One young man re-enacts civil war battles to honor his ancestors and bring history to life.
STORY | JILLIAN WRIGHT
PHOTO | JILLIAN WRIGHT
Dehydrated, exhausted and ready to give up, he struggles to stand. The gray Confederate uniforms ahead of him begin to blur, the shouts of the commanding officer start to muffle.
“Hold it together,” he tells himself. Then, his vision goes black.
Twenty-four hours ago, Evan Hunsberger’s greatest concern was how many blisters he’d get during the march. For two days across 30 miles, 30 volunteer soldiers gathered to re-enact the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market and honor the Virginia Military Institute cadets who fought on May 15, 1864.
Hunsberger wakes to his alarm clock blaring at 5:45 a.m. on May 14, 2014. Sitting up in bed, he glances around at his pair of Brogan leather shoes with metal heel plates, a $450 drum that straps to the knee, and thick wool Confederate uniform — all authentic, of course. Authenticity is the highest form of honor.
Stepping outside, Hunsberger squints at the sky, searching for any sign of storm clouds. It rained all week, and he can’t let his instrument and uniform get water damage.
Thankfully, no clouds are in sight. The spring morning air is crisp, a thick fog settling across the grass.
Hunsberger, 21, has been stepping back in time since fifth grade, when he would pore over the school library’s history section. His father, raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has ancestors who fought for the Union. His mother grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, and has Confederate ancestors.
For Hunsberger, a senior marketing major, reading about these men and their roles in the Civil War preserves their memory. For him, an even better way to do this is to portray them. He’s been re-enacting Virginia battles for more than 12 years, participating in as many as his college schedule allows.
This is his toughest one yet.
“It’s in my blood,” he thinks as his feet drag across Route 11’s pavement.
Beginning at Mount Crawford, he and the others march for over nine hours with a few short breaks. When the ranks begin to weaken from exhaustion, the commanding officer barks at the fife players and drummers to start another beat.
“Don’t stop playing, don’t stop moving,” Hunsberger whispers.
After covering nearly 16 miles, the unit sets up camp around 6 p.m. near the United Methodist Church in Mount Taber, about halfway to New Market. Hunsberger collapses on the grass, pulling off his bulky uniform, made 10 pounds heavier by sweat. Next, off come his leather shoes and two pairs of cotton socks. He winces, halfheartedly massaging his pink feet, now covered in numerous blisters. One is so massive it resembles a sixth toe.
“What a day!”
“Man, I’m f—-n’ beat.”
“We’re barely halfway there, ya know.”
Voices fade as Hunsberger pulls out a hardtack — a long-lasting biscuit used by soldiers — and apple from his pack, not tasting what he’s eating, just consuming for nourishment.
“Man, I don’t feel so great. I think I’m gonna be sick.”
The voice brings Hunsberger back to reality. He glances around, taking in the limp bodies piled around the campsite. Not dead, just dead tired. Then he turns his head to the sounds of heaving and moaning. The odor of vomit mixed with sweat burns his nostrils.
These experiences are what he breathes for, but nothing compares to these grueling 48 hours, only halfway tackled.
Searching for a place to rest, Hunsberger eventually settles on two picnic tables pushed together. Nails dig into his back, all night he anguishes on the wooden makeshift bed. He wakes frequently, looking up at the star-littered black sky. Disoriented, he reaches for his phone to check the time. But authenticity means no iPhones.
On the second day, four men drop out of the march, too exhausted to continue. Hunsberger promises himself he won’t follow suit, even as he struggles to keep pace and play his drum during the next 14 miles that feel more like 40. Among the curses, groans and shouts for the medic that trail behind the unit, Hunsberger’s thoughts return to the VMI soldiers and how he honors them as a re-enactor.
Although his head, neck and shoulders sag from the weight of his pack, he feels a familiar warmth spread across his chest. His pride diminishes as he notices ominous storm clouds looming. If it rains, his $850 outfit will be ruined.
His metal heels scrape the asphalt until the unit arrives in New Market. Some men keep marching, some limp, some sink to their knees, relieved that they’ve finally reached their destination. Now they have to re-enact the ceremony by charging the battlefield and helping Confederate forces defeat the Union.
“I don’t think I can take another step,” Hunsberger whispers to himself.
As his vision grows spotty and his hearing fades, he steps out of line before his knees give out.
“Pull it together, Hunsberger,” the commanding officer orders.
Hunsberger feels himself pulled to his feet, a canteen pressed against his lips. He gulps down the water and opens his eyes to a battlefield — he’s been transported back in time.
“At that moment, it felt like I was actually there,” he says. “Everything modern had melted away.”
The dark sky opens up into a torrential downpour.
“Charge!” The commanding officer yells.
No longer is Hunsberger thinking about his kit getting drenched. No longer is he dehydrated, exhausted and desperate to go home. Exhilaration and adrenaline fill his body, pushing him to sprint, just as the soldiers did 150 years ago.
The commanding officer victoriously waves his flag. Hunsberger stands panting in the “Field of Lost Shoes,” named because many soldiers lost their boots in the mud during the battle. His wool uniform is soaked and shrunken, his expensive drum warped from the rainstorm. His feet ache from throbbing blisters that need to be tended to.
With tears and rain droplets cascading down his cheeks, Hunsberger grins, knowing he’s honored the memories of those VMI cadets.