The Ottumwa Courier

July 10, 2013

Reliving history


OTTUMWA — David Gordy looks right at you when he talks about Gettysburg, but it's easy to believe that he's seeing the battlefield.

His normally rapid speech slows a bit as he describes parts of the battlefield most tourists never wander through. He rode the battlefield last week, a rider in Confederate gray behind what were Union lines 150 years ago.

“It's untouched,” he said. “When you look at the back side of those trails you see what they saw.”

Gordy, an Ottumwan, is a re-enactor who spent the battle's anniversary at Gettysburg as part of the commemorations. He's a cavalryman whose horse, “Duke,” took to the noise and confusion of re-enactments as readily as his rider.

Gordy isn't your typical re-enactor in some ways. He has been in a much more modern war zone. Two, in fact. Afghanistan and Iraq. He had done re-enactments before his service, but an advisor he met with as he left Afghanistan suggested returning to it.

The service in Afghanistan informed his role as a re-enactor with weaponry, too. He came across old British musketoons while there. The 1853 Enfields were extraordinarily well preserved, so some came back with him.

Gordy didn't start as a mounted cavalryman. His first re-enactments were as dismounted cavalry. After that came a stint as an infantryman. Different roles saw the war in different ways, and Gordy has seen a lot. He's intense. His enthusiasm comes through loud and clear.

At one point in an interview he called up a photo on a laptop and proudly pointed out his riding tack is authentic, right down to the iron pieces he made using a blacksmith's forge.

“I actually have a small shop at the house,” he said.

Turn Gordy loose to talk about re-enactments and the conversation will wander. You meet “Seamus,” a re-enactor Gordy's unit ran into at Shiloh. Seamus spoke with an Irish brogue and sang old folk songs in what Gordy described as a beautiful voice.

Seamus joined the unit for a time, linking up with them the way soldiers during the war did if they became separated from their units. He returned to his own unit after hours singing and laughing around the campfire.

The next day, as Gordy got to the line, he and the others looked to their left. There was Seamus with his unit. The warm greeting and bits of song that accompanied it were much to the surprise of other re-enactors.

Before leaving, a few of the re-enactors from Gordy's unit went to a monument. While there, they sang a piece of one of Seamus' songs, only to see him walking up the road toward them. Gordy could barely believe them when they got back to camp. He called Seamus a couple weeks later and asked whether it really happened that way.

Yes, came the reply. “I just kept running into you guys.”

Other battles have their own stories. A picture from Gettysburg leads into a discussion about the smoke on the battlefield. Contemporary accounts said smoke obscured units even at close range. Gordy says the same and his photos back it up.

Another snapshot shows men kneeling, waiting for the order advance as part of Pickett's Charge. The only face clearly shown belongs to Mark Hidlebaugh, whose persona was a Southern officer. He went up to every soldier, shook their hands and said a few words. It made an impression.

There is more attention being paid to the Civil War today than there has been for some time. People like round numbers and the 150th anniversary of the war's start arrived in 2011. This year includes two critical battles: Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

The battle of Gettysburg is family history for Gordy. An ancestor served as aide to Gen. James Longstreet, who urged Gen. Robert E. Lee to withdraw to a defensive position rather than attack.

Gettysburg wasn't Gordy's first re-enactment during the 150th anniversary of the war. He was at Shiloh, the bloodiest battle in the western theater, and Wilson's Creek, the first major battle in the west.

Chickamauga looms for Gordy in September. Before that he plans to ride from Ottumwa to Lamoni, Ill., for a re-enactment there. That ride will be done in the style of a Civil War campaign, with all the gear with him on the horse.

With more battles ahead, Gordy has plenty of memories still to make. And he's looking for a few more people to make them with. It's another parallel to the war.

“We're always recruiting,” he said.


Interested in becoming a Civil War re-enactor? David Gordy wants to talk to you. He can be reached at (641) 455-3967 or by e-mail at