A lesson in war
Story by Megan Claflin \\ Photos by Jeff Entman
Captain David Vernon Imburgia is the acting Commander of the 15th Alabama Infantry Company G, a group of Civil War re-enactors centered in Bellingham.
Imburgia, a 59-year-old with a wiry build, sharp eyes and a steady, eloquent voice, is a nine-year veteran of the group. In 1999, the soldiers of the 15th Alabama Infantry invited him to participate in a battle at Hovander Park in Ferndale, Wash. Imburgia says he wanted to know what it might have felt like to
be a soldier in the Civil War.
"Th e 15th Alabama was gracious enough to allow me to sample the experience," Imburgia says. "And they gave me a uniform, a rifl e and a little bit of training, and let me go out onto the fi eld with them."
Imburgia felt excitement as he charged forward on the grassy field, his rifl e wobbling precariously in his hands, toward an opposing line of men. Imburgia's stern face creases with heavy thoughts; he sighs and says he was awed by the courage the soldiers must have possessed.
"To be a solider in the Civil War, to stand shoulder to shoulder with your friends and brothers and to shoot at other men and be shot at," Imburgia says, pausing. "I was impressed."
Members of the 15th Alabama Infantry are from all walks of life. Th e 70 members reside in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Canada with multiple families participating. Members range from young children to men and women in their 80s. Outside of his role as commander, Imburgia is a financier who owns his own company and passionately teaches tango.
Jerry Shiner, an infantry 1st Sergeant and self-proclaimed right hand to Imburgia, says the camaraderie shared between the members mirrors the relationships true soldiers shared. He describes his close friendship with the Captain in its simplest terms.
"Well, I get up early and make the Captain his coffee," Shiner says. "We all know the Captain can't function without his morning cup."
Shiner chuckles and Imburgia continues the joke with his own retort.
"Yeah he is out there in the morning rubbing two sticks together for a fi re," Imburgia says. "Secretly he's just got his Coleman stove stowed away in his tent."
All humor aside Imburgia, Shiner and the other re-enactors devote themselves to their craft. Members assume a variety of military and civilian roles including blacksmiths and seamstresses. Some members even portray doctors and perform faux surgeries and amputations.
Members' abilities to transform the past into reality depend greatly on their historical accuracy. Th e 15th Alabama relies on old patterns to sew uniforms and clothing—dresses complete with hoopskirts and bonnets. When a group of soldiers are marching in their blue wool jackets, tarnished gold buttons glinting feebly in the sun, the eff ect is convincing. A person can believe they are looking back in time, observing the bustle of camp activities.
For the truly spirited members of the group, original blueprints for cannons help craftsman to recreate the 2,000-pound iron rocket-launchers of the 18th century. Four or five men rally around the monstrous gun, heaving it forward bit by bit toward the enemy line before it sinks into the soggy turf. When fi red, a sonic wave of thunder knocks the breath out of onlookers and spits a four-foot-long torrent of sparks and smoke.
Imburgia says he once stood in a cannon's line of fire. The cannon shot only gunpowder, no shell, so Imburgia walked away from the blast unharmed, but shaken.
"I realized that 150 years ago, with a shell loaded in that cannon, I would be no more. That part was sobering," Imburgia says. "The whole idea of the personal and impersonal death these powerful weapons dealt is sobering."
To ensure safety both on and off the battlefield all troops undergo training and adhere to strict safety procedures. The homemade weaponry is inspected by Imburgia or Shiner and must pass the tedious checklist created by the Washington Civil War Association, the parent club to all Civil War re-enactment clubs in Washington. Even in the excitement of battle, infantry re-enactors know that if their gun misfires three times they are required to "play dead" until the weapon can be fixed.
Tom Peloquim, Chairperson for the WCWA, says he is proud of the associations untarnished safety record. Besides the rules governing weaponry, the WCWA also enforces an age requirement for members who want to participate on the field.
The WCWA's goal is to re-enact a war without casualties and so far it has been a successful campaign.
"We have been lucky and haven't had many injuries," says Peloquim. "Occasionally someone will fall from their horse or trip in a hole, but we have avoided anything too serious."
During multiple day events the 15th Alabama camps onsite, leaving their homes and vehicles behind for campfires and canvas tents. Members dawn their costumes and transition their mindsets to their 18th-century counterparts. A few devout members choose to adopt the name of a deceased family member who served in the war. For example, in battle Shiner is Josiah Henry Newton, his ancestor and a Civil War casualty.
A few years after becoming a re-enactor Imburgia traveled to Tennessee to visit historic battlegrounds. There he met a young woman and the two struck up a conversation about the Civil War and Imburgia's re-enactments. Excitedly the woman explained how her family still cherished the memory of their great-grandfather who had fought and died in a battle Imburgia acted in.
Inspired by the woman's story, Imburgia off ered to adopt her grandfather's name as his Civil War character. And so, Captain David Imburgia became Captain J. D. Brock. "For years they sent me letters, copies of hundreds of letters that their great-grandfather had written to his family" Imburgia says. "The whole family told me they were honored that their great-grandfather would live again."
Finding deep personal connections, doorways into the past, is what lures many members to Civil War re-enactment. At the end of the day, when crowds disperse, the actors are left to their campfires and conversations. Th e band will strike up a waltz, coarse notes permeating the scattered groups, inspiring
gentlemen to off er their hands to the ladies for a dance. Imburgia says that in the dark, all modern distractions fade and a person can find themselves back in 1861, on a summer night during a brief moment of peace.
"In the evening, re-enactments are enchanting," Imburgia says. "People, they build their fires and cook their dinners; they're talking and sharing this common experience. We are building camaraderie and feeling. We are building a brotherhood; a brotherhood of arms."
Shiner says he still gets chills when he recalls the re-enactments where he was transported in time. At Hovander Park, Shiner says he appreciates the absence of anything modern—the absence of anything that might disrupt the historic ambiance.
"I remember one morning standing in formation and I looked down the line at the long row of men and women in uniform,"
Shiner says. "Facing the river I felt a light breeze, heard the birds chirping and saw the flag flying. For an instance it was real and I was truly there."
As the re-enactors build new relationships with each other and with themselves they are forced to confront the grim reality of their circumstances. In the Civil War, 622,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed. One-third of Confederate soldiers never returned home. Th ousands of veterans were left with amputated limbs, missing eyes and ears or died from disease and infection.
The brutality and cruelty of war is a present overtone in re-enactments. Imburgia says one of the primary questions spectators ask him is whether or not farmers allowed their pigs to eat the bodies of dead soldiers after battle.
"It's true," Imburgia says.
Imburgia may re-enact war, but his philosophy on the subject is paradoxical. A veteran himself, Imburgia is an outspoken anti-war activist and spent his earlier years participating in anti-war rallies and marches. Imburgia says re-enacting only helps support his ideologies. While acting as a soldier, Imburgia experiences the true chaos and unbridled emotions of war.
"I remember being in the infantry line and here is the guy I had coffee with an hour ago and watching him pretend to be shot dead, and I remember feeling, 'Wow he's gone. He was next to me this morning and now he's gone. ' "
Aside from re-enactments, the 15th Alabama Infantry also hosts living-history events. On May 8-9 of this year hundreds of fifth-and-eighth-graders from Whatcom County schools watched in awe as actors portrayed a variety of Civil War characters. At one station students examined the soldiers' camps and learned that 12 full-grown men slept in an 8-foot by 6-foot canvas tent. At another station students formed ranks and practiced firing volleys at their opposing classmates. Intermittently the sounds of students' shrieks and subdued screams interrupted a presentation as the deafening roar of cannon fi re reverberated through the grounds.
Imburgia says he considers himself an educator more than a re-enactor. In a skit performed by Imburgia and Shiner, the two men depict two friends, one man a Southerner and the other a Northerner. Students watched as the friends argued, their opposing opinions on war turning them into enemies. In a shocking moment of reality, students watched as the two friends took aim and fired on each other. Friends became soldiers and soldiers killed friends. Th ese were living breathing men and they died, Imburgia says.
"When history comes alive [the students] have a chance to make all these boring lectures suddenly mean something,"
Imburgia says. "Once one part of history comes alive all of it tends to come alive and the lessons of history then speak to us."
Th e American Civil War is re-enacted in at least fi ve different countries including Australia, England, France, Denmark and Germany. Now 143 years after the Civil War ended in 1865, hundred of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to historic battlefields; they touch the hollowed grounds and hear the words of re-enactors ringing out against the now empty fields. They seek an experience, hoping to learn from the past. For
Imburgia and the members of 15th Alabama re-enacting is more than a lesson in history, it is a lesson in family and humanity. It is a lesson in life.