Mark Strother sits in his big, red truck, preparing for battle. His underclothes are cotton, his socks and pants are wool, and his suspenders bloom with flowers he embroidered. Into his blue coat pocket he slips a tintype picture of a soldier and an old photograph of a young woman. He slaps on his hat and picks up his Springfield musket.
As he slams the truck’s door, Strother leaves behind the man who serves as a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and becomes a color sergeant in the Holmes Brigade of the Union Army. He’s ready to fight the 1861 battle of Wilson’s Creek in Republic, Mo., all over again.
Strother, 34, of Caledonia, Mo., has been a Civil War re-enactor for 18 years. From the moment he leaves his truck, he becomes, in spirit, his great-great-grandfather, Edward Whit.
Gary Crane is also a re-enactor, whose great-great-grandfather, William Lafayette Crane of the 33rd Missouri Mercantile Regiment, fought for the Union, as well. Crane, a member of the 10th Missouri Cavalry and the Holmes Brigade since 1996, arrives at Wilson’s Creek with Lady, his dark bay quarter horse.
“I feel good wearing the uniform,” says Crane, who lives near Villa Ridge, Mo.
Crane, 61, is also from a military family. He spent three years as a Marine, then taught elementary school for 30 years. At a gun show 12 years ago, he saw men dressed in Civil War uniforms. Six weeks later, he participated in battle re-enactments of the 1863 campaign at Gettysburg, Pa.
“It was an awesome experience,” he recalls, remembering the muskets and music, the cannons and chaos.
Crane and Strother live and breathe the Civil War. Crane can repeat Abraham Lincoln’s jokes about Gen. George McClellan’s reluctance to fight. Strother has photo albums fat with images of men in blue, some playing chess, some playing dead. The two tell stories of the war as if it happened yesterday, but they also brag of the camaraderie among men in today’s Holmes Brigade, which like the 19th-century original, comprises “soldiers” from Missouri and surrounding states.
Strother and Crane know the history of their country, their brigade, and their families. “I’m trying to repeat family history,” Crane says, “and repeat it honestly.”
Despite heavy rain showers, this summer’s annual re-enactment on Wilson’s Creek drew about 5,000 participants from across the nation to re-create highlights of the second major battle of the war and the first west of the Mississippi.
Civil War re-enactments began soon after the Civil War, when veterans showed the folks back home what a charge looked like. Re-enactments regained popularity at centennial remembrances of the Civil War in the 1960s, then rose again in popularity for 125th anniversaries of battles. The hobby is organized more regionally than nationally, and the current number of re-enactors nationwide is about 40,000, says Bill Holschuh, publisher of the Camp Chase Gazette, the re-enactors’ journal.
Though the hobby grew steadily for 20 years, growth has leveled off the last two, he adds.
“It’s a mistake,” Holschuh says, “to generalize why 40,000 men enjoy this hobby.”
For Crane and Strother, the reasons they’ve stayed involved so long have as much to do with the fun of dressing up and playing outdoors as it does with the seriousness of studying genealogy and American history.
“This is history come to life,” says Strother. “You know how Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’? Well, we know history, and we repeat it, over and over again.”
Sometimes, Strother says, when he sits quietly, warmed by the campfires of 1,000 uniformed men, he looks up at the twilight sky, unlined by modern electric wires, and for one transcendent moment, he can feel 140 years slip away.
“Those moments are few,” he whispers, “and they last but a second.”