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Military Through the Ages marches on at Jamestown settlement

Posted on Friday, May 12, 2017 at 12:38 pm

The Norfolk Light Artillery Blues present a firing demonstration during Military Through the Ages.

For more than three decades, re-enactors, living historians, and visitors have been flocking to Military Through the Ages at Jamestown Settlement.

MTA is an annual time-line event that attracts units of living historians who depict military units that range from the Warriors of Greece to the Virginia Army National Guard.

Units compete in categories – uniforms, cooking, camp life, and demonstrations. Civil War units compete in the black powder period. Blue ribbons are awarded for first place. Red for second place, and yellow ribbons are awarded to those who earn a third-place ranking. Honorable mention, a white ribbon, is also awarded.

In addition, there are visitors’ choice and re-enactors’ choice ribbons that competitors for all of the time periods are eligible to win.

Of the 40 living history groups that participated in this year’s event, a half dozen units offered visitors a glimpse of soldiers and sailors of the Civil War era. Most of the Civil War groups that turned out for the program this year have been enthusiastically participating in MTA for decades.

This year the Tidewater Maritime Living History Association was awarded a blue ribbon – first prize – for the best demonstration in the black powder category.

TMLHA portrayed a landing party from the gunboat Aroostook. The U.S. S. Aroostook was an Unadilla-class gunboat built for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. These vessels were called “90-day gunboats” because of the time it took to build them. They were screw-powered with a schooner rig, and lightly-armed light craft. Their weapon of choice in their field demonstration involved their replica of a Dahlgren boat howitzer.

“We didn’t go down to the field with the purpose of pushing the envelope in order to win an award,” said Allen Mordica, co-founder and commander of the unit. “We simply went down to the field and did what we always do. We educated the public,” he said. “We gave a good demonstration of what makes our equipment unique.  The judges all seemed to think we did a good job.”

The U.S.S. Aroostook was part of the Union fleet that patrolled Hampton Roads to enforce the wartime blockade in Virginia’s tidewater.

“We have a close tie to this geographic spot … we actually do. It’s one of the reasons we like to come here,” said Mordica. “Some of the Aroostook’s crew actually walked around and did operations at the spot we’re at now.”

Right next to the camp of the U.S. S. Aroostook – on the starboard side – was the encampment of the living historians of the 23rd Virginia. The 23rd Virginia Volunteer Infantry has been faithfully participating in Military Through the Ages for probably 30 years.

This year the men of the 23rd Virginia were portraying the Keysville Guards, Company K of the regiment.

“We re-enact very few battles.  We do living history programs for park systems like the National Park Service. We’ll go to Gettysburg this year. We’ll go to Antietam,” said Jerry Harlow, a member of the group from Louisa, Virginia. “We try to present the life of the soldier as opposed to (re-creating) the actual fighting.  We show drill, camp scenes, and the history,” he explained. “This weekend, we’re doing Fort Stedman which was March 25, 1865… We have a historical narrative for whatever we do.”

Harlow had ancestors who fought in the 23rd Virginia. He had an ancestor in the 56th Virginia who was shot through the hip at Chester Station. Another ancestor served in the 57th Virginia. He died at Point Lookout, Maryland, and is buried in a mass grave.  Harlow has a personal interest in keeping the memories of southern soldiers alive.

“They’re pretty selective as to who can appear here [Jamestown Settlement],” said Harlow. “The units are usually the best. They strive for historical accuracy as opposed to just throwing something together,” he said. “All of our soldiers are dressed as 1865 so we don’t incorporate any 1861 or 1862 items into our impression.  The other units do the same thing.”

The 3rd U.S. Regular Infantry Regiment has been a perennial favorite among visitors over the years.  Their attention to detail – and authenticity – have led to success during the awards ceremony that concludes the weekend program. This year the unit was awarded honorable mention for the Best Unit Impression in the Black Powder period.

For Paul Stier who commands the re-enactors/living historians in the 3rd U.S. Regular Infantry Regiment, participation in military Through the Ages is basically about having fun. Long before Stier ever heard Jamestown Settlement’s official slogan – “History Is Fun” – Stier had been enjoying his visits to MTA since the 1980’s.

Stier is a U.S. Army veteran. He retired from the Army as a sergeant first class. His first duty assignment as a soldier just happened to be with the 3rd  U.S. Army at Fort Myers. Occasionally, at living history events, Stier will bump into other soldiers who served in the 3rd U.S. Army. They swapping lies and sharing war stories about “The Old Guard.”

“It’s fun to interact with the public and teach them about history,” said Stier. “It’s fun to show them how the time period we represent is a fun way to learn history.”

Stier also enjoys learning about the people from the other time periods that are represented at this annual time-line event. From the ancient Greeks to the Virginia National Guard, every group has a unique perspective on their time period and how they interact with the public.

“I freely admit that if I see something another group is doing, I will borrow their idea in a heartbeat,” said Stier.  “I have no shame.  I’ll adopt the idea. That’s the highest form of flattery – imitation.”

When it comes to following guidelines in the pursuit of authenticity, Stier prefers to go by the U.S. War Department’s book – The 1863 U.S. Infantry Tactics.

While there are other manuals, Stier regards the 1863 Tactics as his Bible. When he gives the proper commands, they come from the manual. He’s not making anything up. His men follow his commands exactly. If he “messes up” a command, his men do not hesitate to let him know.

“As much as we strive for authenticity in our appearance in the wearing of our uniform, in our drill, and in everything we try to do, we understand authenticity is a journey, not an end point,” said Stier.  “We’re always discovering something new, discovering something more. It’s interesting to see to what level some people will go to get there.”
Veteran re-enactor Robert Elkins, a member of the 3rd U.S. Army Regular Infantry, flew from Costa Rica to participate in MTA with his messmates.

“I love the event. I love the people. It’s exciting to see all the other time periods in history and to see their uniforms, their camps, and their people,” said Elkins.  “It’s just a great group of people that come out for MTA.”

On the port side of the U.S.S. Aroostook’s camp, Company B Confederate States Marines were encamped. They were – according to Mike Duffy – keeping a close eye on the Union sailors.

After many years of absence, Company B has returned to Military Through the Ages. The event has grown considerably in their absence.

“We thought it would be interesting to come back.  This is our first year back in many years,” said Duffy.  “It’s very enjoyable. It’s very educational obviously. Not only for visitors, but for the re-enactors themselves.”

Company B was among three companies of Confederate Marines that were stationed at Drewry’s Bluff on the James River. They were recruited during the early part of the war in New Orleans by Captain Van Benthuysen. They were brought to Norfolk, Virginia in 1862 to act as the marine guard for the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia.

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, Norfolk fell into Union hands and the Confederate Marines were relocated to Drewry’s Bluff, about seven miles downstream from Richmond.

“Eventually, as Richmond was falling, they took the sailors and marines from Drewry’s Bluff,” said Mike Duffy, “and formed what was known as Tucker’s Naval Battalion.”

During the evacuation from Richmond, the Confederate troops marched toward the Carolinas to hook up with Joe Johnston’s army. They never made it. Most of the marines and sailors were killed or captured at the Battle of Saylor’s Creek – a few days before Appomattox. The names of about 20 Confederate Marines are on the surrender rolls at Appomattox.

“There’s nothing more enjoyable than sitting down on Saturday evening down at James Fort having chili,” said Duffy. “You look over and see that there’s a Confederate marine officer sitting with a Napoleonic officer or a dragoon.,” he said. “You’re standing there talking to Romans or Celts or Greeks.  It’s very enjoyable.”

-By Bob Ruegsegger

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