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Mountaineer 'veteran' of Battle(s) of Antietam

September 07, 1997

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

Gene Breeden was just a teenager when he was recruited to fight for the Confederate army at the Battle of Antietam.

Breeden, 51, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., said he clearly remembers the day 35 years ago that the man from Hagerstown came to talk to his Boy Scout troop about portraying soldiers in the battle's 100th anniversary re-enactment.

Given his longtime love of history - especially military history - Breeden said he jumped at the opportunity.

After a mock enlistment, he and two other boys from his scout troop were taken to a barn in Clear Spring, where they were outfitted in authentic Confederate uniforms and gear, he said.

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Breeden remembers it as a heady experience.

"You can imagine how we boys felt seeing all this army stuff - that's what we called it," he said.

The 1962 re-enactment was staged at Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Breeden said.

Still, though the scenarios were played out where they actually happened, the re-enactment wasn't very realistic in numbers or approach, he said.

"In those days, there wasn't as much order and authenticity. You could get in with flannel shirts," said Breeden, who remembers having the honor of carrying a Confederate flag from a Georgia infantry unit into battle.

Sitting around afterward, Breeden heard a fellow re-enactor question whether he'd make it to the 125th anniversary re-enactment in 1987.

Breeden has the medal to prove he made it - though he'd switched to the Union side by that time.

Gearing up for his third Battle of Antietam re-enactment in celebration of the 135th anniversary next weekend, Breeden said he's now hoping he'll be around to participate in the battle's 150th anniversary re-enactment.

The 135th anniversary re-enactment - set for Sept. 12, 13 and 14 on the Artz farm property, just south of Hagerstown - could draw up to 12,000 re-enactors and 50,000 spectators, organizers say.

While he said he'll never forget his first Antietam re-enactment, Breeden remembers liking his second better.

Staged on a farm between Boonsboro and Sharpsburg, the battle was much more realistic and, as a result, much more exciting, he said.

"It was more people, and it was a wider scale of activities - infantry, cavalry, artillery...more like it was the real thing," Breeden said. "I really felt exhilarated, more like push and shove, cuss and fuss."

Breeden said having a different attitude about re-enacting made his second Battle of Antietam a whole lot better as well.

The first time, Breeden said, he looked at it as playing soldier.

That attitude persisted until 1964, when "girls and cars" distracted him away from the hobby.

But by the time the 125th anniversary rolled around, Breeden had seen real action in Vietnam. He had also married and had children.

After he got back into re-enacting in 1975, he said he saw the hobby in a new light - as a way to help preserve an important piece of American history for posterity.

"I was doing something positive because I was serving history and those that went before me," he said.

That sense of mission has kept the re-enacting passion burning, said Breeden, who works at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"It's for a good cause now. It's for the future generations to have something to look at and understand. It's given me a purpose," said Breeden, who sees knowledge of history as a way to prevent past mistakes from being repeated.

The realistically large scale of the 135th anniversary event makes re-enacting the Battle of Antietam for a third time especially exciting, he said.

"I'm here. I'm ready. And I can't wait. I'm going for my third medal," Breeden said.

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