Amid campfires' smoke, 1860s even more vivid

Will Gondy (fiddle) and Sam Leamer serenade their fellow Confederate reenactors after the day's battles. Camps are open to the public in the daytime, but close as night approaches.
Will Gondy (fiddle) and Sam Leamer serenade their fellow Confederate reenactors after the day's battles. Camps are open to the public in the daytime, but close as night approaches. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 08, 2013

GETTYSBURG - Nightfall is when the camps come to life.

Campfires crackle as smoke wafts between tents, while soldiers scoop stew from cast-iron pans.

Groups gather in circles as the sun descends, telling stories and singing as lanterns flicker nearby.

For many spectators, reenactments are primarily seen as battle exercises, and thousands have been filling grandstands here to watch the twice-daily battles commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

But it is at night, many reenactors say, when the atmosphere in camp shifts to another era, as the excitement and adrenaline of performing in battle are replaced by the timeless allure of a fireside story.

"There's a certain beauty to the night," said Peter Vaughan, 50, of Elverson, a Confederate reenactor with the Ninth Virginia, describing how darkness can heighten the feeling of Civil War living. "To me, at 2 a.m., seeing a bunch of candles flickering, I get it more than seeing 1,000 Yankees in battle."

Every day since July Fourth, the troops have marched back to their tents to prepare for the night after engaging in daytime battles.

Camps are open to the public in the daytime but close as it gets dark. The Union and Confederate camps are on opposite sides of the battlefield.

On the Confederate side Friday, a line of soldiers marched up the hill to camp, with drummers and flutists playing songs along the way.

Once home, troops ripped off their sweat-soaked shirts, hanging them on tentpoles. They guzzled water or beer out of tin cups, while lower-ranking members filled kettles with water and placed them over the fire.

The hot water is used to clean the rifles: it's poured down the gun's barrel, along with a little oil, and a brass ring is placed at the end of the gun's ramrod along with a felt patch. Soldiers then shove the ramrod down the barrel. When it's pulled out, the patch is covered in black.

Mark Trail, 57, of New Bern, N.C., said cleaning the rifles was a painstaking task because the inside of the barrels got so dirty.

"I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, and I'd rather clean an M-16," said Trail, watching his compatriot Roy Norman, 55, also of New Bern, clean his gun.

The next order of business is generally dinner, and some reenactors eat surprisingly well.

Craig Braswell, 58, of Princeton, N.C., was cooking 168 pieces of fried chicken in a cast-iron vat for the 11th North Carolina.

Brandon McCrary, 38, of Norfolk, Va., said his unit, the 17th Virginia, would be wood-smoking lamb supplied by a member who is opening a butcher shop.

"If we're going to be out here, we're going to be eating well," McCrary said while chopping wood for kindling.

As the meals cooked, the Rebel reenactors used the last minutes of daylight to take care of everyday needs.

Joanne Long, 52, of Bear, Del., sat with her head tilted back in a chair, soaking her hair in water and washing it. Her husband, Bill, sat with his right foot in a pool of water nearby, trying to quell the swelling before he retired to his tent.

With dusk quickly setting in and laughter from fellow Rebels echoing among the tents, he was finally able to just relax.

"There's just something about being at the camp at night with the campfire that's very soothing," he said.

In the Union encampment, the 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry tucked into a dinner of ham and beans after what members called a long and exciting battle. The beans had come from a can, which is about as inaccurate as this company gets. At past reenactments, beans have been cooked the very slow 19th-century way, in a hole in the ground.

"We had salted pork at Chancellorsville - now, that was authentic," said Mark Green, a journalist from Washington who portrays a corporal.

Further into the camp, the Third Maryland Infantry was serving dinner for 70. Women in hoop skirts lugged platters of fried chicken while infantrymen checked pots of boiling water suspended over dozens of campfires dotting the hillside.

Night in the camps, reenactor Michael Tilley said, is "good old-fashioned fun."

"You laugh at things here that you wouldn't laugh at in the real world," he said - like the fact that his twin brother Ryan "deserted" from the day's battle and faced a "court-martial" the next morning.

"I'm a criminal in the reenacting world," Ryan Tilley said, laughing. "It'll be a running joke now."

Around campfires, reenactors slipped into and out of character, discussing the day's battles and sneaking sips of what they delicately called "adult beverages" from tin cups. Some had brewed their own - from "legal moonshine" to homemade blackberry brandy. In the cavalry encampment in the woods near the battlefield, lanterns shone through the trees while horses whickered in the darkness.

"What happens in cav camp stays in cav camp," said cavalryman Zachary Huber, laughing.

Around a fire in the infantry camp, the soldiers of the 88th New York said the line between past and present tends to blur at night.

"A lot of us forgot we were playing today," said Jason Williams, a first sergeant from North Carolina. "You block out the grandstands and the people watching."

A woman with a fife interrupted him. "It is time," she intoned - and soon after, about 20 drummers and fife players had formed a circle at the edge of the camp. Reenactors paused to hum along with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as the sun sank below the tree line.

"They call all-quiet at 10 p.m. just to shut the musicians up," Williams said, laughing. He has been reenacting for 10 years and regularly fights alongside sister Amanda, who also portrays an infantryman. Both readily acknowledge that conversations around the campfire can get a bit nerdy. "We have debates about why the war started," he said, but the experiences they share at night form deep bonds that last beyond a weekend.

"By the end of the time that you're here, you're brothers," said Joe Owens, a Confederate reenactor. "For me, you become part of their family and they become part of yours."

Contact Chris Palmer at 609-217-8305 or, or follow on Twitter @cs_palmer.

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