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Keeping history alive

July 23, 2012
By NANCY TULLIS - Special to the Herald-Star , The Herald-Star

NEW MANCHESTER - Marching, sometimes even running around under the hot summer sun wearing wool uniforms, might seem foolish, but for the re-enactors camped at Tomlinson Run State Park this past weekend, the heat added a bit of authenticity to the experience of the Civil War soldier.

Safety is the top priority no matter the weather, but especially in the heat, said Maj. Jim Powell, who founded the 27th Virginia Co. G - the Shriver Greys - 22 years ago.

"We're wearing wool, and the officers wear the long frock coats," he said. "We have to make sure everyone stays hydrated."

Article Photos

Nancy Tullis
SONGS OF THE PAST — Jeff Wormley took time out for some singing and banjo playing Saturday during an encampment by the 27th Virginia Co. G, the Shriver Greys. The re-enactors were at Tomlinson Run State Park over the weekend as part of the annual Pre-1840 Rendezvous event held at the park.

Battling the heat and other elements is all part of the re-enacting experience, and as it was for the Civil War soldier, much of the time is spent drilling and taking care of weapons and equipment, he said. Events such as the group's living history encampment serve to educate the public and attract new recruits.

Powell said the encampments give new recruits - known as "fresh fish" in the Civil War army - the chance to learn drills and how to conduct themselves in a Civil War infantry unit.

The re-enactors gave spectators a glimpse of military procedures, conducting courts-martial for two soldiers, and ultimately their defense attorney, for stealing the company payroll. After being given "three minutes to make peace with your maker," the sergeant found guilty of the payroll theft was executed by a firing squad made up of some of the privates of the company.

Powell said the re-enactors' main emphasis is to offer those "living history lessons" of the American Civil War. He said he and other re-enactors have found over the years the Civil War is glossed over in public schools, if it is taught at all.

He chose to form a re-enacting company 22 years ago for that reason after participating in some speaking engagements on the subject. Powell recently turned over the command of the company to Jeff Wormley, but still helps organize events and participates as a major for battalion-level drills and events.

He said the unit is in capable hands under Wormley's command, and as with each re-enacting soldier of he Shriver Greys, Wormley earned his rank of captain by working his way through the ranks and with much study and practice.

"People involved in re-enacting usually find some aspect they particularly like - camping, cooking, the weapons - I like the tactics," Wormley said. "I like to study how to move the troops around, and how we will all come together at big events."

One of those big events takes place in a few weeks. Re-enactors are in the 150th anniversary rotation of the war years. This year is the 150th anniversary of the battles in 1862. Second Manassas will be Aug. 3-5. Next year will be the 150th anniversary re-enactment for the Battle of Gettysburg.

Powell said when he participated in the grand-scale re-enactment of Gettysburg, there were 13,500 Confederate re-enactors for Pickett's Charge. He expects about 25,000 total will show up for the 150th anniversary re-enactment next year.

"Battles are scripted, so you know what you have to do and when," Wormley said. "Studying tactics shows when we do tacticals. They're not scripted, but there's an objective. We took the last one we did in about 20 minutes."

Powell and Wormley also spent some time Sunday morning talking about the inner workings of the often misunderstood hobby. Powell said in his 22 years he has seen a lot of people come and go as they either fully embrace the hobby or lose interest fairly quickly.

Besides battling the heat and other elements, re-enactors have to commit to invest time to show up for training, small encampments and the larger events. There's also the expense factor, with tents, weapons and other needed items, as well as fuel and other travel costs.

It's not cheap, they said, but most units appeal to their veterans to loan needed items to new recruits until they can slowly purchase their own uniforms, tents and equipment.

Powell said about three years is the burnout period for a new re-enactor. By then, they've either whole-heartedly embraced the hobby, or called it quits.

Civil War re-enacting exploded as a hobby both nationally and internationally in the 1990s after the release of the Ken Burns PBS series on the American Civil War, and the movies "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals" based on Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Killer Angels" and the prequel "Gods and Generals" by Jeff Shaara.

Wormley said attendance has been lower than expected for the big 150th anniversary events, and some units have lost members because of the downturn in the economy. He and Powell said their company has remained steady over the past few years. This past weekend, in fact, they were drilling with four new recruits.

It was at an advertised event that he found - and joined - the Shriver Greys.

"It was at a fork in the road, literally," he said. "It was advertised that anyone who wanted to drill could come at 10 a.m. There was a fork in the road - one went to the Union camp and the other to the Confederate camp. It looked like the Confederate re-enactors were more lively and having more fun, so that's where we went.

"I drilled with The Shriver Greys and I fit right in," Wormley said. "It felt like I'd been with them forever. After that, I did some research, and I found that I had some ancestors who were in that unit."

Wormley said anyone interested in joining The Shriver Greys can find information about the company and the larger unit to which it is attached - the 7th Battalion, Army of Northern Virginia - at the company's website:

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