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Why re-enact? That is the question

Posted on Friday, May 1, 2015 at 2:23 pm

Mississippi cavalryman.

On Feb. 2, 1870, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (34), married Olivia Langdon (24) at her family’s Elmira, New York mansion. On 6 February 1870, just four days after the wedding, Clemens wrote a letter to William (Will) Bowen, his oldest and best childhood friend from Hannibal, Missouri. It reads, in part,

“…The old life has swept before me like a panorama. The old days have trooped by in their old glory again. The old faces have looked out of the mists of the past. The old footsteps have sounded in my listening ears. Old hands have clasped mine. Old voices have greeted me and the songs I loved ages and ages ago have come wailing down the centuries.”

For me, these six sentences encapsulate why I participate as a re-enactor. They may also go to the heart of why others re-enact, even if they have never read Twain’s words or even know of the letter. I have portrayed individuals, both historic (the Rev. Caleb P. Baldwin, chaplain of the 114th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry and Benjamin Edwards, a prominent Springfield, Illinois attorney and businessman) and generic (Springfield, Illinois middle-class citizens) for some 15 years, and the more I participate in re-enactments, the more I feel imbued with the history, lives, and spirit of the Civil War era.

Portraying people, both historical and fictional, provides opportunities to learn more about this endlessly fascinating period in American history. Participation in re-enactments, whether the anniversary of a battle, the events around the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, political activities such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Civil War medical encampments, or ceremonies at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois provides myriad occasions for immersion in history. Research in conjunction with these portrayals affords new educational experiences which allow me to pass on the history to those who attend the re-enactments and to further educate myself. As such I also learn more about myself and gain greater perspective and self-awareness.

My ancestors arrived in the U.S. in the 1890s, well after the Civil War was over. My paternal family landed in New Haven, Connecticut’s largest city during the Civil War, and made prosperous by it. When my maternal family arrived in New York City it was a place that, even in the 1890s, was still buffeted by forces which had affected the city during the war: conflicts between the Irish and African-Americans, masses of European immigrants competing for space and work, political and economic turmoil that grew out of Grant’s and subsequent administrations. That my family arrived after the war meant we had no direct history of it. Consequently the time period was a blank slate for me to fill in, then through education and now, as an adult, through participation in Civil War events and through portraying Civil War era individuals.

Fortunately for me, my father was a Civil War buff who took my brother and me to places connected with the war, where we began to absorb Civil War history. But our interest first started with books such as McKinley Cantor’s “Andersonville” and Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the “Army of the Potomac.” For me, Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” had an especially powerful impact. My father also occasionally purchased copies of Francis Bannerman and Sons catalogs of military goods which became well-thumbed in our home. The store, located at 501 Broadway in New York City, was a magnet for Civil War enthusiasts, and we visited it several times until it closed in 1959. We purchased various Civil War objects, perhaps the most exotic being a British .436 Dean and Adams five-shot percussion revolver and holster, ca. 1860 (for less than $10), that was listed as a Confederate Naval Officer’s side arm. Furthermore, on train rides up the Hudson River to Albany, we passed the Bannerman’s Island Arsenal on Pollepel Island near Fishkill, New York. It was still intact in the 1950s (it’s now in ruins) and large cannons which were for sale lined the courtyard area. My father was also a member of the Civil War Round Table which then met at the Lambs Club in New York City, and he took me with him on one occasion. I was hooked.

Family vacations were often to historic places: Boston’s Old North Church and to see “Old Ironsides”; Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House; Mount Vernon, Williamsburg, Monticello, James Madison’s Montpellier, and James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland; and Gettysburg, which I was to re-visit several times over the years.

To digress for a moment, the visit to the Petersen House was an early lesson for me in the need for historical accuracy. An engraving of the scene at Lincoln’s deathbed hung in the tiny back bedroom where he died. Even at my young age of 10 or 11, it was readily apparent to me that the dozens of men portrayed in the engraving could not possibly have fit into that room. This was an example of idealized history, essentially created from whole cloth, and not the reality of Lincoln’s last moments. I’ve tried to avoid such historical inaccuracy in my portrayals during re-enactments.

My youthful visits were at a different time: there we no tour buses, crowds were small, formal visitor’s centers had not yet been built, and the pace was leisurely. We were on our own. At Gettysburg there were signs indicating the locations of Pickett’s Charge, the fighting on Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and Devil’s Den, but there were no docents or hired guides (at least we didn’t encounter any). We looked out at those places, and based on what we had learned from books we had read, we were free to imagine the scenes of skirmishes and larger encounters during the battle some 90 years earlier. The open fields became filled with men, artillery, horses, and wagons, while the rattle of musket fire, roaring cannons, shouting, and explosions filled our minds. Many years later, when I again visited Gettysburg, behind our motel room was a small Union battery of four to six guns that pointed out over a field, and in the early morning mist that rose from the area, I could imagine the cannon being loaded and primed, ready for the order to commence firing. It’s an experience I often have, in one form or another, when visiting Civil War locales. This brings me back to Twain’s words.

The old life has swept before me like a panorama. I see that life. I am fortunate to have the ability to take what I’ve read or been told or seen and put it into place on that field. It need not be from the Civil War, but with my re-enacting activities focused on that great conflict, it most often is. There are men in Union blue, gaudy Zouaves, uniforms trimmed in infantry blue, or cavalry yellow, or artillery red, with a bit of green here and there for the medical corps, Confederate grey and butternut, or totally non-descript clothing because it’s later in the war, and they’re wearing whatever they can scrounge. They march slowly, or at the double quick, or run, or scurry about, forward or back, firing in files or individually from broken and shattered ranks. All these sweep before me. At times I feel heat, but other times, if I know that terrible destruction is coming, as in the Confederate charges against the Union lines at Franklin in November 1864, a chill runs down and through me. Looking out from the long back porch of Carnton Plantation house toward the battlefield, and then walking in the nearby Confederate cemetery with its almost 1,500 graves, I feel an ineffable sadness at the destruction that took place coupled with the realization that it probably wasn’t inevitable. I’ve never really understood why Hood chose to attack Schofield’s army here, other than Hood almost always chose to attack regardless of whether it was the right strategy under the circumstances. I can see the old life like a panorama, and as a re-enactor I want to experience it.

The old days have trooped by in their old glory again. Watching as the 114th Illinois moves out onto the battlefield at Brice’s Crossroads, and being in and part of that unit, the old days of June 1864 do troop by and through me. It seems glorious, but I know that shortly we will experience what General Sherman once said late in his life: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” Brice’s Crossroads was a terrible loss for the Union at the hands of the Confederate forces led by Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. There was no glory for the Union at Brice’s Crossroads in 1864; it was all hell, and in June 2014, as I trudge back to camp at the end of the two-hour re-enactment under the blazing sun of northern Mississippi, in 95+ degree heat, high humidity and so thoroughly soaked that my uniform, including shoes, would take two days to dry, eyes red from the powder smoke, it is indeed again all hell and not something I want to repeat. The old days troop by, but not as I thought or anticipated, yet I have learned a great deal from this experience and have gained a new perspective on the war and a heightened respect for those who fought it, on both sides. And as I wrote in a previous article1, an incident at the end of the re-enactment caused me to realize, as I never had known from reading books, what a terrible price horses and mules paid in the course of their service. They generally didn’t live long and died hard, painful deaths.

The old faces have looked out of the mists of the past. There are iconic photographs of Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Meade, Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Pickett, Forrest, and so many others. I see their old faces, or at least some of them when I visit Gettysburg, Brice’s Crossroads, Atlanta, Richmond, and other sites. But it is the hundreds of photographs of unidentified soldiers, the rank and file of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery – these are the old faces that look out of the morning mist at Gettysburg or rising from the Rappahannock. But if they are old faces now, they were mostly young faces then, when their photographs were taken to give to family and friends, like this image from the Library of Congress of a Mississippi cavalryman who fought with Forrest at Brice’s Crossroads.

This young cavalryman still lives on in his photograph, his face unlined, his body unbent and unbroken by time. This now old face – young in 1864 – looks out of the mists of the past and implores “remember me.” Was he one of Forrest’s 96 cavalrymen killed at Brice’s Crossroads? He’s unidentified so we’ll probably never know. I believe as long as memory persists, the dead are not truly dead. I try to impart this when I portray real historical persons in an attempt to bring history alive to spectators at re-enactments and visitors at historic sites such as Lincoln’s Tomb and the Old State Capitol.

The old footsteps have sounded in my listening ears. Can you hear the armies marching along the roads to Antietam, Shiloh, Fredericksburg, and a thousand other places? At the Old State Capitol in Springfield, the hobnails on the soles and heels of my shoes echo in the halls. Visitors comment on the sound. Their ears are listening, as are mine. These are the sounds of old footsteps. At various places, the “clip-clop” of horses’ hooves is heard, as they were 150 years earlier. Louder on brick and plank roadways, softer on dirt, but the old footsteps still resound.

The sound of Sherman’s army must have echoed through the hills of Georgia – no acoustic shadow obscured his movements. The footsteps of his army tramping through Georgia can still be heard if one listens closely. It’s an ominous sound if you live there.

Old hands have clasped mine. At the 1862 “mustering in” re-enactment of the 114th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment here in Springfield, as I shook hands with the new enlistees and wished them well and Godspeed, old hands seemingly clasped mine. When a re-enactment goes well, it’s incredibly real, and this one went well. As men pray together and shake hands or pat each other on the back before battle, old hands – the hands of shared experience and often hardship – clasp each other and create bonds, or reinforce existing ones. I assume, or at least imagine, that when we touch at a re-enactment, the old hands of the past are clasping mine.

Old voices have greeted me and the songs I loved ages and ages ago have come wailing down the centuries. There were no recording devices during the Civil War, so we have no authentic experience of what voices sounded like. We do have descriptions: Lincoln’s voice, for example, is said to have been somewhat high-pitched and reedy with a twang and as such carried well at his Second Inaugural and other outside locations. I’ve never read a description of Sherman’s voice, but the late playwright, Arthur Miller, voiced Sherman in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and Miller’s gravelly voice sounds like what I imagine Sherman did, for no good reason other than Sherman was gruff and blunt. I imagine Lee spoke with the soft Southern accent of eastern Virginia and that Hardee had the soft Georgia accent of his native state. I have friends from both states as well as from the Carolinas, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi and suppose that Longstreet (South Carolina) and Jefferson Davis (Kentucky) sounded similar to them without really knowing how much such accents have changed over 150 years. At re-enactments, with a plethora of accents in evidence, it’s not hard to imagine that old voices greet me from ages and ages ago.

However, for all that we do not have, we do have music from the Civil War such as Stephen Foster’s, “Hard Times Come Again No More” (reputably Mark Twain’s favorite song) and “Lorena” by the Rev. Henry D. L. Webster (lyrics) and his friend, Joseph Philbrick Webster (music). These are well-loved tunes from long ago, songs which come wailing down the centuries, as do “Dixie” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag” among so many others. Depending upon context, they evoke joy, excitement, sadness and despair, and a dozen other emotions, and they impart atmosphere to a re-enactment, to bring it even more alive for those who participate and for those who observe. Drums and bugles call the soldiers to battle and the drumbeat marches them out onto the field, sometimes accompanied by the shrill tones of the fife, which all add intensity to the re-enactment that would otherwise be lost or lessened in their absence. Twain was absolutely right: they wail down through the centuries, ghosts of the past calling out to us, and in so doing create sweet remembrance and poignant heartache.

All these go to the question of why we re-enact. To keep the memory and to bring the past alive; to educate ourselves and the public; to entertain; to learn more about who we are and in the process to bear witness to that terrible conflict that ultimately forged modern America in the hope that, as Lincoln said, “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”


1. A Parson’s Perspective: The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi. Camp Chase Gazette XLI (5):31-33.

-By Jonathan E. Reyman