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Listen to Chuck Seekamp talk about the Civil War and you might think he’d been a Southern soldier in a past life. In fact, he’s a Confederate in his present life. The retired trucker “went Confederate” some 15 years ago, after experiencing his first Civil War Reenactment.
The battlefield drama fascinated Seekamp, a history buff. Propelled by the thought of becoming part of the action, he wandered into the Union encampment to learn more. “I couldn’t get anybody in the Union camp to talk to me,” the Northern California native says, with a laugh. “The Confederates took me around, explained stuff and introduced me to the captain of the artillery. Under those circumstances, what side would you join?”
American Civil War re-enactments are meant to educate spectators about the life of a Civil War soldier, including how battles were strategized and fought. Individuals portray the artillery, infantry and cavalrymen who stage the battles, in a battlefield ringed by Union and Confederate encampments and a civilian town.
Like most novices, Seekamp began as an artilleryman. The artillery requires the least amount of investment — approximately $150 for a uniform. Plus the unit is a good jumping off spot from which to explore other more expensive units, after getting a feel for the hobby.
Getting into character
Five years ago, Seekamp moved into another phase of Civil War history when he joined The 15th Alabama Field Hospital, a regimental medical unit. “We’re like the Mobile Army Surgical Unit. If an amputation is necessary, we do it but we leave a lot of loose ends,” he says.
Seekamp spent a year reading everything he could about Civil War medicines and about the differences between Union and Confederate doctors’ practices. He adopted the name Doc Cutter, and now attends a half-dozen Northern California Civil War Re-enactments each year.
During public hours, he’s decked out in Confederate blue-grey wools, fielding questions and talking about an array of physician’s tools displayed before him. There are a bullet probe and a bullet extractor, amputation saws, and metal tongue depressors. His vials filled with facsimiles of medicines of the day, like opium, chloroform and mercury, are always attention-getters. After the soldiers’ skirmishes and battles begin, Seekamp moves to the field hospital tent to minister to those who have taken a hit in battle.
Two high school teachers fostered Seekamp’s love of American history, which he views as a pathway to other areas of knowledge. He’s studied how the War led to advancements in weapons and medical practices. He’s tracked the many ways in which the Civil War influenced international commerce.
Seekamp is an active member of the North Bay Civil War Round Table (North Bay CWRT), one of many educational groups across the country devoted to sparking interest in the Civil War. Among other things, the North Bay CWRT sponsors a yearly middle school contest with a goal of promoting the study of American History, especially the Civil War.
“My love is history,” he says. “Re-enacting is a sidebar.”
Seekamp has created a variety of school programs that allows him to share his knowledge of the era. Appearing in classrooms as “Doc Cutter,” he speaks on topics from Civil War uniforms and flags of the Confederacy, to medicine and munitions of the time. When given permission, he also brings his 3-pound, Napoleon-style cannon with him and fires it off for his finale.
Peace within the war
“During encampments there are no cell phones, no TVs, no radios,” says Seekamp. “You can get away from everything, relax, and be around people interested in the same stuff.” After the camps close to the public, campfires attract storytellers, fiddlers, and banjo and guitar strummers, which offer a pleasant diversion from the sounds of battle.
As the nation commemorates the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) over the next four years, Seekamp believes that there will be more interest in re-enacting.
“With re-enacting there are no monthly meetings; no rituals,” says the hobbyist. “Everybody comes together as part of a unit. There are no secret handshakes or passwords, nothing like that. It just comes down to a lot of fun.”