Shooting back in time
By Jim Young
I am not much of a history fan and definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a Civil War aficionado… I actually had to remind myself of the dates of the fighting before I went to cover a U.S. Civil War reenactment in Naperville, Illinois this month.
But as I walked up to the Naper Settlement open-air museum to photograph the event, and passed by former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln – or at least a man dressed up to look just like him – I figured I must be in the right place.
About an hour’s drive from Chicago, people were settling in for “Civil War Days,” featuring re-enacting of a battle scene from the war. Participants dressed in period costumes to fight it out as North and South and spectators came to watch.
Seeing these Civil War buffs, it was clear that they knew their history down to the smallest detail and that they took it very seriously. During the day, I watched people demonstrate the precise technique for holding their rifles, sitting around campfires singing period songs and even learned the history of military dog tags. I was sure some were so completely wrapped up in their characters that they were convinced it was still the 1800s.
One member of the group, Ron Raidy, turned out to be an executive with a Canadian airline company, who moonlights for several weekends a year to help recreate battle scenes.
He is a member of a group that fires a cannon during the battles and I watched him meticulously clean and polish the barrel of the weapon while laughing with his friends. It was clear he takes a great deal of pride in these recreations.
The “battlefield” was fenced off to the public and although it was supposed to be a relatively small area, it felt like quite a long distance for someone taking pictures.
Raidy offered to dress me in some of his extra period clothing so that I could blend in, and he told me simply to march out onto the field with his group during the battle so that I could be closer to the fighting.
As I experienced the sight and sound of artillery fire, I was still not convinced that I would be particularly safe. I heard the screams of participants acting out their roles with enthusiasm, as well as some heavy profanity from officers arguing over historical accuracy and details of battles from a century and a half ago.
I left a remote camera by the cannons to get some unique angles, and also to keep my distance. Even though they weren’t shooting any real ammunition, I certainly didn’t want to be too close!
One of the most interesting things I came across while covering this story was a local photographer named C.D. Olsen, who was honoring the tradition of making tintype photographs of re-enactors.
I even took time to stand in for my own five-second exposure portrait with the group.