Soldiers in blue and gray wool uniforms face off across gunsmoke-shrouded American fields.
The places are carved in the nation’s memory — Gettysburg, Antietam, Bull Run/Manassas. This time those fields and re-enactments of the battles are places where soldiers don’t go to die, but where history lives.
Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War when Confederate soldiers fired on Union troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861. By the time the war ended in 1865, more than a half million Americans, from both sides, had lost their lives.
For history buff Michael McConkey, who makes his home with his family in Baxter, participating with thousands of others in Civil War re-enactments offers a unique way to connect to the past.
“You are actually part of history,” McConkey said. “When they let the cannons go off, you can feel the percussion and the heat. You get a sense of what these guys went through.”
McConkey was a re-enactor at the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The real 1863 battle between the North and the South in Pennsylvania was a decisive moment in the war between the states. He’s also been part of re-enactments of the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas.
Re-enactors purchase their own uniforms and equipment, created in exact detail to the original patterns. They leave vehicles and today’s technology behind, they march before dawn, use wooden crates to camouflage coolers, wear wool in 95-degree weather, sleep in tent camps and eat at cook fires. Great care is taken to capture the history as it was down to buttons on uniforms, actual speeches and military maneuvers. At nights, there are dances with women in silk hoop skirt gowns and men in dress uniforms if they have them.
McConkey’s interest in history and the Civil War goes back to his childhood. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in the subject. In 2006, his wife gave him tickets to a re-enactment at Appomattox. The Virginia site was where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on Palm Sunday in 1865.
“I was hooked,” McConkey said.
He became a re-enactor with the 44th Virginia, which fought in many battles, including Gettysburg and Antietam, which the Confederacy knew as Sharpsburg, Maryland. Occasionally, when there aren’t enough Union soldiers, McConkey took on the Union blue and left his dark 1862-era Richmond Confederate gray behind for the moment.
At a Gettysburg re-enactment, McConkey was with the 44th Virginia and took part in the famed Pickett’s Charge on the Union lines. On the other side, were Virginian re-enactors playing the part of the famed First Minnesota Infantry Regiment, which played a key role in saving the Union line. When they learned he was from Minnesota, the Virginians said he should have been on their side. Although he said being born at Fort Bragg, N.C. connects him to the South.
McConkey’s Civil War knowledge is extensive. He gives presentations at Forestview Middle School, showing students photos he’s taken during the re-enactments that involve 6,000 to 13,000 people.
McConkey has little marked containers of soil from each battlefield where he’s been part of a re-enactment. He said it’s easy to get involved as the groups typically have extra equipment so newcomers, 16 and older, can give it a shot without having to equip themselves with much other than their transportation and a pair of shoes. Both women and men take part.
“If you do it once, you’ll never forget it,” McConkey said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve got my kids interested in history because of it.”
For re-enactors, being killed in battle, only means a brief respite before they rejoin the rear ranks to fight again. In a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge, McConkey died about four times.
Beyond being part of history, McConkey said participating is a way to meet interesting people from the U.S. and abroad. For some participants, the units they belong to connect them to their own family history. One of McConkey’s fellow participants brought his great-grandfather’s sword to the re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. The sword was returning to the battlefield 145 years after it had been wielded there during the original conflict.
Being part of the re-enactments has given McConkey a first eyeview of the different perspectives between North and South regarding the reasons behind the Civil War. A war that split families, brothers, fathers and sons. The human toll isn’t lost in the mix. McConkey said when entire units were wiped out, it left a community without a generation of young men.
No matter the side, McConkey said what resonates with him is the sheer bravery of the soldiers. “A lot of them fought thousands of miles from home for a belief.”
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.