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Reliving History
Memories of a Civil War Reenactor

By Michael Sheets

Confederate reenactors at Droop Mountain aim and fire in 2011. Photograph by Tyler Evert.

My first experience with Civil War reenacting was in June 1961. I was at the impressionable age of 10, and the Civil War centennial was just beginning. My family drove up to Philippi to visit my aunt and see the reenactment of the first land battle of the Civil War. My best friend, also a fourth grader, went with us. Decked out in our grey trousers and jackets, Confederate caps, and toting our toy muskets and pistols, we looked around the event and tried to talk with as many reenactors as possible. We asked them about their gear and what it was like to be a reenactor. I was hooked!

Back home in Huntersville, Pocahontas County, there was a lot of Civil War history to explore. Huntersville had been a Confederate camp during the summer of 1861, and roughly 20 soldiers from that army were buried about 200 yards from our house. That, too, inspired me.

I was never one to simply read a book, hear a story, or watch a history-based film and then forget it. I had to relive the experiences of those I was learning about. As far as the Civil War was concerned, there was no shortage during the centennial years of costume uniforms, toy muskets and pistols, or other gear. I think I privately refought nearly every battle of the Civil War I heard of during those years, in the fields and woods around our house.

I finally joined up with a reenacting group in 1975. By then I was teaching school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Like most young teachers, I needed a summer job. I was lucky to be hired by the National Park Service to work at Point Park on Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga. For two summers I served as a historical interpreter, wearing the uniforms of both sides and portraying Civil War soldiers by doing historical talks and demonstrations for visitors at the park. During that experience I came into contact with many reenactors who once again introduced me to that aspect of reliving history.

I moved back to Huntersville in 1977 to take over a small business my father owned. Over the next year-and-a-half I began purchasing my uniform, musket, and the rest of the gear I would need to reenact. It was my intention to form a local group and portray a real unit from that area. Before I could get the group organized, however, I moved to Huntington to get my master’s degree in education from Marshall University. Within a few months I made contacts with some reenactors in the Huntington area and attended my first reenactments as a participant.

In June of 1982 I joined up with a newly formed reenactment unit in Putnam County. They were formed as Company A, 36th Virginia Volunteer Infantry, portraying an actual unit that was formed in Buffalo, Putnam County, in 1861. I reenacted with this organization for the next 30 years. I started out as a private and rose through the ranks, becoming captain and commander of the group in 1987.

The 36th set as one of its goals to correctly portray a typical company of common Confederate soldiers. Little did we know at that time just how elusive a goal that would become.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.