Civil War Reenactors bring life (and gun powder) to Ohio history

Reenactors travel hours to re-live bits of the past.

By Emily Bohatch

Samuel Walgren quietly holds his breath as the P. A. Denny glides through the steady
waters of the Ohio River, closer and closer to what, for some, could mean the end.Inch by inch, the atmosphere on the P. A. Denny changes as men in gray wool uniforms and belts prominently stamped “CS” begin to appear through the yellowing, early-fall forest. On the ship, their blue-coated counterparts lined the port side, ripping open brown paper packages of dark powder and pouring it down the barrels of their guns. Fellow infantryman Brian Williams joins Walgren at the front of the ship. The two had traveled about six hours in anticipation of this exact moment.
The command breaks through the still of the quiet morning: “Fire when you have a shot.”Walgren and Williams rest their guns on their damp shoulders and gaze down the lengthy barrels, waiting until Confederate soldiers drifted into range. Fire at will, sounds across the deck of the P. A. Denny. The Union navy and infantrymen and Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate forces exchange gunfire across the Ohio River. The thunder of cannon fire billowed out from the woods. Walgren instinctively ducks and takes cover, then stands up grinning.
“Well, I’m dead,” Williams says, letting out an adrenalinefilled chuckle. “We’re dead.”
If it had been 153 years earlier, a different time on a different ship, Williams and Walgren might very well be dead. But on this morning, the reenactors of the Battle of Buffington Island were merely “blowing off some powder.” 
The men of the 45th Ohio were just a handful of the about 250 participants who traveled
to Meigs County for the Morgan’s Raid Reenactment, says Constance White, a Morgan’s Raid
Reenactment Committee member and Vinton County resident. In total, the mid-September event attracted about 100 cavalry men and their horses, two mounted artillery groups and about 150 infantrymen from across the United States, White says.
The highly orchestrated event, which took about two years to plan, was the first reenactment of the iconic Confederate movement across Ohio since 2006.
However, the reenactments were a testimony to the only Civil War battle in Ohio, and it provided an opportunity to relive the area’s history. 
The River’s Role 
In July of 1863, Morgan and his troops traversed 24 counties in Ohio in just 13 days in an effort to draw Union troops farther north to relieve pressure on the south. Though Morgan’s
troops only passed through most southern Ohio counties, the men spent nearly three days in Meigs County, says David Mowery, the chair of the Buffington Island Battlefield PreservationFoundation and author of two books on the raid.
As Morgan traveled through Chester and Portland, he clashed with Union forces and eventually was surrounded and captured while trying to cross the Ohio River at the Battle of Buffington Island, Mowery says. “The Battle of Buffington Island in Portland, Ohio, is the largest Civil War battle fought in that part of the United States,” Mowery says.
In fact, an integral key to Morgan’s demise was one of the largest draws to the event: the
use of gunboats.
When Pennsylvania resident Kurt Lafy got wind of an opportunity to hit the open water on one of three Civil War era paddleboats, he gladly undertook the eight-hour drive to Portland.
“In several years of reenacting, this is the first time it’s been offered up, so I says, ‘I can’t miss it,’” Lafy says. “This is a one-of-a-kind reenactment. That was my motivation.”Lafy has traveled throughout the country during the last 20 years reliving history as a Civil War reenactor. For him, the experience is quite personal.
A Passion for your Past
“About 25 years ago, I figured out my ancestor was in the 141st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. And online in a Civil War chatroom I was asking questions, and this guy said, ‘Hey, I had an ancestor in the 141st.,’” Lafy recounted, readjusting his dark gray cap affixed with the numbers 141. “It turns out that our [ancestors] fought together, so he sent me a Civil War hat —one of these  and I was kind of hooked.”
Lafy then visited a Civil War Sutler, a store that specializes in era memorabilia and uniforms, and completed his set.
From there, Lafy devoted hours to research, writing two books of his own on his ancestor’s comrades, and collecting biographies on all 1,000 men of the Pennsylvania 141st.Lafy says his passion for the war is a shared one. In his years as a reenactor, the men running over hills with old rifles have become a family. 
“If you’re into sewing and you join the sewing club, everyone there is of like mind,” Lafysays. “Well, when you’re a Civil War reenactor, everyone is of a similar mind, so you’re already in agreement of scads of issues and you love history.”
Sam Grant stands at the foot of the the Old Meigs County Courthouse in Chester, Ohio’s
oldest surviving courthouse. His well-tailored jacket is an exact recreation  Grant can show you photographic proof  of the jacket of a general and future president who shares his last name: Ulysses S. Grant. A real Civil War staff officer sword hangs from his hip, a dressed-down version of one of General Grant’s presentation swords. Though Grant can’t remember where orhow he obtained the sword, he’s worn it during many of his 25 years of reenacting.
Living in These Moments
Though Grant, who traveled 12 hours from his Massachusetts base, spends copious time consuming primary documents, books and photos on the Civil War, he maintains that’s no way to actually learn history.
“Reading books is fun. You learn a lot, but you can’t learn what it feels if I tell you the wagons were in up to their axles in mud. That men were walking in mud up to their ankles. …You can’t feel the mud of that field unless you’ve at least experienced [it],” Grant says. “If you want to understand what Morgan was facing and why decisions were made, you’ve got to feel it.”
That comprehension comes from in-the-moment decisions on the reenactment field.Before starting a battle, men are only given a basic outline. The rest is up to their previous research and improvisation.
“We don’t know what we’re doing. Did they rehearse?” Grant says. “We know where they’re coming from. We know they have to burn that bridge. We know if we set up a moderate defense, we’ll slow them. We don’t have to lick ‘em. We just have to slow them down.” For many reenactors, such interactions are what brings the reenactment to life.
As men in their unit wearily struggled off of a bus after the Battle of Buffington Island,Lafy and Pete Gilbert, a reenactor from New York, rehash parts of the battle and the split second decisions that won the skirmish for them. 
“We knew infantry fighting cavalry, it was going to be a tough fight,” Gilbert says.“Yesterday, that was an exhausting, tough fight.”
“But we bopped them today,” Lafy says with a chuckle.
Gilbert explains that to fight cavalry on foot, the men decided to take cover in a patch ofunderbrush in the middle of the battlefield. From there, they fired at passing riders, taking them by surprise.“It’s your only tactic with the cavalry,” Gilbert says with a confidence that comes with his 28 years of reenactments.
And for Gilbert and Lafy, who have been side-by-side reenactment comrades for nearly 10 years, tactics are the name of the game.
“You’re reliving history,” Gilbert says. “You do that, but you’re also learning while the reenactment is going on. You’re learning tactics. You’re learning how things were done.”
“We didn’t come here to get shot and lay down,” Lafy adds adamantly.
That education is present on and off the battlefield. For Justin Ashbaugh, who stands amid rows of canvas tents and sleeping mats, the draw of reenactment is often in the details.The Kentucky resident spent the previous three days sleeping on the cold, hard ground under nothing but a canvas sail. He could likely carry on his back all of the belongings he brought forthe week, and that’s just the way he likes it. 
“You can utilize a lot of this stuff not just here, but in real life. A lot of people don’t know how to sew. I know how to sew,” Ashbaugh says, picking at his homemade shirt.
Unlike many of his comrades, Ashbaugh doesn’t spend his spare time actually studying
Civil War history, although he can list in detail the weapons used in the war and whip up from scratch some solid nineteenth century recipes. But he maintains that everything he knows he learned from six years of reenacting. Now, he feels so comfortable talking about the era he speaks  in uniform, of course  at schools in his area.
“It’s to the point when you get doing this that you can watch a movie and go, ‘Oh, that guy’s not wearing the right stuff!’” Ashbaugh laughs. Having grown up in the south, Ashbaugh
says Civil War history offers interesting contradictions, depending on where you hear it and who tells it. Many people believe it was a war about slavery, he says, but he believes that’s only part of the story.
 “That’s what I think truly gets people out. They want to know the truth about why the war was fought,” he says.
And for the men and women who drive 18, 16 or 12 hours for a few moments of glory amid the gun powdered air, discovery and experience is what it’s all about.
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Southeast Ohio strives to spotlight the culture and community within our 21-county region and aims to inform, entertain and inspire readers with stories that hit close to home. Southeast Ohio is the first student-produced regional magazine in the country. Every semester, approximately 25 students enrolled in Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism produce an issue of the magazine, which is published in print twice a year. The staff generates story ideas, conducts interviews, writes stories and designs the magazine in only 15 weeks. The magazine has won several Regional Mark of Excellence Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.