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'You're not just a guy in a costume': Civil War battle re-enactors relish wool uniforms, taste of gunpowder, other details that bring history to life

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From the Jackson Sun: http://www.jacksonsun.com/article/20120909/NEWS01/309090007/-You-re-not-just-guy-costume-Civil-War-battle-re-enactors-relish-wool-uniforms-taste-gunpowder-other-details-bring-history-life?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE

(There is an imbedded video with the article. To view it, go to the link.)

Cleon Plunk responded to a newspaper ad in 2002 that asked for Civil War re-enactors.

“Civil War re-enactors,” the ad read. “History not hatred.”

The 59-year-old brick mason from Broken Arrow, Okla., said the ad piqued his interest, so he asked his wife if he could join. She said yes, and he has re-enacted Civil War battles ever since.

“I was always interested in that time period,” Plunk said. “Even as a teenage boy, it fascinated me to learn and study about it.”

On March 28, Plunk rocked along in an old box car as he and other men dressed in blue rode a train toward Shiloh. He and his companions were packed in the car with their rifles and other weapons. Plunk said that on the train ride, he sank into the experience.

For re-enactors such as Plunk, the flags still blaze and the smoke has not cleared, not for war, but for memory. They seek to remember the cost of battles fought on home soil and the tragedy that ensued.

Re-enactors have met on or near Civil War battlefields to engage in mock warfare for decades, but this year, and for the next three years, battles are coming upon their sesquicentennial or, 150th anniversaries, and will draw thousands of re-enactors.

The Jackson Sun visited Hardin County in the spring to document the 150th anniversary Battle of Shiloh re-enactment held there by the Blue-Gray Alliance national re-enactment organization. The goal was not only to record the day’s events, but to capture the experience of the re-enactors in writing and video.

Along with this article, The Jackson Sun produced a mini-documentary about the experiences of the re-enactors in this story that can be viewed at jacksonsun.com.

Re-enactor Curtis Waldrip, of Liberty, Texas, is an commercial pilot and former school teacher. He is also a member of the National Guard.

He said he re-enacts Civil War battles to bring history alive. Waldrip, 50, said he put on a uniform for the first time when he was 16 and that it gave him a taste of battle he had never encountered in a history book.

“Reading about the Civil War in a textbook is so sterile,” he said. “You don’t get the rub of the wool uniform against your skin or the taste of powder in your mouth and the nasty flavor of the little things.”

Waldrip was a re-enactor for the 8th Texas Calvary regiment, which traveled from East Texas to Tennessee for the Shiloh re-enactment.

Riding a horse adds another dimension to battle, he said.

“When you are up there seeing the world over a horse’s ears, you’re not just a guy in a costume,” he said. “People can get killed on a horse.”

Waldrip said a re-enactor from his regiment who participated in the Shiloh re-enactment died during training after Shiloh. Waldrip said the man and a few others rode through a wooded area in a line at a full gallop. The man’s saddle slipped, and he slid sideways and his head hit a tree.

“He was given a soldier’s burial,” Waldrip said. “The man had asked to be buried in his re-enactment uniform.”

He said re-enactors are looking for what he called “the Holy Grail experience of re-enacting.”

Waldrip said his “most real experience” as a re-enactor came in 2001. He was sent by a higher-ranking officer to get orders from another soldier. As he rode his horse through a stretch of woods at dusk, surrounded by lightning bugs and the sounds and smells of the forest, he believed he was in another time.

“I am a very logic-driven and rational person, but at that time there was nothing in my view that was modern,” Waldrip said. “It could have been 1862.”

Jason Crow, 41, who lives on a ranch in Batson, Texas, is a lieutenant in Waldrip’s 8th Texas Regiment who visits battlefields where the real 8th Texas Regiment of the Confederacy fought, including Shiloh.

He said that along with the historical element of re-enacting, he enjoys working with his horses and learning about the tactical elements of Civil War combat and what it took to be a cavalryman.

“Re-enactment is an art in the same way you might call football an art,” Crow said. “You are trying to outmaneuver your opponent and to put on a good show.”

Some might wonder how you could outmaneuver an opponent or win in a re-enactment.

Crow said there are two kinds of events: Spectator battles, which are scripted, and tactical battles, where the goal is to put your firepower in a position that overpowers your opponents until they must retreat.

“It’s like a giant game of paintball, but we are only firing blanks, so we use the honor system,” he said. “Sometimes we have referees who determine when someone has been outmaneuvered, and the loser is forced to go to the rear and stand down for an hour, while their side must fight without them.”

Crow said the more people who participate in a re-enactment, the more you can do. He and other committed re-enactors go to eight to 10 re-enactments a year, as well as to schools and other locations where they put on demonstrations.

It is estimated the Gettysburg battlefield, in Pennsylvania, will draw nearly 80,000 re-enactors on the 150th anniversary of the battle next July.

Waldrip said that with 6,000 re-enactors, the Shiloh re-enactment was the largest he has ever attended, but that the re-enactment at Gettysburg will make Shiloh look like “an elementary school event to show students what uniforms looked like.”


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