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Crestwood, Pa. teacher assumes new role to bring Civil War to life

With a Civil War-issue bugle in one hand and a cane in the other, Charles Herring lowered himself onto a simple wooden chair at the White Haven Area Community Library.

He heaved out a sigh, and with the weight of it, his shoulders slumped and his body slackened.

"It's awful hard to get these bones moving nowadays," Herring apologized.

In that moment, Herring - a Crestwood High School history teacher - became Theodore Gerrish, a Civil War veteran who served with the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment. He assumed the role for a presentation before approximately two dozen folks at the Towanda Street library.

Gerrish fought from the "beginning to the end" of the war with the 20th Maine, a division that gained fame for its role in the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg in 1863, Herring said. Historians would peg the battle as one that was critical to the outcome of the war.

Dressed in a flannel print shirt and suspenders, Herring explained that he developed the presentation for his 11th-grade history class.

"I tell the students, 'You're a news reporter for the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) school newspaper,'" he said, "and that this old-time Civil War veteran is coming to the high school in the '20s to thank them for naming their school after his soldiers."

In the role of Gerrish, Herring said the 20th Maine formed in 1962, bringing more than 1,000 men from mixed backgrounds. They were young and old, and from all walks of life - teachers, doctors, lumberjacks and fishermen.

"We all came together from everywhere," he said, "and the reason we came together was because of a man named Joshua Chamberlain."

It was Chamberlain, a college professor and Civil War volunteer, who instilled in the soldiers the idea that all men should be free, Herring said. Despite having no prior military training, Chamberlain was appointed lieutenant colonel of the regiment, would go on to achieve the rank of brigadier general, and would eventually command the Union troops at the surrender ceremony at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

Herring explained that after organizing, the unit shipped to Washington, D.C., crossed the Potomac River and eventually landed near Sharpsburg, Md.

"On that day, in the distance, we thought it was thunder at first - it was cannon fire," he said. The Battle of Antietam was raging, and the day would become the bloodiest of the war, with more than 25,000 casualties.

"You could see the boys in the blue and the boys in the gray just going against each other," he said.

Herring said the 20th Maine would go on to lose many of its soldiers to battle in Fredericksburg, Va. With little to shield them from Confederate troops, Gerrish and his unit took cover behind the bodies of the fallen.

"I could still hear the sound of the bullets crashing into those boys, and I couldn't help thinking, 'They gave their lives for us and they're still protecting us now,'" he said.

The Battle of Gettysburg would follow, and after 90 minutes of fighting, the unit exhausted its ammunition supplies.

"(Chamberlain) told us to lock our bayonets on, and when those Johnny Rebs started coming up the hill, we started going down the hill, screaming and yelling like banshees," Herring said. The unit overtook its enemy, earning Chamberlain the name of "The Lion of Little Roundtop."

The 20th Maine fought in several more battles until Gerrish - through Herring - recalled seeing the white flag of surrender.

"It came down the line that Bobby Lee had surrendered, and this journey of ours had come to an end," he said.

Library officials scheduled the free presentation to coincide with the Presidents Day holiday.

jwhalen@standardspeaker.com

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