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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3 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:


    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.



  3. Lesley says:

    Joseph Huston Wakefield was a first cousin to my ancestor Orson Leroy Wakefield who was born in Vermont. He had migrated from Vermont to Indiana by the time of the Civil War and enlisted in F Company of the 18th Indiana Infantry. His younger brother Gilbert A. Wakefield enlisted in Company A of the 16th Iowa Volunteer Infantry and was killed at the Battle of Iuka, Mississippi on 19 September, 1862.

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