Halvor Quie was the kind of immigrant who made Minnesota. Born in Norway, he carved out a farm near Dennison in the mid-19th century. When the Civil War began, he answered his adopted nation’s call and joined the Union Army. He served in Berdan’s Sharpshooters with the 1st Minnesota Regiment, fought in 11 battles and was wounded at Antietam.
Almost a century and a half later, in 2001, four of his great-grandsons decided to honor Halvor’s memory by taking part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam. All of them enjoyed the event, but one found an avocation.
St. Anthony Park resident Ben Quie, 46, says he was never much of a history buff, but “I found it fascinating to live the daily life of a Civil War soldier — eating the same food, sleeping as they did, trying not to have modern things.”
Seven years after that first re-enactment, Quie is still at it. He’s a sergeant in the 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Regiment of Civil War re-enactors.
Several weekends a year, he assembles his kit — the reproduction uniform, the musket, the wool blanket, the canvas “gum blanket” ground sheet, and all the other items that would have found their way into the knapsack of a Yankee soldier — and reports for duty at sites all over the Old South and beyond.
Although Quie’s regiment frequently takes part in events sponsored by school districts that want to give their students some unforgettable lessons on the Civil War, the real point of their existence is simulated battle. Reliving, that is, the famous battles between Blue and Gray.
When he and his comrades re-enacted the 1st Minnesota charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, the scene was typical. There was “lots of smoke and cannons” to establish the feel of the event, and the men were issued “fate cards” that assigned them a specific historical role.
“I got the first sergeant of the company, who was shot in the left leg,” says Quie. “During our advance down the hill, I took a hit and then I crawled back to our lines” — just as his real counterpart had done a century and a half earlier.
Quie estimates he has invested close to $2,000 in his gear. The emphasis is on authenticity. No polyester, no plastic, no comforting anachronisms like air mattresses or beer-filled coolers.
Food rations are the Civil War equivalent of MREs: salt pork, coffee and hardtack biscuits, although unlike the 19th-century original, the hardtack is not weevil-infested. Some things are beyond even the uncompromising standards of the 2nd Minnesota.
Quie locates himself on the “hardcore progressive” end of the authenticity spectrum.
“The true hard-core re-enactors exclude themselves from everybody else,” he says. “They look down on others. Some of them even starve themselves to look like they’ve been living on the real Civil War diet.” Progressives like Quie “set standards but we don’t exclude the mainstream.”
The mainstream — also known, for murky reasons, as the “farbs” — are the well-fed sunshine soldiers of Civil War re-enactors, wallowing in their ignorance of 19th-century mores and generally having a grand old time at playing soldier in — gasp — polyester uniforms and modern footwear.
Mainstream re-enactors retaliate by calling warriors like Quie “stitch-counters” because of their painstaking attention to details such as the appropriately hand-stitched quality of their uniforms.
For Quie, though, the pleasure lies in the small moments of historical re-creation. He relishes activities like “de-farbing your gun” when he files off the modern serial numbers on his reproduction musket.
“I’m not the theatrical type,” he explains. “I don’t like the parts where you perform in front of the public. I prefer the camaraderie, struggling together, learning to live like the real soldiers lived.”
Quie says one of his all-time favorite re-enactment moments came in 2002 before the replay of the Battle of Antietam.
“Reveille was at 4:30 a.m.,” he recalls. “A little later you were marching in the morning darkness to the fife and drum. You got to thinking about the fear and trepidation that those men felt facing battle. It was a moment when you almost felt you were there with them.”
Re-enactors are drawn from all walks of life and range in age from 17 to nearly 60 — far past the age of genuine Civil War troops. Some re-enactors have served in the military; others, like Quie and his brothers, are veterans only of the Civil War they fight in their imaginations.
Quie says there are re-enactors for other American wars, including World War II, whose role players sometimes go into “battle” carrying Thompson submachine guns. Still, the Civil War attracts more enthusiasts than other conflicts.
Maybe, Quie theorizes, “that’s because in the South there’s an attitude that the war is not yet over. The Southerners feel surrounded by history because most of the battles took place down there.”
Usually, says Quie, Confederate reenactors will outnumber Yankees at a weekend battle. When the imbalance is too great, it may be necessary to “galvanize” a few units, requiring them to switch sides temporarily to even out the manpower.
For Quie, re-enactment is a family affair. His brothers — Joel, Fred and Dan — still play an occasional role, but meanwhile Quie has also recruited two of his four children.
His teenage son, Cameron, portrays a regular foot soldier, one of the few re-enactors who is close to the age of most actual Civil War participants. Quie says the average re-enactor is around 40. Daughter Savannah, 15, plays the role of a hoop-skirted “civilian.”
But not everyone in the family is equally enthusiastic.
“My wife isn’t antagonistic,” says Quie, “but she’s uncompre-hending.” After a recent re-enactment weekend, for example, Quie returned covered in tick bites. “My wife asked me, ‘How was it?’” She was mystified when he responded, “Great!”
No doubt Quie’s wife isn’t the only one who can’t understand his tick-ridden enthusiasm. Going off to fight a war that ended more than a century ago isn’t everyone’s idea of rational fun. Especially since bug spray is hopelessly “farb.” But Quie remains fascinated with his weekend visits to the Civil War.
One wonders what his great-grandfather Halvor would have made of it all.