Civil War re-enactors fight to right history at Gettysburg for 150th

July 1, 2013 at 10:57 AM ET

Steve James / for NBC News
Bill Minnich, 38, is an office printer installer by day, and portrays the right-hand man to Confederate military leader Gen. Robert E. Lee at Civil War reenactment events.

To sit in a wool suit for days with temperatures in the 80's and humidity above 80 percent, you've got to be committed. And so twenty-five thousand re-enactors have descended on Gettysburg, Pa. to celebrate and act out the defining battle of the Civil War, fought 150 years ago this week.

They're motivated, in part, by an urge to tell the untold stories of the conflict.

Among them, Bill Minnich, who is Lt-Gen James Longstreet. It says so right on his business card.

The office printer installer portrays the right-hand man to Confederate military leader Gen. Robert E. Lee at Civil War reenactments up and down the east coast sporting a wild full beard. Minnich, 38, from the Allentown, Pa. area, prepared to fight the battle of Gettysburg again this week.

“I’ve been interested in the civil war since I was a kid,” he said. ”I read every book about it that I could get my hands on.”

Minnich is an Army veteran, having taken part in the U.S. operation to Haiti in 1994-5 to remove the military regime that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“I like this uniform a lot better, it’s flashier,” he said of the grey coat with gold buttons and military insignia that makes him stand out on the Confederate lines at reenactments.

Minnich said although he grew up in the north, he chose to portray a southern figure because he believed in the southern cause.

“It’s all about state’s rights. If a man breaks into your house you will do anything to protect your family, your homestead."

Related: 150 years after Gettysburg, 'hardcore' re-enactors fight to keep history alive

Chuck Monroe
Steve James / for NBC news
Chuck Monroe, second from left, fights with the 6th Colored Regiment of the Union Army at reenactments of battles.

Chuck Monroe belongs to a small group of black Civil War reenactors.

“People don’t realize that 209,000 blacks fought in the war,” he told from his home in Ewing, N.J.

The retired engineer, part-time college math teacher, and self-admitted "military brat" in his 50's, fights with the 6th Colored Regiment of the Union Army at reenactments of battles and takes it as an opportunity to educate people about the role of blacks in the Civil War that led to their emancipation.

“I avoided history in school and I regret it now,” he said. “Now I am continually learning. I am a Civil War buff.”

His step-father had been in the air force during the Vietnam War and although Monroe wanted to be a fighter pilot, he was rejected for medical reasons.

Now he wears the heavy woolen blue uniform and cap of an infantryman in the Union Army and learns every day more about the Civil War that liberated his forefathers from slavery.

“We do this to tell the untold story of the African-American experience,” said Monroe.

Related: Guide to Gettysburg at 150: Sights, sounds and (yes) apps

Steve James / for NBC News
Clark van Buskirk, a reenactor for 20 years, attends 13 such events a year. At Gettysburg this week he he plays Capt. William Haygood of the 44th Georgia regiment.

Clark van Buskirk symbolizes the Civil War that divided a nation and often split families. He had a great-great-grandfather on both sides during the war.

The retired telephone company worker is 73 and, “still leading men. God wants me to stay alive to tell the story,” he laughed at a recent reenactment in Allentown, N.J.

Although he started out portraying a northern soldier, as he learned more about the war, he switched sides.

“As I have learned the history of the Civil War, I have learned that what we have been taught is not true,” said van Buskirk. “By being a Confederate soldier, I can tell you what really happened.”

“What they say they fought over is not right – they say it was about slavery, but the South knew keeping slaves was wrong. We are fighting the same fight now as 150 years ago – should the power come from Washington or the states?"

Steve James / for NBC News
”I take it very seriously, I read a lot about Lincoln,” Costello said by telephone from Gettysburg where he was taking part in an event to mark the 150th anniversary of the pivotal battle.” Only one person has ever stumped me on a question and that was ‘Who is your barber?’

Traveling around the country as President Lincoln for the past twelve years, people have said all kinds of things to Robert Costello.

But the commonest is “Don’t go to the theater tonight.”

The retired title insurance salesman takes it in stride. “They always think they are the first person to say that!”

He spends evenings and weekends portraying Lincoln at Civil War events and schools at 40 events per year.

“I get no financial reward, but some expenses,” he said. “My satisfaction is that maybe one child will go home and read a history book.”