RAYMOND, Miss. (AP) — John Saporito was raised in the South and has Confederate ancestors, but he proudly wears the blue uniform of the Union as he travels to Civil War sites to help re-enact battles from America's deadliest war.
"I cannot bring myself to wear the gray," Saporito, 37, said Friday with an intense look in his eyes. "I don't believe in secession."
Saporito, who lives in Monogahela, Pa., is among more than 1,600 history buffs who traveled to the central Mississippi town of Raymond this weekend to recreate Civil War battles in the rolling hills south and west of the capital city of Jackson.
Military and civilian re-enactors came from Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania and other states. Some pulled trailers with cannons. Others brought horses or teams of massive red oxen.
The Battle of Raymond and the Battle of Champion Hill took place in May 1863. People are marking their 150th anniversaries several months early because of larger Civil War sesquicentennial events taking place in other states next spring. They include re-enactments expected to draw tens of thousands to Gettysburg, Pa.
This weekend's gathering in Raymond includes the re-enactment of a battle that actually took place more than 30 miles to the west, in Vicksburg. The Mississippi River town was under siege 47 days before Confederate forces surrendered on July 4, 1863. Although Vicksburg will have several events next year to commemorate the siege, re-enactors say they're not allowed to stage battles on the vast grounds of the Vicksburg National Military Park.
School groups took field trips to Raymond on Thursday and Friday, and the re-enactments take place Saturday and Sunday.
Joe Grosson portrays a Confederate colonel. His wife, Cynthia Sweet, portrays a Confederate infantry captain. The couple from Brentwood, Tenn., showed groups of students on Friday how to handle rifles — albeit, harmless wooden cutouts of rifles.
Grosson called the children to attention and hollered: "What do you have to do when those Yankees are in front of you?"
"Shoot 'em!" yelled several children in the racially integrated group from a Christian school.
"Not just shoot 'em, but what?" Grosson called.
"Kill 'em!" one boy yelled enthusiastically.
"Now, when I say, 'Fire,' I want to hear the biggest bang you can make," Grosson said.
He gave the command: "Ready! Aim!"
"Bang!" the children yelled, and several younger ones dissolved into giggles.
Up the hill, Vicksburg native Patrick Shell wore a Union uniform and spoke to students about the U.S. Colored Troops — free black men who fought for the North in many places, including the Battle of Milliken's Bend near Vicksburg. Shell, 53, is black and graduated from high school in the late 1970s. He said his history classes taught little about black soldiers. He was grown before he learned that black people were not just passively waiting for whites to free them from slavery.
"After I knew that, there was a shift in how I began to see myself," Shell said. "It changes your whole mindset."
Shell captivated students with his description of battlefield injuries that could be caused by cannons that fired canisters filled with grape shot — solid metal balls more than an inch in diameter. He showed them how to use only two fingers to load gunpowder into a rifle. He held all five fingers over the top of rifle barrel to demonstrate the incorrect form.
"If you load it like this and it goes off, they'll call you 'Stumpy' for the rest of your life," Shell said.
James Francis Gillet of Fair Grove, Mo., demonstrated how buglers conveyed information to troops on noisy battlefields.
"This was the cellphone of my century," he told a group of teenagers.
Kathleen Yurkonis traveled from Brooklyn, Wis., with her husband and their 12-year-old daughter to participate in the re-enactment. Wearing a long cotton dress and with her hair swept up into a hairnet, Yurkonis portrayed a civilian who was caught in Vicksburg during the siege. She knitted a wool petticoat for winter as she explained how some Vicksburg residents lived in caves for safety.
Yurkonis, 43, has been a Civil War re-enactor since 1988. She was prompted by the emptiness she felt during a visit to Gettysburg.
"I remember crying at all of the unknown tombs there," she said.
Sweet, a retired U.S. Navy officer, started doing Civil War re-enactments after some friends took her to an event in 1995. She has done re-enactments in traditional female dress, but said she prefers the action and organization of the battlefield.
"I never thought I would do anything like this," Sweet said, "but they took me out and I kind of got addicted."
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