Color Sergeant Daniel Blander caresses his 1861 Springfield rifle. It is a cloudless day in 1864. It is a bright, hot day in 2015. Blander is a young man now, and then. But time is irrelevant.
He runs his hands along the polished wood stock and holds onto the butt. It’s a heavy weapon, all the way from its stock to its barrel, elegant and artistic in the way that only hand-made things are. It’s a front loading musket used in a time when to fire three or four rounds a minute meant you were a professional soldier. It still feels dangerous to hold.
The 67th First Long Island Volunteers, Company K, have camped on the southern side of the Islip Grange for the reenactment. The confederate soldiers are parked somewhere out of sight. Their tents are pitched in long rows, and rise to waist height. While there are 25 Union soldiers walking around laughing and languishing in their undershirts beneath the midday sun, Blander is the only one to look to the north.
A grey coat flashes against the green of the field. The eyes bulge out of his face.
He flings his cartridge box around his waist and sprints towards the picket line with the rifle clenched in his fist. His pack flaps like a loose flag against his side.
For a second as he darts out of sight, the camp grows suddenly silent like all the air has been sucked from the field. Broken, then, with the huge, cracking sound as the rifle fires, like the sound of a smashing walnut that echoes across the field. A burst of smoke rises above the tents of the camp. Blander is sprinting back, his spent rifle is clenched in his fist. A confederate soldier is running at him screaming the rebel yell, a ululating, piercing scream, the battle cry which puts fear into the hearts of Union soldiers.
Actually, there are only two rebels in the field. They are a couple skirmishers sent to harass the Union line. The Northern soldiers pour fire on the two men from behind their barricade of large, X shaped structures called Cheval de Frix. Their smoke creates a screen in front of their eyes. The motions become mechanical. Bite the cartridge. Spill the powder down the barrel. Pick up the rifle. Put in a new cap. Pull back the hammer. Pull to your shoulder. Level the rifle. Fire. Reload. Fire. Reload, like machines that spit smoke and death. The smells of hay, horse and burning wood had been replaced by the odor of sulphur in the air.
“Dress left,” Lieutenant Tom Demaria yells. He is a man with white hair and a genial face that he can’t quite make intimidating even when he’s commanding the men. The union soldiers are confused, and for the first time, the spell is broken. “Guys,” Demaria whispers. “It means move left,” They finally understand and shuffle to the left along the side of the barricade.
While their rifles are loaded in the same way they were back in the 1860s, they use no bullets. It is simply a cartridge of black powder, and a percussion cap to explode the charge. A huge volume of smoke pours from the rifle’s muzzles, but no bullets fly out. The most danger these soldiers are in is if the powder explodes in their faces, but that rarely if ever happens. They never use their ramrods to load any charge in case they accidentally forget and leave it in the rifle to create a miniature sized rocket.
Far into the field, a rebel falls onto the ground. His friend raises his hat in surrender. Demaria leads his prisoners across the field. One rebel leans on the shoulder of the other. The injured one limps to the side of his friend, who strains under the weight. They make a good show of it.
But this isn’t a stage. Blander is sweating in the beating sun. His plaid shirt is showing stains, and his hair is matted underneath his yankee forage cap. He sighs.
“I hate it when they do that, you don’t know when they’re gonna do that.” Blander is half annoyed, half amused at the brashness of their enemy. The union soldiers know when the large battle will take place later in the day, but they don’t know when the southern forces will send people to harass them. They know which people will decide to take falls, or pretend to be injured or shot, but when the bullets are supposedly flying, and when they are marching in tempo, they are in “First Person.” They take the place of the people on the battlefield they are there to reenact.
They cook in real fire pits. Blander holds a tin cup filled with stew and sits down on a camp chair next to the unit’s captain, Joe Billardello. The food in Blander’s tin cup is searing, and smoke rises from it’s contents. He burns his tongue on the first bite and curses under his breath. Billardello gives him a wry smile. He likes to joke with his men, calling out names to make an in-joke.
Captain Billardello is a big man, and his New York accent inflates him so that he becomes almost a physical representation of the company’s identity, like a bedrock. The light blue ascot around his neck along with the pistol constantly on his belt denotes his rank. The soldiers walk in and out of the tent to ask him questions or to share a joke. When he tells people to work, or to stand at attention, he expects it done. Most of the time, they do it.
It is like that as their 2015 season comes to an end. The 67th host the weekend at the Grange in September, attend the huge battle at Cedar Creek in Virginia at the end of October and march in the huge parade at Gettysburg for remembrance day in November. It is a charade that flows in and out of time. Far off in the distance of the Grange, the deception falls away in a few rainbow colored playgrounds of a nearby public park.
It’s an expensive hobby. To buy all the equipment up front, including the uniform and the tent could cost a person several hundred. That is not even including the rifle, something that could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There are mass market products out there, but they are shunned by the historically focused reenactment groups. Most of their equipment is made by manufacturers called sutlers. While the 67th does not whine about every out of place button or unpolished piece of brass, they themselves try to present a form of historical accuracy not just with their uniforms, but with their posture, upright, their rifles held to the sides with the top resting on their arm and their hand holding onto the butt.
This facade of history runs like veins through all of the 67th’s activities, and the blood of reenacting is all about accuracy. The 67th calls the Sayville Grange its home. It’s a small collection of old standing houses, like the Tuthill house, built in the 1850zs and later moved onto the Grange, and the old church, gleaming in the sun with its chipping white paint. When they stand in first person, they create a bubble in time where ideas and reactions, of death and doctrine recreate a time long gone.
The year is 1864, and Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early launches a surprise attack on the union forces under the command of Major General Philip Sheridan stationed along Cedar Creek south of Middletown, Virginia. What starts out as a rout of the union forces later turns into the rout and destruction of Early’s forces. A battle that would encompass tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides is recreated by a group that number a fraction of the men who once trampled the grass of that Virginia field.
What it allows is something more personal to show through. The men walk in lockstep, a young drummer named Alec Israeli beats a time just beside them. There are men in there you know. Men who walk into the gunfire of the enemy. Billardello walks in front, Blander holds the flag high just behind the small line. There are others there. John Roarty has only recently joined the company, a man who loves writing historical fiction. There is private Mike Boyle, a large man with a white beard. There is Owen Folley, a spectacled man who runs the commissary. In a time where muskets were incredibly inaccurate, when even at a range of 50 yards there was a good chance a ball would miss. To see such men walking into a hail of smoke brings forth a memory of horror. What is worse to see, to read of numbers of the degree of men killed, and how, or to watch men you know march in step towards rolling thunder and a drowning smoke? That one brief moment when the veneer of time melts away.
Kevin O’malley sits on the field with his legs out in front of him. He’s there in a wide brimmed hat, plaid shirt and a vest. A small book of beige colored paper is in his hands. He holds a small nubbed pencil and draws the men with several furious flourishes of his fingers as they walk towards the roar of rifles.
“There were still journalists back then,” O’Malley says. “But they didn’t have cameras. They would do sketch drawings.”
This small piece of history is drawn in pencil and charcoal with a detail like scratch outlines but in the vein of American Realism. Soldiers and civilians are drawn from the effects of recreated battlefields. One sketch displays two lone cavalrymen standing on a small hill. Another shows a family bringing groceries to the soldiers camp. Several display flags of the stars and stripes and the stars and bars waving in the backgrounds of black and white fields.
“I remember when I was about eight starting to draw by copying from the Sunday comics peanuts and Charlie Brown. Been drawing and painting since. It becomes rewarding to me when folks see the work, initiating conversations about their interests as well.”
The drawings are kept in black and white. Confederate flags and Union flags are understood by their shape and their design. The colorless flags are so similar, as black and white as the stark ideological differences of two assumed American identities.
The two parties keep to their respective camps at the Grange, and separate themselves by faction when they march in the Gettysburg parade. The Union soldiers have pressed uniforms. The Confederates are much more ragged. It was never so much a fight between the blues and greys, but a fight between the blues and whatever the Confederate soldiers had on them when they went to war.
There isn’t any uniformity to the uniforms of the Confederate soldiers. Underneath their vaguely grey jackets their plaid shirts show through. Some of them wear slouch hats, others texans and planter hats. Straw and felt. They are a ragged group that from a distance form a ragged line of dirt brown and smoke grey. When the Union soldiers first see that ragged line, they laugh, they don’t expect anything, all before the bullets fly.
Private Jacob Fish of the 30th Virginia looks like that. “I wanted to join a yankee unit but they told me I could only be a drummer,” he says. He’s been reenacting for 12 years now. His friends are there with the Confederate army. Another soldier takes out a can of WD40 from a small wood toolbox. With a passive face he sprays a mist down into the muzzle of his barrel. Fish laughs.
“If the confederates had WD40, they would have won the war.”
The two sides of the war act more like football teams than two actual sides to a nation spanning conflict. When they line up for photos at the end of their battle at the grange. Both sides shout their names one after another, the union soldiers giving their yell and the confederates their screech.
The captain of the 30th that day on the Grange, Michael Mienko, has the face of a young male model with a slight goatee growing on his 5 o’clock shadow. He’s been doing Civil War reenactments for 9 years. His vest is embroidered in golden swirling patterns. He joined because his friends were in the confederates, but he doesn’t care about the sides. If he was in war, he would have turned traitor several times. “One day I’ll do Union, one day I’ll do reb.”
Sitting at the bench, he could have been a tanned Southern Aristocrat, dressed as he was. At Cedar Creek, he stood with Boyle, a yankee, in front of a large wood sign that read:
Go Home Blue Bellies”
Over the top hung the stars and bars hangs limp on a pole.
“I fell in love with it,” Mienko has his head cocked to the side, his eyes shining with genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll keep doing it till I die.”
Among one of the 30th Virginia’s higher ranks, there is a general appreciation for the old Southern generals. With a long pointed beard and black straggly hair Patrick Falci has tried to make himself look as close to his role model as he can, Confederate General A.P Hill. He has gone so far as to portray the man in several movies, including the 1993 film Gettysburg. He looks the part. He plays the part on the battlefield. The other confederate soldiers show him a deference and respect when they sit around their camp.
“I started it when I was young,” Falci says. He pours through American Heritage books as a young man and would read everything he could about the southern Generals Lee and Jackson. He says he wants young people to start learning about the impact of the Civil War, especially the end of slavery.
“Before the Civil War, we ‘were,’ after we became ‘are.’ We’re here to honor all of the men, north and south, who died. Because we are all Americans.”
The southern soldiers around him nod. “Amen,” they say.
In first person, they are supposed to call at the other team, to shoot in the air and taunt them. “Yankees,” the southern soldiers call the northern. To the Union, the Confederates are “rebs” or “rebels,” without question. It’s said so casually around the camp. A kid in a blue shirt, not old enough to comprehend the difference in flags in front of him, says “I don’t want to be grey, I want to be blue.”
A passing confederate soldier smiles. “You in the wrong camp then, dem Yankees’re over there.”
It is like that with the 67th at heat of the the Grange, or when they slept on the cold rocky ground of Cedar Creek Virginia, or in the long rows of men at Gettysburg, the members of reenactment groups are less mean spirited as much as they are history buffs.
Young Michael Clemente first visits Gettysburg when, after a christmas present of a ghost hunting kit, he went with his friends to find the ancient ghosts of dead civil war soldiers. Instead, he found a new passion. “I got so interested in the history, I just wanted to join the reenactment.”
His mother, Joie Clemente, wanted to facilitate her sons interest, and so on the Grange she puts on a old civil war dress and becomes a nurse. She sees him on the computer for hours looking up civil war history, anything he could learn about. When he sits in the next meeting in November, Michael is dwarfed by the larger men in uniform sitting next to him. He’s only a teenager, and he would have to be 16 before he was even allowed to hold a rifle that can fire any sort of powder. When he marches in the parade at Gettysburg, he looks squished in between the larger men around him. Smaller by several head lengths from the people around him, he is jostled by the thicker men around him. But to go all the way to Gettysburg and be so dedicated to the group, the other men are impressed. They talk with him, ask him how he’s doing. They share jokes with him.
The 67th have become more than a club, more than just a hobby group. “None of us makes any personal profits,” says Secretary of the 67th Max Kenny, a man with angular face and troughs in the sides of his head that his small, oval rimmed spectacles seem to bracket into.
2015 is only the second year they are able to collect money from the grange event, and the rest of their money comes from events for schools and other programs they attend. Then, they will donate their money to civil war battlefield preservation. Much of it they put into MATCH programs for every dollar they donate, the federal government donates three.
“There’s a brotherhood in this,” Billardello says. With only 39 members, the group seems small compared to others who can boast of more than 100 members. But in reality, it’s all about ratios. There is a core group that attends nearly every event from school functions to the large scale reenactments like Cedar Creek that includes hundreds of reenactors and throngs of bystanders to watch the display. There are who that will attend most events, then others who have much less time attend much at all. To become a member is painstaking. The reenactment groups look for reliability and dedication in their new members.
When young Clemente runs off just before the fighting at the Grange, his mother yells after him, “Don’t go too far.”
“Yeah, if I get captured by the enemy, I’ll let you know,” Michael yells back over his shoulder.
The soldiers on both sides of the field treat each other with respect, whether it’s a battle or a march, but the yankees all have stories of the opposite, of reenactors from the south for whom the war never ended. Blander, when he was still a private, was up on the hill at one battles reenactment. The confederates were supposed to march forward and the Union soldiers were to force them back. One soldier, who Blander described as a drunken reb, forced his way forward, looking to take the Union flag. If they did, it would be one of the greatest dishonors a company could face. They were in first person, the adrenaline was pumping. Blander shoved the Confederate soldier back into a trench. The soldier ingstumbled back and fell on top of the other confederates. He came forward again. Blander describes how held his rifle back, and was ready to swing it at him and crash his stock across the soldier’s face when the captain came by, yelling at them to stop, ask them what the hell was happening.
Another time, it was night, and a drunken rebel soldier came out from the dark. In his hand he held a bowie knife by his side. He sat down across from the captain’s table, and called a nearby soldier a girl. It was a tense moment, but the soldier eventually walked away.
Blander tells them like ghost stories, like tales said around a campfire. The vast majority of confederates are normal people, they say, but for the few that aren’t there is a general recognition of fear.
Dr. Marvin Glassmann finishes cleaning his horse, Buster, a 28-year-old quarterhorse just after the fight at the Grange. Most days, he works as a couples therapist. When he can, he rides with the 10th New York Volunteer Cavalry, Company C. There are only three of them in that group, two of them are husband and wife.
He has seen those reenactors who take the facade very seriously, and has even read books about it. He cites Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz, a book about southern reenactors who are, in their minds, still fighting the Civil War. For Glassmann, he and his small group not only do Civil War, but also American Revolution and Rough Riders reenactments. “For most of us, it’s a hobby and it’s fun. I’d rather ride than work.”
The Soldiers are marching. The Flags are flying, Blander holds his huge standard high, yards behind the main line. It is designed after the old battle standard that the old 67th used over a century ago. On the other side of the field, the Confederates do the same.
After a battle, both sides pose for pictures. They shake hands like little leaguers after a soccer game. For all the shouts, for all the shots, for all the smoke and all the fake blood, the reenactors don’t hold enmity. They care about the historical veracity and the presentation. Their professionalism as reenactors gives them the sort of poise, like the professional soldier would demonstrate on the parade ground. The guns they put to their shoulders house no bullets.
A civil war rifle feels dangerous, but it is nothing compared to modern killing instruments. On June 17, 2015, a white man named Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and using a Glock 41 .45 caliber-handgun, a weapon that weighs little less than a soup can, and killed nine people, including the pastor. He later admitted to trying to start a race war. When he was arrested, the police found the Confederate battle flag on his website.
The crowd at the Grange is large, much larger than they expected or they received in a long time. Still, the members of the reenactment aren’t ignorant of what has brought so many people. It is the controversy involving the confederate flag.
The 67th is a yankee brigade. They come from a yankee part of the United States. The legacy of the Civil War has left its mark, and the north identifies with the north. The racial tensions and inequality of today are inevitably tied to the Civil War and its aftermath. The reenactors believe they are living historians. They try to present things as accurately as possible to give people a lesson in what the Civil War was like. But the conflict surrounding the fighting, the conflict of two warring identities, is much harder to recreate. Much less do the reenactors desire to do so.
The march at Gettysburg attracts hundreds of people who line the roads to spectate. Taking place in Southern Pennsylvania makes it a place where both people from the north and south come to watch and attend. A Confederate officer on a horse pulls on the reins, and the horses lifts its two front legs and whinnies. The man shouts, “All right, who’s here, from, VIRGINIA!” His response is a few claps, and a couple behind him raise their hands, but he doesn’t even see them.
The blue and the grey don’t march together, but march one after the other. First the Union, then the Confederates. A small group is waving their small confederate flags and laughing as the confederate soldiers walk past. They are hooting, and calling after the men. Time evaporates. When the soldiers march, the people of the town come to cheer them on, to victory. This time, the supporters are mixed together on both sides of the street. This time the soldiers hold no bullets for their rifles.
Back on the real battlefields of the Civil War, the fights are often watched by scores of people. It is 1864. They set up picnics on hills where they can watch the battle unfold, where they are far away from the bullets and the blood and the scenes become painterly, like much of the art that gets displayed about this time. From behind fences, from the angle of lawn chairs, modern americans take their own part in the great facade. There is no blood, there is no death except for the occasional man who takes a fall and pretends to lay dying. George Munkenbeck, a registered chaplain for the 14th Brooklyn Infantry, Company H, narrates the battle of the grange through a microphone. The crowd becomes a mob behind the fence.
“Those young boys from Sayville. You can see the union officer moving up to get a look and see what’s going on.”
“Boo Confederates!” a kid grasps at the fence in front of him until his hands are red, he pokes his eyes through the spaces in the fence to see what is happening. He shouts again. “Boo Confederates!”
“They’re firing .44 and .45 caliber soft lead bullets.”
“Boo Confederates! Boo Confederates!”
At the end of the battle, when the men have charged, and are brushing the dirt from their uniforms, George pipes above the claps from the crowd, “It was a typical skirmish, nothing was accomplished.”
A young boy is crying in the background. Another kid pipes up, confused, “They’re fighting people but don’t they know they’re on the same team?”
They become a faceless mass. Along Baltimore Avenue in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the soldiers of the Union and Confederate march. It is one of the largest gatherings of reenactors in the Northern part of the United States. Around the curve of the hill they rise and march down Baltimore Avenue and into Steinweht avenue, a line of men that stretch to the horizon. There are thousands of them. The smell of pipe smoke and a cool november wind along with the discordant sound of a hundred different druming and fifes drifts down the close packed streets.
Gettysburg is an old town that wears its history on its sleeve, then sells that sleeve. In the center of town, every business is tied to Civil War history. If it isn’t a sutler, it is a painting shop that sells nothing but art from Dale Gallon, bloodless art, and the store owner flutters between the patrons. There are home-made ice cream shops that sell bottled sarsaparilla. The pubs are themed civil war. There are too many Civil War tour companies to count. Buildings that were once houses have been converted into storefronts. The people who watch by the sidelines clap lightly as the troops march by. Some are dressed in period clothes. One man, obviously having a good time, marches yelling “Ha ha, I’m rich,” while tossing fake gold coins to the crowd.
Before the march, and before the festivities, the moment is somber. Through the winding streets of Culps Hill in Gettysburg, where a battle took place, the regimental monuments stand proud in the morning sun. This is where soldiers died, the large stone and marble monuments seems to say. On a stretch of road with holds several other New York regiments, the monument to the original 67th regiment stands.
The new 67th does this every year. It is a tradition for most regiments to honor the people from their own regiment who died so long ago. They are dressed in full parade uniform, and each is handed a pair of white gloves. They stand at attention on either side of the tall monument, their rifles to their shoulders. History tells that the regiment suffered just one casualty and several injuries in the battle for Culp’s Hill, which was almost miraculous because of how close they were to the withering hail of the Confederate fire.
The troops shoulder arms on both sides of the monument. Munkenbeck arrives to give a commemoration. “While we today might wonder at the flowery language of the Victorian era,” he says. “The words are just as applicable as they were then. To be a good soldier and die is a manly feat. To be a good soldier, and live, is manlier. To be a good citizen, upright before god and downright among men, is manliest of all, but is the most complex, difficult and least rewarded.”
Munkenbeck continued. “They fought their battles, buried their dead, went home with their wounded, and became citizens once more. The muster in surprised mankind, the muster out astounded them. The veterans and their families worked to rebuild a nation that had been damaged, and torn by the war, and we owe them a great deal, as they struggled to build the foundations of what we enjoy today, let us never forget the contributions towards this great nation.”
Built in 1888, the monument looks much too clean for its age. Kenny says it was power washed 10 years ago, but the stone monument stands proud and unmarked. Proud as if it knows it has weathered time’s efforts to tear apart memory and grind it under the marching boots of every creeping moment, until it becomes a fine dust to be swept away by the wind on the sloping hill.
Like it does for most things.
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