Teaching The Other Lesson About War

When Leslie “Skip” Trumbull of Russell remembers the last 20 years, he has to think back a century and a half.

Trumbull is one of the thousands of individuals who dedicate their time bringing the past to life participating in reenactments and living history demonstrations.

Like many of those who share his hobby, his particular milieu is the American Civil War, but he portrays something a little different than a run-of-the-mill soldier. Trumbull’s expertise is taking on the persona of a Civil War era battlefield surgeon.

While there are as many paths into the hobby as there are reenactors, Trumbull stumbled upon his passion just helping out an acquaintance, John Ferry.

“His wife and my wife worked together at the time,” Trumbull recalled. “His wife asked mine if I would be an extra in a play… That was the first that I got involved. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

“Hooked” may be an understatement.

“Between re-enactments and living histories, I’ve probably done half a dozen a year, sometimes more, through all those years,” Trumbull estimated. “Usually, in the summertime, you could probably go to one every weekend within easy driving distance.”

At an estimated rate of six per year, Trumbull’s reckoning would mean he has participated in more than 100 distinct events so far, and some, he said, he has tried to make a point of doing regularly.

“There are a few local events that I try to do,” he said, citing events in Waterford, Girard and Erie.

Trumbull said he now does more living history events in-costume demonstrations and presentations that don’t necessarily recreate a specific event such as what would be found at Old Bedford Village or Colonial Williamsburg than reenactments now due to back problems. Therefore he did not participate in Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary events this year, but he did take part in the 130th anniversary activities, and regularly participated in events there in the past.

As for other notable Civil War anniversaries, Trumbull said he took part in the 135th anniversary at Antietam and, this year, did a series of living history speaking engagements for the 150th anniversary of the siege of Vicksburg.

“That was a lot of fun,” he recalled.

Trumbull’s hobby has taken him on quite a journey, with travel around the tri-state area yearly and a few trips much farther afield.

“Probably the farthest I traveled would be Gettysburg… in an average year,” Trumbull said. “I guess the farthest one I’ve ever done was Louisiana. That was a lot of fun. I met a lot of hardcore Confederate re-enactors.”

The role he plays has also evolved.

“When I first started out I was just a regular soldier,” the recalled. “Even then, I already had a major back surgery so I needed to find something less abusive to my body. Our commanding officer, I’m part of 11th PA Volunteer Infantry, was also involved in medical roles… He was really good about lending me equipment. So that’s how I got involved in the medical aspect of it.”

Since then, he’s expanded his collection of memorabilia accordingly and now estimates he has, “upwards of 100 pieces”, of just medical equipment.

“It’s not all instruments, but there’s associated things like pill rollers,” Trumbull noted. “Having the original instruments… it helps people understand better. People look at these things and say, ‘How primitive,’ but it was top of the line. Some of the medicines that they used did more harm than it did good.”

For Trumbull, the hobby is all about reaching out to others, whether it’s meeting other re-enactors or sharing his knowledge of mid-19th century medicine.

“People are genuinely interested in it,” he said. “I do a lot of talks for school groups and they’re interested. That’s the fun part, talking to people and being able to tell them something they didn’t know or didn’t understand about the Civil War. There are a lot of thing that people have seen on TV or heard over the years. For instance, that the doctors gave the soldiers a bullet to bite and a shot of whiskey before they did surgery. That’s rubbish. That all came out of Hollywood. When you know the facts and can present them as facts and not just hearsay, I enjoy that.

“One of the highpoints in my reenacting career was when I met and shook hands with (Pennsylvania) Gov. (Tom) Ridge. I’ve met a lot of interesting people from all over the world. It’s amazing the people from other countries that are interested in the American Civil War.”

Trumbull also said he strives for authenticity, sometimes, more than his audience can handle.

“I have done amputation demos using fake limbs and things and had people pass out,” he said. “I try to be as realistic as possible.”