The 26th North Carolina Regiment is one of the largest Civil war reenactor groups in the country. Nearly every month the regiment travels from one historical site to the next to reenact battles and perform living history exhibits. The group is modeled after a Confederate regiment of the same name.
North Carolina marked its one hundred fiftieth anniversary of secession just a few weeks ago. It was an important day for the reenactors of the 26th. Members of a traditional fife and drum band wearing Civil War uniforms serenaded curious onlookers on the lawn of the old historic Capitol building in Raleigh. Thirty-five year old David Rotan leads the group.
David Rotan: "I’m a field musician, I pay the fife in the regimental field music, which is a little different than a brass band. That was more for show and ceremonies and special occasions."
Rotan says every Confederate regiment had about twenty musicians who woke soldiers, called them to meals, and played as they headed into battle. He says most of the tunes the band performs would have been played by members of the old 26th regiment.
Rotan: "There are moments when you’re just on a field recreating a battle when you really are transported back in time and you can walk in the footsteps of your ancestors just like my great-great-grandfather who I heard so many tales about around my grandmother’s rocking chair."
Rotan grew up in Morganton listening to his grandmother’s stories about his Civil War ancestors. He joined a reenactors’ group when he was just 14 because he felt it would help him connect with that history. That’s true for Diane Smith, who’s sitting under the shade of a towering oak tree. She’s wearing a corset and a hoop skirt beneath her printed cotton dress.
Diane Smith: "By doing this too is to also kind of learn by first hand account. You can’t explain to somebody what wearing a corset is like until you wear one. Or a steel petticoat. You can’t explain it unless you actually do it."
Smith was a reenactor for years before getting her current job as an interpreter at Bennett Place in Durham, where surrender papers were signed that ended the war. The group’s current leader, Colonel Skip Smith, had 14 family members who fought in the 26th. Today he’s dressed in a very warm looking double-breasted frock coat with rows of golden buttons. And he’s carrying quite a weapon on his belt.
Skip Smith:" It is an 1850 U.S. foot officer’s sword, just a reproduction that was handed down to our first commander of the 26th in 1988 we gave it to him and he carried it until 2000 when I took over"
The 26th has about 200 members, give or take. Smith- who’s wearing antique round eyeglasses- says reenactors care deeply about wearing the right kind of uniforms to look as authentic as possible.
Smith: "You continually push to get better. There’s more research to be done. When I first started in 1983 there were not that many vendors making uniforms. Nowdays you can find just about anything you want. Someone can make it historically accurate. We have an authenticity committee, and we might have our inspections and they know that they could be called out if it’s not right."
Smith says though members are unified by their love of Civil War history, the ranks are filled with people from all professions and political persuasions. The 26th will not reenact battle scenes at sites the original Civil War regiment did not visit. The group also occasionally plays the part of a Union regiment from Michigan when other reenactors ask them to.
Chris Roberts: "Shoulder arms, secure arms!"
It’s mid-afternoon and members of the 26th are performing an official-looking rifle drill for a big crowd. Chris Roberts is standing close to the group to explain the roles the men are playing.
Roberts: "At this point in the war they’re bringing in all these raw recruits, they’re going to be going through every different manual of arms, teaching them one step at a time. You take nothing for granted the same way you do in the modern military."
Maria Locicero: "I like that the reenactors are so real."
Maria Locicero and her daughter Melinda Walker have stopped to watch.
Locicero and Melinda Walker: "They’re so focused even in correcting them and making sure they’re holding their rifles in a certain position it just fascinates me really. Nobody’s laughing nobody thinks it’s silly."
Locicero and Walker say none of their ancestors fought in the Civil War. But Walker says she’s seen how much this history means to people.
Locicero and Walker: "You realize how closely connected people still is to the war between the states. And how devastated- the families still recall the devastation their great greats went through. I think it’s just a connection to who we are. "