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New Durham heads back in time for a weekend

CIVIL WAR MEMORABILIA are strewn about the entrance to a canvas pup tent. Weston Sager. (click for larger version)
October 05, 2010
NEW DURHAM — The Civil War is almost a century and a half behind us. But last weekend, visitors to the annual Civil War Encampment in New Durham, co-hosted by the New Durham Historical Society and the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, could still experience what it was like to be a member of the Union Army.

Roger Nason of New Durham, dressed in a Civil War-era Union private's blue wool uniform, sits in the center of the encampment around a smoldering fire. Around him are half a dozen white canvas tents.

There on Ridge Top Road in New Durham, it's difficult to tell whether it's 2010 or 1861.

Nason gets up and stops first at the hospital steward's medical tent. It's larger than the other pup tents around it, but still no larger than a small shack. Underneath the awning at the entrance are two modest wooden tables. One has a metal wash basin, a scale and some vials.

The vials contain unexpectedly ordinary things, such as sugar, salt, tea, coffee grounds and some dehydrated meat.

"These were used to treat diarrhea or constipation," says Nason. "Doctors really didn't have to do much to start practicing medicine."

He says that back in the Civil War era, one only had to "read a book" in order to be a licensed doctor.

On the other table are some scary-looking medical instruments. The syringe, for example, seems like it is missing the needle. Not so, says Nason. Civil War doctors would make an incision in the flesh and inject the medicine directly into the wound.

There is also a tarnished bone saw, a canvas tourniquet, and some other instruments that remind visitors just how far medicine has come in 150 or so years.

Also on the table are a few bottles that look like they belong in a drug-dealer's cabinet rather than a doctor's kit: a bottle of powerful alcohol, a swig of ether and a small quantity of (fake) opium pills.

"The doctor would carry a sidearm," says Nason. "Not to attack the enemy, but to keep his fellow soldiers from getting in his medical bag."

Nason adds that soldiers were often prescribed mercury pills and would suck on lead bullets while on the march. Not surprisingly, far more soldiers died of disease than in combat during the war.

Medical treatment in the Civil War army was certainly more rudimentary than it is today, but so were the requirements to join the military.

"There was one requirement," jokes Nason. "You had to have two teeth: one on top and one on bottom."

He says that this was necessary to rip off the paper cartridge casing surrounding the rifle bullet and powder.

Nason then walks over to his white canvas pup tent. It's a cozy structure, with perhaps 12 square feet of floor space.

On top, there is a row of metal snaps. Nason says that each soldier would carry just one side of the tent and would team up with another soldier to create the structure by snapping the two together.

Nason says that from time to time large numbers of soldiers would band together to create a larger tent, or as they called it, a "shebang." He says this may have contributed to the phrase "the whole shebang."

Then Nason takes out his reproduction Springfield rifle. Its wooden stock and metal barrel extend four feet. It's also surprisingly heavy.

"It's about 10 pounds," he says.

He then explains that there are nine steps to load and fire this weapon, but that well-trained troops could fire three shots a minute.

"But I couldn't come close to that," he says.

Nason adds that troops just joining the army would often receive additional weapons and trinkets from family members before going out into the field. But after a couple 30-mile marches, he says soldiers would abandon the superfluous items in favor of a lighter pack.

He then takes out a long, slender piece of solid metal — a bayonet. He attaches it at the end of the rifle barrel to add even more length and heft to the firearm.

But Nason says the bayonet wasn't particularly effective because it lacked the "blood grooves" that became standard in subsequent versions. Without the grooves, Nason says, the bayonet was hard to remove from the body after it had impaled a foe.

But he says the bayonet had other uses, from roasting stick to shovel to candle holder.

He then reaches into a couple canvas pouches at the mouth of his tent. One holds paper powder cartridges. Another holds Civil War-era personal items. The personal items include small amounts of rice, Bible excerpts, tooth powder and a horsehair toothbrush.

But these aren't just for show; over this weekend, Nason uses everything just as a soldier would have back in the 1860s.

Indeed, the people at the reenactment do not just show off Civil War history to visitors. They live it, too.

Nason crawls on top of the wool blankets in his pup tent to show the confines of his living quarters. Another worker can be overhead bemoaning that he was up every hour the night before to check on the fire.

Nason then goes over to another, larger tent with a few more wooden tables. This is the "cook tent" with all the food the Civil War enthusiasts eat over the weekend. In keeping with the historic theme, it's all era-specific.

The food is perhaps even more nausea-inducing than the medical equipment. There are some regular-looking items to be sure: dried beans, rice, a fresh apple. But for every somewhat appetizing piece of food, there is something revolting: a hard yellowish slab of salt pork, old desiccated apples, rock-like pieces of "hard tack" cracker.

They try to stick to Civil War-era food for the weekend, but Nason says they avoid the salt pork, which he describes as "gut-twisting."

One thing that stands out in the cook tent is a glass bottle full of a neon-red liquid. Its bright color looks out of place amongst the otherwise drab spread.

Nason says the liquid is "switchel," which he describes as "Civil War Kool-aid." It's a mixture of raspberry or strawberry vinegar, honey and water. That and coffee were the most popular drinks amongst the Union soldiers, he says. Specifically, the most popular legal ones: alcohol was forbidden for soldiers, as were decks of playing cards. But opportunistic merchants would follow soldiers wherever they went and sell them booze and other prohibited items at a significant mark-up, he says.

The medical steward, played by John Hollinrake of Warren, comes over to hang a couple chickens over the smoldering fire while another Civil War reenactor places more wood on the flickering flames. They are setting up quite the feast: chicken, Irish stew, hard tack, applesauce and some switchel to wash it all down.

It's enough food for a large group, and that's intentional. The Civil War camp is a reconstructed recruitment center; but instead of recruiting volunteers to join the Union Army, it now serves to encourage community members to join the Civil War-themed club.

Nason says he first joined the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War Charles W. Canney Camp #5 of Rochester in order to revive the connection with his late great-great-great grandfather Benjamin Falls, a decorated Civil War veteran. Nason now wears a coin-like Civil War-era dog tag around his neck bearing Falls' name in his honor.

Nason explains there are two ways to join Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War. The first way is to trace direct lineage from a Civil War Union veteran. The second way is to join as an associate member, which requires nothing more than a keen interest in Civil War history.

Those who do sign up for Charles W. Canney Camp #5 membership receive era-specific gifts and an invitation to spend the night in one of the pup tents.

Sherry Cullimore, the owner of the land on which the camp sits, comes over to say how she enjoys hosting the event every year. Cathy Orlowicz, chairman of the New Durham Historical Society, is also very supportive of the event.

"[This group] has been wonderful to work with over the years," she says. "They help tell the story of the past."

Orlowicz points out the adjacent bake sale that helps support the Civil War Memorial Scholarship fund, a need-based scholarship for New Durham students seeking higher education.

For anyone even remotely interested in Civil War history, the encampment is well worth a visit — or for the particularly daring, even an overnight.

Weston Sager can be reached at 569-3126 or wsager@salmonpress.com

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