The Valdosta Daily Times
For Jeremy Petrella and Tim Oliver, re-enacting Civil War battles isn’t about pretending to be Gen. Robert E. Lee or Gen. Ullysses S. Grant. It isn’t about re-fighting the politics of the war, or changing the outcome. It isn’t about convincing themselves that they have truly gone to war.
Petrella and Oliver don either Confederate gray or Federal blue to feel connected to the history of the Civil War, to have some small inkling not what it was like to be a legendary general but to have been a foot soldier trying to live and survive the most deadly American war.
This weekend, they will drive almost a hundred miles south and travel nearly 150 years into the past, as Petrella and Oliver join hundreds of others to re-enact the Battle of Olustee. The Florida conflict represents the Civil War battle that occurred nearest Valdosta.
The Battle of Olustee, Fla., took place Feb. 20, 1864. A Confederate force of approximately 5,000 men and several cannon drew 5,500 Union soldiers with 16 cannons to the forest floor of virgin pines in Olustee.
The Confederate line was centered by infantry flanked by cavalry on each side. By evening, the Rebs had won the day. The Yankees retreated.
The Battle of Olustee was a short but deadly skirmish that left casualties of 1,861 Union soldiers and 946 Confederate soldiers. These were by no means the highest casualties of a Civil War battle, but, given the
number of troops involved, it was proportionately one of the war’s bloodiest encounters.
Though with far less numbers, Petrella and Oliver will join this fray as members of the Confederate Company C, 61st Georgia “Brooks Rifles.”
As captain, Petrella is the company commander. He teaches history at South Georgia State College.
Oliver is a corporal in the Company C re-enactors. He is a true veteran also, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.
They smile at the irony of their participation in a Confederate company, especially with Petrella leading this company. Both Petrella and Oliver are native Yankees. Petrella grew up in Cassadaga, N.Y., a town south of Buffalo. Oliver was born in Cape Cod, Mass.
In Northern re-enactments, Petrella says, it is not unusual for northerners to portray southerners. There, it is a matter of what’s needed. If more Rebs are needed, re-enactors will readily switch. Few northerners mind switching sides to meet what’s needed for a particular battle. Southern re-enactors are not as readily willing to switch sides, Petrella says. A battle may call for more Union soldiers to meet a scaled but comparable ratio of North vs. South, but fewer Southern re-enactors are willing to switch.
Many Southern-born re-enactors trace their lineage to an actual ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. They may believe that portraying a Union soldier would sully their forefather’s sacrifices and service.
Petrella does not feel that connection. He has ancestors who fought for the North at Gettysburg. Petrella has participated in past Gettysburg re-enactments, but always as a Confederate solider. This year, with massive re-enactments scheduled in early July for the sesquicentennial of Gettysburg, Petrella may wear Federal blue in honor of his ancestors, but he has yet to make this decision.
“Plain and simple, it’s far more important than feeling we’re on the right side,” Petrella says, meaning by “right side,” the side of a re-enactor’s preference. “You have to have both sides.”
Petrella began re-enacting in 1996, shortly after graduating from high school. Living in the North, he filled the need by wearing a Confederate uniform. He was hooked from the start.
“One of the interesting things is I started at the right age,” Petrella says. “I was 18, 19 years old which is the same age that most of the regular soldiers fought in the Civil War. They were very young. So, I was the appropriate age then. I would be considered an old man now.”
Tim Oliver did not start re-enacting until a few years ago, but he was steeped in Civil War history as well as time in the South. Oliver’s father served on a Civil War commission. The family visited Civil War battlefields. His father was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where Oliver spent part of his youth.
Retiring after 27 years in the Air Force, Oliver settled in South Georgia and is active in Valdosta Veterans First, a group dedicated to helping returning combat veterans adjust to civilian life.
His brothers introduced him to Civil War reenactments. In March 2010, Oliver joined one of his brothers for the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville, N.C. While his brother planned participating in the battle, Tim Oliver went as an observer to take photographs.
Oliver was disappointed with the battle photos taken from the spectator area. His brother and his brother’s colleagues suggested Oliver wear a uniform, march onto the field with them, then discreetly take his photos.
“I took 300 photos and was overwhelmed by the effect on the senses,” Oliver says. “In the field, you felt the sensations, smelled the smells, you were really part of what was happening.”
He soon joined his brothers as a regular re-enactor. Oliver’s son also became interested in Civil War re-enactments and the battles have become an opportunity to share father-son time.
Beginners often start as Oliver and Petrella. In starting, a person often borrows pieces of uniforms to ensure a real interest before spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to purchase uniforms and appropriate equipment.
Beginners also cannot become re-enactors with an established unit by insisting they want to command a company, or make ridiculous demands of wanting to portray Stonewall Jackson. Some battles include Robert E. Lee or other general look-a-likes. These look-a-likes make for a great show with spectators and even re-enactors. In the field, Southern re-enactors are elated to salute and cheer as Robert E. Lee passes by, but these look-a-likes do not command the re-enactment action. That is handled by the re-enactors in command positions.
Petrella says there are three types of Civil War battle re-enactments.
Scripted Battles: These events follow re-enactments of actual battles, where everyone knows what’s supposed to happen. Prior to a scripted battle, organizers direct the actions of participants. Instructions are given for how many should fall at a given stage of battle. Volunteers are often requested to fall early in a battle; if no volunteers come forward, participants are selected to fall. In some cases, depending on the re-enactor, a person may fall and decide to spend the day lying in the field, or they may lie a while before walking off of the field. In other cases, a person “killed” early comes back to represent another soldier later in the same battle.
Full-On Tactical Battles: In these scenarios, re-enactors present a fictional battle or skirmish that does not represent a known Civil War battle. In these battles, the participants often don’t know the outcomes, and re-enactors are constantly trying to determine what’s happening.
Spectator Battles: These scenarios are also not based on actual Civil War battles but are demonstrations for audiences. They are similar to improvisational stage plays in that participating commanders know the Spectator Battle’s outcome beforehand, while the re-enacting ranks and the audience do not know which side will win.
It is this mix of history along with camaraderie that attracts re-enactors. While participants may come from all different walks of life during their work weeks, Civil War re-enactments bring them together. And like real Civil War veterans, a battle’s few hours punctuate a few days of staying in camp which typically represents the gear and supplies from the mid-19th century.
Yet, they know their re-enactment experiences are nothing compared to what real soldiers endure, no matter the era. They seek a taste of understanding.
Petrella recalls discussing the re-enactments with a group. A World War II veteran stood and asked if Petrella had ever been in combat. Petrella answered, no. The WWII veteran said, Then I dare you to tell us what it’s like.
Petrella says re-enactors know their combat isn’t real. They know they will walk off the field and return home within a matter of days.
But he shares his response with the WWII veteran.
“I don’t know what it’s like to have someone really shooting at me … While nobody’s shooting at you out there, if you have a really good imagination, while firing blanks out of weapons, with the adrenalin pumping, lying in a field with a horse coming at you full gallop and the rider yelling, Don’t worry, the horse won’t step on you; … you get an idea of what it may have been like to be in that moment.”
A moment in time when brother fought brother, and American warred against American, in the passing of a century and a half gone by.
The anniversary and annual re-enactment of the Battle of Olustee events.
When: Events Friday through Sunday, Feb. 15-17.
Where: Olustee Battlefield Historic Site, U.S. 90, 15 miles east of Lake City, Fla. There is a miniature battle, scheduled 3:30 p.m. Saturday, while the main re-enactment is 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
More information: Call (386) 758-0400; web site http://www.olusteefestival.com/; or visit www. battleofolustee.org for battlefield operations.