Re-enactments Bring Civil War To Life

Glen Burnie Man Takes A Rebel Stand

December 31, 1990|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

Walter Mathers came to the Harundale Library Saturday, decked out in his Confederate grey, accurately portraying a staff captain from the Civil War.

The Glen Burnie resident also brought confederate script, vintage field glasses, maps and guidebooks, all part of a history he and other Civil War buffs try to re-create, both in modern-day classrooms and on former battlefields.

"It gives the public a more in-depth look at the war -- they not only can read about it, they can experience some of the hardships and triumphs that the folks in the war were involved in," said Mathers, who got involved in the hobby 11 years ago because of his interest in 19th century music.

"We often want to over-romanticize the past," he said. "The stakes were very high -- it was a very dramatic time in America's history, to say the least."

Mathers and the other nine members of the Signal Corps Association concentrate only on relaying messages from commanders to troops -- a crucial and difficult task using mid-19th century modes of communication.

Mathers' group joins other organizations nationwide to reinact famous Civil War battles, sometimes massing more than 13,000 would-be soldiers for a week.

Interest in the Civil War has swelled since film maker Ken Burns' 11-hour public television documentary drew new attention to the subject.

Most of the group members present at Saturday's orientation meeting wore authentic uniforms, either from the Union or Confederate armies.

They say it's a way of researching and living out history at the same time. By trying to recreate battles as authentically as possible, the groups try to show spectators what the war was really like.

"The Civil War began as the 'People's War,'" Mathers said. "It was to preserve the union. Of course, every war that has ever started has not been started over human rights. It was started over economics, as much as we would like to believe ourselves noble."

While many groups form military divisions, Mathers and others interviewed Saturday said they liked the Signal Corps the best.

"We have a chance to be really involved in the action," said Dennis O'Toole, who also is a sergeant in the county police narcotics division.

"We aren't just shooting blanks. We're actually sending messages."

The Signal Corps employed a wide variety of methods to send messages to the front lines: waving flags from signal towers; stringing miles of wire and using Morse code; or sending out people on horseback with the hope that they get through the lines of fire.

"It took a lot of effort, especially if you had to send a horse," O'Toole said. "There were no telephones or pagers."

The re-enacters try to get as close to the actual battle as possible, from setting up base camps, eating 19th-century food, keeping logs written in the proper style and setting up different re-ennactment groups as if it were a true military unit.

The groups are constantly digging for old letters, guides and photographs. Mathers' group also is looking into ways of incorporating civilian life into the re-enactments, possibly even setting up civilian camps where families could stay.

One reason is to get women more involved. "There is no reason to polarize the troops," Mathers said. "We need the women's touch. But we need to be authentic. It was a chauvinistic time. Like it or not, women were treated as second-class citizens.

"They knew what they were doing in life. They knew what was expected of them. It was a structured society," he said. "But women and children did not cease to exist when Fort Sumpter was bombed."

But Iris Joiner, who is a member of the reinactment group, said women played a more active role in the war then is given credit for.

"I do not like to camp," she said. "I do like the hotels. But I like the time period and I like the dress. There were many women in that time who ran social clubs. But there has got be something more.

"I know women played a more effective role," she said. "There were women who fought beside their husbands. Women did more than go to socials and they are not recognized."

The Signal Corps Association's next major reinactment will be April 6 in Farmville Virginia, where the battle of Sailors Creek will be staged.

Sailor's Creek was last confrontation between Confederate General Robert E.

Lee and Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

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