Civil War re-enactors immerse themselves in the time period


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Chris Sedlak served for 19 months in Iraq, saving his pay to buy a cannon for Civil War re-enactments. Joanne Shelby-Klein, a longtime re-enactor who became disabled, now portrays a little-known Civil War heroine who also used a wheelchair. Nick Griffey and Allyson Perry, a young couple who met through re-enacting, are devoting their lives to teaching history.

Civil War re-enactors are drawn to it for many reasons. Some feel an almost mystical connection, jokingly dubbed the Civil War gene. Others with a passion for history use it to teach outside the classroom. It's as much a lifestyle as a hobby, requiring major commitments of time and money.

Mr. Sedlak, now 37 and a Pittsburgh police officer, spent $30,000 on a working replica of a 1857 Napoleon cannon and $12,000 more for its carriage. A trailer to haul them in was $5,000. His truck needed $3,000 in modifications to tow 6,000 pounds.

"I was born in the wrong century. I just was," he said of his love for re-enacting. "I look at society today and it isn't me."

He believes that morals and honorable conduct meant more then, that men respected women and bravely faced certain death.

He first sensed that backward tug in time on a seventh grade trip to Gettysburg. When he was 16, he enlisted in the Ninth Pennsylvania Reserves Company A, a Pittsburgh re-enactment unit.

Like all such groups, it re-creates a real unit. All troops enlist as privates and earn promotion.

To man the cannon, Mr. Sedlak resurrected the Ninth Pennsylvania's Company C, the Iron City Guards, where he is field commander. To be eligible for promotion, enlistees must be able to talk to a crowd for an hour about artillery, to drill according to National Park Service standards and to explain how to load and fire the cannon properly.

The Iron City Guards gather regularly to repair and maintain their gun. The strong bond that Mr. Sedlak feels to these men also keeps him in re-enacting.

"These guys are my extended family," he said.

Not every re-enactor longs for Victorian times. Ms. Perry, 22, a Saint Vincent College graduate, has a critical perspective on life for women, black people and labor.

"Some people see this as very romantic, but I'm not one of them," said Ms. Perry, a Plum native and summertime National Park ranger at Gettysburg.

"I don't understand why people would say they want to go back to that time and wear those wonderful things. If you really wore the costume with all the underpinnings and the corset in the correct fashion, you would see how confining it is and how hard it was to do everyday activities. You couldn't do what you do now."

But she is devoting her future to teaching about the Victorian era. This fall she begins work on her master's degree in history and women's studies at West Virginia University.

Her interest began in eighth grade, when she watched the movie "Gettysburg." She wrangled permission to attend re-enactments with a friend's grandfather. At 17 she joined the civilian wing of the Ninth.

In high school she spent hours studying period photographs and reading, trying to make her wardrobe authentic.

"Because there was so much death during the Civil War, almost everyone was wearing dark colors," she said.

Her interest is more academic than emotional. "I'm not obsessed with the Civil War, I just really enjoy learning about it," she said. "I enjoy being able to talk with the public and to educate them."

It's an interest she shares with her boyfriend, Nick Griffey, 25, of Moon, whom she met in the Ninth. He also portrays soldiers from the French and Indian War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.

The World War II unit he tried to join at 15 said he had to be 18. He joined the Ninth intending to Do Civil War for three years, but most of his family got hooked and they're all still in it. "There are six of us in the family, but only five of us re-enact. My older brother thinks we are all nuts," he said.

He prefers small living history events to battle re-enactments. He is a rare, age-appropriate Civil War re-enactor.

"The generation now is more technology-based. Everything is fast-paced, and re-enacting doesn't fit with that," Mr. Griffey said.But for those who try, "you learn where you come from and why things are the way they are. There is no better way to understand how people lived and what happened. It's not just experiencing the battles, it's experiencing the culture of the time."

Military re-enactors are asked to own enemy uniforms in case too few opposing re-enactors come to an event. But Mr. Griffey embraces both roles. In a Confederate unit he portrays a Louisiana Zouave, dressing in a colorful Crimea-inspired uniform more fit for a genie than a soldier.

"When I do both sides, it helps me understand the mind-set in the North and the mind-set in the South. I research both sides and I want the experience that soldiers of both sides had," he said.

Ms. Shelby-Klein bristles at the stereotype that most re-enactors are Confederates. A loyal Unionist, she says it's a challenge to research northern women.

"There simply isn't as much information about them as there is about the Confederates. I think that's because it was easier for the North to move on after the war. The South was so devastated that people clung to the past, particularly the women," she said.

The Monroeville resident, 48, is a nurse who can no longer work due to disability. A proud possessor of the Civil War "gene," she read a biography of Mary Lincoln at age 8 and "Gone With the Wind" at 10.

"I think it has to do with the clothing and the etiquette and the demeanor of the time," she said. She found the manners a gracious contrast to the free-for-all of the 1970s. In 1991 she was the first woman to join the Ninth.

In 1992 she began her first-person impression of Mrs. Lincoln, a research project equivalent to a master's thesis. In 2005, she won the Outstanding Mary Lincoln Award from the Lincoln Presenters, a national organization.

In 2008 she was diagnosed with cancer. A tumor is pressing on the nerves in her spine, so she can no longer walk.

Her surgeon told her never to wear a corset again, and a hoop skirt is dangerous in a wheelchair.

So she is turning some of her period dresses into wrappers, loose garments worn by invalids and pregnant women. She also found a new character to portray.

While bedridden, she read a passing reference to Ann Pamela Cunningham, a South Carolina woman who was disabled from a riding accident. In 1853 she led the campaign to preserve George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.

"I started digging deeper, purchasing every available book with her name in it, searching the Smithsonian and Mount Vernon archives online," Ms. Shelby-Klein said.

The result is a self-published biographical novel about Ms. Cunningham, "I Will Do It!" She can legitimately do the first-person impression from her wheelchair. She feels a profound connection.

"Ann Pamela Cunningham has helped me to recover," she said. "Even though she was incapacitated, she overcame it to participate in life again, to do something worthwhile. I'm not able to work, so I need to redefine who I am. She has helped me to do that."


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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