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Living historians honor York’s 87th Pennsylvania

87th PA reenactors

I have long enjoyed speaking with living historians of various periods, those hobbyists who like to dress in recreations of historical uniforms or clothing and, most importantly, share a glimpse of what life might have been like for long ago soldiers and civilians. As a kid, I remember watching a National Park Service volunteer at Gettysburg go through a drill on loading a rifle-musket, and I was fascinated.

York County has a few active groups that give an impression of Civil War soldiers and townspeople. Perhaps the largest group portrays the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, a regiment that was raised in York and Adams County in 1861 and fought at several battles, including Monocacy, the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and many others.

Over the next few weeks, I will periodically share a few answers to a series of questions that I asked various reenactors.

Allow me to introduce my friend Don Warner. The long-time Cannonball reader suggested this upcoming series of posts.

Don Warner, 87th PA living historians (Submitted)

Q – Hi Don! When you were a kid, do you ever play army or dress up in any way as a soldier, cowboy, Indian, pirate, or some other historical character? Please give any examples.

A – I think we all played soldier at one time or another as a kid; oh, we all had toy guns and related items growing up, and we did have the neighborhood kids’ army.

Q – What was your favorite military toy as a kid? Please describe it and how you enjoyed it.

A – I had a Johnny Seven multi machine gun, complete with grenade launcher.

Q – What or who do you now portray? What is your personal connection to that organization or person?

A – I portray a soldier in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry.  And, I do have a family history in the 87th PA. Four family members were in the 87th; the most noted is Lt. John Spangler of Company A. We did a memorial service for him a few years ago at Greenmount Cemetery.

Q – In your opinion, are you more of a reenactor (sham battles) or a living historian, or both? Which do you prefer?

A – I like to consider myself as a living historian. I prefer the living history encampments and small skirmish battles. The larger battles such as Gettysburg and Cedar Creek can get a bit overwhelming and confusing at times with the larger number of participants, which is what may have happened during the actual battle.

Q – How did you get started in the hobby? 

A – I contacted you, Scott, and you in turn put me in contact with members of the 87th.

Q – How much does it cost to be a reenactor or living historian? Please give some examples of the typical costs for various pieces of equipment, uniform parts, civilian attire, etc.

A – After 4 years of reenacting, I personally have around 3 thousand dollars invested in it and I am always buying something. My last purchase was a bugle for $85, which I am going to learn how to play. The big-ticket items are the uniform and the musket, and if you shop around you can find these items at a cost less than full retail, and you can always find used equipment at a reasonable price. The 87th does have some loner equipment for those that are starting out. And, it takes time to acquire the things that you need and want.

Q – What is your most memorable event in which you participated, and why?

A – The first ever reenactment of the Battle of Front Royal, in Front Royal, Va. We were marching through the streets of the town at11 AM  and not a soul on the street. All you heard was the tapping of our heel plates on the street. We turned a corner and still no one… we continued on for about 50 yards, then we stopped and we moved into our battle formation. About 15 minutes later, the spectators showed up, lining both sides of the street, and then about 15 minutes later the Confederate reenactors came around a corner. We were about 75 yards apart, just standing their looking at each other waiting for the battle to begin.  Then, we actually had a battle in the streets of Front Royal, following the historical path.

Q – Have you ever stopped at a gas station, grocery store, etc. while in full attire? What was the reaction of onlookers? 

A – I have received my share of strange looks at various gas stations and mini markets when it is 90 degrees outside and I have on a wool coat and pants. Some people have asked, what kind of outfit am I wearing and the traditional. Are you hot wearing that?  I believe I have received more strange looks and comments actually in Gettysburg. A few of us will go into McDonald’s and the other customers are like, look soldiers, and they are in here, what are they doing in here, and that sort of thing.

Q – What is the strangest or funniest thing that you remember from one of your events?

A – The 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Remembrance Day parade. I was told there were over 3000 Union reenactors in this parade marching in formation south on Baltimore Street. We paused and I looked around me and behind me, and all I saw were blue uniforms with muskets standing up. Then, the fife and drum band started to play and as we started marching past the presidential viewing stand the sensation that overcame me was eerie. The only thing missing was background theme music from the Twilight Zone.

Q – A lot of people talk about the friendships and sense of community that you get while participating in living history events or reenactments. Please give some personal examples of how the hobby has impacted you.

A – First of all, I have learned more about the Civil War through reenacting then I did while I was in school.  My reenactment friendships are not just friendships they are now family. When we are together as a unit we are just one big happy family. We eat together, we sit in the sun together, we get rained on together, we share the same experiences together, we are one cohesive unit. And, we share it all together. The good, the bad and the ugly, just like a family. When Ann Marie and I were married, we were all together on the Gettysburg battlefield as a family.  We had a Civil War themed wedding and the reenactors of the 87th made it all possible, just like family. The minister actually had an 1860 bible that he read from, and a Remington .44 on his belt.  And, the ceremony was according what was actually done in this time era.

Q – What advice would you give a newcomer to the hobby?

A – It is a never-ending learning experience, and be prepared for an education that you will never ever get from a book. You may read about it, but until you experience it, it gives a whole new meaning to what they did.

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