By: James Pruitt
Some teenagers spend a lot of time playing war games online or through video, but one Hilltop student has taken play acting to the next level.
Gabe Matthews, 13, is a Civil War re-enactor and goes out to fight mock battles across the region. The hobby has become part of his life as his grandfather has brought him along to several events over the past few years.
Gabe is a normal youth who has dreams of being a drummer in a rock band or a history teacher. He is in the middle school band at Hilltop and plays football. His hobby began when his grandparents took him to observe a re-enactment. He found he liked it and became part of the Michigan 18th.
“The first year I wasn’t in the battles. I was just there watching,” Gabe said. “I thought it was pretty fun.
“There wasn’t much restrictions on what to do, just walked down and meet new people.” Everyone who starts out observes the first few times and then are eased into the battles. Gabe was a flag bearer at first because he wasn’t too responsible with a gun at first.
When he is in battle with his unit, he wears the full woolen uniform of a Union soldier. On occasion, he can wear more comfortable clothes as a militia member. If his superior fails to show for a battle, he can be a corporal.
He travels once a month during the summer to various re-enactments at Coldwater, Turkeyville and Jackson, Michigan, as well as Angola, Indiana. The trips are fun for getting to know people, seeing friends and enjoying the camaraderie. “Coldwater is one of my favorites,” Gabe said. When he started, he used his grandfather’s uniform, but has now grown out of that and has his own outfit. “You tend to go through them pretty quick,” Gabe said.
When the re-enactors are younger, there is a lot of swapping of uniforms going on with other families, mom Joni Matthews said. “When they are man-sized, it is much more expensive,” she said. The people at the events are his favorite part of the experience. Most people are “super nice,” Gabe said. “We’re not just neighbors and campers, we are one huge family,” Gabe said. “You’ll help somebody else out and not ask for something in return. Everyone is so nice.”
The living history aspects of the weekends keep him interested as well as spending time with the many friends he has made. He does like history and learning about the different weapons. When he was younger, he was interested in Vietnam and World War II, Joni Matthews said. The video games helped him learn about many weapons from the Second World War.
That background leads many to assume or think he is destined to be a teacher some day, but Gabe’s eyes are fixed on being a drummer. But he is picking up a love for the Civil War through his grandfather, John Daniel Esterline, who makes muzzleloaders as a blacksmith in real life. “He’s always the captain,” Joni Matthews said of Esterline.
Esterline is with Joni Matthews’ mother, Linda Lashaway. Joni Matthews lives with Chuck Smethurst in a house about 100 yards south of the Michigan line. Esterline, who goes by Dan, is planning to go to one of the region’s largest re-enactments this summer in Jackson, Michigan. Unlike in previous years, he plans to camp at the site this time around.
The national events, such as Gettysburg, are down the road for a time after school. Many are held late in the summer and conflict with football, Joni Matthews said. Now it’s drumming, something Gabe has done since the fifth grade. Next year, he will be in the high school marching band. “They tried to get me to be a drummer in the reenactments, but I said ‘I don’t know any Civil War music,” Gabe said.
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