History comes to life


GREENFIELD — At one time in his life, Rob Van considered becoming a history teacher.

That was 34 years ago. Today, Van doesn’t teach history — he lives it. While his days are spent working for a heating and cooling company, the Brownburg resident’s love of all things old — the stories and the artifacts that tell them — consumes his spare time.

Van spends more than 10 weekends a year with the 49th Indiana Company F dressed as a member of the Union Army of the Potomac, practicing military drills and re-enacting Civil War battles with others who share his enthusiasm for history.

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With a mission to educate the public as living historians, members of the all-volunteer 49th Indiana will visit the Hancock Public Library from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Van and three of his fellow soldiers will be at the library in full uniform, fully equipped and ready to present.

The foursome plans to demonstrate some Civil War-era military drills, describe and explain their equipment, fire their muskets and answer questions about re-enactment and Civil War history.

Van’s Union army uniform — made of wool — is an authentic reproduction and must be cleaned by hand after every re-enactment event.

“The wool is definitely hot,” Van said, “but you get used to it.”

But the piece of equipment that requires the most care and maintenance is his musket.

His firearm is a rifled musket, meaning the barrel of the rifle is twisted, increasing the accuracy of the shot.

A routine civil war drill called for loading and firing the musket in a nine-step procedure, Van explained. The steps include removing the cartridge from the cartridge box on the soldier’s belt, dumping the contents of the paper cartridge (the powder and the musket ball) into the barrel of the rifle, tamping it down with a ramrod, placing the percussion cap (needed to ignite the powder) and pulling the trigger.

“You’ve got to have one upper and one lower tooth to tear the top off the cartridge,” Van laughed.

“A good soldier could load and fire three rounds in a minute. And absolutely I can fire three times a minute,” Van added with a smile.

Van gives his musket daily safety inspections and a full cleaning after firing it at each event. Using standard gun cleaner, hot water or hydrogen peroxide, a good cleaning usually takes about 20 minutes, Van said.

Although Van captains the company, he’s not necessarily portraying William H. Peckinpaugh, the actual captain of the 49th Indiana during the Civil War.

“Some people like to find a real person and bring all the characteristics of that person to the re-enactment,” Van said.

He prefers to portray different positions and different characters, depending on the size of the event.

At a recent weekend gathering in Jackson, Michigan — the Cascades Civil War Muster — Van served as the overall commander for the entire regiment.

Van attends 10 to 12 re-enactment events a year, including the annual three-day encampment at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July. He admires the logistics needed to put together an event that involves thousands of participants.

As for historical re-enactment as a hobby, participation numbers are down nationally, Van admits. The battle at Gettsyburg celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, and many re-enactors chose that as their exit point, Van said.

But membership in the 49th Indiana continues to climb. When Van joined in 1984, there were 20 members, and now there are 30, one of whom is Van’s son, Rob Jr., known as Rob Roy.

At 24, Rob Roy, also of Brownsburg, has been carrying a musket in the company for the last 10 years but has been around re-enactment since he was born. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, he said, as to whether being a re-enactor created his love of history, or his love of history fueled his interest in re-enacting.

As a 21st-century individual, Rob Roy sometimes has trouble explaining to his friends how he spends some of his weekends.

“My friends think it’s interesting,” he said. “I grew up with it, so it’s not a big deal, but I have to realize that it’s not a normal thing.”

Van looks forward to the presentation at the library. His uniform and musket are clean, and his haversack is packed with hardtack, salt pork, a sewing kit, spare ammunition and a second pair of socks.

“The intent is if we were to go back in time, we would be able to walk completely unnoticed because are uniforms are exactly the same, made of the same material,” Van said.

Most people look at re-enacting as people having fun,” Rob Roy said, “but a lot of it is about preserving history.”

And his father agrees.

“At the end of the day,” Van said, “the common thread between us is a very passionate interest in history and a large desire to share that passion with the public.”

The 49th Indiana Company F will be marching back through Hancock County Oct. 14 and 15 at Piney Acres in Fortville.

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What:  Re-enactors from the 49th Indiana, Company F will explore what it’s like to fight in the Civil War.

When:  1 to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where:  Hancock County Public Library, 900 W. McKenzie Road

Other:  for all ages; register at hcplibrary.org to attend this free program.

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The 49th Indiana Company F Civil War re-enactment group was established in 1974 and is always looking for those interested in becoming a member. To learn more about the group, visit 49thindiana.com or email recruiting officer Greg Swank at [email protected]