Re-enactors connect with past as they take part in Civil War commemoration events

Eddie Killian of Lexington (from left), Andrew Peterson of Lancaster, Pa., Jim Cevasco of Simpsonville and Christopher Rucker of Spartanburg were among the South Carolina artillery militia re-enactors at a Confederate camp set up at Patriots Point last week.

Jessica Miller // The Post and Courier

Re-enactors from across the country portray the South Carolina artillery militia during a re-enactment last week at Patriots Point. Cannons were fired nearly every hour April 14 to mark the Union surrender after the Battle of Fort Sumter.

John "Garfield" Nolen hated history in high school, but he just spent 10 days living it, sleeping inside a canvas tent just outside the entrance to a Confederate camp at Patriots Point as part of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The Myrtle Beach resident portrayed the camp's provost, making sure that nothing modern, with the exception of visitors and a Mount Pleasant firetruck, passed through the entrance.

Nolen started out as an infantryman 18 years ago as a member of the 23rd South Carolina Palmetto Battalion. He said other family members took up the hobby five years before he did, and he decided to play along to build a bridge to them.

"Guess what? I just ended up loving it," Nolen said. "It gets under your skin."

He no longer can walk due to medical problems, so he parked an 1800s wheelchair found in Tennessee outside his tent to live authentically throughout the week.

"For some reason, this history stuff gets a hold of you. It grabs your heart," Nolen said.

Curtis "Moose" Sauls of Hartsville, who camped with Nolen, said there's usually a point during a commemoration when the sunset, mist and rising smoke after a cannon fire create "a feeling that you are actually there, connecting with the past."

The unit lined up a row of cannons on a ridge just south of the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina and "aimed" for Fort Johnson and Fort Sumter. The canvas tents covered a grassy area several feet behind the ridge.

The camp couldn't have been in that exact location in 1861 because the area was marsh at the time. Nevertheless, Sauls said he spent each night looking up at the stars thinking that Civil War soldiers would have seen the same sky.

"I think about the boys on the line. It gets inside me. It brings me to tears," Nolen said.

Some visitors didn't have such a strong reaction. One young child watching the scene with his mother cried and covered his ears after cannons were fired. But children participating in school field trips were more curious, surrounding the men and wanting to know how the cannons worked and what things were.

Sam Derrick, working a booth at Patriots Point, said about 400 spectators visited the camp throughout the week, including 75 people on the morning of April 14 when they re-created the Union surrender in the Battle of Fort Sumter. The Mount Pleasant Fire Department also stopped by after a campfire blew into a patch of pampas grass.

Men and some women dressed in gray-and-red South Carolina Militia uniforms, but some wore blue. Vernon Terry, who portrayed the Confederate camp's commander, wore a 20-ounce blue wool jacket and pants with a "U.S." belt buckle. Terry said the camp's commander graduated from West Point in 1847, and it was the only uniform he had at the time.

"It was the first battle if you want to call it a battle," said Eddie Killian of Lexington.

Terry, of Texas, said the soldiers never thought the first fight would lead to a four-year war. They thought the Union soldiers would give up and go home.

In future battles, they dropped the U.S. garb and wore gray, tan, butternut -- anything but blue, re-enactors said.

Terry said the members consider themselves living historians. Most of them didn't want to be called re-enactors, nor did they consider the event a re-enactment. It was a commemoration, they said.

Killian and Andrew Peterson of Pennsylvania said they became interested in Civil War history after learning they had ancestors who fought in the war.

Killian said his ancestors were in the Revolutionary War also, but Civil War re-enactments were more economical.

"There is a negative part of it, but there doesn't have to be," Killian said.