Re-enactors enliven Civil War history

Thursday, June 8, 2006

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
Cody Baugher of Taneytown, Chris Moreland of Sabillasville, Cliff Redmond of Frederick, and Eric Johnson of Alexandria drill as Civil War re-enactors of the 17th Virginia Regiment at the Beatty-Cramer House on Saturday.

The three Civil War re-enactors of the 17th Virginia Regiment took their place in front of the Beatty-Cramer House on Saturday, and furiously loaded their guns to the shouts of their commanders.

‘‘Your grandmother can do it faster than that, c’mon!” Kevin Hagberg shouted.

The men didn’t miss a beat as they loaded their guns in nine steps and shot into the trees for a firing demonstration.

When it comes down to the smallest details of Civil War history, the re-enactors of the 17th Virginia Regiment are bound by a common duty to keep history alive and teach it correctly.

They won’t gloss over anything with their living history demonstrations, and they have twice authenticated everything from the buttons on their wool jackets to their dinner of beef stroganoff. The men are adamant about being truthful, and won’t make up anything, they said.

‘‘We don’t willy-nilly any of it. We research,” Hagberg said.

The regiment set up their headquarters and kitchen on the lawn of the Beatty-Cramer House and Architectural Museum for two nights last weekend for the museum’s fourth annual Living History Event. The event featured several demonstrations of 18th and 19th century living, including Civil War medicine and the French and Indian War.

Unlike other Civil War re-enactors who portray infantrymen, the men specifically portray the officers of the 17th Virginia Regiment.

The regiment’s leader, Bill Keaton of Mount Airy, portrays Col. Montgomery Dent, a historical officer in the 17th Virginia Regiment who fought in Sharpsburg. Through photographs, census records and careful research, it was the real life officer’s personality that struck Keaton.

‘‘He was a character. He was kind of fun loving, but he was a pistol,” Keaton said. ‘‘And the men under him were fighters. They fought like the devil.”

Keaton formed the group four years ago, and incorporated it as a nonprofit organization for the primary purpose of educating the public. Most of the men are from Frederick and Montgomery counties, and have had previous experience re-enacting with other groups before they came to the 17th Virginia Regiment.

An appreciation of history and the hardships the Confederate soldiers suffered inspired the re-enactors to keep up with their hobby.

‘‘It’s kind of an honor to commemorate them guys. That’s the main reason we do it,” Keaton said.

For Memorial Day, the men dressed in uniform and placed wreaths on the graves of Confederate soldiers at Edge Hill Cemetery in Charlestown, W.Va.

From April to October, the re-enactors participate rain or shine in living history events at area battlefields and historic parks where they share their knowledge with spectators.

Keaton is a carpenter by trade and crafted from period photographs some of the equipment they use in demonstrations, like his cherry campaign desk. The men also constructed from old blueprints and photographs a ‘‘poor man’s summer stove” that would have been used for outdoor cooking during the Civil War.

The regiment keeps its demonstrations authentic by only using candles, and no electricity. Their jackets and boots are used reproductions, and range in price from $300 to $400, they said. The men relaxed on handmade wooden chairs under the command tent, and said they mostly prefer living history demonstrations than big anniversary battles because there is more interaction with spectators.

Keaton has been re-enacting for nearly 18 years and has a personal connection to Civil War history. From an old letter passed down in his family, he learned that his great-great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier, fought and died on the first day of battle at Gettysburg. His great-great-grandfather was at rest with the troops when artillery fire struck the camp and killed him, he said.

Marty Paulsgrove, who is second in command in the Regiment as Maj. Robert Henry Turner, said Civil War history always fascinated him. As a re-enactor for six years, Paulsgrove said he owns more than 400 books on the Civil War and hunts for artifacts on battlegrounds.

The men have strong friendships with one another and said they are a more like a family. The regiment makes decisions by majority rule, and looks to Keaton for guidance and expertise.

‘‘My loyalty is with Bill,” Paulsgrove said. ‘‘Whatever he decides, I do.”