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Snaphots: John Lee

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Posted on August 23, 2009 |
By Chelsey Pletts



John Lee fought many battles, braving hand-to-hand combat with steely sabers and charging horses — the kinds of battles fought more than a hundred years ago.

Lee doesn’t know why he became a Civil War reenactor in 1996, only that it “was just something that was inside [him], like anything else.” And though he has spent the past three years away from reenacting to become a certified nurse, Lee stormed the battlefield for about eight years as a part of the First Vermont Cavalry Company K.

Once each year, Lee took part a three-day battle set in a field in Orwell, just off route 22A. The reenactors did not portray any specific historic characters or battles. Instead they focused on making the experience as a whole historically accurate.

In fact, the First Vermont Cavalry was an actual regiment during the Civil War. They were mustered into service in 1861 in Burlington where they stood among 258 other regiments recruited by Lemuel B. Platt. The regiment fought for three years and during this time, men from every county in Vermont banded together in one of the first full cavalry regiments raised in New England. They fought in campaigns that brought them to Shenandoah Valley, Mount Jackson and Gettysburg, to name a few. By the end of their service in 1865, the regiment was fifth on the list of cavalry organizations suffering the greatest human loss – by that point, the cavalry had lost 392 men. But during their years of active service, the First Vermont captured three battle flags, 37 pieces of artillery, and more prisoners than they had men.

To Lee, the breadth of the Civil War was impressive unto itself. “It was the biggest war this country has ever fought, more casualties than any war we’ve had, including World War II, World War I — over 600,000 soldiers died in that war,” he sad.

To reenactors and Civil War enthusiasts like Lee, the heroic deeds of these men should be preserved and retold. This is why once each year Lee met in Orwell with 100 other history buffs who were a part of infantry, cavalry, hospital and artillery units.

On the first day of the reenactment, the men and women prepared by pitching their tents, arranging the camp site and organizing their feed, saddles and bridles and finally, made ammunition.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Lee. “You know you don’t just go there and sit down.”

By the time the afternoon rolled around, the campsite looked as though it could pop from history book pages. Horses were groomed and tied to their lines, awaiting rubs from school children. Then the cavalry demonstrated horseback riding techniques and how to yield a sword in battle.

In the evening, the men cooked their own meals, cleaned their rifles and bedded down the horses. Reenactors that were a bit more “fanatical” slept on their horse blankets over a bed of straw and rested their heads on saddles. Though he was enthusiastic about reenacting, Lee never went as far as to skip a good night's sleep.

The second day was the main battle day. The men got up, made breakfast and prepared for the midmorning mock battle. After a battle full of gun smoke and galloping, the camps opened up to visitors to tour though and ask questions. Sunday followed suit.

“It’s part of going back to an earlier era and playing a role,” Lee said. “You try to put yourself as a real cavalry person, you try as much as you can.”

Lee once attended the biggest reenactment he had ever participated in at Gettysburg, Penn. in 1998. Twenty thousand reenactors came together to relive the three-day battle of 1863 in front of 35,000 spectators.

In 2000, the First Vermont raised the funds to restore the statue of General Wells in Battery Park in Burlington. Wells joined the First Vermont Cavalry in 1861 as a Private and rose to the rank of Brevet Major-General. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee went as far as to collect bottles for extra change to devote to the restoration of the statue.

Despite his three-year hiatus, Lee is ready to get back into uniform next spring not as a cavalryman, but as a medic.

 “After so many years you draw back a little from it, but then you get away from it for a few years like I have and you start missing it,” said Lee.

It makes sense for Lee, who is currently undergoing orientation at Fletcher Allen as a registered nurse, to play a medical role as a reenactor — he has been involved with medicine since he was a teenager.
 
At 16 years old, Lee joined the ambulance corps at his local fire station in Coventry, Conn., where he grew up. After a simple first aid course, Lee rode along to car accidents, fires and any other medical emergencies in the Cadillac ambulance. Lee said it was simple, “bandage them the best you could, give them o2 and get them to the hospital.”

He went on to become a medic in the service from 1969 to 1972. It was the height of the Vietnam War and Lee was assigned to the 56th General Hospital in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, located on the Nahe River, a tributary of the Rhine. He was only 19 years old. During his service, Lee was able to go to school to become an operating room technician.

At 35 years old, he and his wife Nancy moved to Vermont and he got a job working for a private telephone company, but Lee said it never was “a fulfilling job, a personally fulfilling job.” Being a nurse, he said, “You work like a dog some days, but at least you come home thinking you did something.”

Five years later Lee was laid off, which motivated him to go to LPN school.

Through his medical career, Lee always kept his nose buried in historical literature, which he had done since high school. He noted one of his favorite Civil War authors with great esteem, Bruce Catton, an American journalist and a notable historian of the Civil War.

“It was an escape even though the Civil War was not a good time to relive,” said Lee.

But now, the reenactments occur less frequently as members of the First Vermont have gone their separate ways. But Lee has picked up news of an existing hospital unit in Middlebury. Apparently, he said, a nurse that works at Porter Hospital is lending her medical expertise to the reenactment — Lee wishes to do the same.

Overall though, Lee misses the process — the camaraderie, the people, getting into the mindset, he said.

“It’s something that you never get rid of.”

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