Timon K. Linn, 66, was born and raised in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – home of the American Civil War’s deadliest battle more than 150 years ago. Here, he talks about getting shot, overweight movie soldiers and life as a living historian....
How did you first get into all this, Timon?
Growing up in Gettysburg I was big on history; we live right next door to the battlefield and I spent a lot of time there, and then a friend of mine invited me down to see what’s known as a skirmish and the bug got me. From then it grew on to re-enactment and then living historian work.
Is there much of a difference between the three?
They’re all different animals. Skirmishing appealed to me in the 1970s because I was young and competitive; it’s basically shooting muskets at targets using live ammo and I thought it was really cool. Once you get the bug it’s pretty contagious. I got into re-enactment around 2000.
Which is when large groups of people act out famous battles, right?
Correct. I’m one of the organisers of the re-enactment that we do every year at Gettysburg, so I’ve done it from both ends – on the field and also being the guy who controls it from on top. As a re-enactor in the field you just kind of put on the uniform and the gun and go do your thing; as a living historian, which is something I started doing in 2008, there’s a lot of research that goes into your character.
Who did you choose?
I wanted someone who would be interesting but not famous and the person I usually do is a guy named Joseph K. Barnes. He was the surgeon general, and he went out inspecting army field hospitals. He also had the dubious distinction of being the one that pronounced Abraham Lincoln dead after his assassination.
What else do you know about him?
He started collecting bones and artefacts off the field and studied things like the impact that bullets had, so I have a lot of props that help tell that story. In fact, I bought a skeleton, took the bones off and aged them so that I could do a display and a talk and answer people’s questions. When we shoot a skirmish, we fire into dirt bags, and when we’re done you can do what’s called ‘mine the lead’: you go through the dirt and find the bullets. I collect a bunch of these and when I do Dr Barnes I give them away as souvenirs.
During a large re-enactment, is the main goal accuracy or entertainment?
We try to make it a nice middle-of-the road event. We have an announcer explaining what’s going on, and because we can’t do the whole battle we do segments of it. It’s a combination of accuracy – because the troops want to be as accurate as they can – and at the same time bring it to the spectators who are sitting close enough to smell the smoke if the wind’s blowing the right way.
Sounds like a spectacle.
It’s not just the thrill of the guns as they go off, it’s seeing the troops come out of the woods and fighting each other – and these guys who have been doing it a long time are really good at it. They’ll have talked about the points where the Confederate and Union soldiers are going to meet and they’ll decide what’s going to happen and when. For this year’s event – the 155th anniversary – we’ll have around 5,000 re-enactors taking part.
When kids play at soldiers, no one wants to lie down when they’re shot. Is it a similar story in battle re-enactment?
Not really. Most people know that they’re going to take a hit at a certain point. I had a friend of mine who was into it and he would go out the day before to survey the battlefield and find a shaded spot to ‘die’.
Is there ever any genuine hostility between the two sides?
Yes, although it’s not vicious. But, for example, if we’re doing a re-enactment and we’re down in deep Virginia and we go out to eat in uniform as Union soldiers, we might get a back table, whereas a Confederate group walking in behind us will get served first. That’s 155 years later so they’re holding a grudge somewhere.
Do you use original weapons?
Guys aren’t too big on using them because they don’t want to take a chance on something going wrong. An original musket today would sell for about $4,000, so I’d say 99.5 per cent of what’s in the field are reproductions – although they’re still not cheap. You’d pay around $1,200 for a new one.
Is there any money in it?
Not for the re-enactors or living historians, but the organisers make money – although it’s not a big cash cow, especially when you’re always subject to the weather. If you have a rainy event one year you will lose thousands. The cost of putting on a big event can easily be a million dollars up front. You’ve got to give your 5,000 or 6,000 actors something to eat, the portable toilets alone cost over $50,000, there’s hay for the horses, gunpowder – there’s a lot of little things that add up. It’s like putting up a city and the crowd’s sometimes as big as 20,000 people.
What movie do you think most accurately portrays the US Civil War?
Well, the 1993 movie Gettysburg with Tom Berenger and Jeff Daniels did a nice job, but it’s hard because when you see some of the re-enactors that are in the movie, they’re rather large and overweight which, during the War, they wouldn’t have been because they’d have been walking 25 or 30 miles a day. It’s my pet peeve. I’m actually in that movie: I was on the set for five-and-a-half weeks and I think in the final cut if you dropped a pencil, I’d be off the screen before it hit the floor.