Hearing the call of history

Dozens gather in Westminster to relive Civil War

June 30, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Some missionaries have a calling to teach their faith in far-off lands. Chaplain Alan Farley says God called him to places closer to home but to a different time.

Farley preaches at Civil War re-enactments across the country. Yesterday he held a service under a white tent in a Westminster field that had all the makings of a revival from the 1860s. The congregation wore period dress, perhaps their Sunday best, and women in heavy cotton hoop skirts fanned themselves with programs, as Farley implored them to come forward to admit their sins and pray.

Many of the people in that field yesterday said they have a calling. More than 100 people pitched tents, some opened a leather shop and blacksmithing station, and they participated in the annual re-enactment of Corbit's Charge, a small skirmish in Westminster that played a pivotal role in the Civil War. The weekend of events also included a parade, formal ball and artillery demonstrations.

Some participants said their devotion to retelling the story of the Civil War through living-historical demonstrations is driven by a sense of nostalgia. Others said they feel an obligation to the history of this country and insist that history can't be conveyed properly through books, lectures or television. You have to hear the muskets fire and sweat in the wool uniforms to understand, they said.

"If you forget where you came from, you can't know where you're going to go," said Jim Opdenaker of Lancaster, Pa. For the re-enactment, he played Union Gen. John Rawlins, a confidant of Ulysses S. Grant.

On June 29, 1863, Capt. Charles Corbit led a Union cavalry of fewer than 100 men to fight thousands of Confederate soldiers in what became known as Corbit's Charge. Historical accounts portray the odds as overwhelmingly lopsided in favor of the Confederate cavalry division under Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Some accounts say there were 5,000 Confederate soldiers; at least one re-enactor yesterday put the number at 10,000.

In fact, the Confederate soldiers did prevail. But the Union soldiers slowed Stuart's march to link up with Confederate infantry in Pennsylvania, which some say was a contributing factor to the eventual defeat of Gen. Robert E. Lee's army at Gettysburg. Historians have wondered if the Battle of Gettysburg might have turned out differently if Stuart had arrived earlier, according to literature from the Carroll County Visitor Center.

"This little town had a big impact on the outcome of the war," said S. Barry Klohr, a Westminster resident who has been doing Civil War re-enactments for 15 years. He even bought his own cannon, which he transports to a number of similar events, his authenticity only marred by the fact that he uses a truck and trailer, not a team of six horses that would have been used more than a century ago.

Many of the re-enactors travel to multiple events every year, making sure to not duplicate personas. It would be considered rude, for instance, if two men playing Gen. George Custer showed up at the same encampment. And along the way, they say they create lasting bonds. "You get to meet so many wonderful people; we are a family of sorts," said Stephanie "Cookie" Motter of Harrisburg, Pa.

For many of the participants, the events also become a forum of debate over the issues that divided the country and sent it to war all those years ago. They debate whether slavery was the cause or merely a rallying cry, what economic considerations played a role and what the Confederate flag symbolizes today. As Opdenaker put it, "They haven't settled the debate, and they never will."

But that doesn't diminish the camaraderie.

Farley, whose heart politically "lies with the Confederacy" as a strict adherent to state's rights, says he doesn't mind preaching to Union encampments. He says he thinks of himself as a U.S. Christian Commission delegate, a volunteer organization that ministered to Union troops during the war.

"As Paul said, 'I am all things to all people,' " he said.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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