The Times West Virginian

February 29, 2012

Doing it right

By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — When Porter Stiles talks about Civil War re-enacting, he doesn’t talk about how “they” did it.

“This is how I do it,” he’ll say.

That’s how seriously and personally he takes his love for bringing the War Between the States to life.

“Like a lot of people, I have ancestors who fought on both sides,” he said. His great-grandfather fought for the Union; cousins fought for the South.

A Vietnam veteran, Stiles said his family has fought in every war in American history except for Iran and Iraq. But that never piqued his interest as much as the War Between the States.

A former college roommate invited him to watch a re-enactment of the Battle of Fairmont.

“And one time was all it took,” he said.

Now, some 14 years later, he is part of the 6th West Virginia Calvary and the 7th Virginia Calvary. In state, they’re Union. Out of state, they’re Confederate.

His passion for this time period is almost an occupation.

Unlike some re-enactors, he doesn’t mind playing either side. He’s got the uniforms and weaponry for both.

Stepping into his office is like returning to post-Civil War America.

There are sabers. Guns. Photos and daguerreotypes of Union soldiers and Civil War-era families. Books. Flags. And unclaimed medals he’s picked up at auctions and sales.

“These were given to every person — one medal for each man — from the state of West Virginia who fought for the Union,” he said of the rows and rows of medals encased in a glass display case. Some have darkened with age and use.

“The ones that were never worn look brand new,” he said. “I learned a long time ago that people in West Virginia who had fought in wars didn’t talk about it. It was one thing they had to do and that was it. They didn’t need to elaborate on it.

“I’ve died in every major battle in the Civil War. I bounce right back,” he said, laughing.

All the guns in his collection are original and working weapons, although not all are from the Civil War era. He has original Union and Confederate sabers.

“I have just as many weapons as the Gettysburg museum does,” he said. Many in his collection are displayed at West Virginia Civil War museums.

He is active with the West Virginia Re-enactors Association, which is in charge of most of the Civil War celebrations in the state, including Droop Mountain, Bulltown and Rich Mountain, he said.

He’s an unceasing font of “little known” Civil War facts:

“The No. 1 weapons supplier for the Confederacy was the U.S. Army,” he said.

“More soldiers died of disease ... dysentery, diarrhea, infection ... than gunshot.”

What most people think is the Confederate flag — the so-called “Dixie” or “Rebel” flag — is actually just the battle flag and not the national flag, he said.

“They carried these flags and nobody said a word. Try carrying it now,” he said.

Usually, he portrays an everyday Union or Confederate soldier as needed. But when the unit re-enacts Fairmont’s Imboden-Jones Raid of 1863, he becomes Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, commander of the Confederate forces that swept through the area from late April to early May 1863.

“We’re re-enactors. We didn’t fight in the war. We’re teachers. If you’re gonna teach history, you need to teach it right. So if they need me to be Union today, I’ll be Union.”

As a native of Kingwood, he most likely would have been Union, he said.

“People from Preston County didn’t fight to prevent slavery. They fought to preserve the Union. Confederates were fighting for states’ rights.

“The Civil War had to be fought. Something had to be settled.

“I was born at the wrong time, but I live at the right time,” he said. “I would not want to live back then. But if they needed a volunteer for a time machine, I’d volunteer. I love history, all kinds of history, not just the Civil War. I’ve traveled the world, but West Virginia is the place I want to be and stay.”

West Virginia is often picked to portray other Civil War battles and other locations.

“Of Gods and Generals” was filmed in Harpers Ferry, which stood in for Fredericksburg, Va. Stiles was in some scenes and got to meet Hollywood actors Robert Duvall and Bruce Boxleitner ... “all-American, downhome, all-around guys,” he said.

He played a U.S. Marshal and a Pinkerton agent in the History Channel miniseries, “The Men Who Build America,” in which Shepherdstown subbed for 1860s New York.

He’s really excited about this gig.

“I’ve got my big speaking part. ‘Come back now. Stop. Come back.’ And I’ll get my name in the credits,” he said.

“In West Virginia, at a re-enactment you’ll see maybe 150 guys. At Antietam or Gettysburg, you’ll see 30,000. The first time I did Gettysburg, we had more men at Picketts Charge than they really did. Oh, I got killed there, too.”

You may also remember the retired high school and college instructor as “Captain Crazy,” a crowd-rouser at Fairmont State basketball games in the late 1970s.

Nothing makes him see blue or gray more than historical inaccuracies in TV or movies, whether in the script or by direction. He can’t count how many times he’s debated with directors who want to perpetuate fallacies about Civil War battle practices.

“Can I make my horse rear? No. That’s not how I did it. Can I march with a bayonet? No. I didn’t do that. Bayonets were a terror weapon, a last resort. Not everybody working in the movies knows what’s going on.

“My dad told me a long time ago, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

He’s learned to bring his own uniform and weapons to set. He’s also learned a lot about movie making along the way.

“My first movie we filmed 72 days, from daylight to dark, with one day off a week, to get a three-hour movie. They cut so much out. That makes you appreciate a movie.”

Being part of the calvary brings his childhood cowboy dreams to life, too.

“My most enjoyable part about Civil War re-enacting is riding with a bunch of other guys and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done.”

His favorite mount is steady, reliable Belle, the Appaloosa with the mohawk-cut mane. She once stood protectingly over him after he fell during a staged battle, even with artillery going off just 20 feet away.

“And she didn’t move. She’s not trained to do that. She’s not the fastest, but I can take her anywhere and she’ll be there in the end.”

Although the weapons are real, they don’t shoot ammunition at re-enactments.

“Just powder.”

Re-enactments are choreographed to a point.

“But you’re not told you have to die. We’ll ask for who wants to take a hit right away, so you have to decide. At the 150th of Manassas, there was a heat index of 115, so I volunteered. You’ll notice people usually get hit near a shade tree or near a buddy who carries you back.

“I’ll look around to see if there are any little kids nearby. I’ll hear their parents say, ‘He’s not really dead. He’s just playing.’ And I’ll say, ‘It’s OK.’”

Email Debra Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.