The Civil War is still being waged; mostly on weekends.
Sean Patrick Sullivan wears $30 linen underwear, $50 socks and a $150 hat. It’s not vanity that makes him dress so expensively. It’s duty. He is, after all, a Sergeant Major in the 52nd New York of the Union Volunteers, and he is fighting to save The Union. Well, not actually fighting, but reenacting the United States’ bloodiest conflict, the American Civil War.
“To be honest it’s more of a passion,” said Sullivan, a 29-year-old Floral Park native, whose full-time job is with National Grid. “To call it a hobby feels wrong.”
Sullivan is part of a reenactor movement that has been around for decades, and with the Civil War in its sesquicentennial, there are as many as 40,000 reenactors nationwide.
On Long Island, at least eight groups exist, with an estimated 400 members overall. Nationally, it is estimated there are as many as 40,000 reenactors. Sullivan is a member of the Union Volunteers, who currently have more than 500 members. They are a Floral Park-based group that he first encountered at a New Hyde Park street fair at age 16. He enlisted soon after.
“In high school, everyone got Playstations for Christmas,” he said. “I was getting Mort Kuntsler paintings and reenacting gear.”
Reenactments or “events,” as they are called by insiders, are active portrayals of specific events that occurred in history. For some reenactors, the hobby goes beyond the battlefield.
“We have guys who do the whole event in first-person. They do research through archives and diaries of actual soldiers and they adopt that person’s life for the weekend,” he said. “Like I said, it’s not just a hobby.”
And it many find it contagious.
“We’ve always got new guys coming in,” said Sullivan. “I can guarantee you one of my friends is at home right now wearing a kepi [the distinctive solider hat of the era], sewing part of a uniform, and watching the movie Gettysburg. I just know it.”
But, Sullivan insists, it’s more than just weekend fun. Like many reenactors, he sees it as a way of coming closer to history. History that is given little attention in most public schools.
“One period in history class. That is all you get for the Civil War,” said Sullivan, shaking his head. “Forty-two minutes and you’re done.”
An “event” will take place usually around the authentic time period of a battle. For instance, The Battle of Gettysburg occurred from July 1-3 in 1863, so a reenactment will take place at some point during July as opposed to a colder month. Events take place as close to the original date as possible in order to replicate the weather conditions of the actual battle. Numbers of participants vary from event to event since multiple events are hosted for the same battle. Around the time of the 150th anniversary of Antietam, there were two reenactments taking place within a week of each other. So the number of reenactors present was split between the two events.
For the reenactors, it’s not just fighting, but also living as soldiers did in the War Between the States.
“It’s easier to understand when you see it in front of you,” he said.
Of course, unlike his hardtack-munching antecedents, Sullivan and his comrades don’t stand much of a chance of getting a musket ball in the cranium, and they can glide in and out of history in their cars. In fact, one highlight for Sullivan is going to an event, taking part in the battle and then jumping into his car, still in uniform, and driving to the actual historical battlefield. Doing this in sites such as Antietam and Gettysburg has become a ritual for him, and makes the event a surreal experience.
“This is exactly what they saw, this is how they felt. The history is all there. You can reach out and touch it,” he said.
Some of parts of reenacting can be tedious, such as cleaning a dirty musket or sewing authentic buttonholes into a jacket. But then, said Sullivan, tedium makes it all the more realistic. He even appreciates bad weather at events, and having to sleep in the rain or march in the frigid winter months.
“It makes it exactly what it was for those guys,” he said. “It makes it that much more realistic, and that’s what makes it so great.”
Then there’s the uniform.
“A great, authentic uniform usually runs you about $1,000,” he said. Right done to the pricey linen underwear, it’s all part of being as authentic as possible. “I would never spend that kind of money on clothes except for reenacting.”
While Sullivan say reenacting can be inclusive for the whole family, he admits he has yet to convince his wife, Kristen Sullivan, to join the ranks. “I ask her about it all the time and she just laughs at me,” he said, laughing himself. “We set up civilian camps for families, but she says its just not for her. She doesn’t want to do it, but she understands me doing it.” But even his wife’s absence helps to add authenticity to an event. “I want to get her into Victorian Photography Studios in Gettysburg and get her picture taken in an old dress so I can carry it with me in battle.” It’s the small details such as those that take a reenactor’s impression to the next level.
Not everybody shares his passion for the Civil War. Sullivan admits he sometimes gets questions and odd glances when he is in uniform.
“I go camping and play war. That’s how I explain it when people ask,” he said. “Try it. Come out one weekend.”
Even though there is a standard look to the average Civil War soldier —young, white, male—Sullivan said the reenacting community is open and welcoming; reenactors don’t have to look the part.
“I want to be doing this even when I’m 60,” he said, recognizing that few sexagenarians were on the 19th century front lines. “If I have a son one day, I would love to take him to an event and fight by his side. That’s what it’s all about, experiencing moments like that.”
But for some people want to know more.
“I get questions like, ‘Why are you guys so obsessed with killing and death? Why would you want to constantly relive such a horrible part of history?’ But that’s not why we do it,” Sullivan maintains. “It’s easy to forget these were flesh and blood people. We are trying to honor them.”