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Civil War Reenactment Diary

Text and photos by Kim Pearson

Saturday afternoon, April 30, 2005 : I am standing on a knoll on at the edge of an open field at Neshaminy State Park, waiting to witness a climactic battle from the United States Civil War. My son Steven is fifer in a goup that recreates the exploits of the 6th Infantry USCT (United States Colored Troops) Regiment. This weekend, they, along with about several hundred white Union compatriots and an equal number of Confederate "combatants," are re-enacting some of the final scenes at Appomatox in April, 1865. It is an annual ritual played out the last weekend in April, but this is my first time.

About 209,000 black troops served in the Union Army, according to the National Archives. The leader of my son's group of re-enactors, 1st Sgt. Fred Minus, is a descendant of one of them.The 6th USCT fought hard and sacrificed heavily for the Union cause. (The Library of Congress has a nice collection of images and artifacts here that includes a picture of the 6th's regimental flag.)

Minus is well-known in our area: as a colonial re-enactor, his visage graces the local New Jersey Transit buses that highlight the history of our region. Last year, he led the Revolutionary War color guard at the Capitol Ball -- if you follow the link, you'll see Minus in the lead and my son bringing up the rear, as part of a contingent connected with Trenton's Old Barracks organization. Minus is one of a number of dedicated men and women in this region who work hard to provide young people and the larger community with such unique learning opportunities.

Minus is a font of knowledge about American military history and African American geneaology. During a lull in the battle, Sgt. Minus talked about Russian Tsar Nicholas Alexander's support for the Union effort. "Russia sent troops to New York to back up Lincoln," he recalled. "They never got involved in the fighting, but they were there."

Today, the Sergeant is shepherding a half-dozen cadets who are too young to participate in the battle. Some are impatient. "When is the shooting going to start? We can't see!" "Oh, you'll see something soon," he assures them. This is the Army. It's hurry up and wait."

Sunday, May 1, 2005 : The Sergeant was right. They saw and heard a great deal. Saturday's battle consisted of two skirmishes, followed by free time and an evening ball in the neutral area between the North and South camps. They camped out under the stars, although the ground had been made muddy by the day's intermittent rains. They lived on hot dogs and ham hash. Steven reported that the hash tasted good, "but it looked nasty!" On Sunday, my son marched on the field to play the martial music that was critical to the actual war effort. He came home brimming with stories, tooting the Battle Hymn of the Republic, full of anticipation about the next trip.

I am pleased for him, proud, and just a little anxious. Steven knows his family history -- how his great-great grandpop Jordan, a child during slavery, experienced vicious beatings and saw runaways get their feet chopped off. He knows how Jordan's sister Elsie recalled that the slaves had to eat communal meals from dirty horse troughs. He knows that the men and boys that he and his comrades are portraying were fighting to end all of that. He likes to think of Jordan as a fighter -- someone who might have helped the war effort, even as a child. Maybe he is right -- certainly there are plenty of warriors among Grandpop Jordan's progeny, even down into the current generation.

And it is this last point that has made me anxious. In another few years, he will be old enough to carry a real weapon in Uncle Sam's Army. The present and likely future of current affairs is such that we are likely to be in conflict somewhere. It will not surprise me in the least if he is drafted. If it happens, I would like to think that it will be for a cause as noble as that of the troops he and his compatriots represented this weekend..

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Steven Thomas, 13, fifer with the 6th USCT Infantry regiment, and his grandfather, Jesse Pearson, Sr. (a Korean War-era veteran) at the Union camp in Neshaminy State Park, April 30, 2005.

Techncal details: Images created with a Sprint PCS VIsion (SM) Multimedia Phone. Battle sounds recorded with a Sharp Zaurus SL-5600 handheld.