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More than soldiers: Living history buffs dive deep into roles

Sanitary Commission

Of the Keizertimes

When Nancy Makey took a basket-weaving class in North Carolina three years ago, she expected it to be one of those things that she dallied in a few times and then never attempted again.

She couldn’t have been more wrong. While talking with visitors about her roles as part of the Northwest Civil War Council that hosted its annual living history days at Powerland Heritage Park last week, Makey threaded rattan the whole time.

“In January, I went on a basket retreat in Washington where I learned to weave sweetgrass from a sixth generation descendant of the Gullah. She and her mother both have baskets in the Smithsonian,” Makey said. “She was surprised when I said I wanted to learn the oldest techniques she knew so I could show people during re-enactments.”

The Gullahs are descendants of slaves brought to the U.S. to grow and harvest rice. After slavery was abolished, the men turned to basketweaving as a way to provide for their families and, eventually, it morphed into a family-wide activity.

Basket-making is almost a sideshow to Makey’s main role in the Union encampment. She regularly portrays a member of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.  She found her role after her husband, Gary, decided to pursue tinsmithing.

“Some of the wealthier civilians were reading the writing of Florence Nightengale and they were sure that the U.S. Government was going to make the same mistakes that the British government did during the Crimean War. But, by golly, they were going to straighten out the government,” Makey said.

Members of the group that became the commission argued with President Abraham Lincoln for recognition that finally came on June 9, 1861.

“The men started inspecting the camps and would write long reports and submit them to commanders. But, they found that the camps that abided by the recommendations were cleaner and the men were healthier,” Makey said.

At the same time, the women in the group were making bandages and lint to supply the front lines while taking note of other supplemental efforts.

“Communities would try to send things to their soldiers. They would pack railroad cars full of supplies, including leftovers from last night’s dinner. All the glass containers broke and the cars would get sidetracked for two or three weeks. They would open the cars and they wrote that the smell was overwhelming. This time period was smelly to begin with,” Makey said.

The Sanitary Commission created a collection and distribution system that started out filling the needs of soldiers on the battlefield and morphed into supporting the hospitals working with injured soldiers.

The sanitary commission also turned the idea of fundraising on its ear. They held Sanitary Fairs that started out earning just shy of $100,000 and finished earning more than $1 million when the last one was held.

“By the end of the war, the Sanitary Commission raised more $4 million and collected and distributed more than $60 million of goods and services,” Makey said. The U.S. Sanitary Commission was disbanded in 1866.

The group also kept a meticulous record of what worked and didn’t during its brief existence, which came into play for another organization about 15 years later.

“Clara Barton took what she learned from the International Red Cross and the U.S. Sanitary Commission and created the American Red Cross,” Makey said.


Of the Keizertimes

Five years ago, Doug Odell’s wife asked him if he’d like to take the family camping. What he didn’t know at the time was that it would be under white canvas tents while wearing wool.

“At the time, my daughters were drawn to living history portrayals and my wife had brought them out here while I was on a business trip to check out the Northwest Civil War Council’s Fourth of July activities. When they came out, I think she already had it in her mind to sign us up,” Odell said.

Five years later, Odell’s daughters are in the process of leaving the nest, but he still turned out last week to cook for the 69th New York Infantry Regiment.

Odell embraced the re-enacting scene with such gusto that he has a two personas he performs with some regularity. In Oregon, he’s the camp cook. In Washington, where he travels to perform under a reciprocity agreement, he’s a newspaperman. As a stay-at-home dad and author, both roles are equally fitting to some part of his modern-day persona.

Odell takes great care to make meals for his “pards” in line with what would have been served during the Civil War, but it comes down to two things: “If I have fire and water, I can make just about anything, but I research what it was that they ate and combine it with what we know about germ theory.”

One of the mainstays is Odell’s version of hardtack, complete with caraway seeds to represent the weevils that got into the recipe during the Civil War era. Hardtack is biscuit made of flour and water with an extraordinarily long shelf-life. Some versions are barely edible while Odell’s is softer on the tooth and more tasty.

“I love cooking for this group because it brings us together as a club and community,” Odell said.


Of the Keizertimes

Regina Smith started at the top when it came to portraying living history with the Northwest Civil War Council.

“My first role was Mary Todd Lincoln,” said Smith who traveled from Nevada to take part in the annual living history days at Powerland Heritage Park last week.

Over the past 18 years, Smith has dabbled in several of the trades of the time period, but one stands out above the rest: painting reproductions of fashion plates that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Godey’s was like the women’s magazine of the day,” Smith said. “Each issue had patterns for clothes or crochet patterns and each had a hand-painted fashion plate bound into them.”

The Lady’s Book, which was published from 1830 until 1878, also included poetry, sheet music, articles, engravings, popular romance stories and contributions from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and

Nathaniel Hawthorne. But, it was the hand-painted fashion plates that make each issue truly unique.

“They were done with watercolors and then bound in the catalog and published. It’s possible that no two are exactly alike because each woman would have had a different set of colors,” Smith said.

The publisher, Louis A. Godey, enlisted women who worked from home to color the plates at a cost of about $8,000 per issue. At it’s peak, the magazine had 150,000 subscribers – subscriptions were $3 per year – but lost about a third of its readership during the Civil War because Godey refused to acknowledge the unrest between the Union and Confederacy in the pages of The Lady’s Book.

Smith said her interest in the process by which the book was published arose out of a conversation among fellow re-enactors about the trades and activities that got less notice during living history events.

“I can’t sketch, but I can color,” said Smith.


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Summer 2018 is Bob Wetter’s 26th season participating in Civil War reenactments, a hobby he began in the Midwest and continued after moving to Oregon six years ago.

Wetter started reenactment work as a field soldier. But recently, “I just decided I’m too old for that,” and began working with a reenactment hospital unit, alongside his wife, who filled the role of head nurse.

“I started out as hospital steward, learned the ropes, assisted with some surgeries during non-presentations,” he said.

Wetter can speak in depth about bone saws throughout the ages. “One of the things I had was four capital amputation saws from four different periods in time. The quiz was to put them in order, oldest to newest. It was surprising how many people couldn’t really do it.”

The trick, he said, is to look at the handle. Civil War-era bone saws have wooden handles, because they didn’t know the importance of sterilization in medical practice and didn’t realize that wood holds bacteria. Later bone saws have metal handles, which can be sterilized.

Wetter emphasizes how few Civil War deaths were the result of battlefield casualties. “Of the 750,000-plus soldiers, sailors and marines who died during the Civil War, two-thirds of them died from disease,” Wetter said.

Even though interest is waning in the era, Wetter said it’s still important to understand our nation’s history. “We’re here to remind people of what it was like to be in the 1860s,” he said.