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Re-enactors travel back in time to bring history to life

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GROTON — This July 13, 14 and 15, hundreds of Civil War re-enactors will converge on Hillbrook Orchard with the sole intention of transporting us back to another July 13, 14 and 15 — in the 1860s. Men, women and children will work together to bring the past to life for our area.

Some re-enactors give what they call impressions of a particular role. A soldier may choose to rough it, with nothing but a blanket and pack, while another unit may bring a full field medical hospital or topographical engineering office. A woman might spend the day cleaning clothes in an effort to portray a laundress. Children can usually be seen playing with authentic Civil War period toys in the civilian section of the camp. Both men and women have the option to portray either a Union or a Confederate soldier or a civilian.

Some re-enactors have spent a significant portion of their lives researching one biography — a person whose profile reaches across the pages of history and speaks to them, even in our modern times. Sam Grant, as he is commonly called, is one of these re-enactors. He portrays Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant.

“I was struck by how remarkably similar in both appearance and attitude he seemed in comparison to the real Grant.” said Erin Heinold, a Westford resident who has seen the “new” Grant at work. Apparently this living historian not only looks like the Union general and later president, but also owns horses with the same appearances and names as General Grant’s horses.

All the soldiers who will be camping on the fields of Groton will spend their weekend much as real soldiers did between 1861 and 1865. They will live in tents without the benefit of running water, eat what their unit cook creates, and sip boiled coffee.

The women who take part will also live as if they were in the 19th century. Regardless of the weather, they will do any needed cooking over open fires while wearing eight layers of clothing. “Etiquette requires that our dresses go up to our necks and down to our wrists. Proper heel height is one-half inch and below,” explained Julie Marin, a Pepperell resident who has given living history presentations on the women of the Civil War.

Some children also “time travel” with their parents. A few work with the soldiers’ units, as families of the period moved together occasionally. Many children will spend the weekend living in “Unity” — a civilian camp that demonstrates non-military life of that time. Kids in this group may help with chores like cooking or cleaning but they will also have time to play with other children.

So why would these men, women and children leave their modern conveniences and games and pretend as if it were 150 years ago?

Sam Grant explained that many re-enactors are not “pretending” but are instead trying to gain a better understanding. In an effort to “walk in the shoes” of people during the Civil War, these modern families choose to literally walk in their shoes by foregoing creature comforts. Grant believes that through a thorough understanding of history, we can avoid repeating it.

The “unit” that Grant has worked with over most of his re-enactment career was what he terms “a 50/50 unit.” The loyalties of the men and women in the group are split between the Confederacy and the Union. But how could anyone from the North possibly side with the South?

Grant explained that the Civil War was about much more than just slavery. The Southerners were fighting to protect the rights of their states against what they saw as a domineering federal government. Slavery was just one issue. Slavery had been part of their culture since Colonial times, and the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come out until two years into the war.

Grant asked, “What would you do if an army was marching on Groton? What if the Canadians were trying to take over Massachusetts and they attacked here?”

We know the war started with a Southern attack on Ft. Sumter, that is not how Southern sympathizers perceive the start of what they might term The War Between the States.

Grant went on to explain that most of the war was fought on Southern land and the majority of the Confederate soldiers didn’t own slaves.

As Grant enjoys reminding people, President Abraham Lincoln once said, “A country with no regard for its past will do little to remember in the future.” This thought is what motivates him so dive so deeply into the past. Grant and other re-enactors hope to help people thoroughly understand the Civil War time period, from both Northern and Southern perspectives, so that we can be a more knowledgeable country.

Often Grant finds himself doing what he most enjoys at re-enactments — talking with people who are eager to learn. Grant is driven to spark a love of history in young people, who he believes are short-changed by learning history as a sequence of dates rather than a sequence of individual decisions.

As reported on Grant’s Web site, “the General was such a popular character; the children followed him out of the building and didn’t want him to leave,” Bill Ross, Cub Scout Den Leader of Pepperell, said.

According to Grant, when we attend a re-enactment, we will be surrounded with people who ask that we don’t just stare in amazement at the sights before us but cross the lines — mentally dive in — and try to understand what we see by asking questions.

To give us the tools to move from a vague memory of the past to fuller comprehension — that is the reason these people toil to travel back through time.

For more information on the event, visit www.grotonhistoricalsociety.org/civilwar.html.

For more information on the living historians such as Sam Grant or Julie Marin, visit www.usgrant.org.

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