NEW MANCHESTER - Marching, sometimes even running around under the hot summer sun wearing wool uniforms might seem to be a foolish thing to do, but for the reenactors camped at Tomlinson Run State Park this weekend, the heat added a bit of authenticity to the experience of the Civil War soldier.
Safety is the top priority no matter the weather, but especially in the heat, said Maj. Jim Powell, who founded the 27th Virginia Co. G - The Shriver Greys - 22 years ago. "We're wearing wool, and the officers wear the long frock coats," he said. "We have to make sure everyone stays hydrated."
Battling the heat and other elements is all part of the reenacting experience, and as it was for the Civil War soldier, much of the time is spent drilling and taking care of weapons and equipment, he said. Events such as the group's living history encampment over the weekend serves to educate the public, and attract new recruits.
Members of the 27th Virginia Co. G reenactors fired a volley Sunday during drill at Tomlinson Run State Park. Working hard were several “fresh fish” as new recruits were known during the American Civil War. The group founded by Jim Powell of Weirton spent the weekend at the park. (Photo by Nancy Tullis)
Powell said the encampments give new recruits - known as "fresh fish" in the Civil War army - the chance to learn drill and how to conduct themselves in a Civil War infantry unit.
On Saturday, the reenactors gave spectators a glimpse of military procedures, conducting courts-martial for two soldiers, and ultimately their defense attorney, for stealing the company payroll. After being given "three minutes to make peace with your Maker," the sergeant found guilty of the payroll theft was executed by a firing squad made up of some of the privates of the company.
Powell said the reenactors' main emphasis is to offer those "living history lessons" of the American Civil War. He said he and other reenactors have found over the years that the Civil War is glossed over in public schools, if it is taught at all.
It's all about the heritage, not hate
By NANCY TULLIS
NEW MANCHESTER - When Jim Powell decided to become a Civil War reenactor 22 years ago, the company he chose to honor with a living history portrayal was The Shriver Greys of Wheeling.
The 64 volunteers became the 27th Virginia Co. G, and were the northern most unit to serve the Confederate States of America.
Powell, who is semi-retired from reenacting, still participates in events with the unit, now under the command of Jeff Wormley. The Shriver Greys are attached to the 7th Battalion, Army of Northern Virginia. The various groups portraying Confederate units fly a variety of unit and national flags, the Confederate battle flag among them.
The fact that since the end of the Civil War various groups have picked up that flag for their own purposes has made for some interesting discussions at events, Powell and Wormley said.
To some, the Cofederate battle flag is a symbol of pride for anyone born south of the Mason-Dixon line. To others it is the banner of the free-spirited working class. To many others, it is a symbol of ethnic superiority, and hatred.
"Our motto is "Heritage, not Hate," Powell said.
"We've had a lot of good discussions," said Wormley.
"We fly the Rebel flag, and in the (Shenandoah) Valley we've been approached by the Klan," Powell said. "They've said 'Come have a beer and we'll talk awhile.' We tell them no thanks. We fly the flag for a different reason."
Wormley said because of discussions started about the battle flag they have been able to educate people about the Southern perspective of the war. All of the states had the right to leave the Union, and after seeing what a centrist government had done in Europe and what was happening in the United States, they exercised that right.
"People come into camp and see the Rebel flag and ask us, 'Does that mean you're pro-slavery?' We can explain the war was not simply about slavery. Most of the Confederate soldiers didn't even own slaves."
Powell said most of the men in The Shriver Greys worked on the riverboats in Wheeling. Daniel Shriver, who founded the company, was from a wealthy family whose money came from selling liquor. He was able to provide uniforms for all 64 men of the unit.
A few days before a Federal blockade was set up in Wheeling, The Shriver Greys made their way out of the city by boat, then marched over the mountains to Harper's Ferry, where they were given the designation of the 27th Virginia Co. G.
Powell said many people are surprised to find there were African American troops in the Confederate army. He said 10 percent of Robert E. Lee's army in 1862 was made up of African Americans, and most were there voluntarily. Powell is a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans and there are some African American members of that group today, he said.
Powell said The Shriver Greys fought mostly in the Shenandoah Valley - The Seven Days and Chancellorsville, among others. He said it's difficult to trace the records, but he estimates about 20 of the original 64 men of The Shriver Greys survived the war. Many of those not killed in battle later died of their wounds or complications, he said.
While Stonewall Jackson was winning battles and keeping his brigade at the center, The Shriver Greys fought on the outskirts. "Our unit took a pounding and by Sharpsburg in September of '62, there was only about a squad of men left," Powell said. "They went to the 36th Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry."
The point of Civil War reenacting in general is to keep the history of the conflict in front of the American people, Powell said.
Honoring Confederate soldiers in particular is a reminder that all the soldiers on both sides were Americans.
As part of their activities each year, the reenactors honor the members of The Shriver Greys buried in Wheeling. They also keep track of the graves that are unmarked or the graves where the markers have become unreadable over the years.
With proper documentation, the federal government will provide new grave stones so the graves of the Confederate veterans are not unmarked, Powell said.
The members of today's Shriver Greys take care of those graves and set the new stones in place so the memory of those 64 soldiers of Wheeling are not forgotten.
He chose to form a reenacting company 22 years ago for that reason after participating in some speaking engagements on the subject. Powell recently turned over the command of the company to Jeff Wormley, but still helps organize events and participates as a major for battalion-level drills and events.
He said the unit is in capable hands under Wormley's command, and as with each re-enacting soldier of The Shriver Greys, Wormley earned his rank of captain by working his way through the ranks and with much study and practice.
"People involved in reenacting usually find some aspect they particularly like - camping, cooking, the weapons - I like the tactics," Wormley said. "I like to study how to move the troops around, and how we will all come together at big events."
One of those big events takes place in a few weeks. Reenactors are in the 150th anniversary rotation of the war years. This year is the 150th anniversary of the battles in 1862. Second Manassas will be Aug. 3-5. Next year will be the 150th anniversary reenactment for the Battle of Gettysburg.
Powell said when he participated in the grand-scale reenactment of Gettysburg, there were 13,500 Confederate reenactors for Pickett's Charge. He expects about 25,000 total will show up for the 150th anniversary reenactment next year.
"Battles are scripted, so you know what you have to do and when," Wormley said. "Studying tactics shows when we do tacticals," he said. "They're not scripted, but there's an objective. We took the last one we did in about 20 minutes."
Powell and Wormley also spent some time Sunday morning talking about the inner workings of the often misunderstood hobby. Powell said in his 22 years he has seen a lot of people come and go as they either fully embrace the hobby or lose interest fairly quickly.
Besides battling the heat and other elements, reenactors have to commit to invest time to show up for training, small encampments and the larger events. There's also the expense factor, with tents, weapons and other needed items, as well as fuel and other travel costs.
It's not cheap, they said, but most units appeal to their veterans to loan needed items to new recruits until they can slowly purchase their own uniforms, tents and equipment.
Powell said about three years is the burnout period for a new reenactor. By then, they've either whole-heartedly embraced the hobby, or called it quits.
Civil War reenacting exploded as a hobby both nationally and internationally in the 1990s after the release of the Ken Burns PBS series on the American Civil War, and the movies "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals" based on Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Killer Angels" and the prequel "Gods and Generals" by Jeff Shaara.
Wormley said attendance has been lower than expected for the big 150th anniversary events, and some units have lost members because of the downturn in the economy. He and Powell said their company has remained steady over the past few years. This past weekend, in fact, they were drilling with four new recruits.
"We're always actively recruiting," Wormley said. It was at an advertised event that he found - and joined - The Shriver Greys.
"It was at a fork in the road, literally," he said. "It was advertised that anyone who wanted to drill could come at 10 a.m. There was a fork in the road - one went to the Union camp and the other to the Confederate camp. It looked like the Confederate reenactors were more lively and having more fun, so that's where we went.
"I drilled with The Shriver Greys and I fit right in," Wormley said. "It felt like I'd been with them forever. After that, I did some research, and I found that I had some ancestors who were in that unit."
Wormley said anyone interested in joining The Shirver Greys can find more information about the company and the larger unit to which it is attached - the 7th Battalion, Army of Northern Virginia - at the company's website: www.27thvacog.com