Union artillery provided the firepower during the re-enactment of the opening hours of the Battle of Gettysburg during Civil War Days at Manhattan, Ill. The 8th Illinois Calvary was highlighted at the event for its role on the first day of the battle.
Union artillery provided the firepower during the re-enactment of the opening hours of the Battle of Gettysburg during Civil War Days at Manhattan, Ill. The 8th Illinois Calvary was highlighted at the event for its role on the first day of the battle.

MANHATTAN, Ill. — Campfire smoke and the sounds of a fiddle danced together through the trees as soldiers caught up on the latest news, wrote letters, napped or enjoyed stew.

Within hours, that peaceful setting would become the sight of the deadliest battle on North American soil in history and a three-day collision of flesh and blood that gave this nation a “new birth of freedom,” President Abraham Lincoln said in his famous address four months later.

Those three dark days at Gettysburg, Penn., are considered the Civil War’s turning point as Union General George Meade held off Confederate General Robert Lee’s northward advancements and forced him to withdraw his troops toward Virginia.

In remembrance of that battle July 1-3, 1863, numerous events are being held at Gettysburg and throughout the country to mark the 150th anniversary, including re-enactments by groups that strive to keep the memories of those important days of American history alive.

One such re-enactment was held June 8-9 at Civil War Days, hosted by the Manhattan Park District, with several Illinois-based organizations participating.

The event included re-enactments of troop movements during the Battle of Gettysburg’s first day and commemorated Illinois’ historic role in the early minutes of the battle.

At 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1863, Lt. Marcellus Jones of 8th Illinois Calvary’s Company E, laid Cpl. Levi Shaeffer’s Sharps Carbine across a fence post and fired the first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Bringing history to life, educating the public to better understand the Civil War and honorably portraying the soldiers are the primary goals of re-enactment enthusiasts as they don the heavy wool uniforms, sleep in tents, cook over open fires, conduct military drills from the era and hold black powder firing demonstration with rifles and cannons.

Gerry Bliss of Elk Grove Village, a member of the 10th Illinois Voluntary Regiment, a Union infantry company from Sandwich, the Sandwich Guards, one of the oldest reenacting groups in the Chicagoland area, has been involved in re-enactments since 1999 when he joined the ranks as a private.

“I had never done Civil War re-enacting before, and when I had some time to do it, I got interested in it,” he said.

“I’ve always had a love for the Civil War period. I went to a couple of re-enactments just to watch and thought it might be kind of neat to do. I never thought I’d be in it this long and get to the rank of captain, but I have.”

Jim Kosik of Westchester portrays Captain Taylor of the 45th Illinois and has been re-enacting for about 13 years. His boss encouraged him to get involved.

“I was a teacher, and he was a supervisor. He said he did Civil War re-enacting, and it might be something that I’m interested in. After a couple more times of coaxing me, I finally put on a uniform, and I was hooked,” Kosik said.

“This is my first year as captain. You learn new things along the way, so it keeps it fresh. At one time, I was following what the captain as saying, and now I’m giving the orders and you have to think of what’s going on now between you, the colonel and your men and making sure at the same time everybody is being safe with it, as well.”

He also learned to play the fiddle, so he could provide the music for dances.

“I’m always learning something new about the Civil War, something that took place that you may not have heard of or you think that you heard of and you find out that it really did take place,” he said. “The thing that draws me the most is when you see it at night with the glows of the fires and the lanterns and all that. When it takes city lights out, you’re back in 1863, and it’s as close you can come to it.

“When you go to some of these big events, there are things that happen that you wouldn’t normally have at some of these smaller ones, like at Gettysburg, we got to see artillery being pulled by full group of horses, and that sound you won’t hear again.

“But it was 1863 with the horses thundering down this path, and that’s what they heard back then. It’s those moments that you have where you’re brought back into the experience.”

Kevin Kukowski of Manhattan and his family only recently began participating in re-enactments after taking time off to raise their daughter.

“We’re slowing getting back into it. Before that, I did it for about 14 years,” he said. “I got into it because of my interest in history, and I started doing some research on the Internet and started calling and talking to the units before I joined the unit.”

He has not yet joined a unit, but “right now I’m falling with the 45th Illinois Engineers. I originally started with Austin’s Battalion, (a Chicagoland reenactment group). Then I transferred over to the 154th Tennessee, (a Confederate infantry re-enactment group that participated in the Manhattan event).”

Peter DellaVedova of Gurnee is a member of the 104th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Company H.

“I started doing this in 1998. I have a degree in history from the University of Illinois, and I served in the armed forces for 20 years. I just enjoy the camaraderie of doing things like this with people of similar interests,” he said.

A common goal of participants is to educate the public about the Civil War, and these events have become big draws for youngsters and the young-at-heart.

“I hate to say it, but it’s kind of an oddity. You think about what we do. We come out here and the money that we spend and we do all of this for free,” Kukowski noted. “But most of the guys here, it’s for their love of history, and to me, you better know where you’ve come from to give you an idea of where you’re going because history just keeps repeating itself over and over.

“My goal has been to educate the public because I remember what I was taught when I was in school, and basically you look at what they teach now and what the books say with all the new research that’s out there, what I was taught was wrong. That’s kind of why a lot of us are also out here — to try to correct some of the stuff that we were taught.”

“I think it’s important to our identity as Americans to understand the effect the Civil War had on us as a people. It defines who we are. Just the concept of free men willing to fight and die for other people doesn’t happen much,” DellaVedova added.

“It’s sharing an experience with people of similar interests. In the evening, our camp culture is such that we’ll gather around a fire and share fellowship and perhaps a couple of beverages, singing of period songs and just general socialization. It’s a lot of fun.”

“We tell them things that they might not know,” Kosik said. “For example, the average weight of a bullet. You take 13 pennies, and that’s the weight they were firing. Then one thing leads to another.

“You talk about the firearms and they’re amazed it takes so long for a rifle to be loaded and they’re doing this while under fire. I think the audience gets a kick out of the braveness that the men had.

“We do this for the memory of those who went before us. We keep it alive, and we are able to live that experience, as well. So you’re sharing it — not just commemorating it, but living it.

“They see the camaraderie. They see the sports that we do, the food, the equipment, even punishments that may take place.

“The biggest thing is when the audience asks questions and they’re drawn into it and they have an interest. That they didn’t know something or took something for granted or didn’t realize something, and this brings it to life. This is the living history for them to see. This is what the kids learn in school.

“This also fills in the gaps. Instead of sitting there learning about all of the politics of it, but to see how the soldier endured that daily grind, it brings it home that there was the human factor.”

Bliss said it is important to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg and to bring that era back to life for people to see.

“The Civil War was a very pivotal time for our nation. There were a lot of social issues going on, not only slavery, but also states’ rights controversy going on between the south and the north and the federal government. People had strong opinions on a lot of these issues,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the war broke out and a lot of lives were lost over those issues, but from the war, I think, we came out a better country and not remain divided.

“I think, in that respect, remembering what happens 150 years ago is very prevalent for us today. We have to remember what happened in the past to kind of forge our future, so that’s why I think these 150th anniversary events and even future events to recreate this time period is important.”

This isn’t just a hobby for re-enactment participants as they continue to research the history. They eat what the soldiers ate, wear what they wore, speak the language of the time, play the music of the 1860s and study troop movement, making the experience as authentic as possible for visitors.

“Yes, most of us who are in this hobby take it seriously, and we do a lot of research,” Bliss said.

“A lot of the people in this hobby had relatives who fought in the Civil War on either side, people like myself, who just have more of a love for history and want to kind of experience how that was for those people back then.”