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Published: Sunday, July 10, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

For Civil War re-enactor, battles are an act of remembrance

  • Bill Lewis, also known as Dirty Water, is a Civil War re-enactor.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Bill Lewis, also known as Dirty Water, is a Civil War re-enactor.

  • Troops charge up Highway 20 in Marblemount.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Troops charge up Highway 20 in Marblemount.

  • The Civil War dead only get a parting glance from those still alive.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    The Civil War dead only get a parting glance from those still alive.

  • One side surrenders during a Civil War re-enanctment.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    One side surrenders during a Civil War re-enanctment.

  • Troops stand at the ready during a Civil War re-enactment in Marblemount.

    Troops stand at the ready during a Civil War re-enactment in Marblemount.

  • Re-enactors portraying Union and Confederate troops shoot into the air after a battle.

    Re-enactors portraying Union and Confederate troops shoot into the air after a battle.

History is vital to Bill Lewis.
And re-enacting history is what keeps him vital.
"It's knowing how to drill. Knowing how to maneuver. Helping new people pick a uniform, helping them pick a rifle," said Lewis, 66, of Arlington. "Teaching them, so then, they can go and teach somebody else."
Since 1994, Bill Lewis has taken his membership as a re-enactor for the Washington Civil War Association -- 26th North Carolina Infantry -- as seriously as the idea of war itself.
For Lewis, it's not play acting. It's delivering a history lesson that comes, as he puts it, with an obligation.
"We owe it to our ancestors," Lewis said. "We owe it to the men who died, and if you can't think about the men who died 150 years ago, then think about Desert Storm. Think about the men who are dying today."
This year across the nation, ceremonies and re-enactments are taking place as the country commemorates the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War at Fort Sumter.
The Civil War was the bloodiest in our nation's history. To fathom the deaths of 620,000 soldiers is impossible, though breaking it down by year provides perspective: In the span of five years of battle, from 1861 to 1865, 124,000 soldiers died for each year of the war, more deaths each year than there are people living in Everett right now.
That part of our country's past gives Lewis pause.
"I like to think sometimes that I could be as brave as those men who marched at Gettysburg," Lewis, a retired logger, said.
"To keep going in battle, you always ask, 'Why did they do it?'
"The only thing I figured out is because they couldn't let their partner go on without them. You are honor-bound … some people don't know much about that anymore."
Lewis discovered Civil War re-enacting in 1994. While visiting a feed store with his son, Lewis heard a thump and knew instantly what it was: black powder firing from a cannon.
Lewis became intrigued watching the re-enactment. After all, Abraham Lincoln was among his heroes.
With the support of his wife, Betty, Lewis invested a couple of thousand dollars for a uniform, rifle and other necessities.
"I was interested but I said I was not going to spend that kind of money and my wife said 'I'll go to the bank and get the money,'" Lewis recalled.
But Lewis' investment in the 26th North Carolina Infantry isn't measured in money. Nor in time. For him, a value can't be placed on his pleasure of reliving history.
He has studied, visited and researched various Civil War sites: Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Manassas, Fredricksburg. He didn't have to go, but being there helped "complete" him.
"The first day at Gettysburg, it was horrendous," Lewis said. "To go there and walk the ground, it's special.
"You can get fancy with words, but it was special, and, you know, I'm glad I did it."
As a Civil War re-enactor, Lewis wants to bring something true to the crowds but he also says he's got to be physically and mentally able to handle the battles.
"If you do you get in the middle of a good firefight your blood gets up and you flat out get excited; there are no two ways about it," Lewis said.
For five years, Lewis portrayed a sergeant major with his troop, his expertise at Civil War history and drilling earning him a high degree of respect among the ranks and the nickname "Dirty Water."
As sergeant major, Lewis played the enforcer for the colonel, packing a wallop when necessary "and scaring the hell out of everybody," Lewis joked.
Lewis helped keep the camp running according to 1863 regulations and made sure a copy of Hardee's drill manual was at his bedside.
There was also the time Lewis gave a little more than he planned.
During a re-enactment in Snohomish three years ago a mine accidentally went off between Lewis' legs. He was burned and temporarily blinded. Lewis remembered that one of the re-enactors never let go of his hand all the way to the hospital.
Afterward, Lewis was brought before the whole battalion and presented with several gifts of appreciation. One was a pillow sewn with the words "Never Forsake the Colors."
There's a wall of fame next to the dining room table in the Lewis home where mementoes and pictures hang. Included on the wall is a plaque Lewis was given when he retired from sergeant major to his current status as a private.
The plaque reads: "Honor and Duty Above Self."
"I believe in what I'm doing," Lewis said. "There's a difference between just playing and believing. I've got this wall and if nothing else when I die, people can look at this wall and say 'the guy was all right.' "
Re-enactors group
The Washington Civil War Association honors the Northern and Southern soliders who fought in or lived during the American Civil War. The WCWA sponsors living history encampments, battle re-enactments, school programs and recruiting drives throughout the state, according to the WCWA website.
To learn more about Civil War re-enacting, visit the website at www.wcwa.net or call the Confederates unit commanded by Lt. Col. Toby Gully at 360-354-3011.
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