Berriman recounts time as a Civil War reenactor

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman puts on the coat he used for reenactments. The coat, pants, and socks were made out of wool while undergarments were made out of cotton.

ALPENA — Canon blasts, plumes of smoke, and men and women dressed in period clothing.

One might think this is a scene straight from the Civil War, but it’s modern men and women reenacting battles from the past.

For Tom Berriman, the Civil War and reenacting has been a lifelong passion.

Berriman, the principal at Ella White Elementary School, participated in battle reenactments for more than 20 years.

Berriman was in elementary school when he first heard about reenactment from a visitor to his classroom in the early 90s.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman shows the bottom of his shoes which were called brogans.

“When I was in fifth grade in the early 90s we actually had a reenactor come into our classroom and do a presentation,” Berriman said. “It just stole my interest right away and he gave some information on a big Civil War reenactment that was held every year down in Jackson, Michigan at the Cascades Park.”

Berriman went to the event and fell in love with reenactment. The next summer, he joined the 7th Michigan reenacting unit based out of Mason.

Reenactment groups, Berriman said, are run just like a club with officers who are voted into their positions. He said he stayed as a private for most of the time because of his age and rose to the ranks of corporal and sergeant.

“Served in a bunch of different capacities,” Berriman said. “We reenact a company, Company B, which was in the 7th Michigan’s group that we portrayed. We went all over.”

In the 90s, the Jackson reenactment was one of the biggest events in the Midwest, with 9,000-10,000 reenactors and thouasnds of spectators.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman shows the top of his shoes used for Civil War reenactment.

Berriman’s company became associated with a group in Lansing that made documentaries. They got a contract by the National Parks Service to film for the visitors’ centers at Fredericksburg and Antietam battlefields. Berriman said he was in five or six movies.

Berriman said there are many roles someone could portray, but there were specific units that portrayed only Confederate soldiers or only Union soldiers.

“There are different units that portray different regiments during the Civil War,” Berriman said. “So there’s units that portray Confederate, there’s units that portray Union. There’s units that are cavalry with horses, there are artillery units with guns, there’s sharpshooters. Pretty much every unit in the Civil War has a regiment that portrays them. So you can kind of pick what you want to do.”

In the north, there were mostly Union soldiers, so Berriman would occasionally put on a grey coat to portray a Confederate soldier if needed.

Not only did reenactors base their uniforms on which side they were on, they also based them on what kind of unit there were and what state they were portraying.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman’s military stripes. He received two stripes for corporal and three stripes for sergeant as he moved up ranks.

“The 24th Michigan was also another big unit in Michigan and they were called the Black Hat Brigade because they wore hardy hats, big, tall, black hats,” Berriman said. “Everybody in the units would buy one of those hats for their portrayal of the 24th Michigan.”

Berriman has been to different battlefields during national events where they reenacted the battles over the course of a weekend. In Nashville, he reenacted the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville, in a separate part of Tennessee, he reenacted the Battle of Shiloh, and in Maryland, he reenacted the battle of Antietam.

He said Antietam was the best one.

“It was huge,” Berriman said. “If you know anything about the Battle of Antietam, it was fought in segments. It wasn’t like one big battle. They fought a little bit in the morning and then another group fought. It was like a three part battle. There were so many reenactors there doing these scenarios that there was actually close to the actual number of troops that fought in 1862.”

During the reenactments, they camped in the way the soldiers of the Civil War camped.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman closes the haversack across the left side of his body. The cartridge with all the bullets would go across the right side of the body.

Berriman’s son, who is five, is also becoming interested in the Civil War and is very enthusiastic about the history. During a family vacation to Gettysburg in June, he asked Berriman all about the battlefield.

“It was a really cool opportunity to spend time with my son and share a passion that I’ve had since I was very young,” Berriman said.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss A close up of the haversack.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman brings out more gear including the haversack, a cross body bag used for personal items, and a 1853 Enfield musket replica.

News Photo by Alyssa Ochss Tom Berriman in his full reenactment uniform. The uniform includes the haversack, cartridge case, a replica of a 1853 Enfield musket, hat, and a wool coat. The dark blue coat was the color used for the 7th Michigan.


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