Looking off into the distance you see the enemy’s regimental and national flags fluttering in the breeze. Suddenly sheets of flame surrounded by white puffs of smoke erupt from cannon tubes.
The command is given; you start forward at shoulder arms, your musket at the ready. The ground is shaking now as you get closer to your objective. The artillery shells of both armies careen crazily over your head. You feel the concussion of the rounds exploding behind you. You have been steadily plodding along your path and closing ranks as those around you fall. Finally you reach a point where confusion reigns.
Time seems to stand still. In full view of the enemy, you halt, dress ranks and continue your attack. At thirty yards you halt again and return fire, the acrid taste of gunpowder in your mouth. Now with fixed bayonets you charge the guns. You begin to feel faint from the 90-degree heat. The 100% wool uniforms already heavy with perspiration begin to chafe what with the weight of the blanket roll and haversack pressing against you. White smoke swirling around you, sweat stinging your eyes – and you cross over.
Cross over that is from the modern day reenactor into the past. Momentarily, you forget that you spent the previous week managing a building, blue-lining columns, grinding lenses or delivering milk. You are in the midst of it now, thick smoke, Rebel yells and Yankee hurrahs, powder exploding all around you, the taste of sulfur in your mouth. You, ladies and gentlemen, are in the throes of what is known in the circles as a “period rush”.
The description above is often how I felt as I portrayed Sergeant Jake Frier of the 11th Virginia infantry in battle scenes from Gettysburg to New Market; From Harper’s Ferry to Port Republic. Living the life of these guys brings it home like nothing else can. Eat hard tack, salt pork and beans. Drink coffee made from grinding beans with your musket butts. Shiver under one blanket on a cold March evening in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Drill incessantly using the Hardee drill manual. But most of all remember the feeling when you line up and dress your ranks and prepare to charge the enemy. That is when your heart starts to pound before the fight.
Civil War buffs come in all shapes, sizes and genders. We can be classified as reenactors, collectors or scholars among other things. We come from all walks of life. The veterans of the Blue or Gray in one way or another have touched each of us. We do what we can to insure that these veterans are remembered.
There are many ways that this can be accomplished. You can join a re-enactment group, hopefully hard-core. There are several Union and Confederate regiments in this area. Be forewarned though that it could cost a couple thousand dollars to outfit yourself properly. But is it worth it? Indeed it is, I spent about 6 years as a re-enactor with the 11th Virginia and truly gained an appreciation of what the soldiers on both sides had to overcome.
In addition to reenacting as a way some of us honor the Civil War veterans, there are the collectors. The collections of memorabilia can be specific or general; they can concentrate on buckles or buttons from one side or the other. They can concentrate on paper goods such as discharges, rosters, promotion certificates or letters and diaries. Some collections involve all manners of items but relate to only one unit. For example, I would do anything to get my hands on any item from Company K (from Rockland County) of the 6th New York Heavy Artillery, which is my favorite Union unit.
Then there are the scholar-researchers, which is the class to which I belong. My knees are too sore to scamper through the woods as was done in my younger days besides which my girth would not allow me to portray a true speciman of a starving Reb. Collecting costs a lot of money. What’s left? Research!! That is what is so great about this hobby. There are so many facets to it that there is virtually something for everybody.
My spare time is spent researching all manners of things relating to the Civil War, everything from Confederates in Rockland County to locating graves of Union soldiers and cleaning them up as required. Several regiments are now a focal point in my latest and most time consuming endeavor, a book on Rockland County’s contribution to the Civil War.
The one thing that we Civil War buffs have in common, regardless of his or her specialty, is that we have this unbelievable urge to share knowledge. We are a peculiar lot. Everything we learned at the library or the local Civil War Roundtable meeting; every book we ever read; every bit of minutiae uncovered in searches near and far becomes the foundation of knowledge and facts that we want to share with someone else.
For the most part we enthusiasts are not jealous of one another. We are eager to share our findings with anyone who will listen. We look for all manners of venues to share our discoveries with one another or the general public; in fact, with any one willing to listen.
Why are Civil War buffs so dedicated to this hobby? To start with, 625,000 deaths in a short span of four years makes most people sit up and take notice. But what else gets your attention? The incredible courage of the soldiers on both sides is a big part of it. Who could imagine today marching into a storm of lead so thick that the soldiers instinctively lowered their heads as if they were walking into heavy winds and rain? Regimental losses during the Civil War approached 30% as an average on both sides. What motivated them to do it? So certain of their deaths were they that they pinned scraps of paper to their uniforms with their names on them (dog tags were not Government Issue then). This courage and fatalism was common to both sides, The attacking Federals at Fredricksburg as well as the attacking Confederates at Gettysburg.
The honor demonstrated by both sides is another thing that captures your attention. After four years of horrific warfare, within the space of three days, two great armies stopped fighting, made peace and went home. At the surrender ceremony, General Joshua Chamberlain risked public censure by ordering his men to salute the defeated Confederates. General John Gordon, in response, ordered his men to return the salutation. As the end of the long gray column approached, the Union soldiers cheered the last Confederates to surrender. In what other country could this be possible? Isn’t this worth remembering and writing about?