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Re-enactors find connections, lessons in Civil War stories

Of the Keizertimes

Joe Cross stepped away from his modern life and comforts over the long Fourth of July weekend to play the role of a Confederate surgeon at the Northwest Civl War Council re-enactment, but the things he’s learned while researching his role have had far-reaching effects on his personal life.

Cross joined a legion of fellow history buffs for the annual re-enactments at Powerland Heritage Park in Brooks July 1-4.

Last year, Cross had one of his legs amputated and struggled to adapt to his new circumstances even with a modern prosthetic.

“I was going through a period where I thought I should be walking by now, I shouldn’t have a problem,” Cross, a Portland resident, said.

His struggles weren’t helped by a tidal wave of media portrayals showing athletes and military veterans doing any number of things on prosthetics not much different from his. Then a friend in the re-enactment community brought him a letter from a Civil War soldier struggling with an amputation and prosthetic, which, in the 1860s, would have been porcelain wrapped in rope and strapped to the man’s leg.

“I read his account and realized I wasn’t the first one to go through this. He picked himself up and did it. It gave me inspiration to keep going and working at it. I still have to use a walker to walk, but this time last year I couldn’t even stand,” Cross said.

Cross has been taking part in re-enactments for more than 40 years and had roles in Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and medieval productions, but the Civil War is the one that keeps pulling him back.

“I think it was the most defining moment of this country. You will have a hard time finding a war as devastating as this and yet the nation healed itself and became one again,” Cross said.

Crediting Abraham Lincoln elicits a hiss and jeer from a passing Confederate friend, but Cross is adamant.

“(Lincoln) had such forethought and never wavered from what he felt needed to be done,” Cross said.

Cross started as infantry, and worked his way up to field command and running the artillery before strapping on a bloody surgeon’s apron and beginning to assemble a macabre collection of tools used in the field for everything from first aid to surgery.

While the tools look somewhat threatening, Cross himself is a font of knowledge regarding techniques of the day and how each of the implements was used. He had several bundles of horse hair on display that were used for stitches. Surgeons of the time boiled the hair which strengthened it and gave it elasticity.

“After a while, they realized there were fewer infections when they used the horse hair. But it took them even longer to realize it was because they had sterilized it before use,” Cross said.

Amid the knives and saws are some more unusual items like a large funnel used to administer chloroform by covering the nose and mouth.

That alone was a tricky prospect because patients could only ingest so much without becoming poisoned. A smaller tool, developed by a Confederate surgeon, was inserted into the nostrils and would have allowed for longer sedation because the patient could still draw oxygen through the mouth.

“But it was discarded after the war because it was assumed that the Confederate surgeon didn’t know the job well enough,” Cross said.

Given the nature of the tools available and the horrific injuries suffered on the battlefield, Civil War surgeons have a bad rap as “butchers” who didn’t care. Reading the diary of a surgeon returning home from the battlefront changed Cross’ mind.

“He was going home from Gettysburg after spending such a long time in the field that he couldn’t open and close his hands anymore. His assistant had to put tools in his hand and close his fist around them,” Cross said. “He said he did it because he wasn’t sure who would do it if he wasn’t in the field. This was someone who really cared.”

Many re-enactors are encouraged to read letters from the time period, but Cross finds diaries to be much more illuminating because the authors never expected them to be read by family members.

Cross said he spends a lot of time in libraries researching the time period, but he was greatly helped by reproductions of actual surgeon manuals given to Union and Confederate troops.

“They’re written in such a way that even if the surgeon hadn’t performed the procedure before, an assistant could read it to him while he was working,” Cross said.

Corporal Tim O’Neal, with the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers, also found his calling off the battlefield. After starting as infantry in 2013, he and wife KathyJo are now artificers in the engineering corp.

“Basically, it means we can go out and tell 100 other people what to do,” Tim said.

Tim and KathyJo are working on a Cumberland pontoon, a folding bridge capable of spanning a large divide such as a river. Tim made his way to the engineering corps because he could put his carpentry and metalworking skills to use.

“I just kind of got tired of shooting at each other. I prefer to build than anything else, so I busted myself down from sergeant to artificer,” Tim said.

Artificers were the skilled workers with specialties like carpentry or blacksmithing who worked closely with officers that were frequently graduates of West Point. Tim joined the 116th Pennsylvania because his family hails from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Tim’s third great grandfather served with the 15th New Jersey during the Civil War.

“Re-enacting gives you a real sense of what they went through,” Tim said. “Even the tools we use to make things are the same ones I remember seeing and working with alongside my grandfather.”

KathyJo started as part of the cooking unit with some of the other wives in the troop, but found she liked working alongside her husband better. Tim handles the woodworking and cutting while KathyJo coats the wood in linseed oil and paints. During the past five years, they’ve built everything in their campsite from tables and chairs to the metal stoves.

“We built it all, we don’t buy anything,” KathyJo said. She wants Tim’s next project to be a wagon to haul it all into camp.