Something special happened to William Demaria last year on his 16th birthday -- his Civil War regiment allowed him to start carrying a musket.
Now, instead of just wearing a wool Union Army uniform and carrying a battlefield flag at living history re-enactments, the 17-year-old senior at Garden City High School can fire blanks when Union and Confederate troops square off to show spectators what combat entailed in the 1860s.
Demaria is one of a handful of kids who participate in Civil War re-enactments with his regiment -- he'll play the role of Union soldier George Stillwell on Sept. 19 and 20 when the 67th New York Volunteer Infantry / First Long Island Volunteers hosts a Civil War event at the Grange park in Sayville.
"They say it's an adult hobby, but it's a very welcoming hobby," Demaria says. "If you're into history, there's always something to talk about, because everyone shares that common interest."
'STRICT WITH MINORS'
Besides Demaria, the regiment includes kids Alec Israeli, 16, a junior at Cold Spring Harbor High School, and the Badamo brothers of Patchogue -- Steven, 11; Dean, 9, and Joe, 6. The regiment meets on the last Sunday of every month in uniform to drill and practice maneuvers so that they can put on a historically authentic show.
"We're very strict with minors, but we do have roles for them," says Max Kenny, 47, the 30-person regiment's administrative secretary and webmaster. Legally, kids can't carry a musket until they are 16. They have to participate for a probationary period of one year before they are voted in by the general membership and invited to formally join the regiment, Kenny says. Before age 16, boys play the roles of drummers or carry battlefield flags.
During a re-enactment event, the soldiers set up a realistic 1860s camp. Re-enactments are often held at the site of various battles along the East Coast. Regiments often will be staying overnight, gathering around a campfire, sleeping on hay and dining on bacon and hardtack crackers made from flour and water. During the day, they will engage in role-play on the battlefield.
Re-enactments usually involve a number of different Union and Confederate regiments from the area, and can include cavalry and artillery regiments on horseback. They can also include a wartime hospital.
Other re-enactment groups welcome kids as well, and tabout seven are in the Long Island area, says James Carrick, 51, of New Hyde Park, a board member with the 9th Virginia Infantry Company C, a Confederate unit. "We want the participation of younger boys and girls," Carrick says; they grow up to take leadership positions in the group. Carrick's group currently has two members in high school, he says.
"I really like being in a camp. The way the tents are set up, the music that's being played," says Steven, who signed on to the Union regiment along with his brothers and parents this year after his fifth-grade teacher, Robert Alonso, also in the Union group, noticed his interest in the Civil War and invited him to explore it.
Steven, like Israeli, is a drummer. Dummers have several roles in the regiment, Israeli explains. One, to act as a clock for camp life. Different beats indicate time to wake up or to report to meals. Two, to keep time during marches. And three, to perform songs along with fife or bugle players to boost morale.
'CROSSROADS IN HISTORY'
Israeli was drawn to the Civil War in part because it was one of the first wars to employ the advances of the Industrial Revolution -- guns were made in factories, and the telegraph was used to transport news from the front back to Washington, D.C. "It's at a very interesting crossroads in history," he says.
Demaria was intrigued by the emotional struggle of "the War Between the States," which led to the end of slavery in the South. "Almost the entire population of the U.S. was moved by this conflict," he says. "It's a very engrossing struggle and also a very horrible one."
Demaria joined the regiment when he was 11 -- he points out where the hem of his Army uniform pants have been let down two or three times as he's grown older and taller. He's now the regiment's chief historian. His father, Thomas, a psychologist, joined with him, and its been a bonding experience for them, Demaria says.
Re-enactors are just coming off a five-year cycle of Civil War 150th anniversaries. Steven and Dean Badamo and their dad, Thomas, 53, a cabinetmaker, marched with the regiment down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in May during the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review of the Armies after the end of Civil War.
Nancy Israeli says the experiences have been great for her son, who is the only family member involved in the group. Israeli says she's enjoyed watching the re-enactments as a spectator. "It is pretty spectacular when you see the calvary coming and hear the boom of the cannon."
The Seventh Annual Civil War Weekend at the Grange
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 19; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 20, 10 Broadway Ave., Sayville
INFO 631-472-7016; newyorkcivilwar.com/grangeevent.html
To get involved
The 67th New York Volunteer Infantry / First Long Island Volunteers meets at 9 a.m. on the last Sunday of every month at 10 Broadway Ave., Sayville. Meetings are open to anyone interested in joining. Interested families can also visit newyorkcivilwar.com.
Kids can find information joining the 9th Virginia Infantry Company C at 9VAReenacting.com.
Annual dues are nominal; the 9th Virginia, for instance, charges $10 a year. Units might lend some gear to new members until they are sure to commit, because uniforms and accoutrements can run upward of $1,000, says James Carrick, 51, of New Hyde Park, a board member with the 9th Virginia Infantry Company C.