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Re-enactors tell Civil War story in accurate, everyday detail

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With a thunderous explosion, the cannon belched fire and white smoke across the meadow.

The four men manning the weapon were dressed in Union blue, with red piping on their navy uniforms. In front of them, other men marched in formation carrying a U.S. flag with just 34 stars on it.

They were armed with Springfield rifled muskets, sabers and knives. Some sported beards and mustaches with an 1860s look.

The scene was built straight from a history book. A group of history enthusiasts and military re-enactors had gathered at Connor Prairie, an interactive history park in Noblesville, for its annual Civil War Days. They demonstrated the formations soldiers moved in and the weapons and tools they used and acted out what a skirmish would have looked like.

Experience the battle

Upcoming events in the area

July 13-14

Battle of Corydon, Hayswood Nature Reserve, 755 Old Highway 135, Corydon; events also planned in downtown Corydon. Go to corydonbattlepark.com for more information or to register.

July 27-28

Sweet’s Civil War Encampment, Four Seasons Park, Finley Road and 16th Street, Lombard, Ill. Free to the public. Go to lombardhistory.org for more information or to register.

Aug. 17-18

Morgan’s Raid re-enactment, downtown Jackson, Ohio. The event will include camps, demonstrations and a battle re-enactment. For more information or to register, go to jacksoncivilwar150.us

Aug. 16-18

Galesburg Heritage Days, Lake Storey Park, 1572 Machen Drive, Galesburg, Ill. Camps and demonstrations all weekend, with battles each day. The event is free to the public. For more information, go to galesburgheritagedays.com

Aug. 31-Sept. 1

11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Civil War encampment, Graue Mill and Museum, 3800 York Road, Oak Brook, Ill. For more information, go to grauemill.org

Sept. 7-8

Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, 6614 Danville Road, Nicholasville, Ky. Camps, demonstrations, music and more. Gates open 9 a.m. Parking is $5 per car. For more information, go to campnelson.org

Sept. 7-8

Civil War Muster, Historic Van Raalte Farm and Holland Museum, East 24th Street and Country Club Road, Holland, Mich. Camps and programs open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Battles are at 2 p.m. each day. Free to the public. For more information, go to hollandmuseum.org/muster.

The Civil War has been a unique fascination for people, evidenced by the tens of thousands of re-enactors organized throughout the country. With the 150th anniversary of such pivotal battles as Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Corydon scheduled this year, the summer re-enacting season is set to be busy for history lovers all over the country.

“It’s easier to romanticize an earlier time period. By portraying it and living it, you can see what it really was like and appreciate what you have now,” Nineveh resident Sasha Thompson said. “By living it through the weekend, you get a glimpse as to why people did what they did, and take back some of what they did to your everyday life.”

The centerpiece of most Civil War re-enactments are the simulated battles, where soldiers line up and fire blanks from their rifles to re-create the fighting that was common in the war.

Reveille blares from bugles, and the beat of drums fills the air, as the participants try to mimic the movements of the soldiers as much as possible.

But re-enactment is more about becoming immersed in the time period than action-packed battles, Haywood said. Most of the time is spent in camp, where people repair shoes, tools and weapons. They cook food, play cards and tend to each others’ wounds.

‘A different perspective’

That is where the truly interesting part of re-enactment if found, Haywood said.

“It’s easier to romanticize about the Civil War as a simpler time. Trying to live that, you get a different perspective,” she said.

For example, Haywood leaves a coffee grinder outside her tent. When visitors come by, she informs them that in Civil War-era America, tea was still the beverage of choice for people.

But since coffee was included in the rations for soldiers, they drank it instead. Those soldiers help establish coffee as the dominant beverage in the U.S. in the years that followed, Haywood said.

For the past two years, the Greenwood Veterans of Foreign Wars post has featured a Civil War encampment before the annual Greenwood Freedom Festival.

Units from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio set up their tents, light campfires and depict what might have happened between the battles. They sing traditional songs and do authentic comedy acts culled from historic literature.

Displays show Civil War-era medical care, and demonstrations include the work of blacksmiths to repair tools and weapons.

“The Civil War is probably one of the most studied wars in history. We do an encampment to give back and help people understand that time period a little more,” said re-enactor Richard DeWitt of Bargersville. “A lot of it is the love of country, the loyalty, and to honor the people of that time period.”

‘The Civil War way’

At first glance, the life of a re-enactor doesn’t seem to be that enticing.

Participants sleep outdoors, with only a crude canvas tent serving as shelter. Air conditioning and indoor plumbing mean nothing to the re-enacting community.

Returning to the primitive conditions that soldiers lived in during the 1860s means leaving behind cellphones, antibacterial lotion and hot showers.

You have to love camping and sleeping outside, Greenwood resident Dave Julian said.

Longtime veterans of the re-enacting circuit actually get to the point where propane stoves and battery-powered flashlights seem unnecessary. With candles and campfires, they can meet all of their needs without relying on modern amenities.

“I actually find myself having a problem doing modern camping because I’m always wanting to do things the Civil War way, because I’m faster at it than any of the modern stuff,” he said.

Julian became involved in re-enacting in 1979. While living in Franklin, he was attending a historic home tour when he was startled by loud booms coming from the downtown area. Following the noise, he came across a small group of Civil War enthusiasts firing off a small cannon.

“I started talking to them, and within six months I was a member of that group,” he said. “I’d always been interested in the Civil War. One of the first books I remember owning was a history of the war. Here was a group to join, some guys who loved it the same way.”

He’s now a member of the 42nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry, a central Indiana group that attends about 15 re-enactment events each year.

Haywood and her husband, Tom, started re-enacting due to a combined love of history and traditional theatrical costumes. Tom Haywood teaches history at Indian Creek Middle School, while Sasha Haywood is a seamstress.

“I really got excited at the idea of making the costumes and portraying a role. It’s a good family activity that we can all do together, do a little teaching and sharing of what life was really like for people,” she said.

‘Doing amazing things’

As a woman, Sasha Haywood doesn’t participate in the battles. Instead, she gets to show how much impact wives, mothers, sisters and other females had on the war effort.

She likes to teach people about efforts such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a relief agency instigated by women that raised $25 million for hospitals, camp kitchens and help for disabled veterans.

“Not a lot is written about women’s history. It’s easy to assume that all they were doing is cooking, cleaning and drinking tea. But particularly during the war, women were doing amazing things,” she said.

The Haywoods have cut back on their re-enactment schedule, focusing more on a half-dozen living history events. But this year they are attending some of the bigger battles as well.

This marks a huge year for re-enacting. Many famous battles happened 150 years ago this summer. Chickamauga, a victory for the Confederate army that slowed the onslaught of the Union, will feature staged scenes that helped the Southern armies win.

Corydon was the site of the only Civil War battle fought in Indiana. To recognize it, community organizers have planned a battle re-creation, encampment, demonstrations and a military ball to highlight its anniversary.

But the biggest re-enacting event in the country was this week at Gettysburg, Pa. Two full battalions of soldiers, with tens of thousands of enthusiasts trekking to the famous site, re-created the bloody fighting that lasted three days.

The hope is to honor those who gave their lives in this and other battles of the Civil War, while not forgetting the lessons that were learned from such a tragic conflict, Sasha Haywood said.

“From the political and historical aspect, those that don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it,” she said. “There’s so much about that war similar to what’s going on now. It gives you a different perspective.”

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