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Long IslandHistory

Keeping the Civil War alive

On Long Island, re-enactors remember the soldiers and fight the battles of the 1860s.

Members of Company H, 119th New York Volunteer

Members of Company H, 119th New York Volunteer Historical Association, drill at the Nassau County Museum of Art in a re-enactment on Feb. 15, 1998. Photo Credit: Newsday/Bill Davis

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

The shrill rebel yell echoed across the muddy field as a handful of Confederate infantrymen emerged from the woods with their muskets crackling. Company H of the 119th New York Volunteers formed ranks and advanced to confront the enemy.

With some of their comrades falling from Rebel fire, the Yankees marched with weapons shouldered until their captain ordered a halt. "Commence firing," he shouted. Flames jetted from Union muskets and now the men of the Company B, 57th Virginia, began dropping.

"You got me, you Yankee scum," one Confederate yelled as he crumpled. The smell of gunpowder filled the cold February day until a final Union volley left all seven Rebels dead or wounded.

At which point, the audience applauded until the casualties got to their feet and dusted themselves off.

This clearly wasn't Gettysburg. The soldiers on the field at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn were Civil War re-enactors, weekend warriors who bring history to life.

The boys in blue were members of the Company H, 119th New York Volunteers Historical Association (Box 738, Melville, N.Y. 11747). They portray members of the same company, which was formed in 1862 in Hempstead and fought in more than a dozen engagements from Gettysburg to Atlanta. The re-enactors have "fought" on some of the same battlefields and appeared in the movie "Glory." The boys in gray were re-enactors from Company B, 57th Virginia Infantry (246-35 87th Ave., Bellerose, N.Y. 11426), headed by Ray Pickett of Bellerose, a great-great-grandnephew of Confederate Gen. George Pickett, who led the famous charge at Gettysburg.

Since the Company H group was formed by Nassau County Museum staff members in 1980, it has grown to about 50 members, including women who play civilians.

"When we started, we didn't want to just fire muskets at people," said Jim McKenna, an association founder who is now its chairman. "We wanted to relive history."

Association historian Gary Hammond, who works with McKenna at Old Bethpage Village Restoration, matches each enlistee with an original Company H soldier. The matches are based on similarities such as occupation. And that's just the beginning.

Mark Adler, an Oceanside electrician who has portrayed harness-maker Alfred Noon of Roslyn for 17 years, said, "I sent to the National Archives to get his military and pension papers and I researched him so well that I found his granddaughter, who knew him, living in Ronkonkoma."

The re-enactors can become very attached to their alter egos, said McKenna, who portrays Sgt. John Cornelius, a Hempstead stableman. Cornelius was wounded at Chancellorsville in 1863 and recuperated in time to fight at Gettysburg two months later.

"I still go to John Cornelius' grave every year and make sure a flag is kept there," McKenna said.

If a Company H veteran were to return, he'd feel right at home in the ranks. The re-enactors study Civil War drill and battle maneuvers - with officers, sergeants and musicians taking training courses at places like Gettysburg.

Their obsession with accuracy is most evident in the re-enactors' uniforms and weapons. The company's expert, Jim Lennon of Levittown, said it costs at least $1,500 to purchase high-quality reproductions of everything from rain ponchos to underwear. The most expensive item is an Italian-made Springfield musket reproduction that goes for more than $500.

Like most re-enactors, Lennon, who portrays Merrick farmer John Carman, has been fascinated by the Civil War since childhood. Many members collect Civil War artifacts. Lennon's interest is the life of "the common everyday Joe." So he studies diaries and journals. He made a pilgrimage to Maryland to learn how clothing was made in the 19th Century so he could make his own shirts and overcoats.

Don Effinger of Deer Park, who portrays Joseph Denton, a farmer and bayman from Hempstead, is a student of Civil War cuisine. Before each encampment, he spends 90 minutes making a batch of hardtack biscuits, the rock-hard and often bug-infested staple of the Civil War soldier's diet. Effinger's hardtack is fresh, therefore softer, and he occasionally stretches authenticity by adding historically inaccurate flavorings such as garlic.

The re-enactors are so passionate about the war that many go to more than a dozen events a year to play soldier. "This is putting what you read into practice," Lennon said.

"I just like how it was Americans versus Americans, cousins against cousins, fathers against sons," said Kevin Sheehan, a 13-year-old from Long Beach who joined two years ago to be a drummer boy.

"When there's thousands of men on the field and you're in the mist of battle you forget who you are," said Adler, who started as a private and is now the captain. Even though the muskets and cannons fire blanks, he said, "you can just start to feel the bullets whizzing over your head and the shells exploding. At some really large events, they'll have ground charges exploding near you and shells exploding overhead. Last September we were at the 135th anniversary of Antietam and there were 17,000 men on the field and over 100 cannon. The ground was shaking like an earthquake."

While the musket and cannon fire is simulated, the bayonets are real, so they remain in their scabbards during simulated combat. So far Company H hasn't needed a surgeon. "We've had some minor stuff," Adler said. "Somebody got poked in the eye, and one fellow had his musket discharge accidentally and the blast burned his fingers a little bit."

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