In 1863, Union forces advanced on Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate strongholds in northern Virginia. The Battle of Chancellorsville, a crushing defeat for the Union, was about to begin.
Marching toward their “baptism of fire” was the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry — almost 70 percent came from Centre County, including Charles C. Herman. When the smoke cleared, Herman would be dead along with nearly 3,300 others in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
Today, those men who died in that long-ago war are remembered by groups such as the 148th Company C Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry re-enactors. And for some of the re-enactors, it takes on a personal meaning.
“It’s always exciting to portray your relative and their friends in these events,” said Lynn Herman, president of the 148th re-enactors and a relation of the Herman who fell 151 years ago.
Other re-enactors share that same connection to the Civil War, which is part of why they do it, said Herman, who has been re-enacting battles for 19 years. The re-enactors also share a love of history. Herman has a bachelor’s degree in the subject.
“The Civil War has always been my favorite part of history,” he said.
Dave Felice, the 148th re-enactors’ captain and a State College native, started the group in 1992. The love of history, studying it and reconstructing the past draws him to it, he said.
“I like the historical significance of it, just what happened and the strategy of the battles and what they went through,” Felice said.
It’s not just the battles, but how the soldiers lived on a daily basis — camping, eating, using the correct equipment and trying to recreate it — that brings re-enactors closer to history, he said.
“It’s been pretty rewarding,” Felice said.
Volunteers of Centre County
As the name suggests, the 148th were volunteers from the counties in central Pennsylvania. It also was one of the most decorated and storied units of the Civil War.
Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin called up the 148th volunteers in 1862 to defend the state from Confederate invasion. In less than a year, the regiment would find itself doing just that at Gettysburg. On the battle’s last day, the volunteers took more than 400 prisoners during Pickett’s Charge in the Confederate loss.
The regiment was considered one of the best fighting units in the Union’s Army of Potomac, participating in almost every battle, including Chancellorsville and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. The total regimental history is 1,100 pages long, Felice said.
The 148th had four Medal of Honor recipients — two for capturing the Confederate flag during battles in 1864 and 1865. The regiment so impressed Union commanders that it was one of the first groups to be supplied repeating rifles, a rarity among soldiers at the time, Felice said.
During the May re-enactment of the Spotsylvania/Wilderness Campaign in Virginia, the 148th re-enactors again captured the Confederate flag.
“The Confederate guys didn’t like it, but it’s historically accurate,” Felice said.
However, the 148th paid a heavy price for the win. It suffered some of the most Union casualties of the war, according to the re-enactors. The regiment ranked 14th highest for the percent killed among more than 2,000 Union regiments. A 148th soldier had a 66 percent chance of being killed or wounded.
“These guys were the starting lineup in the Army of the Potomac,” Felice said.
History marches on
Today, the 148th re-enactors participate in battle re-creations and ceremonies to honor those times. They joined the festivities at Fourth Fest and will appear at a Living History event Aug. 2-3 at Greenwood Furnace State Park in Huntingdon County. Felice said the furnace once supplied iron for railroads and materials crucial to the Union at the time.
But for re-enactors such as John Mort, the activities also honor today’s soldiers, who share many traditions with their Civil War predecessors.
So much is different about today’s Army, said Mort, a re-enactor with the 148th as well as a Confederate artillery group, Hampton’s Legion Artillery, based out of Centre Hall. He spent six years in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
“The past and present, I like to see the differences,” Mort said.
But even if soldiers today don’t march shoulder to shoulder into a battle and high-tech weaponry has replaced single-shot rifles, some things haven’t changed.
“There’s also things that are the same,” Mort said, “like the brotherhood of being a soldier.”
He said he attends re-enactments because they’re fun, he likes history and makes friends. But he never forgets why they’re standing on that battlefield: honoring the sacrifices, struggles and memories of the soldiers and all who came after them.
“I do take it very personally,” Mort said.