Q&A With New York’s Civil War Reenactors: The Joys of Wool Suits in Summer

Members of New York's 119th Regiment, Company H stand at attention. New York contributed 460,000 men to the Union cause. MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez.

It was a typical weekend on Governors Island: The usual mob of cyclists and tourists mingled with firing cannons and thrusting bayonets.

Well, sadly for the Civil War reenactors present, perhaps it was not exactly typical. These historians had gathered on Governors Island to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

Little known fact: The Civil War brought thousands of Confederate prisoners of war to Governors Island and killed more soldiers from New York than any other state.

And then there were the draft riots, the largest civil insurrection in American history, aside from the Civil War itself. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was forced to call Union regiments from the front lines to quell a mass uprising by working-class New Yorkers who were enraged that they couldn’t pay their way out of service like the wealthy (a steep $300, or roughly two years worth of the average worker’s monthly salary, for a free pass from the fighting). The rioters were also worried that freed African-American slaves would head north to take their jobs after they were forced to join the war.

"Union reinforcements" from Pennsylvania prepare to fire. This cannon weighs a ton, can shoot a mile and was described as "pretty accurate." MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez.

As living historians (their preferred nomenclature) from as close as Manhattan and as far away as California gathered to reenact the events that happened on Governors Island, MetroFocus was there to find out why they do it, and to (try to) eat all the hardtack biscuits — an unlovely combination of water, flour and salt — a Union soldier’s heart might desire.

We were not called to arms, however, so perhaps we can’t fully grasp the significance of what these reenactors do.

“Unless you’ve done it, I can’t explain it. It’s pretty intense,” said Steve Clifton, a 49-year old living historian with 119th Company H from Long Island. He took a week off of work in preparation for the reenactment.

Corporal Paul Patty, 59, of Long Island. MetroFocus/John Farley

Corporal Paul Patty, 59.

From Long Island, N.Y. Reenacting since 1996.

Regiment: 119th New York, Company H

Q: What’s it like to do a reenactment in New York?

A: Being a reenactor, a living historian, if you want to do stuff about the Civil War, it’s all  in Virginia. To have something in the New York City area, when we’re a New York regiment, and to do something that actually occurred right here, is something unique.

A soldier's joy. Only the basic necessities were available during the war, which the living historians attempt to recreate. MetroFocus/John Farley.

Q: Do you ever travel down South to do this?

A: The furthest I’ve gone is Shiloh, in Tennessee. I had the opportunity once to go to the United Kingdom and do an American Civil War reenactment there.

Q: Huh. And the English, they’re into that?

A: There’s about 600 members in the U.K. that are part of the Southern Skirmish Association that do American Civil War reenacting. Of course they can’t portray things that happened in the U.K.

Q: What do you want New Yorkers to know about the Civil War?

A: Well, when it happened, for one thing. We’ve had people ask us — are you the Redcoats? We’ve had some unique questions asked of us. So we want them to know about history and about what really happened.

Q: What would it have been like to be a drafted soldier in New York City in 1863?

A: The thing that angered a lot of people was that, for $300 you could find a substitute to take your place in the draft. Right after the battle of Gettysburg, everyone heard about the people who were killed, missing or wounded. When people are being drafted, being forced to go — hearing that they could be a potential casualty, that creates a problem. You can sympathize with the people of that time.  If they couldn’t pay a substitute, they’d be a little upset. A lot upset.

Roy Webber, 31, of Nanuet, N.Y. MetroFocus/John Farley

Roy Webber, 31.

From Nanuet, N.Y. Reenacting since 1999.

Regiment: 3rd Alabama Infantry, Company D

Q: What’s a Confederate soldier doing in New York City?

A: When the war first broke out in 1861, they figured it would be over in a short time. They weren’t prepared for the massive amount of prisoners they were going to get. So they said, we’ve got all these forts that are away from the fighting, so we’ll use them as prisons. A couple of times during the war, the Confederacy invaded the North, so they started moving prisoners to facilities further inland. Governors Island was a temporary facility. They would organize the men here, keep them until they had a certain number, and then ship them north to more permanent institutions.

A Pennsylvania light artillery soldier prepares the cannon. According to the Pennsylvania regiment, the cannon could have easily "taken out" a cruise ship docked on the opposite side of Governor's Island. MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez.

Q: Why do you reenact?

A: Love of history. Anytime I can do something for a place like Governors Island, where they actually had Civil War soldiers, where they had so much history…If what I do brings visitors to this place, makes them aware of what happened here, helps them get the resources to preserve this place, I’m all for that. With development and everything, a lot of our historical sites are disappearing. We can’t save them all, we can just save as many as we can.

Q: How did you research your regiment?

A: I went on the computer and typed in 3rd Alabama. You can find different diaries and manuscripts from original members of the unit that are still available, so I started reading them. Okay, this is where they were for this battle, this is what they did here, this is what type of weapons they had, this is what jacket they wore.  And you just expand it.

Ken Drelinger, 46, of the South Bronx, N.Y. MetroFocus/Melissa Galvez

Ken Drelinger, 46.

From the South Bronx. Reenacting since 1993.

Regiment: Rogue drummer.

Q: How do you prepare for your role in these reenactments?

A: For me with the drums, it takes about a good two hours a day and more to get the music up to standard. In the real war, they would have been at a much more expert level, because they were doing it every day. For me to put in two hours a day is not that many hours. It does take a lot of research as far as music is concerned, and the technique, and to put together your uniform. It takes an effort. It’s also very expensive.

Q: Got any war stories?

A: I walked into a cannon blast, I was almost run over by a horse, I was almost shot…There was a guy in front of me who was shot because of a safety infraction, because somebody left a cleaning rod in the gun, and they fired it down range. The guy in front of me got shot, and it just missed me. It’s not supposed to be the real war, but you get tiny glimpses of what it was like.

Q: Are your friends into this?

A: No, they think I’m a weirdo. Maybe I am.  I supposed you’d have to be in order to wear wool in 100 degree weather, or zero degree weather — and like it. Once you get used to it, it’s alright. I’m sure even the real guys got used to it. Honestly, I’d like to do this for a week, no holds barred.

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