Indiana County brothers will join Civil War group for encampment at Clymer Days festival
Brothers Channing and Alonza Mack have traced their family tree back six generations to two brothers who took up arms in the Civil War — one wore blue; the other wore gray.
Always fascinated by that aspect of their family's history, the Mack brothers play out that interest through the Blue and Gray Brigade Civil War reenactment group based in Irwin.
The Blue and Gray Brigade has its marching orders for Sept. 27-29, when it will stage an encampment as part of the annual Clymer Days festival at that town's Sherman Street Park.
Though Channing Mack said the group “usually flies by the seat of our pants” at events, with no pre-set schedule, he said the crowd can expect to see a living history demonstration and artillery and rifle presentations.
As its name implies, the Blue and Gray Brigade presents reenactors for both the Union and Confederate sides of the war. The group portrays both the 116th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, wearing blue Union uniforms, and the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry on the Confederate side.
Channing Mack of Homer City said several members of the reenactment group chose to don the gray uniforms of the Confederates due to their own ancestry.
“Most of our families have Southern heritage and actually fought on the Confederate side,” he said.
The Blue and Gray Brigade is a small and relatively young reenactment group, with its 11 members ranging in age from 12 to their early 60s.
Channing Mack, a 2008 graduate of Homer-Center High School, has been with the group three years and serves as its vice president.
His fiancée, Arnella Swetof, and her son, Brady Grimm, also both of Homer City, have become involved in the group as well.
Other members hail from Irwin, Latrobe, Ligonier and Leechburg.
The Blue and Gray Brigade, which began as a Boy Scout activity, has been around since 2006. When it's members outgrew Scouting, they went into reenacting full-time.
Channing Mack became aware of the group in 2008 through a Boy Scout function at Penn Run's Camp Seph Mack, during his last year as a Scout. The next year, he actively sought out the group and joined its ranks.
Alonza Mack, 16, of Blairsville is enrolled in PA Cyber School. He said he joined the group two years ago, learning about the Blue and Gray Brigade through his brother.
“I got involved because I needed to get out of the house more,” he said, also citing his interest in the role his ancestors played in the Civil War.
Civil War history has enchanted Channing Mack since he was in sixth grade.
What always captured his attention, he said, was “the whole history of it and the culture that surrounds it, the military components and how they lived their camp life.”
But what particularly drew him to learn more about the Civil War and its combatants was the strength of character a person had to possess in order to survive the brutal aspects of being a soldier in that day and age.
“I've always been fascinated by what type of person it actually took back then to fight a war like they did,” Channing Mack said.
His interest in the war also stemmed from his own ancestors' involvement, namely two brothers — sixth-great uncles of his — from Bedford County, one of whom volunteered for a Pennsylvania unit and the other for a Virginia unit.
“The one in Virginia never made it out,” Channing Mack noted. “The other lived his life out in Bedford County.”
In fact, that Union soldier's rifle is still part of the family collection.
When Channing Mack first became involved with the Blue and Gray Brigade, he relied on the Internet and suggestions from other group members to help him piece together his uniform.
From the start, he knew he'd be representing the Confederate side.
“They tried to put me in a blue one, but I won't do it,” he said.
The basic Civil War uniform is typically wool trousers and a jacket, cotton suspenders, knee-high boots with wooden soles and a forage cap. Channing Mack's uniform is decked out with other accoutrements, including a leather waist belt from which he hangs a cartridge box and a cap box. His bayonet and non-commissioned officers' sword also hang from the belt, and at his back, he has harnessed a large knife.
At encampments, Channing Mack erects a sergeant's tent — a large canvas tent that is held up by wooden planks — where he spends his time when the group is not taking part in a demonstration. The encampment shows the everyday living situation of a Civil War soldier — where they slept, what they ate, how they cooked, and how they spent any free time they had.
The Blue and Gray Brigade is more of a living history group than an actual reenactment troupe, focusing on life in encampments and on rifle and artillery demonstrations.
One of the group's highlights has been member Alisha Charnesky's portrayal of Dr. Oriana Moon, a Confederate surgeon who served in a Virginia hospital, helping many wounded soldiers after the Battle at Bull Run (known as the Battle of 1st Manasses by the Confederates).
Charnesky's schedule hasn't meshed with the group's this past year, according to Channing Mack. But, when she is available, she demonstrates how first-aid and various forms of surgery were executed during the war.
There is a new “act” in the group that will be featured in their coming events.
One of its members, Darnell Kovalchick, portrays Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” Barton went on to found the American Red Cross after the end of the war.
“She's just getting started with it,” Channing Mack said of Kovalchick's tribute to Barton.
The group also portrays a Civil War-version of military police, called the Provost Guard. Channing Mack is involved in that aspect of the group, portraying a corporal in the Confederate Army.
The guard executes mock trials during their enactments, demonstrating what would happen when a Civil War soldier was arrested for desertion.
The deserter is placed in leg irons and presented before his commanding officer. After a trial, the soldier is found guilty, followed by a demonstration of a firing squad.
In addition to demonstrating firing of rifles and other artillery, the Blue and Gray Brigade has a small mortar that it keeps on site at its encampments.
Alonza Mack is the loading instructor for the Confederate side of the Blue and Gray Brigade, a rank he achieved through training with the captain and because of the number of events he attends.
“I attend as many as I can,” he stated.
He helps lead rifle and artillery demonstrations for the public, while also ensuring the well-being of the brigade members when firing.
“I teach the people in the crowd how to load the muskets correctly,” he said, noting he also supervises the riflemen in the group “to make sure we have a safe firing squad.”
Channing Mack's fiancée, Swetof, is just getting started with the group. She and her son, Brady, 12, both portray privates.
“She doesn't like wearing the dresses or anything — she'd rather play with guns,” Channing Mack said.
The Blue and Gray Brigade can be seen in many area festivals and parades. The group set up encampments this past year at Fort Allen Summer Days, the Twin Lakes Art and Heritage Festival near Greensburg and, most recently, at the Flax Scutching Festival in Stahlstown.
The next stop is the Laurel Highlands Council Camporee, to be held next weekend at Heritage Reservation in Farmington. The group will travel to the Gettysburg American Civil War Museum Oct. 13 and 14.
Channing Mack said the Blue and Gray Brigade is always received warmly by the crowds at the various festivals and parades it attends, and people always have plenty of questions for the reenactors. The most common one: “Are the guns real?”
Channing Mack said the answer is, “Yes, they are. You can fire a real bullet out of them.”
He said children always want to try their hand at shooting one, and with parental permission, the group allows them to do so.
“It doesn't matter the age, we'll show them how to shoot it,” he said.
The Blue and Gray Brigade can be found online at www.blueandgraybrigade.net.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.