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History buff co-founded Civil War re-enactment outfit

Brian Swartz | BDN
Brian Swartz | BDN
Clad in the uniform of a Union artillery captain, Gordon McRae of Eddington leans against the 10-pound Parrott gun that the Sixth Maine Battery brought to Fort Knox in Prospect on Saturday, June 30, 2012. McRae was involved in Maine-based Civil War re-enacting since the early 1990s; he helped build this particular cannon and, along with Bill Lannon of Ellsworth, founded the Sixth Maine Battery. Extremely knowledgeable about the war and many aspects of Maine’s involvement, McRae died unexpectedly on July 6.
By Brian Swartz, Of the Weekly Staff

The news spread fast on Friday, July 6, that Maine had lost a dedicated Civil War historian and re-enactor. Gordon McRae, 63, of Eddington had died suddenly of an apparent heart attack on that sunny Friday. His loss has been felt immensely by his wife, Amy, and his daughters, Andrea McRae and Wendy Lynds, and other relatives.

McRae had joined Co. B, 20th Maine Infantry Regiment years ago, and he and Bill Lannon of Ellsworth had formed the Sixth Maine Battery in 1994. Six days prior to his death, I had interviewed McRae at Fort Knox as Sixth Maine Battery members demonstrated firing a replica 10-pound Parrott gun.

During the interview, McRae talked about his passionate interest in the Civil War. Four weeks later, during a Civil War encampment that Gordon had planned to attend, Amy McRae and Bill Lannon shared their thoughts about Gordon.

He had known Lannon for years. “We’re history buffs. We have a common interest in the Civil War,” McRae said during his last official interview on June 30. “We were Civil War buffs, so we went to Gettysburg two or three times a year.”

After re-enacting infantry roles for some years with Co. B, and because “artillery was always fascinating,” McRae and Lannon “decided we wanted to try it,” Gordon McRae said on June 30. During a Gettysburg trip, they found a cannon, and he “measured it up.”

Home in Maine, McRae worked as a metal fabricator in a machine shop. After obtaining “original plans” for a Civil War cannon, he and another metal fabricator “made the barrel.”

Capable of shooting a 10-pound cannon shell, the replica Parrott barrel weighs 900 pounds. Mounted on its gun carriage, “it weighs 2,000 pounds as you see it right there,” McRae said, nodding at the cannon sitting menacingly on the bluff overlooking the Verso Paper mill in Bucksport.

The sun beat hot that Saturday, but clad in his blue wool uniform and artillery boots, McRae never acknowledged the temperature as he talked about the cannon and the Sixth Maine Battery — which has a second cannon that he also helped manufacture.

Soon after McRae finished the first cannon, “I got my hands on [another] set of plans, and I discovered” that the first Parrott gun “is four inches short.” He quickly learned that during the Civil War, repeated firing could damage a cannon’s muzzle. The damage “affected the accuracy, so they would actually saw them off to get them back into good rifling,” he said.

“So the one I measured [at Gettysburg] had been sawed off, and I didn’t know it,” McRae said. “It was one of those lessons you learn.”

The Sixth Maine Battery’s second cannon, which is based in Massachusetts, “is four inches longer on the muzzle,” McRae said on June 30. “Actually this one sounds a little better. I like the way it sounds.”

While Maine sent seven artillery batteries to war, the Sixth really intrigued McRae and Lannon, hence they decided to recreate that outfit. McRae liked the unit’s history; founded by Searsport sea captain Freeman McGilvery, the Sixth Maine Battery fought at Cedar Mountain in August 1862.

When re-enacting, McRae portrayed an artillery captain, but not specifically McGilvery. “There are guys that do first impressions, but I wouldn’t be good enough at it,” McRae explained. However, he intensively studied McGilvery and his Civil War career, cut short abruptly in September 1864.

Only four weeks after McRae’s last interview, dozens of Civil War re-enactors camped at Fort Knox on July 28 to participate in the Bucksport Bay Festival. Deploying both cannons, the Sixth Maine Battery staged noisy firing demonstrations that McRae would have enjoyed.

Attired as a Civil War-era civilian woman, Amy McRae watched the Sixth Maine members work their guns. For years she and Gordon had participated together in re-enactments, with Amy portraying “just the captain’s wife.”

Ironically, they met during Amy’s first re-enactment in the late 1990s. That event took place at the Waldo Station on the Belfast & Moosehead Lake Railroad.

“He was in uniform,” Amy recalled, a smile playing at her lips. “He looked really good in it. I made him stop for a picture.

“I think it was just circumstance that he wasn’t doing anything,” she said.

The McRaes married on Oct. 22, 2000. They went to Gettysburg every April; “he was passionate about the hobby,” Amy said, referring to the Civil War. “The Sixth Maine [Battery] was his passion.”

“I love the history” of the Civil War, said Bill Lannon, was “was a woodworker/carpenter” when he and McRae founded the artillery battery. Lannon has been a re-enactor “since the early ’80s.”

He talked about McRae. “It’s still trying to sink in that he’s gone,” Lannon said. “It was a lot of fun, getting together with groups from all over the state.”

“I’m really missing him,” Lannon said.

Amy McRae remembered Gordon’s “outgoing personality. He was always interacting with people, always very animated, very alive.

“He enjoyed his time on earth,” she said. “He always said that if ‘I died right now, I can’t complain. I’ve done everything I wanted to in life.’”

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