Blast to the past

The 29th annual Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment will recreate the Battle of Chickamauga

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Embracing history: On April 28, nearly 1,000 uniform-clad men and women will fight in the legendary Battle of Chickamauga as part of the 29th annual Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment, a free two-day event at Neshaminy State Park. Source: Ilena Di Toro

On April 28, hundreds of tents will litter Neshaminy State Park in Bensalem as nearly 1,000 uniform-clad men and women gather around open fires. By the light of the moon and flame, they’ll share stories and form inseparable bonds, all while anticipating the abrupt awakening they’ll receive at the crack of dawn for morning roll call.

Donning muskets and other military equipment, these individuals will fight in the legendary Battle of Chickamauga. Well, sort of. This is the 29th annual Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment, a free two-day event on Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine.

For locals looking to learn more about this vital period in American history, the reenactment allows them to experience military life as it was in the 1860s without having to travel to Manassas, Virginia, or Gettysburg. Aside from the latter, Neshaminy boasts the largest Civil War reenactment on the East Coast, and was featured in the Top 21 Reenactments List on TheHistoryList.com.

According to the event’s executive chairman, Chuck Gilson, who has been involved with Neshaminy Civil War since the early ’90s, a different battle is selected each year by a special military committee. The group, comprised of a number of knowledgeable history buffs, conducts research and develops scenarios to make the reenactment as accurate as possible.

“We choose what we can do the best representation of,” Gilson said.

While many participants, like Gilson, are history fanatics, it is by no means a requirement.

“It’s open to anyone who wants to do a little time traveling,” he explained.

Over the weekend, camps will be set up throughout Neshaminy State Park just as they would have been during the Civil War. Most reenactors will be found sleeping in what soldiers referred to as “dog tents,” which are basically small, two-person tents. Since the event is overnight, Gilson stressed how this blast to the past doesn’t stop once the sun goes down. Old and new friends alike emerge from their tents to gather around open fires, enjoying cigars and each other’s company.

“There’s nothing like sitting around a campfire with friends telling stories,” he said.

On Sunday morning, it’s back to the battle as reenactors are awakened by the morning roll call, which is followed by activities such as battalion drills.

“Everything turns into a military camp. Everything they would’ve done in that time, we do,” Gilson said.

Throughout the day, the public is invited to Neshaminy State Park to see the reenactors in action. Visitors will be able to ask questions about the battle, take photos and videos, witness authentic battle reenactments and enjoy military and civilian life demonstrations. On April 29 at 11 a.m., there will be an 1860s exhibition baseball game featuring the Monmouth Furnace versus the New York Mutuals at the Drill Field.

A hands-on experience: Visitors will be able to ask questions about the battle, take photos and videos and enjoy military and civilian life demonstrations. Source: Ilena Di Toro

For individuals interested in participating in the reenactment, pre-registration cost is $12 and walk-in cost is $20. Gilson explained the majority of these fees pay for the supplies necessary to successfully and safely run the event — porta potties, a landscaper to maintain the cleanliness of the park, trash receptacles and insurance. In its 28-year history, the Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment has raised more than $60,000 for not only its own events, but other Civil War organizations and historical preservation efforts.

Though reenactors are responsible for bringing their own costumes and equipment, organizers will have a limited number of props on hand for those who didn’t have time to prepare accordingly. This is how Gilson initially began, deciding spur-of-the-moment to join his neighbor. After he was provided with a uniform and musket, he fell in love with the experience and, nearly 25 years later, has been participating ever since.

When it comes to reenactments, Gilson has been through it all, including waking up one morning covered in snow. Still, it’s all part of the experience. Just as the soldiers at the Battle of Chickamauga had to fight in whatever elements Mother Nature threw their way, the Neshaminy reenactors will be setting up camp rain or shine.

For more information, visit neshaminycwevent.org, visit the Neshaminy Civil War Reenactment on Facebook, contact Chuck Gilson at cdgilson5@comcast.net or write to Neshaminy Living History Association, 3211 Knights Road, Bensalem PA 19020. Neshaminy State Park is located at 3401 State Road in Bensalem. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com