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Re-enacting war means reliving history

Dispatch/Argus photo by Todd Welvaert

Lester White of Rock Island, a Civil War re-enactor.

By Todd Welvaert: 
Dispatch/Argus staff writer

They wait in the heat at a place called Wilson's Creek. Their trial will start as it always does -- with merciless, thundering cannon fire followed by the delayed percussion of Union long rifles.
Around campfires, battle veterans whisper that the Yankee's bullets take different tones: some high like a cat's screech, others low and buzzing like a huge bumblebee, and still others that thud like a sledgehammer against a tree.

``There was probably 100 men and we were off in the woods, away from the main body, just Missouri Militia and a few Confederate soldiers in a line advancing on a small group of Union cavalry,'' Lester White, 45, Rock Island, says. ``All of a sudden, it looked like two companies of Union cavalry came around from this grove and it was chaos. They pushed us back, and it was firing and running and firing. It happened then, just one moment, maybe 30 seconds and it makes it worth all the other stuff. It's like you are really back there. I think every re-enactor goes for that chance, to have that one moment.''

To live history.

Mr. White has been chasing those moments as a Civil War re-enactor for over 20 years. His hobby has taken him to several Civil War battlefields, like Wilson Creek in Missouri, Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Stone River. He's also participated in local Civil War re-enactments, like the one formerly held in Davenport's Lindsey Park and in Galesburg.

He, along with 40 other Quad-Cities area men and women, make up Scott's Tennessee Battery, a Confederate cannon battery with a storied history in the war's Western Theater. The battery eventually disbanded after being overrun at Missionary Ridge.

``The Civil War in unique because of the great amount of written history,'' Mr. White says. ``We have a roster of the men who served with Scott's Tennessee Battery from 1861-1863. You pick a name from the roster, we call it your `first person,' and you portray that person. My first person is Burl B. Battle from Camden, Ark. He is interesting because, although he was educated, he served the entire war as a private. He went on to become an associate (state) supreme court judge after the Civil War ended.''

Although Mr. White's persona was a Confederate soldier, he also has uniforms from the Union side and, like many re-enactors, can and will play either part.

``You could go to a re-enactment every weekend if you wanted to travel, they're all over the U.S.,'' he says. ``I go to about 12 a year, from the first week of April to about the second or third week of October.

``It's more a social thing,'' he says. ``If you have some political attachments or an agenda, re-enactment is probably not for you. We are not re-fighting the Civil War -- this is about military history, and I think most of us are in it because we are fans of military history.''

Mr. White became interested in re-enacting after seeing an ad on a bulletin board on Arsenal Island, where he works as a groundskeeper at the National Cemetery.

National Cemeteries were created by President Abraham Lincoln as ``fitting'' resting places for those killed in the Civil War, and the island was a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers. It's an irony that doesn't escape him.

Mr. White says re-enactors are careful to keep things authentic. He owns two full uniforms from either side, a civilian dress suit, bayonet, cavalry saber, pistols and Enfield .577 caliber rifle, hats, boots, cotton long underwear -- even a nearly period-correct set of prescription eyeglasses.

``Getting into it is like any hobby, you can spend as much as you want,'' he says. ``A lot of the stuff we use is replica, but we all have a few collector's pieces.

``We also have two cannons, or 3-inch ordinance rifles. One is a replica and the other is an original built in 1862,'' Mr. White says. ``The owner lets us use it; we rebuilt the wooden livery for it. Scott's Battery had four -- two 5-pound cannons and two 12-pound cannons.''

At 5 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1861, at Wilson's Creek, Mo., the Yankee and Rebel forces, including Missouri militia units, met like breakers crashing against the shore, in wave after wave of attacks. The Union forces, led by Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon -- and Maj. Samuel Sturgis, after Brig. Gen. Lyon was killed in battle -- suffered a defeat that eventually led to the Confederates controlling southwestern Missouri. In the end there would be 2,330 casualties, including 480 dead.

But no one knows that better that Mr. White.

``The best part?'' he asks the question back. ``The best part is being able to get up and go home when the weekend's done.''

Taken from our local news papers The Dispatch & The Argus, on Sept. 6, 2001.

Copyright 2001, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co. 

EDITOR: Joe Beach: 

"Last Updated... "11/09/2010"

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