Keeping the Union (and Ohio’s Civil War History) Alive
The Civil War began almost 150 years ago, but those last battles on American soil continue to fascinate Kyle Yoho, who’s all of 21.
He’s what they call a “reenactor,” one of the player’s in the nation’s Civil War historical pageants, which attract thousands of history buffs and dramatists to recreate the nation’s bloodiest war. This Marietta College junior (a history major, natch) is a member of the 91st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company B, one of the state’s most active band of Civil War progenitors, drawing primarily from Southeastern Ohio, as well as Kentucky and West Virginia. He’s also a member of the board of directors for the Monroe County Historical Society, where he helped to put together a military history room that will open later in 2011.
Picture muskets exploding, tents pitched on battlefields, men in uniform marching in line: Civil War reenactors practice what they call “living histories,” re-creating the famous skirmishes between the Union and the Confederacy for the public to witness. “We’ll go to Gettysburg and we’ll portray the battle of Gettysburg there,” Yoho explains. “We sometimes have skirmishes, which aren’t actually historically based. We’ll make up a scenario, like the Union is attacking a town, and the Confederacy is defending.”
Yoho grew up in Monroe County, the only child of historical reenactors. For him, family and the Civil War are largely entwined — he even refers to his company as his extended family. “My family would take trips to historical sites all the time, so I grew up really interested in history,” he remembers. His mother and father participate in reenactments as civilians, dressing in the fashions of the time. He’s even planning his own living history event (that means no battle) in his hometown of Woodsfield, at the Monroe County Historical Society’s Hollister Parry Museum and Parry Park on June 11-12. Find out more about the celebration, which will offer viewers a glimpse into life in northern towns between the firing on Fort Sumpter and the battle of Manassas, here.
It’s a hobby that continues to draw young people into the fold. “There’s a good number of people who are my age,” Yoho says. “Reenacting was really popular in the late 1980s with the movie Glory coming out, and the 125th anniversary of the Civil War, so a lot of people joined up during that time.” While he says the majority of reenactors are in their 40s now, his company attracts young parents, 20-somethings and even teenagers to the hobby; a chance to mix drama with history, travel and physical fitness.
What attracts so many young people to a war fought almost a century and a half ago? Yoho is intrigued by the war’s significance to modern military history. “It’s the last of that old style of warfare. The last time they fought standing just a couple hundred yards from each other.” He also thinks the war inspires a personal connection to reenactors and viewers alike. “It’s something that each town in America, for the most part, felt the impact of,” Yoho notes. “If you look back in your genealogy, you”ll find people who are related to you, people from your town, people you know of, who all lived through this war. I think it still has a lasting impact on America.”
Ohio isn’t generally considered a bastion of Civil War history — but Yoho is quick to point out that the state is home to one battlefield during the war; a piece of Ohio trivia that often goes unnoticed. “There was a Confederate raider, by the name of John Hunt Morgan, in late 1863, who came up through Ohio,” he says.”The whole point of his raid was to head north, during the midpoint of the War, and disturb them — this was the midpoint of the war, the tipping point, and it could have gone either way.” As the story goes, Morgan lit north through Ohio, raiding towns and disturbing the peace; thumbing his nose in a supposedly safe Union state. So he made it all the way to Buffington Island, Ohio, and they had a small battle for the time, but it was a significant battle.”
It’s little-known but important stories like the Buffington Island battle that inspires reenactors like Kyle — the opportunity to share the military and social history of the state with the public in an engaging, exciting manner. If the secret to understanding the past is experiencing it, “living histories” offer both the performer and the viewer a sensory experience that can’t be found in a history book. “Through putting on the old school clothing, these cotton shirts and wool uniforms, the leather accoutrements, the knapsacks, and using black powder rifle muskets … all of this gives you a sense of what these guys actually went through during the war,” Yoho says. “You can read about Gettysburg, but you can’t get a sense of what these men were actually up against, what their daily lives were like — until you can actually try to step into their shoes.”
So Kyle Yoho and his friends continue to don their uniforms, marching in step back through time. And while he’s in many ways a typical college student (he loves the music of The Avett Brothers, the TV show King of Queens and catching movies with friends), he and his company buddies will continue to play out the battles of yesteryear for all to see. “They can see the men in uniform, hear that sound of the shots … and get a sense for what this war really was like. That’s why I do it,” he says. “People who might not have enough interest to act in a reenactment, they can still get a sense of what this war was like for the people of our country.”
Check out www.OhioCivilWar150.org for dates of re-enactment events, as well as information about the April 10 event that kicks off Ohio’s Civil War Sesquicentennial celebration.