Civil war re-enactors say history hobby best way to learn about life on the battlefield

Civil War reenactors retrace the steps of Pickett's Charge to honor the 152nd anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, Pa. on July 3, 2015.


By ANDY MATARRESE | The Columbian | Published: October 23, 2017

YACOLT, Wash. (Tribune News Service)  — Bob Wetter, a senior assistant surgeon for Company K of the 69th New York Infantry re-enacting group, had his surgical instruments on the wooden operating table, ready to work on George, his patient.

“George,” although only a model leg, had been brought to Wetter’s tent with a gunshot wound, and Wetter was showing people how relatively simple bullet extractions were during the Civil War.

Company K set up camp at Pomeroy Living History Farm over the weekend. Canvas tents lined a field while soldiers in wool uniforms tried to stay dry in the rain.

Wetter shared how aid stations, the first stop a soldier would likely make after getting injured in battle, worked, and explained some surgical techniques.

Some of the guests tried their hands, or forceps, at extracting the bullet, while others turned up their noses.

Wetter started the hobby as a re-enactor in the field, a soldier. As he got older he moved into the medical tent where his wife had been participating, and found it fascinating.

He also had some good teachers to learn from, he said.

“We don’t try to do it, but it happens,” he said, recalling a joke another re-enactor and expert on military medicine of the era told him: “‘You really had a good day if somebody faints, throws up (or) runs away screaming.'”

While medicine was relatively primitive at the time, there were some interesting breakthroughs, he said.

“It’s good to show people what it was really like,” he said.

Surgeons made strides in making better amputations. Better prosthetics were developed for injured soldiers.

One surgeon, when trying to find an alternative when out of silk surgical sutures, found boiled horse tail hair helped wounds heal faster. What he didn’t know, Wetter said, was boiling it helped disinfect the thread.

Civil War doctors also made extensive and helpful use of ether and chloroform anesthesia, despite what they show in the movies.

“Biting on a bullet, chewing on a leather strap might have happened before that, but during the Civil War? That was strictly, strictly Hollywood.”

His wife, Linda Wetter, said dismantling misconceptions helped her get more involved in the hobby.

Twenty-five years ago, she was at a re-enactment event when a man approached her and asked what she was doing there, considering “there were no women in the Civil War.”

“I don’t always have a good filter,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, you’re here,'” prompting him to pound sand.

“That sort of made me need to have an answer that wasn’t a smart-alecky one,” she said.

She started reading, and found there was a flowering scholarship using female primary sources and analyses of the era from women’s perspectives.

During bigger re-enacting events, Linda Wetter usually participates as a nurse with her husband. At Pomeroy Farm this weekend, and for other smaller-scale events, she’ll share about women’s roles during the war.

There aren’t very solid numbers on how many women were in these camps, she said, but she quoted a journalist of the era who noted ‘”The camps are teeming with women.'”

Women worked as cooks, laundresses, nurses and in other jobs, and some, Wetter quoted again, were “‘there because no amount of dissuasion would have them be anywhere else.'”

Translation: Try telling your mother, sister or wife to not do something they want to do, Wetter said.

These women wanted to be with their families, had nowhere else to go, wanted to contribute to the war effort, and had myriad other reasons, she said.

“They would go to help those soldiers in the hopes that somebody, where their son was or their husband was, was doing the same to help them,” said Rosemary Johnson, another re-enactor.

Johnson started in the hobby as a camp cook, she said, but as she got older she’d set up vignettes so people visiting re-enacting events could see parts of daily life outside the war.

Although many women traveled with armies, plenty others had to take over family farms after husbands left for war. Others organized massive fundraising projects, knitted socks or assembled care packages.

Webber called the extent to which women were a part of the story of the Civil War amazing.

“And it’s doubly amazing because we had no rights,” she said.

Women couldn’t own property or vote, and were essentially property themselves, she said. But as with other social upheavals, the war altered some norms around gender. Before the war, to work as a nurse was considered unseemly for women. Most women teachers were in-home tutors, not classroom instructors.

Surprisingly, Webber said, she never really cared for history.

In school, so many Civil War history books were all dates, names, battles and numbers of people killed, she said, but too few of them got at who those people were or why they went to fight.

“For me it’s not about the battle, it’s about people. And I will tell you there is no better way to learn history, there is no better way to teach it, than to live it.”

©2017 The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)
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Randy Newman, park superintendent, demonstrates proper musket-firing procedures to Marines during a tour at Fort Macon State Park, N.C., Oct. 18, 2017. The Marines learned Civil War history, tactics and small unit leadership.

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