Brewer’s Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Infantry never fought at Antietam in mid-September 1862, but Carter Van Waes and other Civil War re-enactors ensured that the regiment did fight there in mid-September 2012.
And before he shouldered his rifle at Antietam, Van Waes battled Confederates at the Good Will Hinckley School in Fairfield in late August.
Now a surgeon at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. and a resident of Brookeville, Md., Van Waes lived a while in Bridgton during his youth. His father, who “had taught American history at the college level,” took him to Antietam, Gettysburg, and Harper’s Ferry during a memorable trip years ago.
“I just found the history of the war and its value to the American past to be so interesting,” Van Waes said. “As a young man, I was interested in the battles and how they were fought.”
While in high school, he literally lived on historical soil in Burkittsville, Md. in a house that served as headquarters for Union Gen. Henry Slocum during the September 1862 Battle of South Mountain. President Abraham Lincoln stopped at the house for lunch soon after the Battle of Antietam, fought at nearby Sharpsburg, Md. on Sept. 17, 1862.
“There were cannons on the hill behind my house,” Van Waes recalled.
Sixteen years ago Co. E, 20th Maine Infantry, a re-enactment group based near the nation’s capital. “Our group has about two events a month” from spring until fall, he said.
The National Park Service often invites Co. E “to do living histories” at the parks preserving such Civil War sites as Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Monocacy, and Yorktown, Van Waes said. He often portrays a surgeon, and his wife, Anne, and daughters Bethany and Sarah are re-enactors with the Maine Camp & Hospital Association, based on a wartime organization by the same name.
Son Harrison has been a re-enactor since “he came out with me when he was that high,” Carter Van Waes said, holding his hand slightly below waist level. “He wore a straw hat” and played a role in the Co. E camp.
“This is a very family-oriented unit,” Van Waes said during a Sept. 15 interview that took place at the Co. E camp in Sharpsburg, Md. The 20th Maine boys joined approximately 4,000 other re-enactors to relive the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. The three-day re-enactment took place on a 400-acre farm just two miles from the Antietam battlefield.
On this breezy and pleasant mid-September Saturday, the Co. E members relaxed after participating in the morning’s “Battle of Dunker Church.” That event featured 65 smoke-belching cannons, a wild cavalry melee, and a noisy infantry fight.
Just three weeks earlier at the Hinckley School in Fairfield, Carter and Harrison had represented Co. E during “the [150th] anniversary of the mustering of the 20th Maine,” Carter said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime event” billed as Maine’s largest 2012 re-enactment.
“It was very busy,” Carter said. “As soon as we got into camp Friday” night, he and Harrison joined other 20th Maine companies — B from Maine and I from the Maritimes — and the 3rd Maine in filming a scene for the MPBN “Maine at Gettysburg” documentary. That scene involved recreating a bayonet charge at Little Round Top.
“It was fun to spend time” with the other 20th Maine re-enactors,” Van Waes said. “They were very hospitable.”
The trip was far from the family’s first excursion to Maine. Van Waes visited his sisters who live in Fryeburg and Portland, and he took Harrison backpacking in the White Mountains. “We go up almost every summer to Maine,” he said.
Later on Saturday, Sept. 15, the Co. E members marched a long distance past throngs of admirers to participate in the “Battle of Bloody Lane,” another fight based on the Battle of Antietam. The “Battle of Burnside’s Bridge” would follow on Sunday morning as Co. E proudly represented the 20th Maine.