History as Hobby

Here is a sketch I drew on French blue cotton paper of a scene from the 140th Anniversary reenactment of the 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.  The event was held in nearby Spring Hill, south of Nashville, and included more than 10,000 people in historical costume as well as scores of vendors and thousands of spectators.  The original drawing above is one of more than seventy I created at living history events across the United States while portraying an artist correspondent for the 19th century illustrated newspaper, Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization.

My participation in reenacting the American Civil War period dated back to May of 1996, when I enlisted in a Bay Area unit that portrayed a company of the Union Irish Brigade.  I purchased replica equipment and assumed the first person character of an Irish immigrant soldier at public events.  Through five years of campaigning, I mustered for roll call at the crack of dawn, marched and wheeled in period drill, saluted officers, performed guard duty, camped in a dog tent, drank out of a canteen, subsisted on hardtack and coffee, fired and cleaned my musket, sang traditional Irish songs, and served in the color guard (see image below from a 1997 event in Oregon).

My childhood near Civil War battlefields in the South and a lifelong interest in American history primed me for such a hobby.  When I delved into genealogy in the early 1990s and discovered four Union Army ancestors (including one who served in the 23rd Illinois, Chicago’s famous Irish regiment), the transition from scrapbook to uniform seemed natural.  Portraying an historical character in public allowed me to interact with students on field trips, professional photographers and filmmakers, serious adult history buffs, and even visitors from abroad, some of whom donned the costuming themselves.

In the fall of 1999, I decided to revive my childhood interest in sketching historical scenes by portraying a newspaperman.  I knew that artists were hired by the illustrated papers to record the war, so I began doing more research on them.  No one was representing this type of personage at the events I was attending.  I had always enjoyed writing and drawing when I was visiting battlefields as a kid, so the new impression seemed an ideal fit.  I began assembling a civilian field ensemble and collecting art supplies.  To try out my new impression, I remained in my military unit for most of each event and dressed as the journalist only for the last engagement.

I named my correspondent character James Allen Davis after my great-great-grandfather, who was born in Missouri in 1856 and lived through the war.  By the 2002 season I had sold my musket and began portraying “Mr. Davis of Harper’s Weekly” exclusively.  When I arrived at each reenactment, I would obtain a period pass from the Provost Marshal of the participating Union forces and then follow the troops.  I sketched both battle and camp scenes using charcoal, chalk, and graphite pencils on paper of different colors and textures, much as the original artists of the “Bohemian Brigade” such as Alfred Waud, Winslow Homer, and Edwin Forbes did during the war.

Through the internet I met others who were portraying Civil War correspondents across the United States.  Four of us met at the 140th Gettysburg reenactment in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2003.  There were a dozen of us at the Franklin event the following year.  We came from all walks of life but were bound together by an interest in 19th century journalism and the desire to educate the public through this unique type of performance.  For historical reenacting is, after all, a form of outdoor improvisational community theater.

These “extracurricular” activities tied in well with my teaching career, especially during the seven years I was teaching 19th century American history to middle school and community college students.  I met my partner Jill Forbath at an event in Moorpark, California, where she was portraying a Union Army vivandiere.  She was also a professional web designer at the time and created a beautiful website for me in 2005, which you can view here.  For the next six years, I used the website to collect my sketches and dispatches and to maintain a calendar of scheduled appearances at schools, civic groups, and living history events.  I wrote articles and shared my drawings with numerous periodicals and was featured in several documentary films.

Reenactments of many different historical periods are held all the time and in many locations.  Participation in such history-related activities can enrich the knowledge and insights gained from books and periodicals alone.  Besides dressing in costume and portraying an historical character, collecting historical films and miniatures and attending period dances and social events are all fun ways to connect with history.  Travel to battlefields, museums and other historical sites is another way to deepen one’s appreciation of the subject.  The more well-rounded and diverse the exploration, the deeper the understanding.

I retired from reenacting in 2011 after fifteen years of exciting experiences.  One of the highlights was a visit in the summer of 2004 to the Civil War Correspondents’ Memorial Arch at Gathland State Park in Maryland, near the Antietam National Battlefield (see image below).  That was a truly remarkable day.  I invite you to embark on your own historical adventures.  Great discoveries await you.

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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