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In Civil War re-enactments, ‘It’s not about the uniform’

Re-enactors flooded to Carroll County in droves Saturday, July 21, to re-create and honor moments from the most divisive time in American history.

But the Civil War Encampment & Living History event at the ancient Union Mills Homestead was anything but alienating, despite the harsh weather conditions.

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At about 11:30 a.m., 19th-century artillery, rifles and revolvers erupted, “blowing powder,” one re-enactor called it. The gun smoke and heavy rain combined to form a fog over the battlefield. It looked like a history documentary: encampments of canvas tents strewn about the property, Confederate and Union flags staked outside. Small iron kettles sat atop fluttering camp fires — dampened by elements.

A fife and drum sounded moments later and the booms of gunfire dissipated, battalions of soldiers marched — some organized units, others disheveled — to their camps. The battle, so to speak, was over.

“It’s not about the uniform,” said Wayne Barron, a Baltimore County resident and regular re-enactor. “It’s about the camaraderie and the history.”

Barron and his battalion for the day, the 82nd New York, Company K, usually dress as Confederate — the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, specifically.

“There weren’t enough Federals that could come to this event,” he explained from under a canvas tent after the skirmish, his hands darkened from black rifle powder. “So we switched to make it look somewhat even.”

Barron’s battalion-mates have both uniforms, he said, puffing a cigarette, “We just try to make it as (historically) accurate as possible for spectators.”

They usually get questions from spectators — “Are those uniforms hot?” “How do you know when to die (in the skirmish)?” “Do you shoot bullets?” — but the rain seemingly dissuaded spectators. It also dampened the day, cutting the daylong agenda short, but offering a glimpse of what conditions soldiers faced over 100 years ago.

“When the uniforms get wet, they’re not fun,” Jim DiScurillo, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, said of the Union’s heavy wool garments. “(Dressing as a) Confederate, you have more versatility with your uniform because they wore whatever they could get their hands on.”

Union Mills hosted Confederate and Union troops just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, which is often referred to as a defining moment in the Civil War. A skirmish, which re-enactors re-created Saturday, occurred in nearby Westminster.

Torrential rains forced event organizers to begin the skirmish an hour early, which resulted in a more spontaneous feel, some said.

“That was an unscripted battle,” said Dennis Shirk, captain of the 93rd Pennsylvania. “Nobody knew what to expect. I seen a lot of guys that couldn’t fire guns because their powder got wet.” “But that’s the kind of stuff guys were dealing with in the war,” said Steve Bansner, a 32-year veteran of re-enacting and Shirk’s battalion-mate.

The 93rd was a part of the Battle of Gettysburg, Bansner said, eating crackers, cheese and meats from a rustic metal dish. He and his mates sat beneath an authentic canvas tent, “just like it was then.” But the canvas had been treated with Thompson’s WaterSeal, Shirk jeered.

Each member of the 93rd was dressed to a T, with their Union blue jackets and lighter blue wool pants, as they exchanged tales of re-enactments past. Their caps donned a sky blue cross, which distinguished their unit as part of the Sixth Army Corps, explained Harry Newcomer, of Pennsylvania.

“Remember that time the guy drank black powder, he just poured it in water and drank it,” Shirk said. “Idiot.”

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Not all re-enactors stick with it for decades, said Bansner, of Reading, Pennsylvania. “The guys that make S’mores by the campfire, they don’t last,” Shirk said.

Most are history buffs, passionate about the Civil War and more. Tony Powell, of Baltimore County, even wrote a book after he got inspired by portraying the First Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment so many times.

“It took me like five to six years to research it and write it,” Powell said. He collected soldiers’ diaries, letters, reports, newspaper articles and obituaries, “eventually it turned into a book.”

They were probably the smallest regiment in the Confederate army, Powell said, “but i think the most surprising thing is the stuff they did after the war. They helped to rebuild Richmond… they made a connection with the Philadelphia Brigade, who they fought against at Pickett’s Charge, Union veterans. The two veterans organizations did a lot to help reunite the country after the war.”

But some “do this to honor your ancestors, trace them back to the Civil War,” Bansner said. Karen Baker, of Gettysburg, is one such person.

“My father’s great, great, great, I don’t know how many greats, grandfather, and his two brothers were in the 82nd New York,” she said. “And we have the letters that were written home by all three of the brothers.”

She said she found the letters at 20 years old and began transcribing them, and “really became very interested.”

“One of the brothers lied about his age and joined early,” Baker said, sitting in a chair beneath a canopy, outside her tent, which was decked out in antiques: an old (but functional) spinning wheel, a sack-bottom bed from the 1800s, a chest and a rabbit that she collects wool from.

“I kind of collect pieces,” she said, pointing to the bed she bought for $20. “I also look for antique spinning wheels that have all the pieces, that I can refurbish and get working again… anything you can knit, I do.”

The rain did not relent, and the rest of the day’s activities were a wash. But the 82nd said they were planning a big chicken dinner later.

“Normally people cook their own meals, but at some events like this we have entire company dinners,” DiScurillo said. “You’re gonna see both uniforms mixing together.”

Until dinner, the longtime friends would continue to reminisce about past war re-enactments, talk specs about their rifles — Springfields and Enfields — and whether they got them on the cheap from “settlers.”

“It’s a strange hobby, and it’s not for everyone,” Barron said, “but we keep coming back.”

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