For someone who is personally responsible for changing the historic records of Riverhead Town, Edward Kuhlmann is just a little embarrassed to admit one small fact — he's not sure when he actually became interested in history.
"It certainly wasn't in high school," he joked.
Now, at 47, Kuhlmann — who runs a taekwondo academy in Riverhead, where he lives — spends a good deal of his time thinking about living in the past:
He's gone through the sprawling Riverhead cemetery, headstone by headstone, marking down the graves of every veteran who served in the Civil War, taking notes of what is inscribed on the tombstones and making sure they are included in the town's official list of those who served. He did the job so well that Riverhead recently published an addendum to its official list of Civil War veterans, and credited Kuhlmann with providing the information.
He's a Civil War re-enactor, dressing up in the heavy blue woolen uniform of the 88th New York Volunteers Regiment and going out to encampments on weekends, re-creating how soldiers ate, slept and fought 150 years ago.
He's started a part-time business making replicas of Civil War flags.
History is important on the East End, where books are still written about what town boards did in the 1700s, and where past conflicts — from the Revolutionary War to the French and Indian War — are marked with monuments in parks and streets.
Kuhlmann, who uses his initials E.J., started on his search for records of Riverhead's lost Civil War soldiers and sailors by accident. It began, he recalls, when he was going to a carnival in Jamesport with his son, Dakota.
They got there at 2 p.m., but when they arrived, they saw it began at 3 p.m. With an hour to kill, they went into a nearby cemetery to look around, and found a monument to a Civil War soldier who had served with the 127th New York Infantry.
"My son gave him a salute," Kuhlmann said.
For Kuhlmann, who has been a Civil War re-enactor for 15 years, it was enough to make him wonder what he could find in other local cemeteries. He eventually went to the sprawling Riverhead Cemetery near the Pulaski Street School. It was three years later, and Dakota was 7.
"We found 13 soldiers in five minutes," Kuhlmann said. "I started to grid and map the cemetery with him."
It turned out to be like a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing, others so damaged they could not be read and some pieces that were just wrong, when compared with the official records.
Rain and snow, winter freezes and the growth of moss caused a lot of damage to headstones in a century and a half, and Kuhlmann had to wet down the surface of some old tombstones just to get a hint of what had been carved on them.
But, over time, what he found was photographed and put into his private scrapbook of Riverhead's Civil War soldiers. So was the information he was able to get from the New York State archives and the records of the U.S. Department of Defense, in addition to copies of old newspaper articles.
He gave his records to Georgette Case, Riverhead's town historian, who praised his work and used it to print an addendum to the town's official records of its Civil War vets.
Kuhlmann learned that the two men whom Riverhead residents called the Downs brothers, soldiers George and John Downs, weren't really siblings. John was 18 and serving with the 127th Infantry when he was killed in the battle of Second Bull Run in Manassas, Va. George, who died in 1870 at age 47, also served in the infantry, but it turns out the men were actually cousins.
The book of headstones and photographs is also filled with Kuhlmann's handwritten notes, little fragments of the life and times of soldiers and sailors. Those little scraps sometimes add up to a lot.
There is, for example, the case of John Augustus Brown, believed to be the first soldier from Riverhead killed in the Civil War, on July 21, 1861, despite no military record to back up that claim. But Kuhlmann found records for another soldier named John A. Brown who served with the 14th Brooklyn Infantry who was killed on that day. They turned out to be the same man.
"That was a big thing to discover," Kuhlmann said.
On the flip side, Kuhlmann hasn't just been learning things about Civil War veterans, he's been teaching informal lessons. At battle re-enactments and encampments in Smithtown and Old Bethpage Village, in school programs and at local living-history events, he offers the everyday life of a soldier. He does his best to answer questions, even if some of them are amusing.
On one summer day, a youngster looked at Kuhlmann, wearing his full-length woolen coat and carrying his heavy pack, and asked, "Are you hot in that?"