Behind the boom of the cannon and the blast of gunshot stand the men who say they do their best to present what life was like on the battlefield 150 years ago.
This weekend marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Perryville, bringing re-enactors from all over the country to set the stage for spectators to get a feel of the Civil War conflict.
“It’s my way to get a three-dimensional grasp on history,” said Matthew Rector from Fort Knox, who has been an re-enactor for 22 years. “It’s a way to capture a small bit of what they experienced.”
Rector’s re-enactment story begins like many of those who participate. He had ancestors who fought in the Civil War, and he loved history as a youngster. That brought him to visit a re-enactment, which led to getting involved in the hobby. He now shares this with his children, who sometimes come with him to the events and participate as civilians.
“My 3-year-old was really disappointed that she couldn’t come with me,” he said. He has also gotten friends, like Chris Ettinger, involved.
Ettinger is a member of the Army National Guard based in Fort Knox, but originates from Frankfort. For him, the connection to the present-day military is important, as it helps him appreciate history more.
“For military, you see where your roots are, you see where you’ve come. You appreciate what it was like during that time period,” he said. Ettinger shares that he almost didn’t make it to the battle this weekend, as his wife is nine months pregnant, but she “actually encouraged me to go.”
Friendships are a big cause for re-enactors to join and stay in the hobby. For guys like Don Arnes and Jon Kelly, it also causes them to travel more than 700 miles to participate in a battle.
“Nothing like a good road trip,” Kelly said. They wanted to come to a big re-enactment in the Western theater, which is different from the Eastern Theater style they normally participate in.
Many of the most well-known battles, such as Gettysburg and Antietam, are the part of the Eastern Theater. It included Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, coastal North Carolina and the District of Columbia. The Western Theater referred primarily to the area east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachian Mountains, eventually extending further to the Gulf region as well. The battles of Chickamauga, Shiloh and Vicksburg fall into this category.
When they found out about the Battle of Perryville, they decided to make the trek.
“It’s a long ride, but I think it’s going to be worth it,” Arnes said, as he was preparing for the weekend’s events.
Like Ettinger, Kelly was stationed at Fort Knox for a while. He believes the camaraderie amongst his fellow re-enactors is much like that found in the military. Others compare it to a family.
“You have your blood family and you have your re-enacting family,” Garrett Burns, a 13-year-old from Madison County, said. He participates in the hobby with his entire family, who often represent civilians in military camps.
All the men agree on one essential thing: The re-enactment is nothing like the real deal that occurred 150 years ago, but keeping the story alive is the best they can do to honor those who fought.
“I do this to remember the sacrifices that our ancestors made. I mean, these people fought and died right here,” Brandon Verkler of Tampa, Fla., said. He has been an re-enactor for 19 years, saying he joined after an invitation to an event, which “stuck with me.”
“The Civil War was a pivotal point in the U.S. history. It’s the only one we’ve had; we need to remember,” David Cocanougher said. He is a Perryville native who relocated to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and became involved in re-enacting four years ago. This is his first time to the Battle of Perryville.
Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer young men participating in this hobby and multiple possibilities as to the reasons.
“You’ve got to take the economy into consideration,” said Micah Trent, who represented the chief of staff for the Union Army during the weekend’s re-enactment. Trent hails from Elizabethtown. He got “hooked” on re-enacting 10 years ago after visiting an event at Fort Duffield in West Point, Ky.
Trent also contributes a lot of power to Hollywood, saying films like Glory, Gettysburg, and Gods and Generals did much to pump up enthusiasm for the hobby. There has been nothing recent, though a movie based on Abraham Lincoln is set to be released in November.