The Civil War may feel like an event from the history books that is dead and gone. For Chris Smith and his fellow reenactors however, that piece of history comes back to life on the battlefield.
Smith has been participating in reenactments, like the one at Hale Farm and Village, for about 26 years. A member of the Union Army, he has moved through the ranks from a private to the man in charge of troops from Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
When not battling on the field of honor, Smith is one of the owners and the president of Lost Tribe Media in Akron.
How did you get started doing Civil War reenactments?
CS: Growing up, my dad was a big history buff and I learned that from him. We didn’t go to places like Disney or Kennywood, when I was growing up our vacations were at the Civil War battlefields. That was in my blood.
Are your travel plans still based around battlefields?
CS: I kind of continued that. I proposed to my wife on the summit of the Little Round Top of Gettysburg. And we still go to historic sites for vacations. However, we are starting to break away from that at the insistence of my wife. We’re going to North Carolina this year, we’ve gone to Florida, so we’re kind of breaking away from that trend.
You proposed to your wife at a historic site? Does she enjoy history too?
CS: Yes. I actually have quite a collection of vintage history books from the late 1880s and on our first date we were over at my house looking through those. So you kind of have two history geeks.
Is there any element of reenactments that really sparks your interest?
CS: I love the equipment part of Civil War history — the firearms, the uniforms and everything always intrigued me. Also, the presentation of what the average soldier was like. We see all of this stuff in school and in movies about the generals, the leadership and the politics, but really any kind of moment in history is about real people and the Civil War was no different.
You’re in the Union infantry right?
CS: Everybody comes into this thing and starts off as a private. They’re what we call today a “grunt,” and carrying a rifle and fighting in the line. And then after a period of time, depending on your individual leadership skills and the time that you want to dedicate to this, you kind of get moved up through the ranks.
How do you move up through the ranks?
CS: In the Civil War reenacting world, each individual company is an individual organization and then those organizations come together to make a larger formation. Each unit will have elections and elect each person to be the captain of the unit and a lot of times if you do a decent job you get reelected over and over again.
Was there ever any debate about what side to fight for?
CS: It’s one of those things where my family were farmers in Tennessee and they were soldiers in the Confederate Army. They fought because the Union Army was invading Tennessee. They were not wealthy people at all and that was who the Confederate soldier was. As for myself, even though that’s where my family came from — my ancestor was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg —I’m an Ohioan. I wanted to represent the soldiers that came from where I live. People are focused on history not politics when it comes to reenacting.
What is your current role in the Union?
CS: My current role [is] the acting Chief of Staff for the national organization. It’s more of an administrative role than leading the men in the fields. It may be reenacting, but you still have to organize people and it’s a lot of people. There is a lot of stuff that comes with that as far as getting the information out about the events, making sure that the people who are on the staff have the tools that they need to do their jobs and be able to set up camps, and organize the troops.
So it may be a make-believe world, but just like any organization there is this administrative, organizational, real-world side of things that has to be done and that’s what my role is now.
Apart from helping with event organization, what do you do when not on the field?
CS: We get to talk to the public and educate them not only on the war, but also about the men that served in the ranks during the war. That’s what living history is really about—to not only honor those people, but to educate people on what their life was like.
Do you have any funny stories?
CS: I could probably fill a book of funny stories. We were in Georgia at the anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga and the Union Army was camped all up and down a mountainside. A farmer came over the hill and said “just so you guys know, we’ve had a mountain lion roaming around this area.” So at about two in the morning, while 600 to 700 reenactors were sleeping, the company captain and I heard this “grrrrrr.” Both of our eyes popped open. Of course we have rifles, but there’s not a single live bullet in any of these things and absolutely no way to defend ourselves if this lion decided that he wanted to have a feast. [Turned out to be] a Union soldier on the other side of a tree, snoring away.
/ Managing Editor Molly Gase is gearing up to make homemade noodles for the fall. Foot after foot of long, delicious noodles.
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