Reliving The Civil Side Of War

April 07, 1995|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

The Civil War was four years of hell on earth: battle and skirmish, shot and shell, death and misery. Today's historical re-enactors relish every moment they can re-create.

But five friends who call themselves the Victorian Parlour Ensemble have armed themselves with banjos, dulcimers, harmonicas and other instruments to re-create a gentler aspect of the conflict -- its stirring and haunting music.

"Music was a huge part of the Civil War. It was the only entertainment they had. Jeb Stuart took a band with him everywhere he went. There is something about it that hooks you," said Stephen R. Adamski, 42, of Fallston.

"It was the introduction of the Victrola that killed groups like us. It was the first time people could take music anywhere with them," he said. "Before, they had to have live musicians, and that's what we try to re-create."

Wearing hand-sewn clothing made from period patterns, using instruments that would have been available during the war and playing only tunes written until 1865, the ensemble is a familiar sight at Civil War re-enactments and commemorations. And as their work has become known, they have given more private concerts, too.

Playing at least 15 instruments among its members, the group has performed at the U.S. Capitol; the Custis-Lee Mansion in Arlington, Va.; the Hampton Mansion in Towson; a torchlight dance in Hagerstown; and a ceremony for the renovation of Baltimore's historic President Street Station.

"It is a vicarious thrill for us to play music in places like Hampton Mansion, Tudor Hall and the Custis-Lee Mansion, where it was played originally," Mr. Adamski said.

One night last year they played at a Civil War-style wedding in Tudor Hall, the Harford County family home of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. "The next day we were at Gettysburg playing for James Getty, who portrays Lincoln. It was really eerie," Mr. Adamski said.

Although the ensemble has played as a group for only 2 1/2 years, the members have known each other much longer. Four are veteran Baltimore County employees.

Mr. Adamski and Glenn Bittner, 40, both longtime musicians, work in the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management. Mr. Bittner's sister, Caroline Bittner, 34, and her fiance, Don Bellusci, 38, are in the Department of Public Works. Mr. Bittner's wife, Carol, 41, is a customer service representative for Hartford Insurance Co. in Cockeysville.

Among them, the five musicians play guitar, banjo, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, accordion, fiddle, penny whistle, bodhran (an Irish drum), tambourine, spoons, bones, triangle, jaw harp, harmonica and sleigh bells. Mr. Bellusci has started bagpipe lessons to add his scaled-down parlor pipes to the musical mix.

A recent performance was at Long View Nursing Home in Manchester, where, as usual, they opened with "Lorena," one of the best-known of the war's many sentimental ballads. Then they swung into some Irish tunes, "The Star of the County Down" and "Boatman's Dance."

The patients reacted instantly. Many of the elderly men and women, most of whom use wheelchairs, began to move their heads or a hand, or even a finger, in time to the music.

The patients perked up even more when the musicians swung into the peppy "Oh! Susannah," "Lincoln and Liberty, Too," "Dixie's Land" and "The Battle Cry of Freedom."

Mr. Adamski occasionally wears a Civil War uniform -- blue or gray -- while the others wear civilian garb sewn by the women musicians. At Long View, the women's sweeping, hoop-skirted Scarlett O'Hara dresses -- Ms. Bittner's in yellow trimmed with black and Mrs. Bittner's in burgundy -- provoked admiring comments.

One woman called out, "Which one is Rhett Butler?" The musicians looked at one another, then grinned as the two women pointed -- at Mr. Adamski, Mr. Bellusci and Mr. Bittner. Everybody laughed then.

Mr. Adamski said the group tailors its performance to the audience. "If we're playing in Yankee territory, like in Pennsylvania, we learn all Yankee tunes, but if we're playing for the Daughters of the Confederacy in Washington, we do all Southern tunes," he said. There is one exception, however, he said: "Everybody loves 'Dixie.' "

Four of the members had great-great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War. But the Victorian Parlour Ensemble has its roots in Mr. Adamski's first visit to a re-enactment in Gettysburg in 1988.

"I was late and took a shortcut through some woods," he recalled. "I came out of the trees right behind an artillery battery. This guy rode up on a horse and told me to be careful, they were going to fire. Boom! Boom! Boom, they went. It was like stepping through a time window," Mr. Adamski said. "That was it. It rekindled an interest I had when I was a kid. I joined the Civil War Round Table, which caters to just about every interest in the period."

Then he met Tom Foster, a retired city school administrator from Bel Air and Civil War buff who started him playing banjo at various encampments. The others were active in period dancing. Eventually they decided to play music together.

"We started going to re-enactments to play for camp dances, and as demand has picked up it really mushroomed until we do about 35 appearances a year now," Mr. Adamski said.

The Victorian Parlour Ensemble may be reached at (410) 557-6481 for performance information.

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