Not just a hobby

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:12

    NEWTON - In their day, Civil War soldiers could have started off as a disorderly, rowdy bunch, but usually ended up a tightly-knit, disciplined lot that wouldn't ever say uncle. Fittingly, that is true today for re-enactment soldiers. And some of them, along with a wife or two, were on hand last week at Sussex County Community College to explain their participation in a hobby that at times really becomes much more than that. "Why do we do it?" Franklin's Dave Thyren asked rhetorically. "Well, we read Civil War books, and this is a next step. As re-enactors, we have to learn the commands the army moved with. We had to learn how to form the line of battle. And we had to get a thousand men moving at the same time and not get jumbled up." "We really enjoy this," added Barbara Thyren, Dave's wife, who was attired in the bulky, multi-layered women's dress of the era. Three of New Jersey's long-forgotten regiments who saw active duty in the Great War Between the States—the 15th, 27th and 33rd—got extensive representation from the re-enactors, who went into great detail expalining not only 19th century warfare, but also the history of re-enactment itself. The practice began "almost immediately after the war ended," said Jeff Chandler, who represented the 15th New Jersey. "There would be reunions, and at these reunions they would recreate a small part of what they had done." By 1961, the start of the war's Centennial observation years, members of the U.S. Armed Forces dressed in Civil War regalia and helped to recreate the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Va. Chandler added that in November, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, a re-enactment enthusiast, was invited to a re-enactment of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address—but Kennedy instead chose to go on a political fence-mending mission in Dallas, Texas, from which the 35th president did not return. More than 20,000 re-enactment soldiers returned to Gettysburg in 1998, the 135th anniversary of Lincoln's great speech, Chandler said. Several prominent Sussex County residents served as officers in the Civil War, Chandler added, including Sam Fowler of Franklin and William Edsall of Hamburg. Re-enactors are intensely serious about their "hobby," and many re-created battles become incredibly real, replete with clouds of smoke from musket fire and distant cannon blasts, not to mention "hits," in which at any given time, members of both sides fall to the ground as either dead or wounded. There are different ways to determine who gets "hit." Chandler said in large re-enactments, they may go by birthdates. Or, "You can take a hit when you're told to, or when you get tired." And yes, there are moments that seem so real they seem to come straight out of "The Twilight Zone." "We have magic moments where you actually feel you're transported back in time," explained Doug Grunn of Belvidere, who took part in a 1999 re-enactment of "The Wilderness Battle" of spring 1864, in which many soldiers from both sides were trapped - and burned to death - in the flaming forests of a heavily-wooded section of Virginia. "And they took us into the woods and we just couldn't do anything. We couldn't maneuver, we couldn't do anything. And we got wiped out." Grunn, attired in a Zouave uniform as a representative of the 33rd New Jersey—a regiment noted for its boisterous, rowdy enlistments, not all of whom were exactly law-abiding citizens of good character—said that re-enactors often travel into other parts of the country, including parts of the South, where staged battles sometimes become real. "One from the North must behave oneself when one is down in the South," Grunn said, mentioning a good friend of his who, in the heat of "battle," suffered bruised ribs and a broken toe when attacked by three men wearing Confederate gray. "One must remember where one is. There are those in the hobby who tend to go to the far end of the spectrum." Hackettstown's David Davenport of the 27th New Jersey has five ancestors who fought in the Civil War. A sixth-year re-enactor now, Davenport spoke of many hardships Civil War soldiers faced, including disease that was responsible for about two-thirds of the 600,000 or so fatalities both sides sustained in the bloodiest war in U.S. history. "I don't know how the guys did it," wondered Davenport. "After three days, a lot of us are ready to go back to modern times."