Steve Wakefield, a Living Historian

A Ver­mont Civil War Hem­lock explains why he takes part

Steve Wake­field, liv­ing his­to­rian with the Ver­mont Civil War Hemlocks

By Sharon Lakey

At the 125th anniver­sary of the sur­ren­der of Lee’s army at Appo­mat­tox, Steve Wake­field, liv­ing his­to­rian, had one of those crys­talline moments. “I was with the 5th of New Hamp­shire at the head of the col­umn. When I turned around, I saw 3,000 fed­eral troops stand­ing behind me, all per­fectly aligned. “The moment didn’t last long, maybe three sec­onds, but in those few sec­onds, I was there.” To be trans­ported through time—those are the sec­onds a liv­ing his­to­rian cherishes.

In 1963, Andy Fisher, a his­tory teacher in Con­cord, VT, attended the 100th obser­vance of the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg, a reen­act­ment of the bat­tle that turned the tide in the Civil War. The event was so inspir­ing to him, he returned home to cre­ate the Ver­mont Civil War Hem­locks, a non-profit group whose goal is edu­ca­tion. Three years later, 16-year-old Steve Wake­field went to one of the group’s meet­ings and joined. He was uni­formed and equipped in 1971 and took part in his first reen­act­ment that year.

I don’t like the term reen­act­ment,” said Wake­field. “I am a liv­ing his­to­rian.” He goes on to explain that to reen­act implies an indi­vid­ual is act­ing. “We don’t act; dur­ing an event, we actu­ally live the expe­ri­ence 24-hours a day. At night, we don’t retire to the tent with a beer cooler.” And any­one who has wit­nessed the Hem­locks in action, per­haps in some­thing as sim­ple as a parade, rec­og­nizes imme­di­ately that they are liv­ing in the moment, and it is not taken lightly.

To make it even more real for Wake­field, he has cho­sen to por­tray his Civil War ancestors,

Steve Wake­field por­trays Henry Wakefield

of which he has eight. Most often, he takes on the per­sona of Henry Wake­field, who enlisted with his brother in East Mont­pe­lier. “He was part of the 13th Ver­mont infantry that helped defeat the Con­fed­er­ates in Get­tys­burg. They fired on the right flank of Pickett’s reg­i­ment dur­ing the famous Pickett’s Charge.” Henry, who was known as a great rifle­man, re-enlisted in ’63 and was wounded in the Peters­burg Mine deba­cle of the Union Army. In 1865, Henry died a pris­oner of war near Richmond.

Another rel­a­tive, Joseph Wake­field, died in Ander­son­ville. Joseph was from Hard­wick and fought with Com­pany H of the Ver­mont 4th infantry. Like Henry, he was a rifle­man and entered ser­vice on July 1, 1862. On Octo­ber 13, 1863, Joseph was reas­signed as a team­ster as part of a Fed­eral wagon train. J.E.B. Stu­art, Com­man­der of the Con­fed­er­ate cav­alry, swept down on the wag­ons, cap­tur­ing part of the train and tak­ing pris­on­ers. Among them was Joseph. “First he was trans­ported to Belle Isle near Rich­mond, but when Ander­son­ville opened in Feb­ru­ary, 1864, he was trans­ferred there,” said Wakefield.

I own a Con­gres­sional Medal of Honor,” he con­tin­ued. “It was given to me by Arthur Sprague, who was a lawyer in St. Johns­bury. He knew my mother and of my inter­est in the Civil War, and he wanted me to have it. On the medal is writ­ten ‘to Pri­vate Lewis Ingalls, Co K, 8th VT infantry, for gal­lant behav­ior at Boutte Sta­tion, LA, Sep­tem­ber 4, 1862.’”

Of course, Steve had to have the full story behind the medal, and it goes like this. “The Com­pany was on a train and as another fed­eral train was com­ing through, the train Ingalls was on was switched to a side track. Lit­tle did the Fed­er­als know that the Con­fed­er­ates had set up an ambush, switch­ing off both ends of the track. After the longer train went through, Ingalls’ Com­pany found them­selves in a hail of bul­lets with nowhere to go. Ingalls jumped from the train, run­ning through the bul­lets, and opened a switch on one side of the track. As the train drew away, he was pulled to safety by his com­rades hav­ing been wounded four times.” Luman Grout, Major of the 8th Ver­mont, spoke highly of the young man and thus the Medal of Honor. The strangest part of this story is what Steve found out later. “It just so hap­pens that Lewis Ingalls was my great, great grandfather.

Some­thing inside me inspires me to pay trib­ute to these guys. I am a liv­ing his­to­rian to show the deep and pro­found respect and admi­ra­tion for the hard­ships these men endured.” This pro­found respect and pass­ing of his­tory to future gen­er­a­tions is of great value to him. “I feel that we are los­ing an appre­ci­a­tion of our his­tory. With­out remem­ber­ing, we will lose some­thing very impor­tant. Lin­coln said, ‘Peo­ple who for­get their past will do lit­tle worth remem­ber­ing in the future.’”

Of the Hem­locks, he said, “We take it to a higher level. Our goal is to edu­cate; first, you edu­cate your­self, then you take what you learn and share that expe­ri­ence.” He wants peo­ple to walk away from an event (such as the upcom­ing encamp­ment) hav­ing found a gen­uine inter­est in some ele­ment of the war. “If we spark an inter­est, peo­ple can take their own road in learn­ing some­thing about our history.”

The Civil War was the blood­i­est of all wars in terms of Amer­i­can lives lost– 620,000 dead in 10,000 places of con­flict.  “So many aspects of the Civil War are still with us today,” said Wake­field. “Pres­i­dent Obama’s elec­tion is part of the story. He is not the end of the story, but a part of our ongo­ing story.” To Wake­field, the value of remem­ber­ing a war that took place 150 years ago is as impor­tant in the present as it was in the past. Our future depends upon it.

 

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2 Responses to Steve Wakefield, a Living Historian

  1. Shirley Parker McGeoghegan says:

    The National Archives has sent me a con­fu­sion of mil­i­tary records for Henry Wake­field. His sis­ter, Maria, is my great grand­mother, and his mother is Phil­ura Cut­ler who mar­ried Sid­ney Wake­field, and later Samuel Tem­pleotn. Henry, Phil­ura and Maria, are buried in Cut­ler Ceme­tery, East Mont­pe­lier along with my grand­fa­ther Charles Parker under a Wake­field stone. Sid­ney Wake­field is buried some dis­tance away; nearby him is a stone for Rinaldo, Charles and Maria (Wake­field) Parker’s first born and another stone for Elias Wake­field but I’m uncer­tain of his rela­tion­ship. Hope­fully, you can help me sort my uncle Henry’s mil­i­tary records from those of his cousins.

  2. walter says:

    Hello,

    I live in Get­tys­burg and it is believed that Ver­mont Infantry and Cav­alry were on our farm, south of Big Round Top. Are you famil­iar with accounts of troop activ­i­ties and moves, south of the Round Tops.

    Thanks–

    Walt

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