Civil War reenactors relive history (4/9/09)

    Observer photo by Ben Sarle
Al Myers, a teacher at Williston Central School, serves as captain of the Champlain Valley Reenactors, a local group of Civil War enthusiasts. See story below.

Civil War reenactors relive history (4/9/09)

April 9, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Dressed in Union blues, rifles in hand and seemingly prepared for battle, members of the Champlain Valley Reenactors gathered in formation, awaiting orders.


    Observer photo by Ben Sarle
Members of the Champlain Valley Reenactors practice drills in Williston Central School’s old gymnasium Tuesday night. The group travels all over New England and the East Coast to participate in Civil War reenactments.

Capt. Al Myers surveyed his troops as they stood in the foyer of Williston Central School on Tuesday night, their serious faces conveying their concentration. Perhaps their thoughts were on the cannon fire and rifle smoke of Little Round Top at Gettysburg, or on holding the Union line against Confederate soldiers at the Battle of Cedar Creek.

By day, Myers is a middle school teacher at Williston Central School. By summer weekend, Myers is the commander of this Vermont unit, which models itself after the 2nd Vermont Volunteer Infantry, a Burlington-based regiment that fought in many key battles of the Civil War.

“Ready!” Myers commanded as the unit formed ranks.

“March!” he yelled.

With that, the Civil War Reenactors advanced in formation down the hallway, past Swift and Voyager Houses, before making a left turn toward the school’s old gymnasium.

Keeping an eye on their rifles to make sure their bayonets didn’t become entangled in basketball nets, the Champlain Valley Reenactors drilled in the gym. Practicing maneuvers for close to two hours, the 14 Civil War enthusiasts enjoyed their first full meeting of 2009.

For the reenactors, being part of a mock unit is fulfilling a dream of becoming part of history. The unit is a mix of young and old, from business executives to high school students.

Burlington resident Stefan Gunlock, who’s reenacted the Civil War for 50 years, said being part of this team, especially when in the throes of a mock battle, is addictive.

“We call it ‘being in the moment,’” Gunlock said. “Even if it’s a feeling that lasts for 30 seconds or 15 seconds, when you do it, you feel like you’re there at the actual battle.”

The Champlain Valley Reenactors gather throughout New England and New York for mock battles. But Gunlock said the largest reenactments, which can attract tens of thousands of people, take place in the mid-Atlantic states. These events become more real than some mock soldiers are expecting.

In the heat of battle, the horses can sometimes panic as rifle and cannon fire explode around them. Gunlock said he’s seen two reenactors drop dead on the field from heart attacks.

“In many ways, it’s real and it’s intense,” Gunlock said.

Myers knows the feeling. While attending a reenactment at Gettysburg, Myers felt he had stepped back more than 100 years. He helped a fallen Confederate soldier with a canteen of water as he lay “dying” in the field.

“It was our quiet little moment as this battle raged around us,” Myers said.

Williston resident Mike Frisbie said he became involved after talking with Myers, who taught both his daughters in middle school. Myers’ enthusiasm led Frisbie to check out a local Civil War demonstration. After dressing up in the uniform and marching in line, he was hooked.

Frisbie said reenacting is an important part of teaching history to students of all ages; since the war is so ingrained in the culture of America, reenacting is a way of keeping the soldiers’ memories alive.

“It’s part of our history; it’s part of our heritage,” Frisbie said. “We can’t hide from it.”

Gunlock said immersing oneself in the hobby can become expensive — upwards of $1,500 to purchase equipment and clothing, depending on the level of commitment — but it can be well worth it. He also said anybody and everybody is encouraged to join.

Josh Tabor of Wallingford, who is legally blind, worried his disability would pose a problem in drills and in battle. But Myers and Gunlock encouraged him to join regardless.

“They were really impressed how quickly I caught on,” Tabor said. “It’s really wonderful.”

South Burlington resident Julie Magnan, the only woman in the group, used to dress up in period garb and watch the battles from afar. That was until she was recruited to fire a howitzer cannon during one battle.

“Ever since then, they’ve had me firing that cannon,” Magnan said.

Williston resident and Champlain Valley Union High School senior Jim Williams said it’s a love of history and a desire to teach more people about America’s heritage that drives him to reenact the war. That, and the feeling that he gets as he sits during evening campfires on the eve of battle, listening to Civil War songs sung by the older soldiers.

“It’s a period of rush that you get, when you feel like you’re actually in the Civil War,” Williams said.


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