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Re-enactors converge in Sharpsburg

July 08, 2007|By DON AINES

SHARPSBURG-Michael Kraus commanded Union forces at Gettysburg, Antietam and Spotsylvania, and has been killed a number of times - on screen.

"I did get killed in several of those," Kraus said of his appearances in films and television programs about the Civil War. He was blown off a fence on Emmitsburg Road in "Gettysburg," and his death scene in "Cold Mountain" had him lying atop a pile of bodies in "The Crater," a Union debacle in the campaign to take Petersburg, Va.

Kraus, a curator and historian at the Soldiers & Sailors National Military Museum & Memorial in Pittsburgh, and a dozen other Civil War re-enactors with the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment held an encampment Saturday at the C&O Canal National Historical Park. This band of brothers has bonds that formed, in the case of Kraus and Dick Watters, decades ago.

"The captain and I started in 1966" as French and Indian War re-enactors when they were in school, said Watters, referring to Kraus by his rank with the 116th.

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Being a re-enactor takes a commitment to history, an investment in the weapons, equipment and uniforms and some driving, said Craig Geppert, a 34-year veteran who traveled from Michigan.

A relative newcomer, Keith Murray of Jefferson, Md., was invited five years ago to take part in the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.

"Once I was there, I got hooked," he said.

Finding younger people to fill the ranks is becoming difficult, Watters said.

Teenagers sometimes join up, "but we tend to lose them in college," said Geppert, a quality liaison with the Ford Motor Co.

The 116th re-enactment unit was formed in 1977, and is based on a real Pennsylvania unit that all too often was in the thick of the fighting as part of the Irish Brigade, Kraus said. He told visitors the regiment was decimated at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and took heavy casualties at Gettysburg.

Formed in 1962, most of its members were recruited from the Philadelphia area. After being mauled in those major battles, it rebuilt its ranks in 1864 with men recruited from western Pennsylvania, Kraus said.

Marching and fighting on summer weekends might not be everyone's idea of entertainment, but it has gotten Kraus some interesting assignments, including command of the Union Army at 125th anniversary re-enactments at Antietam, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania. He was the re-enactor coordinator for "Gettysburg," he said.

With John Bert and the late Brian Pohanka, Kraus served as a military historical advisor on "Cold Harbor," which was filmed in Romania, training soldiers from that country's army for battle scenes.

"It's like my network. It's like my fraternity," Kraus said of his fellow re-enactors.

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