This Air Force officer and his son bonded on Civil War battlefields
Music from a fife and drums rang in the ears of a father and son as they sat around the campfire. Brian E. Withrow and his 14-year-old son, Josh, talked with fellow re-enactors, also clad in Union blue, the night before their first re-enactment at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Now and then, the discussion turned to times on the battlefield when the re-enactor could almost feel as if he was actually walking in the boots of a Civil War Soldier.
Fifteen years later, the Withrow duo are back in camp at the same Virginia battlefield, except the son is now a 29-year-old re-enactment veteran, and the father plays a commanding general's assistant chief of staff . What hasn't changed is their shared love of history, and the one thing that has kept them returning to re-enactment battlefields is the search for those special times when they feel almost transported back in time. They call those times "Civil War moments."
"An example was at the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, and we were doing the battle through the cornfield," said Brian, a retired lieutenant colonel and munitions officer. "It was early morning, still dark, with just the glimpses of light coming up. There was a mist over the field. The artillery was firing, and I could see the blasts from their muzzles.
"In front of me, the very first wave of federal soldiers was given the command to go into the cornfield. For that brief moment, there were no telephone poles, no vehicles. There was just the cannon fire and musketry fire with one of the just-right conditions and glimpses that give you that moment of, 'Wow! That must have been what it was like.'"
An interest in U.S. history from his youth led Brian to consider the re-enactment hobby when he was stationed at the Pentagon in 1997, with the numerous Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia. Josh shared the love of history, so the two attended re-enactments together as spectators until his father asked him if he would like to try the hobby with him. They watched the 136th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia in 1999, and after talking to re-enactors in the 3rd U.S. Infantry, Company B, they decided to join the unit.
Josh was still two years away from his 16th birthday, so he wasn't able to carry a weapon at their first re-enactment at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park later that year, but as it turned out, he was right where the action was. In the Battle of Cedar Creek in the fall of 1864, forces led by Gen. Jubal Early over-ran federal forces, although Union Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan later made his famous ride to lead a rout of the Confederates, which helped the Union crush the resistance in the Shenandoah.
"I was too young to carry a gun, and I didn't have any shoes that would fit me, so I had to stay in the tent while my dad went to take the field," Josh said. "But, of course, the battle came to me. I was sitting there inside the tent, while there were two rows of infantry firing at each other around me, and it's lighting up with the gunpowder. It was so dark outside, and all you could see were the flashes of the muzzles of the guns. It was just one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, and we were thinking, 'We are going to keep on doing this.'"
Brian's interest in re-enacting began with a question about his ancestors' role in the Civil War. Through his research and participation in re-enactments, he was able to correct what the family believed about an ancestor who fought and died in the war. For years, the family's oral history showed that George Dugan, a private in the 10th Illinois Infantry, died in a Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia. By the time he'd participated in the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, Brian had learned he actually died in action there, a fact he didn't know when he attended the same battle as a private 10 years earlier.
"I now have a personal connection," Brian said. "Not only had he died there, but fortunately for my family line, he had a son who ended up being my great great-grandfather."
A glance at the uniforms in a closet in the family home in Stafford, Virginia, shows the variety of ranks Brian portrays in his hobby. He plays the role of Union Soldiers, as well as those from the Revolutionary War, from the ranks of private all the way up to the commanding general of the Union Army. After he retired from the Air Force, Brian let his beard grow, which coupled with the cigar he often has in his mouth in camp, gives him a resemblance to a U.S. history legend, Gen. (and former President) Ulysses S. Grant.
While on the board of directors that created the Stafford Civil War Park, Brian portrayed a colonel in the 55th Ohio Infantry at the grand opening in 2013, and spectators saw the beard and cigar and mistook him for Grant. The mistaken identity kept happening at subsequent reenactments and historical events, even to the point where Confederate re-enactment forces "captured" him, thinking they'd caught the overall Union commander. He was eventually asked to portray Grant for the 150th anniversary re-enactments in 2011 and 2012. Brian impersonates the famous general for the Civil War Impressionists Association in annual events at the National Mall in Washington and at numerous Civil War historic sites.
"I'm still a private in Company K of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, so I still go out and do events as an infantry private," Brian said. "Then again, I can put on three stars, and I can be the commanding general. I can play a private or the general-in-chief with equal enthusiasm."
When he began the hobby, Brian had no interest in portraying an officer. He was still on active duty, and he wanted to experience a taste of a Union private's daily life. However, after his Air Force retirement six years ago, he had an opportunity to join the Army of the Potomac headquarters staff as a guidon bearer for the command officer, which was appealing to him because of his love for horses, and in the past year he's served as the commander's assistant chief of staff.
The night before the re-enactment at Cedar Creek, Brian was also promoted to brigadier general and will transition into the role of the staff's commanding officer.
Serving as an officer in a Civil War re-enactment unit is obviously completely different from an active-duty career. For example, there is no Uniform Code of Military Justice to keep them bound to the unit or to commander's orders. Still, Brian has found common ground between the two. Safety, self-aid and buddy care, and survival training, as well as his logistics knowledge from a career in munitions, have all come into play at different times in the field. Also, Soldiers in the 19th century operated on a code that wasn't too different from the Air Force Core Values.
"From my research, I can't say that they had what they called core values," he said. "But clearly, in particular, the Soldiers who had been trained formally through the military academies during that time period, had a value system based on personal honor and morality. I think those attributes defined what it meant ideally to be a good Soldier then, and those traditions from our early American military experience are what evolved into what we call our core values now."
For just a few days, re-enactors like the Withrows not only try to help re-create historic battles, but also get a taste of the living experiences Soldiers on both sides endured in the Civil War. Along with the bonding experiences when they swap war stories and glimpses of their lives with fellow re-enactors, they also sometimes experience some harsh conditions. They faced below freezing weather at the Battle of Sailor's Creek in April, and there was the other extreme, where they faced temperatures above 100 degrees with elevated humidity at the 150th Battle of First Manassas in July 2011.
"We got just a little taste of some of the environmental conditions these Soldiers went through," Brian said. "The difference was we came out and may experience some of those conditions for a weekend. That gives you an appreciation for the fact that these guys did this week on end, month on end, on forced marches of 10 to 15 miles, summertime and wintertime. Again, we get this little glimpse, just a little taste of what they may have experienced."
These days, it is difficult for both father and son to make every battle as they were able to do when Josh was younger. He's not able to attend most re-enactments because of his schedule as a legislative affairs manager for Freedom Works in Washington. Since his father retired, his schedule as a government employee at Fort Belvoir also keeps him busy. But their love of the hobby remains as strong as it was around that campfire 15 years ago. Hearing the fife and drums still sounds sweet to their ears.