'The Civil War Comes to Lebanon County' at Union Canal Tunnel Park
Nearly 30 years ago, Dennis Shirk took an idea and ran with it, eventually re-creating the 93rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a battalion of men who fought in the American Civil War.
Shirk, of Myerstown, invited other folks who shared an interest in the Civil War to join his band, and it didn't take long before the 93rd had about 50 re-enactors.
"All these guys (in the 93rd) have a deep respect for our country and our history," Shirk said recently.
The original 93rd hailed primarily from Lebanon County and were, in fact, called "The Lebanon Infantry."
Marching through the mists of time, the 93rd is returning to the area for one weekend, to Union Canal Tunnel Park, where they'll set up camp from August 21 to 23 for an event called "The Civil War Comes to Lebanon County." It's the 25th anniversary of this annual historical event.
The park is located along Union Canal Drive in West Lebanon, behind the Lebanon Valley Mall. The three-day event is sponsored by the 93rd, by the Infantry 13th Mississippi CSA, and the Lebanon County Historical Society.
Although these soldiers come from the 21st century, when you enter the Park those three days, you'll believe you're living in the 1860s.
The encampment is realistic, right down to the heavy woolen uniforms worn by the soldiers and the authentic Enfield rifles the men carry. Women in 19th century garb will be cooking over wood fires to feed the men, as the soldiers clean their guns by the front of their tents, preparing for battle.
Along with living history demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday, the group will also stage skirmishes with the infantry of the 13th Mississippi CSA (Confederate States of America). Although the Confederates are aligned with a Mississippi unit, most of the men hail from Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, Shirk said.
About 200 men will be participating in the mock battles, and several pieces of artillery are expected to be used during the battles, too.
The battles are scheduled to commence about 2 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The event is open to the public on Friday, too, Shirk said, although most of that day will be concentrated on the re-enactors setting up their campsites.
Admission to the park encampment is by a donation of a non-perishable food item, which will be given to the Lebanon Rescue Mission, or $2 per car.
To enhance the time-warp feel, guests are invited to visit the Union camp after dark, and participate in the Candlelight Walk Saturday night. The walk begins at 7:30 p.m. and lasts until 9 p.m. Candles will be provided for a donation or visitors may bring a flashlight.
While the re-enactments by the 93rd Infantry have been staged locally for more than two decades, this is the first year in many that the camp and the battles will return to the Union Canal Tunnel Park, an area also rife with history.
For the past five years, the re-enactment was held at Fort Indiantown Gap, Shirk said.
As founder of the unit, Shirk started out as a second lieutenant. He is now Captain Shirk. Over the years, Shirk has absorbed so much of the atmosphere and knowledge of the time, it's easy to see him as a Union Captain.
A retired auto mechanic, Shirk owns a regimental history book of the 93rd, which was written in 1911 and explains much about the unit, who they were and what they went through during the war years. It tells about the men who died, and in what battles they fell.
"After 30 years as a re-enactor, you learn a little about a soldier's life," Shirk said.
Shirk knows plenty about both the Civil War and the 93rd Infantry.
For example, during the Civil War years, the 93rd held maneuvers in a grassy area between Lehman and Maple streets, which is why the remaining parkland there is named "Monument Park."
Shirk entered the world of Civil War re-enactments for a simple reason.
"I like history," Shirk said. "As re-enactors, we're out to honor the Union side and we're out there to honor the Confederate side, too. And, what better way to portray the Union than to choose a unit from Lebanon County; this wasn't just picking a number in a history book."
Many of the men in the group have based their characters on actual soldiers of the 93rd. One of those men is Steve Bausner of Reading, who has been a member of the 93rd for 28 years.
"I've always been interested in the Civil War," Bausner said. "Back in about 1987, I saw the 93rd was doing a living history event, so I went there, met Dennis (Shirk) and the rest is history."
Bausner, a U.S. Air Force veteran, based his persona on Dr. E. R. Umberger, a doctor from Middletown who opened an office along Cumberland Street in Lebanon after the war. Umberger is buried in the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery.
"We educate the public to what it was like to live as soldiers during the Civil War," Bausner said. "Re-enacting is a family thing; wives, children, brothers, cousins, we all serve together."
Through the years, Bausner has also learned a lot about what it took to be a surgeon on a battlefield, and he owns a complete surgeon's' kit from that era.
"I just play a doctor on weekends and show what it was like to be a surgeon back then," Bausner said, explaining he has no medical background.
In the 1800s, you could become a physician after going to medical school for only two years, Bausner said. Most of those physicians were general practitioners, family doctors, who had to become battlefield surgeons during the war, out of necessity.
A number of preconceived notions about Civil War medicine are inaccurate, Bausner said. It isn't true that operations were performed without anesthesia, for example. Surgeons had chloroform or ether at their disposal — as long as they didn't run out.
Alcohol wasn't used to "knock out" patients before surgery; instead, brandy or whiskey was given as a way to prevent the patient from going into shock.
Some medications existed, such as quinine and "Car-o-mel," a mercury-based potion that was used as a "cure-all," Bausner said.
Morphine and opium were given for pain; the doctors, trying to keep their patients comfortable, gave a lot of those drugs, and in turn, many drug addicts were created through the Civil War.
"It was so common, it was called "old soldiers' disease," Bausner said. "But it didn't have the stigma that it does today."
Bausner is one of the medics who will be helping the "wounded" during the upcoming battles.
The skirmishes for the Union Canal Park are planned in advance by the company commanders, Shirk said. That includes which guys will be "hit," and need to fall.
The battles will take place much as some of the actual Civil War battles did; two groups of opposing forces, who accidentally come upon the other.
"This isn't the Battle of Gettysburg, and this isn't the Battle of Lebanon, either, because there was none," Shirk said. "The Confederate Army got as far north as Wrightsville in York County. Some writers say they burned the bridge there, while others say the townspeople burned the bridge to keep out the Confederates."
The battles will be held rain or shine, Shirk said, adding that there will be no specific winner.
"It will be two opposing sides, shooting at each other, and at some point, we'll collect our "dead" and wounded, and leave the field," Shirk said. "That's the plan."
For more information, call Capt. Dennis Shirk at (717) 933-4294 or go to: firstname.lastname@example.org.