Playing the part

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 26, 2007

ISLE OF WIGHT—By weekdays Ron Pierce of Windsor works for a lawn care business. By weekends, he becomes Capt. Ron Pierce of the 16th Virginia, Company D, representing the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Sometimes the company is bivouacked, as it was in a field north of the county courthouse last weekend. Sometimes, it takes part in a battle re-enactment throughout the region. Wherever the 16th marched and fought.

For Pierce, it is a hobby that’s in his blood. His great-great grandfather was part of the unit that “formed up” at the Windsor Depot in 1861 to become part of Brig. Gen. William Mahone’s Brigade. Mahone was born at Monroe in Southampton County, and became a well-known Civil War figure in his own right, particularly in these parts of Virginia.

But for Pierce and the others who don replica uniforms, carry replica rifles and sleep in replica tents, it’s a chance to “keep the history,” Pierce said.

About 100 re-enactors occupied the grounds of the courthouse Friday and Saturday night — “we took a busload of them to Smithfield [Saturday} to march in the [Christmas] parade,” Pierce said.

The Virginia 16th served as the host group for the “Civil War Christmas” on Decv. 8-9, which included a living history of lifestyles in the field, some explanation of the weapons of war, a demonstration of cannon fire, watching horseback brigades and generally offered an impromptu question-and-answer period with visitors who paid $5 for the experience.

Outside of that, the company created camps sparsely furnished with supplies: pot, pans and utensils to cook food on open fires, some makeshift desks replicating those used by some officers, and a few accessories. One such accessory was a pair of field glasses that date to the war.

And the camps also came equipped with camaraderie.

In Pierce’s case, he met Tony Regenee over the years, another re-enactor from Norfolk, whose ancestors also fought with the company. They’ve been friends since.

It’s not just one member of the company, Pierce said, that form a bound through re-enacting.

“It’s weird how we become friends” through a kinship forged 140 years ago by their forefathers, but also by the enjoyment of talking about — and living in — a different time.

“I’ve always been a big fan of the Civil War, and other wars,” Pierce said, “I got into [re-enacting] about 15 years ago, and have been in it since.”

“It’s a strange hobby,” said Richard K. Cox, a re-enactor with the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues, also on hand last weekend. “Nobody pays you to go fishing, nobody pays you to go hunting,” he told a group gathered to watch a cannon being fired, “and no one pays you to be a re-enactor.”

The re-enactors buy their own uniforms, trying to get the details correct on such specifics as how many buttons line one side of a jacket.

“We kind of research it to a certain point,” said Pierce. Then some re-enactors rely on “settlers,” or retailers, who sell replicas at such sites.

“They sell period pieces to us,” Pierce said.

Not everything in a re-enactment weekend is authentic. For instance, there are considerations made to provide modern conveniences. They include portable bathrooms, a “mess tent” on wheels that sells sandwiches and sides, with soft drinks and condiments.

And, if conditions get too severe, the re-enactors’ vehicles are in a parking lot well within walking distance of the “field.”

Still Pierce said, “I love it. I really do. It’s very awesome, really. It gives you a good feeling being out here.

“But those guys [in the war] had it a lot tougher than we have it.”

For some, Pierce said, “It was nothing for them boys to go 30, 40 miles a day then get into a fight. Then get up and do it again the next day.”

Pierce’s great-great grandfather was unable to leave a written history of his time in battle. He was captured and kept in a Union prison before getting home, in a frail and weakened state.

He “didn’t last about two weeks” before dying of “food poisioning,” which Pierce blames on the incredibly poor diet fed to prisoners.

But the past lives on, at least in replica form.