ORANGE — Wearing the sweltering blue wool uniform of a Union soldier, Deborah Martin fell into formation with Civil War reenactors Wednesday at Jones Cemetery to pay tribute at the grave of Alexander Ward, a 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry soldier who died during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Beginning in the morning with reenactments and living history exhibits, Orange focused its Fourth of July celebration this year on the Civil War, which is being remembered across the country with 150th anniversary commemorations of events that took place during the war, which ran from 1861 to 1865.
Martin’s great-great-great-grandfather Augustus Potter, a private from West Brookfield, fought with the 15th Massachusetts.
“He was wounded four times in four different battles,” said Martin, who lives in Hatfield. “He kept going back.”
Captured and put on a train to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison, Potter survived when he was released in a prisoner exchange.
“Lucky for me,” Martin said with a smile.
Less fortunate was Potter’s brother, Henry, who died in a Virginia battle. Martin visited Henry’s grave last year when she and others from Massachusetts went to a Virginia reenactment. He was buried under a holly tree, and she pinned a leaf from the tree to the Civil War kepi she wore yesterday.
“I believe I’m the only descendant who’s seen his grave,” she said.
Even among history buffs, the Civil War inspires a fervent devotion among reenactors such as Steve Raff of Hatfield.
Like Martin, he owes his existence to ancestors who survived Civil War battles and pays tribute to relatives who didn’t.
As he stood in a field at the Orange Gun Club wrapping a red noncommissioned officer’s sash around his waist, he answered questions from onlookers, rattling off the death toll in a particular battle, how many soldiers left Massachusetts at the start of the war, and how few mustered out at the end.
Along with memorizing chunks of history, or learning to describe the differences between rifles such as an 1853 Enfield and an 1861 Springfield, Raff and other reenactors make steep financial investments in their pastime. A new replica rifle alone can cost up to $700. “By the time you’re done, you can spend a grand or two easily,” said Dave Marston of Athol.
The morning reenactment and living history exhibits were just part of what observations coordinator Genevieve Fraser planned for Wednesday and the rest of the week in Orange.
Quabbin Civil War Remembrance Day included afternoon talks and lectures, some concerning the Civil War history of the four towns submerged by the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. “Lincoln: The Musical” was scheduled to premier Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Orange Town Hall.
A century and a half ago, “Abraham Lincoln sent a proclamation to the governor of Massachusetts ordering that every single city and town in the state ante men and money,” said Fraser, who added that initial discussions of what Orange might do to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War began 15 years ago.
She considered the town fortunate to attract reenactors, who often are busy at ceremonies paying tribute to the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought from July 1 to 3, 1863.
The 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry reenactors were formed about 17 years ago, said Paul Mello of Leominster, a sergeant with the reenactors who became involved with the group in 1995.
“One day they had this thing down at the historical society,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in history, and once I saw that, I was hooked. It’s a great escape from the real world.”
A few dozen Massachusetts members are active at any given time. Sometimes they are enlisted for exhibits at events such as Orange’s celebration.
Other times, they go to major reenactments, including last year’s 150th anniversary commemoration in Virginia of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, where the Massachusetts unit suffered heavy losses.
Those gatherings draw thousands of participants.
“It gives you chills,” said Martin, who is in her third year as a reenactor.
Some purists look askance at women participating as soldiers, she said, but she persevered.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War,” Martin said. “Then I started learning about my ancestor, and that did it.”
The reenactors went to Jones Cemetery at the behest of Marston, whose brother chanced upon the Civil War veteran’s grave years ago.
“I appreciate the remembrance we’re doing for Alexander Ward, for his sacrifice in 1863,” Marston said as he and the other reenactors stood in a line in front of the gravestone, which now leans against what had been its stone base.
“Alexander, this is for you,” Marston said, and the reenactors lifted their rifles and fired three volleys into the sky.