LINCOLN – The gun and cannon fire had just concluded, Union and Confederate soldiers hustling to their fallen comrades laying in the grass in attempts to save their lives, when 10-year-old Hannah Turgeon turned to her parents and stated, “That was outstanding.
“It's pretty cool to see them fighting with all the guns and cannons, the BOOMs; they made it look so real,” noted the Cumberland girl, who attended with her family “A Call to Arms: The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War/Re-Enactment and Living History Weekend” at Chase Farm Park on Saturday.
Dan and Emily Turgeon didn't have to “twist their arms” for Hannah and kid brother Evan, 9, to experience “The Battle of Cheat Mountain,” Gen. Robert E. Lee's initial clash with the Union Army in Pocahontas County, Va. (now northern West Virginia).
The battle – which occurred on Sept. 12-15, 1861, nearly 150 years ago to the day of this “live play” – signaled one of the first of the Civil War.
“We chose to come,” explained Hannah, “because we like learning about the Civil War, what happened and why. It's exciting, getting into all the history and seeing it happen right in front of you.”
Mentioned Evan, a Garvin Memorial School fourth-grader who revels in history, not to mention math: “I like it when they line up and shoot their guns. I saw one soldier from the North who was shot, and he fell to the ground. He almost looked like he collapsed.
“With history, you can actually learn a lot of new things, and old things, too. The Civil War is absolutely my favorite. It was the bloodiest war (in American history), and I think it's the most fascinating.”
So enthralled are these kids with this chapter of United States history, their parents gave them the option earlier this summer to travel to Disney World in Florida or Gettysburg, Pa. for the mammoth Civil War Re-Enactment over the Fourth of July weekend.
“They chose Gettysburg,” Dan Turgeon grinned. “I know they love history and learning about this war, but I was a little surprised. Most kids that age would choose Disney, but no … You know, it was an educational trip for all of us. We all left with some new fact.
“We don't live far from here, so this was a natural.”
Hundreds of people drove varying distances to experience this 150th commemoration of the “Battle of Cheat Mountain,” waged between re-enactors from the New England Brigade (Union soldiers) and the Liberty Greys (Confederate troops). Some enjoyed it so much, they plan on doing it all over again today.
The park will open at 8:30 a.m., with a church service for the “Town of Unity” at 9 a.m., but there are plenty of other attractions to witness. From 9 a.m.-noon, members of the Friends of Hearthside, Inc. – presided over by Kathy Hartley – will conduct tours of the Civil War Museum set up at the Hearthside House.
At the same time, mini-buses will bring anyone who's interested to nearby Moffett Mill. According to Hartley, this is the first time in 100 years the mill has opened to the public.
From 9:30-11:30 a.m., folks may have “period portraits” taken in the vendor area; beginning at 9:45 a.m., they may watch President Abraham Lincoln view his troops at the Union camp, and Gen. Lee do the same at the Confederate camp; and, from 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., families may experience a horse-drawn hay ride.
At noon, attendees may listen to a dramatic reading of Union soldier Sullivan Ballou's emotional letter to his wife, the last one she would receive, as he would be killed days later. Those who can't wait for action, the “Battle of Cheat Mountain” will take place at 1:30 p.m.
“I really enjoyed it,” offered Blackstone's Michelle Lizotte, who watched the battle re-enactment with her husband, Charlie. “We've been to this before, and also to the one at Daniels Farm in Blackstone. This is a nice way to see how it was back then, how people dressed, etc.
“I wouldn't want to dress like that, that's for sure,” she chuckled, “but you can see what they ate, where they slept. A friend of mine was really involved with Civil War re-enacting, and I actually saw her make her own clothing, which was all hand-sewn. It was fascinating.”
Charlie Lizotte insisted he's been a history buff since he was a kid.
“I liked it, but, to begin with, Lee screwed up,” Charlie said, exhibiting his knowledge of the war. “His scouts had told him that he'd be outnumbered by Union troops if he went ahead, and not to enter into battle that particular day. They told him to wait for re-enforcements, but he didn't. The Confederate Army lost 100 men in this battle, and the Union only 21. The reason for that was the Union knew the terrain, and the southern soldiers didn't. Lee should've waited.”
While the battle was being fought (WPRI-TV meteorologist Tony Petrarca provided the informational “play-by-play”), Kristel Henry of West Kingston stood nearby in period attire, explaining that she and husband Joe were acting as civilians.
“We're part of a group called 'What Remains,' an organization that represents civilians for both armies,” Henry said. “(On Saturday), we're cooking for the Union officers' staff, including Gen. Matthew Burbank.
“I've been involved in Civil War re-enacting for three years now, and we've been doing Revolutionary War re-enacting for about seven. We do this primarily to preserve history and to honor people who have come before us.
“I believe this is so good for the kids, to actually see this outside of learning it in a lecture or by reading a book,” she continued. “They can get so much out of this.”
When asked what fellow re-enactors get out of their involvement, she revealed, “It depends on how far you want to take it. Some really want to live the life, while others can experience this as a day visitor; they get all dressed up, then go home for the night.
“I'm acting as a working-class civilian woman. If you see the women in hoop skirts and bonnets, that wouldn't make sense for me when I'm working over a fire. Actually, we made vegetable soup for lunch, and we're making pot roast with potatoes and carrots for supper.
“People come up to us and ask questions, and we really enjoy that. No question is strange. People are curious, and we encourage them to ask, 'What are you doing and why?' … There's no way I'd miss this. I've given the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War a lot of thought; we're doing this not to celebrate it, but to memorialize those who gave their lives on both sides.”
Perhaps an hour before the battle, people strolled by Millis, Mass. resident Mark McBride, in uniform as a captain of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company D, just as he finished his lunch.
“I'm involved with what was known as the 'Harvard Regiment' because a lot of the officers and some enlisted men were from then-Harvard College,” he explained. “It was different from a lot of regiments in that men came from across the state. The majority came from the Boston area, but they could come from anywhere, as they were very politically-connected.
“There were families like the Lowells, the Abbotts, Reveres and Holmeses,” he added. “A lot of people don't know that Oliver Wendell Holmes was in the 20th Mass. Infantry, and Paul Revere's grandson was in it, too.
“I just love history, always have. I take my portrayals very seriously. That's why I have the Harvard insignia on my backpack, knapsack, canteen and personal box,” he added, chuckling when he admitted he's a Boston College alum. “I also enjoy interacting with the public. I'm not here just for the battle, but to explain to people what soldiers did.
“Some re-enactors like to dress up in uniforms, some like the camping aspect, others like the battles and firing the muskets; there's a whole lot behind this,” he continued. “We have to drill and practice, we have to know the commands that took place in the battles we're portraying, the orders from the higher-ups.”
One of McBride's privates, Kevin Gagne of Norton, mentioned he adores representing, protecting and preserving the Union. That's why McBride called him the backbone of the Army, as 80 percent of it consisted of privates.
“As a re-enactor, we have the opportunity to bring to life the Civil War in both the private and public sectors,” he stated. “We do it to shed light on what happened during those four years, 1961-1865, but also to present it to elementary schools and junior highs. I do most of my presentations in southeastern Massachusetts, like Seekonk.
“You know, this is a pop-culture world we live in; plenty of people know about Lady Gaga or can tell you who the 'Survivor' stars are, but they can't tell you what happened in 1776, 1862 or, for that matter, 1941, so we're covering a small section of American history. There are other organizations who cover other aspects of our history – the Revolutionary War, French & Indian War, World War I and, now, World War II.
“When I was younger, I knew there was a Lee and a Grant, and that Lincoln was assassinated, but I didn't know 600,000 lives were lost,” he added. “When you're introduced to this hobby, you're surrounded by people with the same interest, and you have to read more about what happened in this war. When I'm communicating with the public, I try to put in perspective what these numbers really are.”
He mentioned he and his wife traveled to Washington, D.C. recently to see the Vietnam Memorial, and that approximately 55,000 names were etched upon it.
“Think about that,” he said. “There were 55,000 people who were killed in that war, which was from about 1959 to 1975. That's about the total number of casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Like I said, it's all about perspective.”
Tickets will be sold for today's final Re-Enactment/Living History Weekend session at the admissions tent, 669-677 Great Road.