock gunfire.
“The re-enactors have become partners with us,” Stowe said. “We help them with their hobby by providing them a venue, and they help us generate revenue.”
More than 320 acres of the original battlefield are now owned by the foundation, and the re-enactments help pay off the note, Stowe said.
He added that Cedar Creek is one of the only Civil War battlefields that allows re-enactments, adding to its allure.
“If someone’s great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Cedar Creek, a re-enactor can come here and stand where his ancestor stood, and that’s pretty special,” Stowe said.
A dying breed?
No one really knows how many Civil War re-enactors there are — ballpark figures put the number at 50,000 — but experts say next year’s 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, set for July 4-7, will be a good indicator of the size of the community.
The battle’s 135th re-enactment in 1998, believed to be the largest ever held, drew 30,000 and 40,000 re-enactors, according to estimates.
When the Gettysburg battle marked its 50th anniversary in 1913 at the Great Reunion, more than 50,000 Union and Confederate veterans attended, and parts of the battle were re-enacted, including Pickett’s Charge.
Modern re-enacting, however, likely didn’t originate until the 1961-65 Civil War Centennial commemoration. After that, the ranks started to swell.
Although the war’s ongoing 150th anniversary has renewed interest in re-enacting, Stowe is worried about what will happen when the sesquicentennial ends in 2015.
“A lot of the re-enactors are getting old,” Stowe said, “and a lot of them are telling us that after that, they’re going to hang it up and retire from the hobby. We’re kind of in uncharted waters here. We really don’t know how many will be left.”
Ken Wilt, who’s commander of the 350-member, Winchester-based Jackson’s Corps re-enactment group, has also noticed a graying of the ranks.
He guesses that the average age of a re-enactor these days is 45.
“The young bloods aren’t coming in,” Wilt said.
But there’s no stopping Wilt and his wife, Vonda, who have been re-enacting for more than 30 years.
“It’s just a way of life for us,” he said.
Wilt rattles sabres and Vonda offers a living history program on the lack of medical knowledge during the war. Most soldiers died from infection and disease, she said, “not the bullet on the battlefield.”
Author Tony Horwitz, who in 1998 published “Confederates in the Attic,” an exploration of his lifelong interest in the Civil War and his time with a band of “hardcore” Civil War re-enactors, said re-enactors tend to view themselves as educators, and their efforts typically pay homage to the common soldier, those north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
But it’s also “just good fun,” he said from his home in Massachusetts. “It’s sort of a dress-up family camping trip. It’s pure escapism.”
The Civil War, he added, may seem to some re-enactors “like a simpler and greater time than our own,” when a fire had to be built and beans ground to make a cup of coffee.
What he also thinks draws re-enactors to the Civil War, instead of earlier wars such as the American Revolution, are the often unchanged landscapes of the battlefields and the vivid photographs of the time.
Through these pictures, “You can stare into the eyes of a Civil War soldier,” Horwitz said, “and you can see the details of their clothing.”
Horwitz’s latest book is “Midnight Rising” about John Brown’s insurrection at Harpers Ferry.
Is that what you’re wearing?
“You really need to do something about those,” 46-year-old Greg Bennett of York, Pa., said as he pointed to a pair of work shoes a fellow re-enactor was wearing just before they charged onto the Cedar Creek battlefield.
“I can’t,” shrugged the bearded man dressed in a Confederate uniform. He explained that he packed two left re-enactor’s boots and had no choice but to wear his everyday shoes.
“Farb,” Bennett said, shaking his head.
It was a good-natured jab, and both men chuckled, although a little awkwardly. Re-enactors are sticklers for authenticity, and anyone who doesn’t adhere is quickly labeled a “farb” or any derivation thereof.
The word’s origin isn’t known, but it’s a “re-enactorism” that implies that something isn’t authentic.
At places like Cedar Creek , re-enactors don’t stand around drinking soda out of a can. Instead, they consume it from a tin cup. At campsites, bedrolls cover air mattresses, and coolers of food are stored discreetly inside antique chests.
“We work really hard to make everything realistic,” said Bennett, who has been a re-enactor for more than 20 years.
Even the rifles that spew gunsmoke are real; they just aren’t loaded with bullets.
Six years ago, when Sturdivant brought his then-teenage son Joshua to Cedar Creek to learn more about the hobby, they were handed uniforms and invited to join the re-enactors on the battlefield.
“Try before you buy,” they were advised.
Not long into the re-enactment, Joshua turned to his father and said, “You know that we are so doing this.”
“Yep, I do,” his father replied.
The whole Sturdivant family now has period attire, even 4-year-old Elijah, who proudly modeled a gray wool frock coat in his front yard on a crisp November evening.
And Karen has a stack of flouncy dresses — for day, camp, tea and evening.
“I’m wearing eight layers,” she said of her complicated ensemble, which included drawers, chemise, stockings, corset, petticoat and hoop skirt.
Sturdivant estimates that outfitting a Civil War soldier costs about $1,500 to $1,800, weapon included, and about $500 to $800 for a woman.
Karen said when the family got interested in re-enacting, her husband’s wallet went “from this,” she said, holding up her fingers like they were holding a fat sandwich, “to this,” and she squished her fingers together.
Why do they do it?
As a college undergraduate, Jonathan Noyalas was a Civil War re-enactor. On the Union side.
“I’m originally from Pennsylvania,” he explained.
Now that he’s an associate professor of history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown and director of its Center for Civil War History, he doesn’t have that kind of time.
“In that world, there’s two levels — there’s a living history level and there’s a re-enactor level, where you run around on the battlefield and do the shoot ’em up kind of thing,” Noyalas said.
He found his niche helping the National Park Service do interpretive programs.
Asked what compels some people to buy a reproduction bayonet and put on a scratchy wool uniform, Noyalas offers a quick response.
“I think the reason a lot of people do that is that they want to impart the human side of the war and the magnitude of it,” he said. “For our country, the stakes didn’t get any higher.”
The Civil War pitted families against families and friends against friends, he reminded. In the end, more than 600,000 soldiers died, and much of the nation’s countryside was desolated on a scale that hadn’t been seen before and hasn’t been seen since.
“There was no more pivotal moment in American history,” Noyalas said. “It was the greatest test of our Constitution: Do the states have the right to secede or don’t they?”
Overshadowing everything is the ugly scar of slavery, a wound still so raw that it continues to stir emotions.
“I think we as a people are still trying to come to grips with war and understand it,” Noyalas said. “I think that’s part of what re-enacting is about.”
Standing inside an A-frame tent draped with a white canvas tarp, Joshua Sturdivant rolls up a blanket like a sausage and ties it over his shoulder and across his chest like a Roman toga sash.
“This is how a soldier would’ve carried his blanket,” he demonstrated.
A few minutes earlier he displayed the contents of his leather haversack — a fork, a plate, a small iron skillet, a pencil.
Long and lean, with blond hair and rosy cheeks, Joshua talks easily about his interest in the Civil War, and looking at him in his Confederate soldier’s uniform is like looking at a ghostly daguerreotype.
“In school, I loved history class, and the Civil War was one of my favorite subjects,” he said.
Though some of his friends think he’s “crazy,” some come to the re-enactments to watch.
He pauses to assemble some of his gear, then mentions recent news reports about the White House receiving a wave of petitions from disgruntled citizens who want their states to secede from the U.S. in the wake of last week’s presidential election.
“I hope another Civil War doesn’t happen,” he said, shaking his head.
Though he enjoys his hobby, Joshua doesn’t want to return to the past.
Neither does his father.
“I enjoy being able to go to the doctor when I’m sick,” Scott Sturdivant said, “and I enjoy not being shot at for real.”
— Contact Cynthia Cather Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org