Tent city tales from Cedar Creek

By Ryan Cornell

MIDDLETOWN — It’s just about the only time you can point a gun at someone, pull the trigger and stay out of jail.

Soldiers and sutlers setting up their tents on Friday prepared for the 150th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Cedar Creek, a battle that not only took away Confederate control of the Shenandoah Valley, but also ensured Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

Stephen Schmidt and Allison Gerwitz, two reenactors from Rochester, New York, are part of the 2nd Texas Cavalry this weekend.

Together Schmidt and his girlfriend have been reenacting for the past four years, though this marks their first time at Cedar Creek.

When they’re not reenacting, Schmidt said they work at Genesee Country Village, a living history museum that depicts 19th-century life.

“I love history and I love trying to keep history alive,” he said, “showing people the way they dressed and what life was like at the time.”

Gerwitz said her ancestors include two brothers from Canada, one of whom moved to New York and the other to Texas.

When the Civil War broke out, she said they joined opposing sides and essentially had to fight against each other.

“That’s why I love history,” she said. “Hearing the stories and learning about history, and I love how real that is.”

Kevin Skaggs is a Union reenactor from Charleston, West Virginia.

A lieutenant colonel for the weekend, he’s reenacted the Battle of Cedar Creek for nearly a decade.

Growing up in Fayetteville, West Virginia, which he said has an enormous amount of Civil War history, Skaggs used to “play Army” in actual Civil War trenches by the two forts in town.

“I always had a love for history and found out they were doing a reenactment in my hometown, so I went up and watched it,” he said. “I went to a couple more reenactments and finally decided this was something I wanted to do.”

As the average age of reenactors has grown older and the economy has tumbled, he said he’s noticed fewer and fewer reenactors as the years go by.

“It’s the same thing as everything else,” he said. “This is a hobby for us, and everybody’s gotta make choices in today’s society about where you’re gonna spend your money at.”

Much like how an 1860s-era shopping center might appear, rows of tents on the battlefield displayed wares and supplies.

Between the large array of tents, tarps, belts, hats, boots, guns, knives, cookware, toys, books, banjos and dulcimers, an unprepared reenactor could virtually purchase an entire campsite of equipment.

At one end, a tent was offering wet-plate collodion photography, using exactly the same methods and chemicals as during the Civil War.

With square holes cut out of the top of his canvas tent studio to let in northern light, Todd Harrington was taking pictures the old-fashioned way.

Harrington, of Winchester, said he’s been involved in reenacting since the 1970s and as a collodion photographer since 2008.

“I was just getting a little long in the tooth to be a military type,” he said, “so I decided since I was already doing astral photography, it was a good matchup.”

And unlike the common stereotype of subjects having to sit still for minutes for a photo, he said the average exposure time is about nine seconds.

The reenactment weekend also provides a way for old friends to catch up.

At a Confederate camp for the 1st and 13th Virginia cavalries, reenactors Logan Metesh, Steve Krasner and his son, Jesse, sat in front of their tents swapping stories.

“It’s family time,” Krasner said. “It’s really primitive camping family time.”

Logan Metesh, a cavalry reenactor in the 1st Virginia, agreed.

“When we were out in the field in a saber fight, you got the yankees coming at you, and yeah it’s a serious thing, but it’s like, ‘Hey Bill, how’s the family? Haven’t seen you in a while,’ and you’re banging the sabers,” he said. “It really is a big extended family on both sides.”

Reenactors travel from all across the U.S. to participate in Cedar Creek, Krasner said.

“The guys from Texas drove 1,500 miles to come here,” he said. “They left two or three days ago to come here, and they’ll leave Sunday after the battle and not get home ’til Tuesday or Wednesday. They do this because they love doing it.”

He said another group of reenactors drove down from Massachusetts.

“It’s funny hearing someone with a Boston accent dressed in gray, being a Confederate, but that’s the way it is.”

Sitting in his chair, Metesh pointed to his wife, another cavalry reenactor.

“I’ve been doing this 10 years, we’ve been together for five years, married for two years and we’ve yet to have a honeymoon,” he said, “because this is what we do.”

“This is our honeymoon,” his wife shot back.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com