Many Detroit Jews are history buffs, taking part in Civil War reenactments in Michigan.
So, it’s a warm summer day and you put on a wool uniform, carry around a 9-pound, 56-inch rifle, eat hard tack and boiled beef, and sleep in a tent with candles for light. OK, you are either some sort of nut job or … just maybe, you are a Civil War re-enactor with a passion for bringing history alive, well beyond the confines of a book or a photograph. And, you just might be Jewish.
The Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in American history. Military records were very poor during this era, but the best estimate is that nearly 3 million men served in the Union and Confederate military, and that nearly one in five soldiers, sailors and Marines died of battle wounds or disease. An estimated 8,000-10,000 of these men were Jewish.
Point of interest: Although females could not enlist in the armies of the North or South, a few women did serve, masquerading as men. When burial units did their work after battles were fought, they would find a few women in uniform.
This was a war that affected nearly every family in America. This is why — 154 years after it ended in 1865 — Americans are still fascinated with the Civil War. At times, literally, brothers would be fighting brothers.
Re-enactments of Civil War battles are thought to have begun with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, when 500,000 veterans attended the ceremony and watched some re-enactments of battle sequences.
During the Civil War Centennial in 1961-1965, enthusiasm for re-enacting really soared. Today, there are around 50,000 men and women who will spend a few weekends each year experiencing the life a Civil War soldier on a campaign. Want definitive proof of the popularity of Civil War re-enacting? Just go onto the Amazon website and see the Civil War clothing for sale!
There are also Jewish re-enactors. I found a really fun, informative article about several Detroiters passionate about their craft in the July 3, 1998, issue of the JN in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. It was accompanied by a wonderful photograph of Mike Ackerman, Jim Delcamp, Leonard Steinberg and Joe Pensyl, members of the 17th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Company “E,” which was an actual Michigan unit that fought with the Union Army.
I still think their hobby is a little bit nuts; however, as a historian, I really admire their dedication to a cause. They dive deep into a historical experience to try to really understand what life was like for a Civil War soldier, beyond anything we can get from a book or movie; and then, they also follow a greater cause of teaching that history to others. This is, to use a technical term, really “cool stuff.” I salute them.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.