Portrait of Bill and his son by Chris Morgan, using a period-authentic wet plate camera of course.
Bill Cross is a Civil War reenactor with a wide range of battles, ranks, and personae under his belt and the current treasurer of the Rowdy Pards “progressive, campaign living history society.” Growing up his father hauled him to all the major Civil War battlefields. “As an adult, I became more interested from books and also from the wargaming craze of the 1980s when I bought and played every CW board game I could find. Finally, my own son got interested in it when I took him to Gettysburg and we saw a group of reenactors there. ‘Let's do that,’ he suggested, and so we have been reenacting together since 2000.” We have always been quietly fascinated by the people who dedicate their lives (or at least weekends) to pretending they are from an entirely different period of time, so we asked him what it was all about…
Vice: What was your first time reenacting like?
Bill Cross: It was a small event in a state park off I-95 north of Philadelphia. It was quite thrilling marching through the woods to the sound of unseen cannons and rifle fire. Despite the hints of modern life like electrical lines and the sounds of traffic off the highway, I could understand the dread and excitement they felt back then.
That must be a bummer though—hiking through the woods in fully authentic period gear and then seeing a bunch of guys lugging a Coleman cooler or something…
Well as I got more and more interested in the hobby, I drifted away from "mainstream" reenacting, which is laden with anachronisms, including large tents, cots, or women and children camping with the soldiers. I was attracted to "campaigning," which means you carry all your gear on your back for the weekend, often marching from point A to point B. While I wouldn't want to get shot or suffer from 19th Century diseases like dysentery, I relish things that recreate the life of the Civil War soldier.
Um, yeah. It would be a pretty intense level of dedication to get dysentery for a role.
I know. Then there is also a raging debate in the hobby about whether the only partially accurate mainstream reenactments really teach the public anything about what it was really like on the field of battle. It's one reason I prefer events catering to campaigners, including small "living histories" where a group of reenactors focuses on the history and not on the battle. But there's no question the public likes to see the guns and cannons going off. It's very satisfying to have groups of kids cluster around asking questions and perhaps recreating the bonding experience that brought me closer to my own father, and which has kept my son in the hobby in spite of, you know, sports and girls.
So do you prefer to wear gray or blue?
I’ve portrayed common soldiers from both sides, as well as a few officers. Now I look for roles that challenge and broaden my understanding of the period.
Last year I raised a company of fellow reenactors to portray a German unit from Ohio. While not of German extraction, I do speak the language fairly well, and have portrayed a German coal miner in a West VA unit in the past. But this time, I was the captain of a "Dutch" company. You see, Americans confused the word "deutsch" (German) for "Dutch," so Germans were called "Dutchmen." A soldier from the same regiment won the Medal of Honor at the battle we were reenacting in 1862, and I was able to track down his descendants. They came to the reenactment with his medal, and laid a wreath on the graves of the Confederate dead in a gesture of reconciliation. There wasn't a dry eye around.
I’d like to hear a bit about your personal collection of memorabilia.
My most treasured artifact is a key-wind pocket watch. It's amazingly heavy in comparison to my grandfather's stem-wind watch from 1900, so I can always feel it in my vest pocket. I also have a French-made sword that I carry when I portray an officer.
But most of my gear is accurate reproductions of period equipment, most of it made with recreations of the tools, materials and finishing products used then. For example, knapsacks were constructed out of linen or other cheap cloth, and then covered with an oily paint mixture. Leathers were dyed with things like walnut hulls or iron oxidation. Most garments were hand-stitched, too, so you will find that nearly all my uniforms (and I reenact both Confederate and Union) are hand-sewn. While spectators don't know the difference, I do.
Does reenacting serve any purpose besides letting guys play in the woods and shoot of cannons?
Reenactors have raised large sums of money, often for smaller battlefields like McDowell, VA. These places aren’t always on the radar screen of the National Parks Service or the major preservation organizations like The Civil War Preservation Trust. Development is gobbling up the land around battlefields at a depressing rate. There are even plans to build a casino at Gettysburg!
That’s disgusting. Would you go back in time if you could? I seriously want to know.
Yes. Not to experience the action, but to learn more about the people. Before Freud, people didn't look for hidden psychological meanings in their own actions and the actions of others.
I'd like to just spend time with an ordinary family, perhaps my mother's ancestors in Virginia.
But what would you eat? Wasn’t there heavy food shortage during the Civil War?
They made do. I’ve already eaten many foods from that era. The most common foods soldiers ate were hardtack (crackers made without leavening) and salt pork (sow belly, preserved with salt to prevent spoilage). At one event, we roasted fresh beef on sticks and ramrods to kill the maggots that had sprouted on it when some flies got loose. No one who roasted their meat got the "old soldier's revenge" that weekend.
I’ve even eaten period candies. Lemon drops were a favorite back then, along with hoarhound candies. These were often sent from home in Adams Express Boxes.
What’s Adams Express?
It was like UPS, but for the Civil War.