My mother, a New Yorker by birth, went to live in Florida for a year when she was 10 years old. It was 1943, and her dad was stationed at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla. On one unforgettable day at her new school, my mother made the mistake of referring to the Civil War. The teacher cut her off and made her stand in front of the class, publicly scolding “this little Yankee” for her error.
“Down here we call it the ‘War Between the States,’” she drawled haughtily. “There was nothing ‘civil’ about it.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of that homeland war that had such a profound impact on our nation, and even today evokes powerful emotional responses in residents both north and south. As we head into the Fourth of July weekend, it seemed an appropriate time to converse with someone passionately dedicated to keeping the lessons of our national history very much alive.
Lt. Paul Dudley of Easton, Maine is the president of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Company B — Civil War re-enactors. He is a retired history and English teacher, but his particular passion is the Civil War.
“In my humble opinion, that war was the greatest threat to our democracy that has ever existed, or will ever exist, I hope,” he said.
It can be startling to speak with re-enactors because of the way they often speak in the first-person present tense, as though it were 1861 today and they are preparing for battle. It’s all a part of their desire for maximum authenticity, in order to evoke as much realism as possible in re-creating history. If I came to one of their encampments as a news writer, for example, I would have to register as a man, since women were not reporters at that time, and I would have to sign a security form promising not to divulge any sensitive military information.
In addition to honoring fallen soldiers and preserving lessons of the past, Paul described the wonderful camaraderie of re-enactment events. He has met participants from all over the US and from several European countries. During the 135th anniversary event at Gettysburg, which hosted around 28,000 participants, Paul met fellow re-enactor George Davis, a rebel soldier that he “killed” in the battle for Little Round Top.
“He was charging the hill, so I shot him, then we got talking…”
Ten years later, Paul recognized George at the 145th Gettysburg, and they reconnected. George moved to Maine a few years ago.
“He is a great gentleman,” said Paul. “But we can’t talk him into joining the blue.”
The 20th Maine was a particularly renowned group, largely for their success in holding onto Little Round Top at Gettysburg. To kick off this sesquicentennial year, all re-enactment groups in the state of Maine held a commemorative recruitment in April, like the one that followed President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops after the attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861. Later this month is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, also known as the Battle of Manassas by Confederate rebels. Paul expects more people will get involved with the 20th Maine and other groups during this major anniversary period. Now that he is a lieutenant, he takes a different role in re-enactments.
“It’s not as interesting as being a private or a sergeant,” he said, since there is less direct involvement on the battlefield.
At re-enactment events, soldiers often join other troops or even switch sides to experience battles from different perspectives. Paul described a day he joined the rebels, the 26th North Carolina, who took excruciatingly heavy casualties. The re-enactors carried heavy, old-style weapons, wore ragged clothes and went barefoot, in the very conditions of the men they emulated. It was a deeply moving experience, so powerful that men were actually moved to tears on the field.
“I was in the front rank, one of the first to fall, so most of the day I lay on my face in the dirt, in the sun,” said Paul. Of course you can’t begin to truly feel what those men felt, but the glimmer of perspective that you do get is unforgettable. “I have a tremendous respect for their bravery on both sides.”
It would do my mother’s heart good to hear about the mutual admiration and understanding amongst rebel and union re-enactors. I wish the same could be said for our modern-day political representatives. Perhaps if they all got together in a re-enactment battle this Independence Day, they might remember that our shared history and humanity are bigger than their petty battles on the floor of the House and Senate.
Upcoming re-enactment events:
• July 2 and 3: The 6th Maine Battery will hold cannon firing demonstrations at Fort Knox in Bucksport
• July 4: Parade, Thomaston
• July 15-17: Parade and rededication, Union
• July 23-24: National event re-enactment of Manassas/Bull Run (Virginia)
• July 29-31: Re-enactment at Fort Knox, Bucksport
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.