The Comstock Civil War Reenactors bring us back home to the really swinging ’60s—the 1860s
On April 9, 1865, in Appomattox Court House, Va., Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, one of the primary military forces of the Confederate States of America, surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the general-in-chief of the United States Army. It was the spiritual ending of the American Civil War, a brutal and ugly conflict that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands Americans.
So why, nearly 150 years later, are there groups all around the country—including a Northern Nevada organization with nearly 300 members—that want to relive this horrific period from our history? Why would anybody want to spend the money for an archaic military uniform—an accurate Union officer’s uniform could cost $1,500—and run around in a field, getting dirty and pretending to be shot at?
There are basically two reasons. First, there’s the reason readily apparent to observers and detractors: a desire to dress up and play soldier. It’s an impulse familiar to anyone who was ever a 10-year-old boy (and a lot of 10-year-old girls, too).
But the second reason is deeper and more important: a love of history. The Civil War and its many colorful characters were fraught with fascinating contradictions, but ultimately the United States emerged from the conflict changed from a loose aggregate of states to an undivided nation and a world power.
“Our mission is education,” says Izabella Hunt-Jones Eaves, the Secretary of the Comstock Civil War Reenactors (CCWR). “The Civil War was a pivotal time in our history. Did you know that before the Civil War, people used to say, ‘the United States are’? And after the Civil War, they started to say, ‘the United States is.’ … No nation has had such a bloody civil war and then come back together.”
Love during wartime
Izabella’s husband, Jack Eaves, is the president of the CCWR, a nonprofit organization that holds one of its major annual celebrations, Virginia City Civil War Days, over Labor Day weekend. Jack and Izabella make quite the fetching pair. Jack’s a fully licensed demolitions and explosives expert. He’s also the president of his gun club and has been participating in Civil War re-enactments for nearly 40 years. He’s originally from Arkansas and, on his mother’s side, a direct descendent of the legendary Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. He’s a man comfortable with explosions and exudes the happy enthusiasm of a master technician.
Izabella is a scholar, a professional archeologist, and a historian. She’s lovely and ladylike and has that special knack shared by good teachers: the ability to make a student learn without realizing he or she’s doing it. She can present facts and ideas so sweetly and articulately that what would be, in clumsier hands, a grueling, in-depth history lesson becomes a pleasant afternoon chat.
They first met at a reenactment event in Graeagle, Calif. After the event, Izabella was supposed to meet some friends at a restaurant in town. She was having trouble finding the restaurant when she bumped into Jack.
“I asked him if he knew where the restaurant was,” she says. “‘Oh, yes,’ he said, though of course he had no idea.’”
Jack gives a sly grin when she gets to that part of the story.
The two of them wandered around for awhile, trying to find the restaurant, and they eventually did, though Isabella’s friends weren’t around. So they decided to dine together, talked all night, and fell in love. Just like that.
“Neither of us ever thought we’d get married again,” says Izabella.
They had a huge, Civil War-themed wedding in Gardnerville.
The two of them nicely represent the seemingly contradictory impulses that make up a Civil War reenactor: The explosives expert and the historian.
Warriors, come out to play
During the CCWR battle reenactments, Jack is nominally a Confederate major and chief of artillery of Hardaway’s Alabama Battery, but he’s really in charge of the many mock explosions that occur all over the battlefield. He uses a mixture of black powder, peat moss and dolomite to create the colorful but harmless explosions, which are triggered by a simple and effective remote control system that he designed.
“We have a perfect safety record,” he says.
“Everything’s choreographed,” says “Colonel” Harry Ehrman, the commanding officer of CCWR’s Union forces. “We’re strict about safety.”
“There’s a group within the group that likes to get blown up,” says Jack. “‘Jack! Jack! You didn’t blow me up!’ I won’t hear the end of it.”
In separate interviews, Ehrman and Jack proudly show the same pictures: Ehrman, his officer’s saber gripped firmly in hand and raised above his head, seems to be flung through the air, his legs flailing, engulfed in black smoke.
“For years I refused to ever get blown up,” says Ehrman, a firefighter in 2009 life. “They used to call me Colonel Bling because I kept my uniform so shiny. Now every time I get blown up, it’s a crowd pleaser. … Everybody cheers, both sides, even my own men.”
The reenactor carefully plan the artillery and troop movements, according to the battle tactics and strategies of the 1860s. Many of those battle tactics originated during the Napoleonic Wars, when weapons were less sophisticated than they were in the Civil War, which partly accounts for the extremely high number of fatalities.
Soldiers who die during the reenactments must hold their positions—no looking around to see how the battle is progressing.
“Hey, dead is dead,” says Jack.
The actor Bruce Boxleitner, familiar to science fiction fans because of Tron and Babylon 5, and a favorite of Civil War buffs because of his appearance as Confederate general James Longstreet in the 2003 film Gods and Generals, is an avid participant in Civil War reenactments.
One of Jack’s fondest reenactment memories occurred at a battle in Southern California. Boxleitner rode up and asked, “Jack, what do I want to stay away from?”
“Stay away from those, stay away from those, and absolutely stay away from those,” replied Jack, gesturing to different areas on the battlefield
Jack jokes now that he didn’t want Boxleitner to “die” in the battle because he knew he was due to start shooting the upcoming Tron sequel.
“People come out to play, but that will not keep anybody coming for any length of time,” says Jeannette McHugh, CCWR’s civilian commander. A deeper commitment to Civil War reenacting requires not just a love for the history of the era, but also a willingness to embrace the difficulties of the lives lead in those times. It’s hard work. McHugh says she learned this when she was undressing after one of her first reenactments, and she noticed all the dirt that had accumulated in her undergarments.
“They didn’t have washing machines,” she says. “Their clothes would get so soiled! In the ladies’ dresses, there’s just nowhere for dust to go but up around the legs. … It’s kinesthetic learning—learning by living.”
Something that distinguishes CCWR from other reenactment organizations is the prominence of the civilian brigade.
“I noticed—and this was with a different group—but I didn’t see a lot of well-rounded feminine roles,” says McHugh. As a registered nurse who also holds a doctorate in cellular molecular pharmacology and physiology, she has long been interested in the history of medicine.
“The advancement of health care was actually helped along by the mass casualties of the Civil War,” she says.
During CCWR re-enactments, McHugh portrays a representative of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, created by legislation signed by President Lincoln. The Sanitary Commission advised Union soldiers on hygiene concepts, like hand-washing, putting latrines downhill from campsites and putting horses downstream from bathing areas.
Other civilian participants of the reenactments, all dressed to the nines in the fancy haute couture of Victorian fashion, conduct tea socials and dances—traditional dances, with polite decorum and graceful patterns, set to period music.
“If you can walk and follow directions, you can do it,” says Jack, of the traditional dances.
Other civilians sell or provide period foods, including famously tasteless treats like salt pork and hard tack, that were part of the daily rations of the luckier regiments of soldiers. And reenactor Roy Giurliana performs surgical demonstrations—full of fake blood and feigned amputations—that have been known to make school children faint.
Craig Roelofs is a chiropractor in 2009 and, back in 1861, a private in the Second U.S. Regular Infantry Co. C. He’s a jovial fellow with unabashed enthusiasm for playing soldier.
“The best part of reenacting is that you shoot someone, they die, and you don’t go to jail,” he says, with a laugh.
But he’s quick to acknowledge that, “What separates the good reenactors is that they portray a role. … We’re all history geeks.”
Robert Park, a sergeant in the Second U.S. Regular Infantry Co. C back in 1861, is a senior at Douglas High School, and the ROTC battalion commander at his school. He aspires to a career as a military officer. He’s earnest, serious-minded, and dismissive of the idea that Civil War reenacting has prepared him for a real military career.
“This is more like a hobby,” he says.
Based on his own heritage, his character is a German immigrant.
“You hear a lot about the Irish regiments,” says Park. “But the number one group of foreigners that fought in the Civil War were the Germans.”
An interest in genealogy is a common thread among the reenactors, many of whom had ancestors who fought in the war. Genetic heritage is a key factor in which side the reenactors choose to fight for.
“My grandmother was a farmer and a shoutin’ Methodist—not many of those left,” says McHugh. “No offense to the Methodists. They just don’t shout the way they used to.”
McHugh says she modeled her character from a combination of grandmother and Mary “Mother” Bickerdyke, a nurse that traveled with the Union soldiers.
“She was a controversial figure,” says McHugh. “Because she’d just take whatever she needed … she’d just help herself to the army stores. And when somebody asked her, ‘On whose authority are you doing that?’ she replied ‘On the authority of the Lord God almighty, can you top that?’”
On a different occasion, when another army official complained to General William Tecumseh Sherman about Bickerdyke, Sherman responded that he couldn’t do anything to hinder her because “she ranks me.”
Later, when McHugh mentions the name “Grant,” her almost-but-not-quite-10-year-old granddaughter Hailey Gilles perks up
“Grant?” she says. “Ulysses S. Grant? Grant is awesome!”
She recently portrayed Grant in a Chautauqua performance at her school (sans beard, regrettably): “I talked about Ulysses S. Grant. I talked about the Civil War. I talked about Abraham Lincoln. Grant and Abraham Lincoln used to play cards together. They would play poker.”
Who was the better poker player?
“Oh, Grant.” Obviously.
“It’s not to glorify war,” says Izabella. “It’s to let people know what happened, so that it will never, never happen again.”
The members of CCWR reiterate again and again, and with myriad different reasons, the importance of studying and remembering history. For them, the whole point of reenacting is to bring to life a conflict that happened in the not-so-distant past and still has a huge bearing on who we are as a people and a nation today. (“And I know I’ll get an A on my history exam,” says Hailey, with casual confidence.)
“The reenactors really work hard, and for no money,” says Ehrman. “They don’t get paid. … It’s in 80, 90 degree weather—sometimes into the 100s—and they’re wearing wool.”
“Reenacting is fun,” says Park, “but at the end of a weekend, during the last battle, you start thinking about going home, having a shower and food. They couldn’t do that.”
Sometimes the skirmishes strike resonant chords. Ehrman and his soldiers Roelofs and Park recount times when the authentic feelings of the battles, amid a low haze of smoke, and the clank and clatter of guns and cannons, “would send chills up your spine.”
There’s a fine balance between the playacting fun on the field and the somber nature of much of the history of the Civil War. Jack, the playful explosives expert, is steeped in the history of the period. His wife, Izabella, usually appears for re-enactments dressed in the elegant period dresses of a wealthy, mid-19th century Southern Belle, but sometimes she’ll appear as a Confederate artilleryman and participate in cannon-firing accuracy contests with her breech-loading Whitworth.
“I’m a lady most of the time,” she says. “But sometimes I like to shoot my cannon.”