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Re-Enactors Gear Up For Civil War Anniversary

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Re-Enactors Gear Up For Civil War Anniversary

History

Re-Enactors Gear Up For Civil War Anniversary

Re-Enactors Gear Up For Civil War Anniversary

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Kevin Burke, Iowa-based re-enacting group Army of the Southwest

Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Over the next four years, history buffs from across the nation will be re-creating the conflict's historic battles. Re-enactors spend time and money to participate, often paying scrupulous attention to the authenticity of their uniforms and equipment.

NEAL CONAN, host:

We finally managed to establish contact with the guest we'd hoped to talk with. And we have to note that in Charleston, South Carolina today, great care is being taken to remember the start of the Civil War 150 years ago, and not to celebrate it. The guns that opened fire on Fort Sumter initiated the bloodiest war in American history, which devastated entire swaths of the country and left major cities in ruins.

Over the next four years, the ranks of blue and gray will be filled, though, from Manassas to Appomattox, by reenactors, most of whom pay scrupulous attention to the authenticity of their uniforms and equipment. If you're among them, tell us how you mark these momentous events in American history. 800-989-8255 is our number. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kevin Burke is with us on the phone from Des Moines. He's quarter master sergeant of the Army of the Southwest, a civil war reenacting group based in Iowa. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. KEVIN BURKE (Army of the Southwest): Yes, it's a lot of fun(ph).

CONAN: And why do you do this?

Mr. BURKE: Well, I got into it kind of as an educational type. Our group out here is basically living history and we try to educate the young people, students, people who are interested, in what it was kind of like. We can't reproduce it exactly, of course. But we do more living history and demonstrations and then other groups do the real hardcore reenacting, so we're kind of the middle of the road group.

And we do it just for the fun and to show people kind of what it was like and the equipment and the period food and the cooking methods and what people wore and just kind of live - living history, I guess, is the most important thing.

CONAN: And I know it's fun and a lot of people aren't gonna do it unless it is fun. Nevertheless, it's important to reserve a certain dignity, isn't it?

Mr. BURKE: Oh, yeah. We portray - our unit is about 1863, 1864, and we do a lot of first person impersonations where we actually take the personality of maybe a real Civil War soldier or person and we try to reenact that type of thing. So we do it very seriously. We don't get on our C-phones. We're not wearing tennis shoes. We sleep in period tents. As much as we can, we eat period food, cook in the style. Wear the wool uniforms - and, yes, they're very hot.

Everybody - that's the first question most people ask us. Aren't those uniforms hot? Yes. But you get used to it.

CONAN: And people - students of history will remember very little of the Civil War fought there in Iowa.

Mr. BURKE: We only had one battle, clear down in the southeast. It was just a skirmish between militia units, but Iowans made up a large portion of the Union army and fought in many of the major battles on the western theater out here, Vicksburg, the march to the sea with General Sherman. There were many Iowan units in that. Up and down the Mississippi. So Iowans were very, very active in the Civil War.

CONAN: I wonder, does your unit include both Confederates and Union soldiers?

Mr. BURKE: We're very fortunate that we do have - when our unit first started about 15 years ago now, we decided we wanted to have both sides represented, so we have Union troops and a Confederate contingent. So when we go to a reenactment, whether it's a Union reenactment or a Confederate reenactment, we bring our enemy along with us, and - so we have somebody to shoot at.

CONAN: Do people switch sides?

Mr. BURKE: Oh, yeah. I can go both ways. If we're real short of Confederates, I've got a gray coat and gray hat I can put on, be a Confederate for the day. And some people, what - it's called galvanizing. Some people galvanize. Some people won't. And that's up to them, but most of us, if we're short on one side or the other or one side's really lopsided, we'll flip over to the other side for the afternoon, kind of make it a little bit more fair. At least so we can do the demonstration or do the reenactment.

CONAN: And I wonder, does politics come into it? Do people talk about their motivations for fighting?

Mr. BURKE: Most of the people - I can't speak for all over the country, but most people out here in the Midwest, we do it because we just enjoy it. We enjoy the camaraderie of having the families together and the fellowship, and you know, living out there and doing stuff. And it's fun. It's relaxing. And sometimes it can be kind of tough in the weather and things like that, but you're not going to do it because of the money. You're not going to make any money doing it. It's a hobby.

CONAN: We're talking with Kevin Burke, a quarter master sergeant with the Army of the Southwest, a Civil War reenactment group based in Iowa. We'd like to talk with reenactors in our audience. And how do you preserve the proper air of dignity while you're having a good time? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Ed is on the line. Ed calling from Anderson, Indiana.

ED (Caller): Yeah, hi. I'm a Civil War reenactor. I play with the 19th Indiana Company K. What your guest was saying is what I've seen through 15-odd years of reenacting. It's about not only learning yourself what, you know, what our ancestors went through, but also, you know, teaching the public and - the sense of respect that you have for what they went through.

CONAN: And where did Company K - is this based on a real company?

ED: Yes. It's based on a real company from Selma, Indiana. The 19th Indiana was part of the Iron Brigade.

CONAN: Oh, and they participated in some of the toughest fighting of the war.

ED: Yes, sir. Right up until they were company - or 19th Indiana was pretty much decimated at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Mr. BURKE: Yup.

ED: But the Battle of - the wilderness and the peninsula, they were right - they were the only western brigade in the army of the Potomac.

CONAN: And I wonder, there's - we read in the histories of the campaign down through the wilderness and down towards Cold Harbor of Union soldiers who would pin their identities on their shirts with messages saying: today I die. Is that kind of is that kind of - is that part of their legacy as well?

ED: That is the really - part of what we do is a show of respect for those that - you know, as Abraham Lincoln said, paid the last full measure...

Mr. BURKE: Yup.

ED: ...for, you know, for their country.

CONAN: Well, Ed, thank you...

ED: On the other side. The thing that we also look at is, you know, slavery was a driving force in the Civil War, but the Confederate soldier was fighting for what they looked at as their country as well.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the call.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: We talking about Civil War reenactors as we mark the 150th anniversary of the start of that conflict in Charleston today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Paul. Paul with us from Valdosta in Georgia.

PAUL (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, Mr. Conan. Good to speak to you again.

CONAN: Good to speak to you.

PAUL: I was telling your call screener that one way that I'm marking the Civil War here in the next few years is that I go online and every week I read the reprints of Harper's Weekly. They were printed during the Civil War. And it's almost a following along, 150 years later. But your screener also mentioned that he wanted to have some reenactor experience and I did a little bit of reenactment.

It's been a while, but it was with the 12th Georgia Light Artillery Battalion. And I'll tell you what, it's really some interesting stuff walking back in time. But when you ran that worm down that barrel of that cannon and put a charge home and let it go, it's an amazingly noisy thing.

Mr. BURKE: It's a lot of fun.

PAUL: Yes, sir. Ya'll have a good day now.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Paul. Let's go to Elizabeth. Elizabeth with us from Jacksonville, North Carolina.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ELIZABETH: I'm a cavalry reenactor. And I reenact with the 1st North Carolina cavalry and - to coincide with everything that's been said so far, that the reenacting, in and of itself, there's a lot of work involved and cost involved. But the reward of being able to, like, live a real event, a real - experience a real thing that occurred, is very rewarding and you learn a whole lot about the history at the same time while you're walking on the very hallowed(ph) ground where so many of our ancestors died.

CONAN: Elizabeth, do the reenactments take part on the actual battlefields?

ELIZABETH: On some occasions they do. Not necessarily - so many battlefields have been turned into WalMarts and other things, sadly enough. But there are some areas where - up in Virginia, where not all of it has been destroyed and some of it is still like - we just did last weekend, we just did Namazine(ph) Church just northwest of Petersburg and it was on the original owner's land. And they own many thousands of acres and a lot of the battles happened in that area. The church is still there. The school is still there.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get Mel on the line. Mel calling from Dayton, Ohio.

MEL (Caller): Yeah, hi. I've been reenacting for, oh, about two years now. And one of the things that I was really impressed with was the level of authenticity that we try to present. The hobby has a spectrum that goes from the super-authentic to the hardly authentic at all. But so one of the things we like to do is we try to do some research with the old journals and period materials of the time, you know, the primary sources.

CONAN: Sure. Kevin Burke, I heard you chuckling there. Obviously you're part of that spectrum too.

Mr. BURKE: He's a hundred percent right. You have people that are super hardcore, super stitch counters, thread counters, and then you have the other end of the spectrum that we call farbees(ph), where they come out in nylon uniforms or plastic stuff. The range is considerable. But most reenactors take it very seriously, very respectful, and I'd say are middle of the road to extremely authentic. And that's the fun part.

CONAN: And Mel, does this research include the back stories of individual soldiers?

MEL: Well, sometimes it's individual soldiers and sometimes it's just going back and looking at some of the old photographs. One of the problems with the photographs, though, is like the Matthew Brady stuff. A lot of those things were posed. So you'll see photographs with guys just festooned with three and four pistols and a bunch of knives and, you know, different things. But when you go back and you look at some of the photographs of camp life, you see the guys are a whole lot more plain. They're a lot more dressed down.

When you look at some of the engravings from the old Harper's and things like that, you start to get, I think, a better picture of what these guys kind of looked like. As far as researching an individual character, yeah, sometimes we do that. There have been events where you take on the persona of a particular soldier and we might have a little sheet of paper saying, okay, this guy, he was from this town and he was in the service for this long, and at this battle he got maybe halfway through the charge and he was wounded or he got...

CONAN: Mel, I'm afraid we're gonna have to leave that soldier's fate right there. We appreciate your phone call. And our thanks to Kevin Burke as well there in Des Moines. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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