By SARAH JOHNSON
Most of Bristol was clad in shorts and tank tops Saturday, as the heat approached 95 degrees by noon.
As the St. Joseph’s Church bells rang for a wedding, a curious bunch of people in wool and layers milled around the Federal Hill Green, speaking in old accents, and tending to a camp straight out of the Civil War.
The Bristol Historical Society, in cooperation with its Program Committee, brought the Civil War Living History Encampment to the Green in honor of the war’s 150th anniversary. The Program Committee at BHS is spearheaded by Tom LaPorte.
“The 14th Connecticut Company, re-enacting the encampment today, was designated in the past by Governor (M. Jodi) Rell in the state to celebrate the Civil War and have the community see how military and civilians interacted and lived,” LaPorte said. “The actors here speak as a person in the 1800s would have. The people of Bristol get to meet, talk to, and learn about the wartime in an accurate way.”
The actors in Company F just returned from over a week in Gettysburg. What some people might not know is that ending up on the Green was also a historically accurate site for them to play out the encampment.
Historical Society President Tom Dickau explained. “This was the militia training ground for the area during the Revolutionary, Civil and First World Wars. There are likely artifacts buried here.” “Yes,” added LaPorte, laughing, “Although, I have brought my metal detector up here and found only bottle caps.”
The outfits worn by the actors in the encampment included wool jackets, pants, long underwear underneath, and all that they had to carry, like a rifle, ammunition, food, and tools. All of this took place while marching through the heat of Virginia. Although dressed period-appropriate for the living history event, the actors got to move around casually and take advantage of some shade. They carried canteens of water as well.
Paul Martinello from Somers is a member of the company with his wife Lauren. Paul acted as the first lieutenant of Company F. “This is my 13th year acting and taking part in preservation marches, battle reenactments, skirmishes, and parades.” Martinello said. “We are headed to the big parade in Gettysburg in November, which is all infantry actors. Both union and confederate sides show up for that.” Martinello likes staying involved because he gets to educate the public about the life and hardships of the soldiers and their families. He explained the costumes worn in the encampment, as well as many of the other supplies on hand, were derived from a variety of suttlers, or vendors. In the days before the internet, these merchants would follow the troops on their marches, or set up at rail heads to supply the forces with goods. Everything sold these days, even though reproduction, is historically accurate.
Julie Moy, of Wallingford played the role of a woman on the Christian Commission. She explained to a small crowd of residents that the commission was very much like the Salvation Army. Women at home provided goods from toiletries to blankets to fruits and vegetables. Over 5000 volunteer delegates were given meals and passage on the railroads to bring these supplies to the troops. They had their own newspaper, prayer books and ledgers of all trips and deliveries.
Lauren Martinello was acting as a civilian homemaker. “We took over the farms and businesses left behind by soldiers,” she explained. Pointing to long underwear hanging on a line at the back of her tent, she said that those were items normally worn but she’d forgone them for the heat. “We made shirts and socks and bandages for the troops,” she said. “Whatever we could make that they needed, we’d get together in church and womens’ groups to make it.”
Jen Eastman-Lawrence of West Springfield, Mass. was educating the crowds in her convincing Irish accent. “The roles of Irish immigrants after the potato famine sometimes go unheard of,” she said. “Boys were taken straight off the boats and drafted into service here. They were extremely poor and being in the military gave them square meals and pay. There were single women involved, too. They were called ‘uprovided-for women.’ They had more liberties and were able to work in the menial labor fields by delaying or completely avoiding marriage. These women also avoided the very high risk of childbirth by getting into wartime work.”
Caroline Ivanoff of Seymour, who has given presentations at the BHS before, tended the medical unit on the green. She is the assistant principal of the middle school in Shelton as a full time career and got involved making the medical demonstrations as part of history lessons. “In field hospitals, there weren’t really women involved,” she said. “Many of the tools you see here were carried out on to the battlefield by surgeons. There were pocket surgical kits and medicine rolls.” The supplies at Caroline’s table were a mix of some authentic, some reproduction. She has been demonstrating at living history events for three years and doing Civil War medical lessons for much longer. “One common myth about Civil War medical history is that there was no anesthesia,” she said. “In fact, about 95 percent of procedures, like the amputations that saved many mens’ lives, were performed with chloroform or ether to knock the patient out.”
By the end of the day, hundreds of local residents, of all ages, had wandered among the tables and stations, viewing the artifacts from the Civil War as they’d originally been used. Parents took photos of their children in the simple canvas tents and actors fired and cleaned muskets on site. Overall, education met interest and enthusiasm for all involved and Bristol got to live a little slice of history.
Comments? Email knaples@BristolObserver. com.