Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jackson, Michigan Civil War Muster

Considered to be the largest Civil War reenactment in the midwest, the 2009 Jackson, Michigan Cascades Civil War Muster, like Christmas, has come and gone much too fast. But what a weekend it was! Of the six years I have participated in this event, the August 27, 28, and 29 reenactment was, as a good friend of mine likes to say, "The best ever!"
But it did not start off that way; the 1st day of our three days there began as a wash out. Yes, we had an all-day rain and that made for a miserable time in setting up our camps. Only in the late afternoon did the downpour subside allowing us to complete the set ups. However, due to the soaking, Cascades Park turned into the land of mud. But, like the troopers we are, we all persevered, and, luckily, the following two days was filled with sunshine, enough to at least dry up some of the mud.

Harrisonville Landing

What made this year's Jackson more special than the previous years was the wonderful idea of building false front structures to give the impression of a makeshift town. This allowed those of us that portray townsfolk for our period impressions the opportunity to act out our 1860's time-travel fantasy. We attached our tents and flys to the rear of the false fronts, therefore giving us a 'home' to slip into as time permitted. There were five or six of us that had these false fronts and I must say it made a difference in our portrayal of mid-19th century townsfolk, and was well received by the patrons as they strolled down our 'road.'

The U.S. Christian Commission cares for a wounded soldier

As a civilian living historian who only has the chance to reenact inside of actual historical buildings once or twice a year, the makeshift town of Harrisonville Landing truly raised the bar quite a bit. As many of you know, I portray a postmaster at the larger reenactments, and many of the reenacting participants write letters on period replica stationary to one another as well as to their fighting men in blue or gray. This in itself has made our reenacting community just that - a community.
Due to the kind host unit at Jackson - the 7th Michigan - ensuring that I had a false-front post office for my impression, a higher level of authenticity was achieved. The visitor could now step through my front door and see a replica mail sorter with pigeon holes atop a desk, writing utensils, and replica stationary with stamps all tucked nicely inside the wooden false front. Using false-fronts gives the opportunity for a civilian reenactor to 'live' in the era...much as the military reenactors live the battle experience. The dignitaries of the mid-19th century, such as President Lincoln, General Grant, Senator Howard, and even Jefferson Davis, seemed drawn to my post office, which made for great photo ops for the patrons. But, for me, the best part was that my wife and I were able to sit on our "front porch" and watch the 1860's world go by (see the picture at the top of this blog). All made this a reenacting thrill that one may not experience sitting in front of a tent.
And, yes, visitors were welcome to step into these 'buildings.' Just down the road was a courthouse where the 'debate that never was' took place between President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

The "debate-that-never-was" between President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.
That is Michigan's Senator Jacob Howard at the forefront

The courthouse was also where Sunday morning church was held. Another structure along the road presented mourning, including a widow and her family sitting near a coffin. And then there was a saloon - a most popular resort for the military well into the evening, a milliner's shop, a U.S. Christian Commission giving care to wounded soldiers, a laundress, and a dressmaker's shop.

A brass band performs in front of the courthouse

Throughout the weekend, the 5th Michigan Band performed period music in front of the courthouse as well, not only giving one the sights of a period town, but the sounds as well.
Guided town tours were given, and those of us portraying shop owners spoke to the public in a 1st person vernacular. In fact, many of us remained in that mode throughout the duration of the weekend.
And the patrons loved it! Throughout the day I heard repeatedly, "This is really neat;" "This is so cool;" and, "I've never seen anything like this before!"

A local checks to see if she has mail from her husband

Although this blog is civilian oriented, I must say the battles that took place over the three days were as intense as any I have seen, especially Saturday's Battle of Antietam Creek. But, Sunday's Battle of Sailor's Creek followed by Lee's surrender at Appomattox was history come to life. My father-in-law, who had never attended a reenactment before, drove in from Battle Creek on Sunday, expecting to see a few nuts running around with guns in funny clothes. What he saw literally made his mouth drop, and he was awestruck at the sheer size of this event, and had no idea that so many folks were involved in living history.

He will be back next year!

To take this hobby - this passion - to a higher level is something we should, as living historians, strive for. And at the 2009 Jackson Civil War Muster I believe we raised the bar several notches.
My hat is off to the hard-working folks who made it possible for history to come alive: Jeff and Vickie Verstraete, Jim Kirschensteiner, and Ellyn Painter, all from the host unit of the 7th Michigan.

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