High school teacher Andrew Vandall recreates Civil War history

Martha's Vineyard Regional High School teacher Andrew Vandall, in uniform, at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg reenactment. Soldiers, both Confederate and Union, mingle behind him. — Photo courtesy of Andrew Vandall

Andrew Vandall, who teaches global history and leadership at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), recently spent a weekend as a private in the Union Army. He participated in a reenactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg conducted at the actual site of the battle on its 150th anniversary.

Mr. Vandall, 34, is part of an active, committed, group of war reenactors, a hobby he said that began when he was a child.

Although many reenactments involve thousands of people, Fredericksburg was limited to 1,200 participants due to the limited space in the modern town, Mr. Vandall said. He signed up for the event six months ago to reserve his spot. He said the registration fee was a nominal $20 and that the limit was reached in June.

Reenactments do not always happen exactly where the battles occurred, he said, but this one did. “We got to fight in the streets of Fredericksburg with spectators right next to us, with the final battle on Marye’s Heights above the town,” he said. Their encampment, where they spent several nights, was at the nearby boyhood home of George Washington, Ferry Farm.

“I’ve been to events where there have been eight to ten thousand reenactors,” he said. Gettysburg, one of the biggest draws, is an annual event. He pointed out that not all the reenactments take place every year and that the centennial and the decennial events draw the most people.

Mr. Vandall grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He followed his sister to the Island. He liked it here and worked summers before becoming a teacher. He taught at the college level and at a middle school before moving to the Island a year before he was hired to teach at the high school.

His father, an historian who preceded him as a reenactor, first took Andrew with him when he was four years old. “It was a family thing. I grew up with it,” he said. Neither of his two brothers have continued as reenactors.

Mr. Vandall said that he started out as a drummer boy and now, as an adult, he portrays the role of a private in the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment, one of five regiments in the famed Irish Brigade. Reenactors generally portray soldiers from the towns or areas they are from. “You can be whatever you want to be. Most people are privates.”

Mr. Vandall keeps his own clothes and equipment — are all authentic, exact replicas of what was worn at the time. “We try to stick to food they would have eaten, apples, bread, hardtack,” he said. “It’s not the greatest type of bread. We eat it anyway. We have stews. We try not to bring too much.”

They cooked bacon in the morning, and drank coffee through the day. “We share a lot. We don’t carry a lot. We have to march.” He said his regiment had about 80 soldiers, about half of whom he knew from previous reenactments. “It’s a pretty small group of people who do these things, so you get to know a lot of people,” he said.

Modern comforts few and far between. They sleep on the ground, sometimes in tents and sometimes in the open air. He packs a couple of wool blankets, pre-sleeping bag, and since his uniform is made of wool he said the multiple layers of wool keep him pretty warm most nights. “It can get pretty cold some nights,” he said.

Most of the reenactors are well versed in the history of the battles in which they participate. Mr. Vandall spent almost five years researching a book, entitled “Experience in the Irish Brigade,” he is writing on the 116th Pennsylvania. It focuses on two brothers who fought with his regiment.

Last year he spent time at the Library of Congress in Washington doing original research, reading letters written by the brothers and other documents related to his study. He expects to self-publish the book on Amazon, on the Internet, in mid-January. “I had hoped to have it completed before this battle but my work at the high school took over,” he said.

The Irish Brigade fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Fredericksburg. They were considered the shock troops of the war, according to Mr. Vandall. Three of those regiments were from Massachusetts.

The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought 150 years ago during the second week of December. Union General Ambrose Everett Burnside was the chief architect of the futile assaults on the Confederate positions in and around the town in 1862. His battalions suffered one of the biggest Union defeats of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia inflicted twice the number of casualties on Burnside’s forces as his received.

Mr. Vandall said he has participated in World War I, Colonial War, French and Indian War, and World War II-Russian reenactments. “Just about anything that gets us back into living history,” he said. “That’s really what we want to do — relive history.”

He has given presentations, in uniform, at the middle school where he taught before coming to the MVRHS. He said he tries to give students a feel for what it is like to live in a different time.

“It is something we love to do,” Mr. Vandall said. “There are all different types of people. History really connects all different walks of life. They are not all writers or teachers. There are doctors and lawyers and radio programmers, artists and police officers and mechanics. If you have a love of history and you want to relive it, you probably would like reenacting.”