Point of precision

'Master re-enactor' takes accuracy seriously

'Master re-enactor' takes accuracy seriously

January 22, 2006|By Julie E. Greene


With his long beard and dressed in Civil War-era replica clothes, Jeremiah Hornbaker looks like he could be a soldier from that war.

Of course, he would tell you that the long beard isn't necessary. Some soldiers trimmed their beards in the field with a straight razor and scissors.

Hornbaker, 27, a state employee who lives at Gathland State Park on South Mountain State Battlefield, has been interested in Civil War re-enacting since the fifth grade and helped start a re-enactors group a year later.

He was fascinated with the weapons and clothes a teacher brought to Montgomery Elementary School in Franklin County, Pa., and soon found himself visiting museums and visitors centers at regional battlefields to learn more.


He went on to become a re-enactor with such accurate impressions that it made him an easy choice to be "more than an extra" for director Ron Maxwell's "Gods and Generals," the 2003 sequel to the movie "Gettysburg," says Dennis Frye. Frye was associate producer for the movie and was in charge of the re-enactors.

More than 7,500 re-enactors applied to be in the movie, each having to provide a full-length photo of their impression.

Hornbaker provided about seven different impressions, all of which were accurate, Frye says. Hornbaker became one of a core group of 19 re-enactors who were filmed each day.

"Jerry represents the master re-enactor. He epitomizes the ultimate in re-enacting. His impression is absolutely historic, extremely well-researched and just beautifully presented," says Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

"He's one of the very best re-enactors I've encountered in nearly 40 years," Frye says.

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., is having a re-enactor workshop Saturday to help living history presenters and re-enactors develop a more accurate impression.

The workshop is geared toward medical re-enactors, but includes discussion about period clothing, says Kari Turner, director of education.

Details don't fit usual image

Hornbaker often uses primary resources such as letters, photos of units in the field and records such as officers' reports that might note what a unit was wearing.

It's obvious Hornbaker enjoys the details.

He can easily go on and on about the differences, subtle and great, just in clothing.

Because of black-and-white photos and the blue and gray references to the Civil War, people often don't realize there was a lot more color to the garb worn in the war, Hornbaker says.

Often Confederate soldiers ended up wearing the clothing of a fallen Federal soldier or their own civilian clothes because the supply situation was so poor for the army, he says.

The kind of research Hornbaker does isn't new to re-enacting. Groups have been doing such detailed work since the war's 100th anniversary when Civil War re-enacting really took off, he says. Often he and other re-enactors share their research so they don't repeat someone else's work.

Hornbaker, who used to live in Mercersburg, Pa., focuses on the 126th Pennsylvania from Franklin County. He has a couple ancestors who fought in that Federal unit.

Members of that unit wore dark blue trousers and a shell coat, a short navy wool coat that was form fitting. They carried muskets with bayonets.

He is a member of the re-enacting group Liberty Rifles, which portrays members of the Union and Confederate armies and civilians.

"I do both Federal and Confederate because if you're going to understand something, you need to understand both sides," Hornbaker says.

While his research has focused on the local Federal unit and he is from Pennsylvania, if he had been around during the war, Hornbaker says he would have fought on the Confederate side because of his strong belief in states' rights.

Having someone from the North fight for the Confederacy or someone from the South fight for the Union wasn't unheard of.

"Lines aren't as neatly drawn as people would like them to be," he says.

Hobby balances with life

Re-enactors are thought of as weird or obsessed, says Hornbaker, but he has other interests. He also helps small, unsigned hard-rock bands with merchandising and setting up for concerts.

"There's a lot of people who look at us as one step above Trekkies," he says.

"I don't want to be the history geek, sitting up on the hill in the house reading history books," Hornbaker says.

He's just been able to make a career out of his hobby.

A forester by trade, Hornbaker is a seasonal ranger and historian for South Mountain State Battlefield. His job includes research about the battle and battlefield, portraying Civil War-era soldiers or civilians during living history events and restoration efforts.

His long beard, re-enactor wardrobe and attention to detail also have gotten him wider attention.

He portrayed a Confederate officer in Bob Dylan's video for "'Cross the Green Mountain," a song that is on the "Gods and Generals" soundtrack.

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