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Accidents do happen at re-enactments

October 05, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Robert C. Mauk was holding a cannon fuse during a Battle of Gettysburg re-enactment last year when something went terribly wrong.

"I don't really know to this day why the gun went off, but it happened," said Mauk, 45, who was hospitalized for eight days and nearly lost his left hand in the accident.

That was Mauk's first Civil War re-enactment, but not his last. The Hagerstown man doesn't let danger hold him back from a hobby he loves.

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"Accidents do happen. Men do get hurt. Even with the expert training you can give, the human element is always there," he said.

At the 135th Commemoration of the Battle of Antietam last month, volunteer emergency crews set up a medical tent to treat more than 200 people - most of them re-enactors - for things like heat exhaustion, twisted ankles, cuts and burns. The average patient's age was 35.

One re-enactor died of a heart attack.

Another re-enactor was injured when he was kicked by a horse.

A civilian re-enactor was seriously burned in an explosion of period photography chemicals in the sutler area. She was flown by helicopter to a burn treatment center in Washington, D.C.

Countless others not recorded were treated on the field, said Doug DeHaven, deputy fire chief at Halfway Volunteer Fire Co.

Despite the mayhem, the Sept. 12-14 event was just what emergency crews expected, he said.

"Those numbers came as no surprise. We knew that with the volume of people put together in one little space, how many patients we would have," he said.

For the first time ever, the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association established a remote dispatch center at the re-enactment.

At the medical tent, there were 78 fire and rescue volunteers and 15 doctors and nurses, DeHaven said.

DeHaven doesn't think re-enacting is more dangerous than most hobbies.

"There's hazards with any sport or hobby. They all have their inherent dangers," DeHaven said.

It isn't as uncommon as you might think for a re-enactor to have a heart attack on the battlefield, said Dennis E. Frye, co-chairman of the Antietam commemoration.

Other re-enactors have been stricken by underlying heart problems that surface during physically demanding battle scenarios, he said.

More commonly, re-enactors become exhausted carrying sometimes as much as 50 pounds of equipment and wearing wool uniforms in sweltering heat, he said.

To prevent problems, re-enactors are encouraged to monitor themselves closely and drink a lot of water. Canteens are mandatory.

Special rules at the Antietam re-enactment had safety in mind.

No one under 13 was allowed on the field during the re-enactment and the minimum age for combat was 16.

No fixed bayonets or aggressive hand-to-hand combat was allowed.

Weapons had to be cleaned and inspected regularly to prevent misfires.

Re-enactors were told to elevate their weapon slightly to avoid blasting a fellow re-enactor. Although no live rounds are used, guns are fired using explosive black powder.

Although they take many safety precautions and try to script the battle as much as possible, accidents are bound to happen.

Mauk said he still has flashbacks about the cannon explosion. He imagines that Civil War survivors went through much the same thing.

His hand is functional. He still writes with it and the injury doesn't interfere with his job sorting leather at Garden State Tanning in Williamsport.

But it tingles occasionally and he has trouble gripping certain objects, like a small sledgehammer, he said.

Mauk re-enacts the part of an infantryman and, for the most part, stays away from the artillery these days.

But he and other re-enactors feel the rewards they get from teaching living history outweigh the relatively small risk of getting hurt.

"It's something that gets into your blood," he said.

In his 20 years of re-enacting, Paul Martz of Hagerstown said he has learned the importance of training after seeing people lose fingers because of carelessness.

"You've got to know what you're doing out there," said Martz, 40.

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