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Re-enactors strive to keep Battle of Gettysburg relevant

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By Kristy Deer and Jim Mayfield


NEW PALESTINE — Sam Brown considers himself a patriotic person. The New Palestine resident has always had an interest in American history, so much so that he’s actually stepped back in time to play the part of both Union and Confederate soldiers in re-enactments.

Brown was even an extra in the Civil War film “Gods and Generals” and has participated in numerous documentaries for the History Channel and several short films depicting Civil War history.

“When I was a kid, it was typical of kids to have an interest in the Civil War, or Revolutionary War,” Brown said.

While his love of American history holds true particularly around the most patriotic time of the year – the Fourth of July celebrating the Declaration of Independence – Brown knows that is not the case for everyone.

For some, American history has become just that: a thing of the past. However, Brown and other area residents are doing their part to maintain a living history.

Fifteen years ago, when he lived in Washington, D.C., Brown traveled to Gettysburg and took part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg to celebrate its 135th anniversary.

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the great Civil War battle of 1863, which claimed the largest number of casualties of the entire war.

The three-day battle is often described by historians as the war’s turning point, when Union Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee’s invasion of the North.

The battle between the two American armies was the bloodiest of the Civil War, claiming more than 50,000 casualties. The carnage also inspired President Abraham Lincoln to craft one of the best-known speeches in American history – the Gettysburg Address.

In the speech, Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.”

Unfortunately, Brown says, Lincoln’s words may not be withstanding the test of time.

“It’s definitely a shame that people have less of an understanding of history and less of a patriotic spirit,” Brown said. “I don’t think many kids are brought up to have that love of their country that we did even a generation ago.” 

Brown, the father of two teenage boys, 15-year-old Blake and 14-year-old Clay, has tried to help them experience history by getting them involved in a re-enactment project – a Civil War museum film called “Seeing the Elephant” that wrapped shooting in June in Wisconsin.  

“It gives you a better grasp of history,” Blake said. “You learn more about what it must have really felt like to them.” 

While the two teens said it was quite an experience getting to wear old uniforms and shoot old-style black-powder guns, getting just a glimpse of being a Civil War soldier was a learning experience they won’t soon forget.

“It was definitely interesting,” Clay said. “You really get to see a lot of what it was like, but you still understand it was nothing like it was back then.” 

Brown said he and his boys enjoyed their four days of filming so much the family considered driving to Gettysburg this week with Brown’s Civil War group out of Indianapolis to take part in the 150th anniversary re-enactment. But in the end, they decided not to make the trip.

Brown’s family is just one of generation upon generations that have been captivated and, in a way, captured in time by what happened during the Civil War and in the fields around Gettysburg.

“My dad dragged me around Civil War battlefields when I was a young guy,” said Jim Cable, who with his wife, Shannon; 18-year-old daughter, Rebecca; and son, Andrew, 15, were on the road Tuesday along with thousands of others making this year’s pilgrimage to Gettysburg.

With family roots in the Northeast, “we would always go to Gettysburg and Anteitam,” site of the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War.

A lifelong student of the war, Cable inherited his father’s voracious appetite for the topic along with the fare that fed it.

“He was an avid reader,” Cable said. “He had thousands of Civil War books, and now I have them as sort of my own personal research library.”

Which is a good thing, given the amount of time and scholarship that goes into bringing history to life.

Cable, who spent the past 18 months researching and helping construct a carriage for one of the historically accurate replicas of a 12-pound cannon used by Union artillery batteries, said a staggering amount of fact-checking is required to breathe life into history for a re-enactment.

“There’s a ridiculous, crazy amount of information that goes into it,” said Cable, who has been re-enacting for some 20 years. “And it’s just really cool to find some of this information.”

Fortunately for Cable, Shannon shares the same intense love of history. The couple met while she was overseeing the period clothing at Connor Prairie Interactive History Park northeast of Indianapolis.

“I love it, love it, love it.” Shannon said. “I like to say I got married and (was dragged) from (a pioneer wife of ) 1836 to the 1860s.

While Cable and the kids will take the field to command and man a two-gun union artillery battery, Shannon will portray the life of a Civil War wife, complete at times with “mourning wear,” the accoutrements of grief that so often became commonplace for women of the day, especially after Gettysburg.

“Sometimes, we miss the terror of the Civil War,” Shannon said.

Honoring the sacrifice of those who endured the 72-hour conflagration that was Gettysburg, connecting to its soul, is also at the heart of why for those who interpret and present the story.

Henry County resident Kevin Stonerock, a professional actor and historical interpreter who has been performing “Billy Yank – Common Soldier for the Union” since 1981, has put in untold hours of research and attention to detail, dialect and context to present an accurate portrayal of Union soldiers.

Stonerock’s living history character, William Fentress, is based a real-life Union soldier augmented with elements common to all soldiers of the Blue Line, he said.

Imparting a sense of what those men endured is a way of honoring their sacrifices, Stonerock said.

Cable has a more direct connection to Gettysburg’s fields, ridges and woods.

His third great-grandfather, Isaac Kerchner, signed on with the 126th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Infantry after mustering out of a nine-month unit earlier in the war and found himself a member of the Signal Corps when the great armies clashed at Gettysburg.

“This is a huge deal. Having Dad’s people out there (on the field), you want to do it right for them. I’m really honored to be out there,” Cable said.

Without a direct connection to the place, however, there is continuing concern that what happened there, and, more importantly, why, will be lost on future generations.

Much like Brown, Stonerock acknowledges what he sees as an ebb in interest for the past as details of some of history’s high-water marks recede from the collective conscience.

“Sadly, even World War II and its importance seems to receive jaded treatment in some circles,” Stonerock said. “But the Civil War, for some reason, seems to endure.”

Ironically, and perhaps to some, amazingly, Gettysburg and its war, which continued for another two years into the summer of 1865, is in the long view relatively recent history.

“Some of the last remaining Civil War veterans didn’t pass away until the 1950s,” Cable said as he was preparing to carry their story forward into the 21st century. “It wasn’t really all that long ago.”

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