Eager for action

Zane Smith, 34, of Baltimore, a member of the 18th Virginia Calvary, checks his Civil War Enfield rifle outside his tent at New Market Battlefield Park during the reenactment of the Battle of New Market in 2015. The annual event is this weekend. Rich Cooley/Daily file

NEW MARKET – The roar of cannons and the crack of rifle fire call out over the years to Civil War re-enactors like those gathered at the New Market Battlefield State Historic Park this weekend.

The weather is supposed to be hot and humid, and the re-enactors, true to the experience of the soldiers who fought 151 years ago, will be wearing heavy wool uniforms that are hardly anyone’s idea of summer clothing. Toting rifles and pistols over hundreds of yards of battlefield only adds to the strain.

Tony Henshaw, 55, of Louisa, is undaunted, almost cheerful about the prospect of spending the next few days in conditions that provide a brush with the hardships of military life in the mid-19th century – minus the bloodshed and destruction. As a member of the 18th Virginia Dismounted Cavalry, Henshaw is well acquainted with the heat, rainwater seeping into tents, snakes and ticks that sometimes form part of the re-enactment experience.

“As soon as the first shot goes off, you forget about the heat,” Henshaw said, his eyes brightening as he spoke. “You forget about the humidity. It’s playtime.”

Union and Confederate forces fought the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864, part of a grueling struggle that the two sides waged for control of the Shenandoah Valley during much of the war. The Union forces gained the upper hand after several hours of fighting until Confederate Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge ordered more than 200 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute to fill a gap in his lines.

Gary Tyler, 27, of Thurmont, Maryland, a member of 18th Virginia Company B, sights in his rifle Friday afternoon at New Market Battlefield Park. Rich Cooley/Daily

The tide of the battle turned about an hour later as the cadets helped close the gap. The Union forces led by Gen. Franz Sigel retreated across the Shenandoah River to Mount Jackson. The battle left 139 dead and about 1,000 wounded on both sides. Sigel eventually withdrew all the way to Strasburg and left the remainder of the valley under Confederate control.

New Market is just one of many battle re-enactments that the 18th Virginia Dismounted Cavalry participates in each year.

Zane Smith, 34, a utility company mechanic from the Baltimore area, said he joined while still in high school when a friend asked him if he would like to try reenacting.

“Once you get the taste of black powder in your mouth, you never go back,” Smith said.

Smith’s decision to join was made easier by his interest in history from the World War I and World War II eras and the Civil War. He hopes his young son will acquire the same passion for history as he grows older and begins attending reenactments.

Smith, who packs several pistols and a shotgun into battle, said the company of other reenactors is what attracts him most to the battlefields on weekends between April and November.

“It’s a lot of fun, a lot of good camaraderie,” Smith said. “This is my extended family.”

The unit’s flag was carefully made by Tammy Denisewicz, who has sewn jackets, shirts and other period clothing for the unit for 22 years.

“This is made by hand, as exact a copy as I could get from the museum in Winchester,” Denisewicz said, referring to where she saw the original version of the flag.

Denisewicz is from Gettysburg. Like most of the others affiliated with the 18th Virginia, she is from outside the old Confederacy.

Henshaw, whose great-great grandfather fought with the Confederacy and survived the ill-fated Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, said being from Virginia adds meaning to his role as a reenactor.

“If you’re Southern, it’s in your blood, and you feel it,” Henshaw said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com