Re-enactors convey importance of living history during Civil War Weekend

Re-enactors convey importance of living history during Civil War Weekend

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MASSENA — The air was filled with smoke and bodies depicting the dead lay across a tree-covered field at Robert Moses State Park Sunday afternoon.

As cannons and rifles fired, the smell was front and center, something books and history classes can’t convey when learning about the Civil War, re-enactor Matthew T. Hewson said.

Mr. Hewson played the role of unit commander in the 14th Louisiana Sharpshooters, an independent battalion out of the New Orleans area, and one of the many participants in the 15th annual St. Lawrence County Historical Association’s Civil War Weekend this past weekend.

A U.S. and global history teacher at Franklin Academy in Malone, Mr. Hewson, 26, of West Chazy, has been involved in historical re-enactments since he was 7 years old and has participated in the Robert Moses event for a decade.

“Re-enacting is a great hobby. It’s a great way to do history in a different way,” Mr. Hewson said. “A lot of people are students of history and this is a great way to live the passion, to live what you’ve learned.”

While reading about history and his role in the classroom is an important one, there are multiple experiences that don’t translate the same way living history does.

“You can’t read one book that tells you what it was like to live at that time, but here, there is a great opportunity to experience what the Civil War smelled like, what it looked like, what it felt like,” Mr. Hewson said. “It’s funny, but every time period has its own odor. … I think that is a piece of history that you can’t get without going to a re-enactment.”

During the weekend re-enactments, spectators experience what Mr. Hewson described as the Civil War’s “smoky, earthy smell,” where the smell of the Vietnam era was one of heavy oil and earth due to “petro chemicals.” World War II was permeated by the smells of heavy axle grease and the dye used on the wool at the time.

“It has this very distinct metallicy, sour odor to it,” Mr. Hewson said. “No book can ever tell you that.”

In addition to teaching history, Mr. Hewson also heads two youth camps at the Clinton County Historical Society at Plattsburg.

Thaddeus J. Booth, 18, of Plattsburgh, and Adam E. Knight, of Champagne, and two of Mr. Hewson’s sharpshooters, were both recurring participants at Mr. Hewson’s camp who later expressing their interest in becoming involved in re-enacting.

Mr. Booth has been re-enacting in the Civil War Weekend at Robert Moses State Park for five years and Mr. Knight has been re-enacting for about seven years.

“This event is especially special to me because I came to the first one as a spectator when I was 4, so it’s kind of cool because it is the first living history thing my parents ever brought me to,” Mr. Booth said. “I enjoy experiencing some of what the troops went through. This is about as close to real as you can get. … So it is a really special experience when you get Union troops, that if you look them in the eye and you pull that trigger, they go down. It sends a chill down your spine. You feel it. It’s … odd.”

Mr. Knight said re-enacting can be a little addicting.

“I took a slight break last year because I was away but I have been coming here for a majority of my time in re-enacting,” Mr. Knight said. “This has always been one of my bigger events that I go to. I’ve also been to the 150th at Gettysburg, when they had it, I’ve been to multiple other events all across New York state, all over the eastern coast and it has always been something I fell in love with and how to do it for a long time.”

Mr. Hewson said he and his former students continue to return to Robert Moses each year for a number of reasons, from the terrain to the county’s understanding of its role in the Civil War.

“I think there is a good, strong base of interest in the Civil War in the area,” Mr. Hewson said. “St. Lawrence County is well aware of their Civil War history and their contributions and I think that plays a huge role in it, too.”

Source: Watertown Daily Times
Re-enactors convey importance of living history during Civil War Weekend

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