As the bugle is about to sound, Alan Geho leaves behind his comfortable Selah home with its air-conditioning and recliner sofa and prepares to charge into battle.
Dressed in a heavy woolen uniform, his sword sheathed at his side, he’ll command his troops under the summer sun as Union and Confederate forces face off. At nightfall, when the battle is done, he’ll eat beside an open fire and sleep in a canvas tent.
It’s all part of his role as a colonel in the Washington Civil War Association’s Army of the Columbia. About six times each year, Geho, a special education teacher at Union Gap School, joins fellow association members to stage Civil War reenactments throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“I have a passion for history,” explained the Moscow, Idaho, native who grew up in the Yakima Valley. “By understanding our history, we may prevent ourselves from making mistakes in the future.”
Geho has participated in reenactments since 1997, first serving with the Confederacy and then switching to the Union side — in part because of his love for horses and wish to be with the cavalry. Most recently, he participated in a battle during a reenactment for Union Gap Old Town Days held in June at Fulbright Park.
Although no live ammunition is used and good sportsmanship is expected, the reenactors go to great lengths to make the battle scenes and encampments behind battle lines as realistic as possible for spectators.
“It’s orchestrated chaos in battle,” said Geho, who is a battalion commander. “There’s the smell of powder, troops massing to the left ready to flank the opponent, flags waving, cannons bellowing. You don’t even realize the public is there.”
There are no drones and no modern tools of war, he emphasized.
“Everything is up-close and personal, as it was then, Napoleonic warfare which is face to face,” said Geho, who is one of only a handful of reenactors from the Yakima Valley. “It’s an amazing drop into a different mental zone … Even though you’re playacting, if a maneuver doesn’t work out, you feel this frustration. You think, that could have been the decimation of that company. You sometimes feel the weight, the pressure for success on the field. It’s a real chess match!”
Although Geho is drawn to the cavalry, other reenactors take the roles of “different units and organizations that existed during the American Civil War,” according to the Washington Civil War Association, which claims some 700 members. “These groups portray civilians, infantry … artillery, Navy, Marines, engineers, surgeons, nurses, ministry and sutlers (vendors of food and other goods).” They “help recreate and educate the public about the events and attitudes of the time,” including presentations at schools.
Wandering through the encampments in Union Gap this past June, you could see military personnel clad in uniforms from both the North and the South; medical personnel, one of whom had red, paint-stained bandages to apply for “injuries”; a cobbler; and women involved in food preparation. In all, about 450 people participated in the reenactment.
Some reenactors take on the identities of historical figures who fought or served in a support capacity during the war. Others take on more generic roles. Alan Geho goes by the title: Colonel Marshall Geho, in honor of Marshall, West Virginia, a southern town where his ancestors lived, which later became part of the Union.
No matter what the role, however, this reenacting gig has its challenges — including the weather!
“Several years ago, in Yakima, we had a battle and it was over 100 degrees,” Geho recalled. “That’s dangerous in wool. We had one person go to the hospital with heat exhaustion.” In 1999, in a Civil War “tactical” in the Nile Valley, it was so cold that the coffee in a tin cup he’d set on a rock beside him froze. Last year, in Snoqualmie, there were “microbursts,” similar to small tornadoes, lifting one man who was holding onto a tent pole into the air. Another year, in Snohomish, it rained so hard that the dampness permeated even the newspapers in the tents so people couldn’t start their fires. In the last two cases, the reenactors on both sides decided to retreat to home, Geho said.
Certain concessions may be made for practicality. For example, Geho noted that “authenticity is a variance of degrees after hours,” with some reenactors using LL Bean sleeping bags in their tents and several who camp out in fifth-wheels. Geho himself, after sleeping on the ground “many a time,” admits to now using a wooden slat bed with a foam mattress in his tent.
He said although some reenactors may stop at Burger King on their way to an encampment, most food is prepared in a more traditional way, with frying pans and kettles over open fires. However, it’s still not quite the salt pork, hardtack (hard, unleavened bread) and beans that you’d call authentic.
“I’ve had salt pork and I don’t need to eat it other than to show I can,” Geho joked.
The most important difference between reenactments and actual Civil War battles, however, is that “at the end of the day, everybody comes back to life” who was “killed” in a mock battle, he said.
Geho, who works with special education students in fifth through eighth grades, sees the Civil War reenactments as an important teaching tool to preserve the history of our nation.
“If we water down history, if we forget history, we’re apt to repeat the mistakes that we forget about,” he contends. Prior to the Civil War, which Geho believes was inevitable, people “weren’t willing to listen to each other.”
In the end, he believes the two sides forged a stronger bond.
And so, Geho will soon follow the call of the bugle to yet another battle, once again bringing history to life for the spectators who gather.
For more information on the Washington Civil War Association, contact Rich Bright at 509-910-4638 or visit www.wcwa.net. Information on reenactment associations from other areas of the country is also available by clicking “Links” on this website.