Usually when people first meet me, I don't really mind telling them about myself and things that I enjoy. However, there's usually a fact about me that I don't exactly lead with, and that's my beloved hobby. That's something I'll usually save for... eh... some other time. Usually people will stumble across it on their own as they go back through my Facebook or something. I'm not really embarrassed about my hobby, it's just a bit difficult to explain. Civil war era facial hair styles.
To condense it all, I really enjoy leaving all electricity and modern technology behind, wearing wool clothing in the summer heat, being strapped down with 35 pounds of gear and a 10-pound rifle, marching several miles a day in all my gear, speaking with a strange old-fashioned vocabulary, subsisting off meat that has spent a month in a barrel of salt and crackers with the consistency of a rock, and sleeping outside in the rain. Seriously, it's a passion.
I am a Civil War reenactor.
Nope, that is not a dusty old image from 150 years ago that is specially preserved in a photographic collection in the Library of Congress - that's me in the summer 2014. I do everything I can to get every detail as close as possible to what you would have seen in an original soldier of the North or South all those years ago. I style my hair and facial hair in ways that were popular with men in the 1860s - and conveniently enough are still kind of popular today. All my clothing was reproduced from original artifacts - the people who make all the clothing basically do it as a second job, they're that good at it. I read letters and diaries from the time period to help me replicate how these guys talked, joked, and viewed things. I won't lie, it can be a lot of work and a lot of money, but I positively love it.
If I had a dime for every time I've been asked this question... Explaining why I reenact is tough for me. There's a lot that goes into it, and a lot that keeps me doing it, but I've got three big motivators.
1. I just love history
Everybody's got that one thing that they can look at and say, "That's my sh*t, man. That's my thing." My thing is - and always has been - history. I've loved it since I was a kid. History became my passion because I learned early that our heritage is part of all of us and everything around us. For instance, I've connected my beloved university's history to what I do. A lot of early Penn Staters joined the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers and fought through the war. The picture above is me at their monument at the Gettysburg Battlefield, at the very spot where many of them laid down their lives.
Everyone in the past had a story, just like us. They had a home and people they loved, just like us. They laughed, cried, celebrated, mourned, got pissed off, had bad days, had things they were stressed about, had favorite ways to relax after a long day of work... just like us. The only difference is that we live in different circumstances.
I think about that all the time, and I want to learn the stories of these people. That's why history became one of my majors at Penn State. After writing a historical thesis the length of a small book, I'll shortly be getting my history degree with honors.
My love of history has branched out from just mid-nineteenth century America, and every now and then I'll start into a kick about some new topic (lately its been the Roman Republic). But the Civil War Era is what I'm best at, and what I feel the most emotionally attached to.
2. Reenacting has given me so many great friends and memories
(Yes, that's me in the center - it was fall of 2012, and it was one of the last times I wouldn't have a beard.)
This hobby has connected me to the coolest people, and they're from all different walks of life. I've stood shoulder to shoulder with punk rockers, pastors, bankers, construction workers, real-life combat veterans, movie producers, frat boys, people with Ph.D.s, you name it. We come from across the country - sometimes from across oceans - and from all different places on the political spectrum. When we get to the reenactment (what we call an "event"), all those differences go aside. For a weekend, we all have a release from the world of today, and we can escape into another life.
Now, don't get me wrong, we're just playing soldier here. But there's something about being in tough situations with folks that makes you really bond to them. We all have stories that we share a part of. My buddy Chase (the guy on the right in the picture) and I will always remember marching 17 miles in the blazing sun for 8 hours, walking across the Potomac River, and finally collapsing at the edge of a cornfield when we joined in an effort to recreate Confederate soldiers marching to the Battle of Antietam. Some of us will remember sitting in a dark forest last summer, telling ghost stories in the pitch black night while we sat on reserve on sentry duty and tried to pick out the sounds of Confederate footsteps from the croaking of bullfrogs.
I've made so many memories with these guys. Some of them are inside jokes, like the way the words "buttered carrots" can make us cringe and roll on the ground laughing. Some of them are moments that make me get goosebumps and say, "Wow, that actually happened," like very early one September morning in 2012 when a couple thousand of us watched the smoke from our rifles blot out the rising sun (which you can watch in the video below).
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3. I want to commemorate our nation's greatest tragedy and teach people the lessons of our past
If there's something I want to make very clear, it's this - I hope to God I will never understand the things a Civil War soldier experienced. They saw their brothers, sons, or fathers cut down next to them on smoky battlefields. They watched their best friends waste away and die from disease. They felt pain, sorrow, and misery.
My own ancestor, Private Jeremiah Stailey served in the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves, and he felt those things. When the war began, he was so excited to march off to war that he lied about his age to enlist - he had only just turned 16. He was wounded in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 - the bloodiest single day in American history. He was captured at the Battle of Wilderness a year and a half later, and was sent to the infamous prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. He almost starved to death in Andersonville, and when he came out, he was a walking skeleton. It ruined him. He went home and married, but he only lived another ten years or so. The man died in his early 30s.
I don't want to glorify war, killing, and death. This is where the deeper part of my soul comes into this hobby. There are some reenactors out there who just don't do it right. When they reenact a battle or something for the public, they make it into something like a carnival sideshow. I don't believe in that. Not all reenactors are exactly the same. Some just do it casually and don't really think about the bigger picture of what we're doing. My friends and I aren't those sorts of guys. Yeah, we have fun doing this. But there's a hell of a lot more to it.
See that picture? That's real. Those are real Americans. Dead and left out on the battlefield for days in the rain and sun. They were someone's husband, boyfriend, brother, son, or daddy. But no more. That's the truth of history.
I'm sorry if that's an unpleasant picture to look at, but that's why I do this. In the end, I don't give a damn about cool uniforms, fun times, and hanging with buddies. That doesn't matter compared to this.
I reenact to teach people what those men lived through, and to teach people what those men died for.
I don't participate in a whole lot of battle reenactments anymore. They can be really impressive and can help you get a sense of what a battle in the Civil War was like. But the thing is, we will never know. We'll never know what it's like to sob over your best friend's corpse after he died in your arms behind the firing line. We'll never know how it feels to march a mile over open ground, knowing that staring you dead in the face are thousands of rifles and cannons that will fire at any minute and wipe out you and your friends. We'll never know the horrific feeling soldiers wrote about when they spent the night next to a battlefield from earlier that day, and they were kept awake all night by the screaming and moaning of the wounded left out in the field. I hope we will never know what that is like.
Instead of battle reenactments, I prefer to do what we call living histories. In a living history, we'll set up camp somewhere and just show the daily life of these soldiers to members of the public. We'll do these at national parks or different historical sites, and anyone can come visit us free of charge. We'll do some drill, maybe do a firing demonstration, things like that. But the part I think is most important is just standing face-to-face with the public and just talking about what these men endured. Sometimes we'll speak in "first-person" and act like we actually are Civil War soldiers - this lets people get to interact firsthand with these men (kids especially love this).
But other times, we'll just talk normally. We'll be honest about who we are in real life. If someone asks, I'll tell them I'm a 22-year-old student at Penn State University, and I'll tell them why I do this stuff. I tell them why I'm so emotionally attached to this conflict and the men who fought it - because it's a part of me and my own heritage. I help them connect to it too, and soon they feel attached to it too.
The Civil War isn't always easy to talk about. It's something that's very much still apart of our country's controversies of that war are still with us today. Look for instance at the recent debates over the Confederate battle flag. There are questions remaining from the Civil War that we're still trying to answer.
Here's my view of it though:
Our Civil War was a national tragedy. Brother fought brother - at times, literally. Whole towns had their young men wiped out or limping home maimed for life. Some families lost everything in that war. There were a hell of a lot of widows and a hell of a lot of orphans. 750,000 people died in that war. That was 2% of the American population then. Can you imagine if 2% of our population died today? For four years, America's fields, rivers, towns, and streams ran red with the blood of Americans who should have lived in peace and brotherhood with each other.
But great good came from this tragedy. An entire race of people who were enslaved, abused, tortured, murdered, and traded like livestock were set free. From the fires of this war, African-Americans took their freedom and rose like a phoenix as citizens. America proved that democracy could survive, and that this nation would persevere. But this all is still relevant.
Racism is still alive in this country (that's right, I said it). Americans are becoming more and more divided by hatred and anger. People are forgetting the blood that was shed to keep this nation alive.
That's why I do this.
I do this so we may never make the same mistakes that we did over 150 years ago. I reenact to teach people what that war was like and how terrible it was. I reenact so that, in the immortal words of Lincoln, "these dead shall not have died in vain." That's how I honor the men in blue and gray who laid down their lives. That's why I do all this crazy stuff. Don't get me wrong, from a distance, this hobby looks weird. But beneath the surface, there is a deep and heartfelt purpose.
“I know how you feel because I’ve been there too. I’ve hated, and I’ve loved. I’ve seen my demons root and crawl and my angels branch and soar. I've died within myself and lived a thousand different lives. I too fight the same war and I too am drowning in the puddles of self-consciousness this world created.” — Robert M. Drake
Tonight I realized something. People are cruel. People are mean. Life is not fair. Things happen we can not explain, and some of it is unnecessary.
I have never understood the concept of how people can bring other people down constantly. I had to watch one of my best friends cry over a Twitter post made and commented on by her ex-boyfriend and his friends, as it dwindled her self-consciousness even more.
People are always going to have something to say about you, someone else, or something. Yes, you can ignore it. Yes, you can be the bigger person, but I challenge you to, "Instead of putting people down all your life, inspire someone, change someone’s life for the better, make someone happy, make someone smile."
The harmful words said, actions done, and social media posts happen too often. I have always wondered what is it about putting people down that makes someone feel so great. I was never one to truly take it to heart, but I know people who do. Some people care about people’s opinions more than others. Do not blame them for that. They cannot help how they feel, but you can help what you say and do.
“Challenge yourself everyday to do better and be better. Remember, growth starts with a decision to move beyond your present circumstances.” — Robert Tew
You may not like everyone you meet in your life, and that's okay. There may be people who don't like us no matter how nice we are. Challenge yourself to continue to be the bigger person and to be nice. Even on your worst day, see the best in others, and treat others the way you would want them to treat you.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better! -— Maya Angelou
Can we be justified in continually refusing to give money to beggars? The view I am promoting may appear cynical as it concerns human nature; however, in addition to being relevant, the reality of the matter indicates that as a college student, I am constantly plagued by men and women begging for money on my walk to classes. Not that older adults with salaried jobs don't experience this, because they do, but as a college student it is simply impractical and unfair for beggars to ask of us to give them money. Most of us are in debt already, so any money that we do give is a negative quantity on our loan statement that we'll be paying back in 5 years anyway!
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As a result of this quandary many college students find themselves in, I've tested this issue against the weight of three over-arching ethical theories: Utilitarianism, Ethics of the Person, and Virtue Ethics.
Utilitarianism is famous for promoting the "greatest good for the greatest number," and an action becomes good or bad based on the consequences the action creates: the happiness it causes, or the displeasure it inflicts. And so, could a Utilitarian rightly refuse a beggar on the street?
The Utilitarian could easily see how giving the beggar five dollars would only serve to increase the beggar's immediate happiness, because she has observed the beggar's condition, and it never improves to long-term happiness. Additionally, being a poor college student, every dollar counts when you are thousands in debt, so the Utilitarian's own immediate and long-term happiness would be decreased if she gives the beggar five dollars. Therefore, it would not serve the community's principle of utility for her to give the beggar money; she is morally justified in withholding her money.
An Ethicist of Persons holds the belief that all persons are "ends in themselves" rather than merely "means" to accomplish their own selfish ends. A persons ethicist would approach that very same situation, initially angered, because clearly, having been asked for money almost every day by the same beggar, she is cognizant of the fact that the beggar is using her as a "means" for financial advancement. She reasons, however, that despite her anger, this fellow human deserves her respect because he is an "end in himself." She reasons that giving him money is simultaneously undermining his ability as a human to advance his own well-being, and she doesn't want to devalue his dignity, worth, or humanity. Therefore, the persons ethicist is morally justified in withholding their money from the beggar.
Finally, if you are a Virtue Ethicist, then you probably have the biggest claim to legitimately giving the beggar money. Classical virtues are: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. Theological virtues go farther than that, being: Faith, Hope, and Charity. However, an action such as giving money to a beggar could be charitable, yet unwise and reckless (in opposition to Prudence). So the very same act can be considered virtuous and vicious. In such cases, there is a conflict of virtues, giving the ethicist in question the determining power to decide what is the most ethical decision to be made. Moreover, could the Virtue Ethicist be morally justified in refusing the beggar money? It would seem that she could.
All this being said, it is important to note that the act of giving money to a beggar is your own choice. If you understand all these arguments, yet still want to give money to a beggar, by all means do so! There is no case in which this action is not worthy of praise, if you indeed do desire the best for the beggar, and do so out of your own desire.
The problem, simply put, is when one feels constrained to do so. I think it is unfair that young poor college students EVER feel compelled to give money, and then guilty when they don't. These ethical arguments I have given are intended to release you from the box of guilt and constraint, not to be cynical and heartless.
Next time a situation as this, or similar to this, presents itself, I challenge you to think twice about why you are doing what you are doing. Oftentimes, it is true that why you are doing what it is that you are doing matters far more than what it is that you are doing. And at face value, what it is that you are doing (whether associated as good or bad) is not always appropriately viewed by people around you.