Even with the Battle of Lewisburg re-enactors’ camps just taking form Friday afternoon, the front lawn of New River Community and Technical College’s Greenbrier Valley campus was already redolent with the aroma of wood smoke arising from the cooking fires dotting the landscape.
By the time the camps open to the public this morning, all of the participants — from officers and soldiers to women and children — will be outfitted in authentic replicas of Civil War-era garments and immersing themselves in the paraphernalia and activities their forefathers experienced.
Waving a hand across such 20th century debris as soft drink cans and fast food wrappers, re-enactor William Pleau said Friday, “Starting (Saturday), you’ll see none of that. We’ll have everything in this camp set up just the way it would have been during the war.”
Pleau, who is overall commander of the Confederate forces and bears the rank of colonel, explained, “Everything we wear is 100 percent wool. We sleep in tents that are faithful replicas of the tents the soldiers of the era would have slept in.”
All of that authenticity isn’t inexpensive. Pleau estimated the average family spends around $4,000 — excluding the cost of a tent (he spent $1,200 on his high-walled version) — to “suit up” for re-enactments.
The Charleston-based Pleau contingent participating in the re-enactment of the Battle of Lewisburg includes wife, Angela, her two children and two grandchildren.
“It’s a family-oriented activity,” Pleau said. “We’re all basically one family unit here, Confederate and Union.
“We’re doing this for our forefathers that were out here fighting. We want to tell all of their stories. We give both sides of it.”
Pleau said he expects between 150 and 200 combatant re-enactors, plus their families, to participate in this year’s 150th anniversary observance of the 1862 battle, which Union forces won.
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A key member of any Civil War fighting unit was the drummer boy, explained 12-year-old David Franco, who fills that role for the federal troops assembled in Lewisburg.
“The drummer is the one that signals all the calls,” David said. “He replaces the bugler if the bugler is killed or wounded. He’s really important.”
Warming to his subject, David offered additional historical details, noting, “Drummers played music for the troops. They kept their units in step when they marched.”
It wasn’t all glory for those young boys, many of whom were no older than David is when they marched off to war.
“Because they were so young, they weren’t given the same food to eat that the soldiers had; they ate leftovers or whatever they could steal,” David said. “They were disrespected.”
David’s father, Jack Franco, pointed out that because the drummer was so important to troop morale and timing, he was often the first target of enemy fire. Some 10,000 drummer boys lost their lives in the Civil War, he said.
Hailing from Charlotte, N.C., the Francos were spectators at the Battle of Lewisburg re-enactment 3 years ago when a friend asked Jack Franco to join his unit at the next stop.
“I said I’d do it only if he could find a uniform for my son,” Franco said. “The next time I saw him, he had two uniforms, and we joined up.”
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Uniforms and more can be obtained by the re-enactors from the sutlers — shopkeepers — who set up open-air stores in the camps.
Ron McClintock of Proctorville, Ohio, attends about 10 or 12 re-enactment events each year, offering racks full of period uniforms, with a few ladies’ garments providing colorful relief among all the dark blue and gray.
“All of the uniforms are handmade,” McClintock said as he bustled around, setting his shop to rights. “They’re sewn on machines, except for the buttons, but they’re designed to appear authentic.”
In the past, McClintock said, he has rented some of his stock to filmmakers shooting movies in West Virginia.
Another sutler at the re-enactment is Lanny Howe, whose Howes’ Things shop is making its 12th appearance on the college lawn this year, selling everything from tea, writing implements and jewelry to toys and lanterns.
“Everything we have to sell here has a historical basis,” Howe said, explaining, “My wife was a park ranger at Appomattox Court House (Va.) when I met her and married her. A concern about being historically accurate is the basis for our business.”
Howe and his wife also have a retail shop by the same name in downtown Lewisburg devoted to more contemporary accessories.
Setting up a sutler’s tent so close to home, compared to the trips the couple has made to re-enactments as far away as Florida and New York, is wonderfully convenient, Howe pointed out.
“It’s low overhead to do it here,” he smiled.
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The Battle of Lewisburg re-enactment weekend will continue all day today, with the camps opening to the public at 9 a.m. and living history presentations being staged in the college auditorium starting at 11 a.m. The events will conclude Sunday with the re-staging of the battle at 2 p.m. on Washington Street, followed by treatment of the wounded at the medical tent, which will include demonstrations of bandaging, operations and general care.
For more information, visit www.battleoflewisburg.org.
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