By BRADEN LAMMERS
About 15 years ago, Tom Lowe planned a vacation with his family and ended up staring down a line of Confederate soldiers in one of the final battles of the Civil War.
It was the first time Lowe donned the Union blues to participate in a Civil War re-enactment at the Battle of Bentonville, in North Carolina.
The city of Jeffersonville’s corporation attorney had planned to go watch the Civil War re-enactment after he found out that his great-great grandfather, George Thomas Lowe, a private in the Third Indiana Cavalry fought in the battle. It was his daughter’s spring break and he was taking her to Washington, D.C., via Georgia, where his parents lived. Visiting North Carolina on the way was a chance to see the re-enactment as they all headed north to visit the nation’s capital.
“Initially, the plans were to go watch,” Lowe said.
But before the trip, he had been in contact with people online in history chat rooms.
“One of the guys was like, ‘If I could get you hooked up with some people would you like to play?’” Lowe said. “I was like, ‘duh,’ you know,” he said with a laugh.
Lowe said he was loaned the gear and participated in the re-enactment for two days.
“On the second day, we go out into this field, laid out the same way it was in 1865, and I looked to my left about 100 yards away and immediately recognized there’s the tree line that my great-great grandfather would’ve been in,” Lowe said. “That was [a] hair [raising] on the arm moment.”
The vacation triggered a passion for Lowe, who has been participating in about eight to 10 Civil War events each year since the first re-enactment.
“I’ve always had an interest in history,” he said.
Lowe added that even as a child he said he had a significant interest in Civil War history, because there is so much of it evident in Southern Indiana. When he began investigating his own family on his dad’s side of his lineage, he discovered his great-great grandfather had fought in the war.
He discovered his ancestor had been captured during Morgan’s raid, and about a month after he was captured, he enlisted in an Indiana cavalry regiment and served out the rest of the war. During his time in the cavalry, Lowe’s great-great grandfather rode through Knoxville and Chattanooga Tenn., was a part of Sherman’s March to the Sea, fought in the Battle of Atlanta and then marched up into the Carolinas near the war’s end. George Lowe was captured again in 1865, either at the Battle of Averasborough or Bentonville.
“Within a few months of getting that information ... [I] found out there was going to be a re-enactment there,” he said.
The Battle of Averasborough was a precursor to the Battle of Bentonville, which was the last fight between Union Gen. William Sherman and Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston, and effectively served as the last battle of the Civil War.
Lowe said he has been back to Bentonville since, but after that first re-enactment he was hooked.
“It’s still a very cool feeling that you’re sharing an experience that a family member did,” Lowe said.
WHY FIGHT IT?
The re-enactments mean more to Lowe than dressing in period costumes and acting out a scene from history.
“For me, re-enacting isn’t so much necessarily about getting out and shooting and all of that sort of stuff, it’s more about understanding the mindset of a generation,” he said.
He said he grapples with the concept of how the soldiers marched in formation toward another line of soldiers, knowing how bad it’s going to be, and still stood there and fought.
“It’s the thing you see over and over again with soldiers,” Lowe said. “It gets lost. It’s not about dates and it’s not about generals. It’s about individual people that go out and do this stuff and I think we as a society have not seen a conflict like [that]. That’s hard for us today to wrap our heads around — understanding why you would go volunteer to do that.
“I learn something, I guess every time I go out. Not only about history, but about the type of folks those people were. It helps to understand ... it gives you greater appreciation of what our current men and women do.”
Lowe said people from all walks of life participate in re-enactments — including many active-duty military members.
“One of the things that fascinates people all around the world about that conflict is how people could feel so strongly to the point of conflict, and yet, within a few generations, while we’ve had our problems for sure, to be able to come together as a nation and continue to thrive — I don’t think most nations could do what we’ve done,” he said.
City Attorney Les Merkley said, for Lowe, keeping that history alive is important.
“I admire his passion for history and preserving the Civil War era,” he said. “It’s important we don’t forget the sacrifices people made during that time.”
Lowe said it is about carrying on the story for future generations. He pointed to many former World War II soldiers who are getting to an age “where somebody is going to have to pick their story up and tell it. And if you don’t have somebody to continue to do that through the generations then it just gets lost. And it’s too important.”
Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore added that Lowe’s knowledge of the Civil War has been an asset in his profession. When it was discovered that there was a Civil War era cemetery in Colston Park, Moore said Lowe was able to serve as something of a historical expert.
The Battle of Perryville
In early October, Lowe was part of a group that participated in one of the area’s re-enactments. He portrayed the role of Sgt. Maj. William C. Fisher of the 80th Indiana during the Battle of Perryville.
Perryville — in central Kentucky — was the site of a Civil War battle in 1862 near the end of the Confederacy’s offensive into Kentucky, and allowed the Union to retain control of the state. By the percentages of the number of soldiers involved, the Battle of Perryville was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War and was the largest battle fought in Kentucky.
During a re-enactment, while the road map is laid out as it is dictated by history, Lowe said you still get a sense of what the fighting would have been like.
“It is a little chaotic when you get out there, which is part of the experience,” he said.
The smoke and the noise lend some insight to how the battlefield may have looked. Marching in wool uniforms in late-summer temperatures, then having the temperature drop to between 40 to 50 degrees, gives the re-enactors a small sample of the everyday experience for a Civil War soldier.
“The discomfort is part of the experience,” Lowe said. “I don’t gain an insight if I go stay at the Holiday Inn.”
And for the audience, watching the noise and chaos, a re-enactment brings the two-dimensional description in a history book to life. By participating in the re-enactments, Lowe said he has taken away a better understanding of the fight between North and South.
“They were a lot tougher than we are,” he said. “They don’t understand what these people endured to keep this country together or to fight what they believed in, depending on what side you look at. It gives you a new appreciation of what we can accomplish if we’re willing to put forth the effort.”