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Reenactor makes the War Between the States a little more civil

“Without music, there would be no army,” said Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Father John Kwiecien quoted Lee, during a Civil War presentation he conducted at the North Collins Historical Society building on July 21.

John, a Civil War reenactor, brought a combination of facts, stories and musical selections to shed light on the conditions soldiers faced, during the 1860s.

His visit was part of an ongoing exhibit in North Collins that features artifacts from the town, as well as its surrounding neighbors in Southern Erie County. The nation is currently observing the 150th anniversary of the hostilities between the American North and South.

Kwiecien, a Tonawanda native, has held pastorships in Springville and North Collins and is currently at Most Precious Blood Parish in Angola.

He first became involved in the reenactment community while he pastored in Springville.

The self-titled history buff was invited to participate in a school presentation about the Civil War. Also included were local reenactors who made regular school visits.

These Civil War buffs invited John to join them in subsequent presentations. “I was bluntly asked, ‘Are you going to join us or not?’” he said.

This relationship led to his “enlistment” into the 85-member strong 1st New York Light Artillery, “The Reynold’s Battery,” nine years ago. The group is based out of Rochester, but draws its members from throughout Western New York.

John said that a light artillery uses weapons more akin to large rifles, rather than cannon.

His participation has allowed him to travel to many of the Civil War’s major battle sites. He said that he has been able to utilize his other love, music, to research and perform tunes from that time period.

Clad in his private’s uniform, Kwiecien drank from a field cup that he replenished, using his period canteen. He also came to the presentation, armed with a 1850s guitar and a reproduction banjo.

John said that it would have been nearly impossible to find a guitar in either Union or Confederate camps. “The guitar in the 1860s was considered a parlor instrument and was mainly played by women,” he said, adding that the banjo was the soldier’s stringed instrument of choice.

Kwiecien said that the banjo can be temperamental and is vulnerable to humidity. “I sometimes have to hold the drum over an open fire to dry it out, before I can play it,” he said.

He played and sang a dozen songs, prefacing each with stories and anecdotes about the wartime conditions that inspired the original songwriters.

Before performing the song “Hard Tack,” Kwiecien opened a package of crackers and broke them up on a metal dish he pulled from his field pack. This flour and water bread was issued to soldiers, along with a three-day supply of other food stuffs, before planned engagements.

When asked by an audience member about the modern packaging of the hard tack, Kwiecien said that, although new, this food is still produced by the same bakery that supplied the Union Army, during the war.

Passing the plate around the room for all to try, he said that the cracker, which he called “nearly indestructible,” is a convenient home for bugs.

He said that, if time allowed, Civil War soldiers would hold the hard tack over a flame or float it in boiling water, to chase out the invaders.

He also spoke about what soldiers used for coffee, during the war. “Soldiers would dry green beans in a frying pan, grind them up and boil in water,” he said, adding, “If a soldier was really lucky, he would have an extra sock to put the ground beans in, before boiling.”

Civil War soldiers were regularly plagued with lice. Infestations caused them to boil their clothes, when possible, to exterminate. Kwiecien spoke about a letter one soldier sent home, in which the author said he laid his coat on the ground and watched it crawl away.

Kwiecien said that, while he enjoys the comforts of modern life in between his reenactments, he still tries to keep his perspective clear. “It was a difficult time,” he said, about the War Between the States.

The Civil War exhibit at the North Collins Historical Society opened on Aug. 4 and will be available every other Sunday, through early September.

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