Locals relive and remember.
CRACK! … CRACK! … CRACK!
Dressed as a Union soldier, George Till shoulders his 1861 Springfield rifle and fires into the air as Chelsea High School history students applaud.
“I started doing reenactments in 1993,” he says later as he discusses the life of a soldier and distributes samples of hardtack. “I first saw Civil War reenactors sweating up a storm in their wool uniforms at Waterloo on a ninety-degree day, and I thought they were crazy–until one invited me to tag along. Soon afterwards, I saw the movie Gettysburg. I was hooked.”
Since then, Till has “fought” in, camped in, marched in, and “died” in more engagements than he can remember as a member of the resurrected Michigan Twenty-Fourth Infantry. He has appeared in uniform in several documentaries and fictional movies, among them Gods and Generals, which stars fellow Chelsea resident Jeff Daniels. Six weeks after appearing in the reenactment of President Lincoln’s funeral procession, he will join the encampment at Dexter’s Civil War Days, June 12 through 14.
“The Civil War was the crossroads of our nation’s history, and Michigan was one of the premier supporters of the war. We sent more troops to the front than any state other than New York and Pennsylvania,” he tells students. “I’m proud to say that over the last four years I participated in the reenactment of Bull Run, commemorating the start of the war in 1861. 150 years later, and I was there for the last great event of the Civil War: the burial of President Lincoln.” In between, he has visited numerous forts and battlefields and “fought” at Gettysburg, Antietam, Lexington, Shiloh, and Jackson, Michigan, where reenactors stage a different battle every year.
Reenactment is an expensive activity. Replica Springfield rifles like Till’s 1861 model cost $1,000. Frog coats with long tails run $650. Then add packs and their contents, tents, cooking gear, cartridge cases, footwear, handmade shirts, and hats. “I decided if I was going to do this, I would do it right. I live the way soldiers lived in 1865–and a soldier’s life was hard. You have to be in relatively decent shape to run ten miles in hot weather and live outdoors.”
Besides historically accurate clothing and gear, sleeping on hard ground, marching on 110-degree days, maneuvering during pounding rainstorms and through ankle-deep mud, and slipping across frozen fields, reenacting also requires extensive knowledge of battles, Union and Confederate units, nineteenth-century living conditions, weaponry, customs, and historical figures. Some reenactors play Confederates. Till chooses to portray individuals, most often John Powell, a Twenty-Fourth Michigan man from Chelsea who was killed at Gettysburg. “I know where he lived, what he ate, what he read, and what he wrote home.”
Washtenaw and Wayne county men mustered into the Twenty-Fourth in August 1862 and were assigned to the already famous Iron Brigade, whose soldiers hailed from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. They earned the brigade its nickname and distinctive black hats during the second battle of Bull Run, while holding off attacks from superior Confederate forces. Watching them fight, Union general George McClellan observed that “they must be made of iron” and later called them “the best troops in the world.”
The infantry first saw action at Fredericksburg in December 1862. At Gettysburg the following July, 363 of its 496 officers and men were wounded or killed. In 1865, the Twenty-Fourth was assigned to a garrison in Illinois, which is how it came to serve as the military escort during Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield.
Soldiers who fought 150 years ago haunt Till–literally. “Some say that Gettysburg is among the ten most haunted places in America, and I believe them,” he says. “I had three encounters with ghosts there.” Twice on hot summer days, he passed through what he says were chilling cold spots on his way to battle. The third time, at three o’clock in the morning, he saw the shadowy figure of a soldier pass reenactors’ tents and then disappear into mist. “My buddy confirmed that no living person was up besides us,” he says.
“I know I’m a romantic–that’s why I do this. I believe soldiers are talking through me. I feel I have a responsibility to tell their stories, to make sure they’re not forgotten.”
Dexter Area Historical Society members share Till’s fascination. This year marks the last of Dexter’s Civil War Days activities at Gordon Hall.
“I came relatively late to an interest in history,” admits Bene Fusilier, outgoing historical society president. “My mother was always interested because of her grandfather’s involvement in the Civil War, but it wasn’t until 1980, when I moved to Dexter, that I made an effort to learn my great-grandfather’s whole story.”
Her great-grandfather, Aaron Vale Waterbury, was singularly unfortunate during the war. When he was twenty-five years old, he left his Algansee Township farm in Branch County in August 1862 and mustered into the Seventeenth Michigan Infantry. His wife was pregnant with their third son–a child he would never see.
Starting as a corporal, Waterbury rose to sergeant in the Chandler Horse Guard while fighting at South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Vicksburg. The Confederates captured him during the Battle of Spotsylvania and sent him to the abominable Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia, where 45,000 men were confined in a camp designed for 10,000. The sixteen acres rapidly became a hellish cesspool of disease, human waste, and misery. Thirteen thousand died there.
Sergeant Waterbury might have considered himself fortunate to survive, but prison wasn’t the worst of his horrors, Bene Fusilier says. “On April 27, 1865, my great-grandfather and 2,426 other malnourished, sickly prisoners were loaded onto the Sultana at Vicksburg. The two-hundred-foot wooden steamboat, which had a capacity of 376, also carried 250 hogsheads of sugar, ninety-seven cases of wine, and one hundred mules and hogs.” She stares at her great-grandfather’s photograph before continuing his story.
“On April 27, 1865, the Sultana exploded near Memphis, killing 1,800 passengers. My great-grandfather was among them. That was the greatest maritime disaster in United States history, but its tragedy was overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination on April 26.”
Waterbury’s three sons were adopted by their grandparents and raised in their father’s home. They never forgot their family’s tragedy, telling the story to their children and grandchildren. Since 2001, Bene Fusilier and members of her family have made annual pilgrimages to Vicksburg to commemorate her great-grandfather.
“It’s important to remember the sacrifices our ancestors made for us,” she says.
In the July, 2015 issue of Ann Arbor Observer