Ever wonder what it’s like to be a historical reenactor? External Communications Coordinator Jenny Phillips sat down with Joe Conroy, long-time reenactor from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania — a suburb of Philadelphia — who portrays a soldier from the 150th Pennsylvania Company K. The 150th Pennsylvania Company K, also known as the Bucktails, served as Lincoln’s guard during his residency at both the Soldiers’ Home and White House. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)
Hi, Joe. It’s so nice to see you again this year. Who are you portraying today?
Today we are representing the 150th Pennsylvania Company K, which was Lincoln’s guard, here at the Soldiers’ Home and at the White House, while they were in residence there.
Tell me about your hat.
My hat is a standard issued officer’s cap, but the interesting part of the cap of course is the white-tailed deer tail on there, which is loosely referred to as a “bucktail.” A buck is a male deer, as opposed to a doe, so the bucktail name comes from that.
So it was only Lincoln’s guard that wore those bucktail hats?
Oh no, not at all. The history of the bucktail started in the beginning of the war. In 1861, the regiment of soldiers that came out of the northern tier of Pennsylvania were lumbermen, outdoorsmen, and they essentially could live by the gun. They lived off the land, and they were good shots with deer. As opposed to the typical soldier, who came out of cities and farms, these guys were experienced with rifles. When this regiment started to recruit, they built a raft in northern Pennsylvania, and rafted down the Susquehanna river. When they landed they took a train to Harrisburg, and they volunteered their services to the army. There was a courthouse that acted as the headquarters for the recruiting effort there, and across the street there was a deer carcass in the butcher shop. One of the soldiers saw it, took his pocket knife and clipped the tail off and attached it to his cap. The colonel who was recruiting saw this, and thought what a great identification that was for those from northern Pennsylvania. The white tailed deer is the state mammal of Pennsylvania, so he thought it would be a great badge of identification for his soldiers. He went “from this day forward we’ll be known as the Bucktails.”
The 42nd regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers were tough individuals, being able to shoot straight, they were put into battle and they fought very well. They were not far from D.C., in the Peninsula campaign, and they suffered casualties. Sickness decreased their numbers as well. Some of the officers from that regiment asked permission from their leadership, including Governor Andrew Curtain, can they return to Pennsylvania and recruit under the banner of the “Bucktails?” They wanted to raise more regiments to bolster their numbers. Their fame had grown so that even Confederate officers were writing things like, “we were up against those bucktails today.” They were often written about in the papers, so when they returned to Pennsylvania, they had very little trouble recruiting for such a famous regiment.
How did they become Lincoln’s guard then?
That happened when the recruiting effort started in two major locations: northwestern Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. One of the officers was from Meadville, Pennsylvania [south of Erie, PA], another officer named Langhorn Wister went to Philadelphia. So so four of the companies of the 10 per regiment were from Philadelphia, four near Meadville PA, one from Union County, and one from McKean County. They were trying to build a big brigade of Bucktails, and they managed to build two different regiments, the 149th Pennsylvania and the 150th Pennsylvania. They were both dispatched to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they received all of their training, and their first tour of duty was to come to D.C. on guard duty. You’re talking a thousand men divided in the 150th Pennsylvania into ten companies. By a series of circumstances, company K ended up guarding President Lincoln and his family at their residence. Which meant when they arrived in the September of 1862, they were sent to the Soldiers’ Home. That’s where Lincoln and his family were at that time.
And they really camped out on the lawn?
They literally camped out on the lawn. They had a static camp in a location we believe is by the ball field, sort of in that region. One of the soldiers wrote a letter (there were actually several letters, and we’re lucky to have a copy of these letters) where the soldiers refer to the area of the camp being a location where “(they) can see all the buildings.” The buildings they were referring to were the home Lincoln chose to live in, Quarters 2, and the Sherman tower, which was the Soldiers’ Home dormitory.
Switching gears, could you tell me a little bit more about being a reenactor? Are you always portraying the same company?
For me, this started as a hobby, around 24 years ago. My wife fell in love with the Civil War and the Victorian period as a little girl, and so she initially got into reenacting and then got me to go along with her. Our children didn’t have a choice, but they got into it, and now they’re both fantastic historians back in Pennsylvania now, too. Being a reenactor, we stick to our regiment for the most part. I’ve “done” Confederate, you know, in the circumstances of what they need during a reenactment, but yeah, camping, and being out with everyone, it’s kind of like a family. It’s a hobby of course, but it feels like a family.
How much time does it take up? How often are you reenacting?
Well, you can do as many reenactments as you want really. Every weekend there’s at least something you could be at, if you’re willing to travel. You can do it. But typically we do five or six reenactments a year. We do local events in Pennsylvania, of course we go to Gettysburg in July, and often times we are doing stuff at anniversary events, like in Winchester, Virginia.
Do you ever get paid for this? Or is it mostly out of the love of reenacting?
Sometimes you might receive a stipend of some type, but generally no.
So basically, no one can be a “professional” reenactor as far as that being your career, and that’s where you make your main source of income?
It depends on where you are. That might happen. I know some friends of ours that are historic interpreters and they are on staff and payroll. How cool is that? That’s the dream. But for the most part, for example, if you go to Gettysburg, we pay to be there. You have to pay a registration fee, which can be around $25 or $30 a person just to participate.
When you first visited the Cottage, how different was it from what it’s like today?
It was incredibly different. It was in disrepair, the porch was in a whole different design. When I first walked inside it looked like an office. There were desks and filing cabinets everywhere, and there was one gentlemen sitting in the area, and I introduced myself, and told him I’m a reenactor from the 150th Pennsylvania, and I thought he almost fell from his chair.
He said to me, “I need for you to meet someone.” So he took me to the other room and sitting there, among the paint chips, was a woman named Sophia Lynn and we started sharing information. She had no idea that there were very personal accounts of Company K that we had access to. And we had access to copies of soldiers’ letters (that were transcribed) from the historical society of Meadville, Pennsylvania. The letters were written by a soldier named William Cutter to his home, mostly addressed to his dad. If you go in the Visitor Education Center, there’s a photo of Cutter. Later on, Sophia contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in coming down with the other soldiers for the official “announcement” of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s adoption of the site. We were happy to come down.
I’ll never forget how fantastic the announcement was, and once that was over, then the work began. But Sophie always kept us in the loop, informing us with updates, and when they reached certain milestones they would invite us to come down and celebrate.
One of the times right after I came here, I set a goal for myself that I’d love to see a camp on this lawn. And that was reached. Sorry, I’m getting emotional, but it was a big mission, and we reached it. I was so happy to be a part of it. From there, they created an event originally called Family Day, now Homecoming, and we are always invited to participate. What I feel the most important thing a reenactor can do — I mean, we can run all over the battlefield and “shoot” each other and play soldier — but nothing is more important than being able to share the real history of what happened in a place like this.
I challenge a lot of my reenactor friends, put a bucktail in your cap one time. When you’re marching in the streets of Gettysburg and you hear people from the sidelines yelling “go bucktails,” it’s a big deal. You feel like a rockstar. But sharing the history, teaching people, young people, adults, anyone, when they ask questions, that’s what we live for. We’re so happy to share that knowledge.
And they do, and that’s why we’re so happy you’re here as a part of this celebration. Thank you!