116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A field in Cedar Rapids transformed this weekend into a Civil War camp, with soldiers nestling in tents in their wool uniforms, chopping firewood, caring for horses and even tending to the make-believe sick.
The Civil War re-enactors ——dedicated hobbyists who portray Union and Confederate soldiers, doctors and civilians — camped over the weekend at Seminole Valley Farm Museum. Cheri Cruse, a board member, said the museum has been hosting an annual re-enactment for 20 years.
The event draws over 50 re-enactors from around Iowa and the Midwest to set up a camp where they live, in many ways, like soldiers during the war, sleeping in tents and braving the elements. Still, some carried “portable telegraphs” — cellphones — when in costume.
The event typically features a battle re-enactment. But this year, the main field at Seminole Valley Park is covered in mulch from trees damaged in last summer’s derecho, leaving no space large enough for a full-scale “battle.”
“We talked to our re-enactors and said, ‘What else can we still do to have our event?’ and everyone came up with all these ideas of living history,” Cruse said.
Hobbyists showed onlookers how surgeries were performed during the war, showed off cannon setups and demonstrated cavalry horses.
Kathy Kroeger, from Bennett, portrays a male soldier in Iowa’s 3rd Cavalry regiment and teaches about the history of female soldiers who fought in the war disguised as men.
“We do this because of our passion for this part of the history,” Kroeger said. “It’s not a cheap hobby — it’s expensive.”
Kroeger has been participating in re-enactments for 15 years, and said she plans to attend five events this year. She’s made many friends and lasting connections through participating in re-enactments.
“This is all family,” she said.
Jason Hoover, president of the board of directors for the museum, has been re-enacting as a Civil War soldier and civilian since 1991.
“Our attempt is to portray the time of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. There’s so many different levels of history that is not taught in schools,” he said. “Schools for the most part hit the highlights.”
While there has been a decline in attendance at some of the nation’s largest re-enactments, Hoover says his unit, the Iowa Volunteer 24th, has many younger members.
“It’s a growing segment. This is not cheap necessarily,” he said. “Our unit, we have loaner uniforms, we have loaner rifles, so it’s something that someone who has an interest in it can step in and learn in it, do stuff, and try it out without spending a ton of money.”
Civil War re-enactments have been around in some form even during the Civil War itself, but modern re-enactments began in the most recognizable form in the 1960s, around the centennial of the Civil War.
These re-enactments continue amid a reckoning over Confederate symbols and monuments that continue to be on public display. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 100 Confederate monuments and symbols were removed in 2020, but 700 still remain.
Saturday, as the living history took place in Cedar Rapids, two Confederate statues were removed in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Kenneth Lyftogt, a retired history instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and author of three books about Iowa and the Civil War, said between 72,000 and 76,000 soldiers from Iowa enlisted in the Civil War.
While some re-enactors said the reason Iowans went to fight in the war was not over slavery, Lyftogt said that idea is not supported by history.
“Every Iowa soldier who went in to the war was well knowledgeable that slavery was the cause of that war,” he said. “These were a well-read, politically sophisticated people. Their letters and diaries show they know exactly what’s happening concerning slavery.”
He said re-enacting is a kind of living theatrical performance.
“I think of these people like the people who do Shakespeare in the Park,” Lyftogt said. “They are all well-versed in some aspects or many aspects of the Civil War, and they want to capture daily camp life, but also the spectacle.”
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