In 1976, when Cricket Bauer Pohanka was at an age when many of her classmates couldn’t wait for history class to end, she was enthralled by the festivities and programs surrounding the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
Even though she didn’t know it at the time, those powerful images laid the groundwork for a meaningful career in history and preservation. It is a passion she shared with her late husband, historian and author Brian Pohanka.
Brian had spent more than two decades researching and documenting the definitive regimental history of the 5th New York Zouaves. He completed the manuscript only two months before his untimely death from cancer in June 2005.
Today, Pohanka is preparing the manuscript for publication and is also producing a companion book of photographs of the 5th New York, both of which are expected to be published in 2009. In addition, she is an active member of the board of the Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT). Recently, over lunch at the historic Gads by’s Tavern in Alexandria, Va., Pohanka spoke to America’s Civil War about carrying on her husband’s legacy while continuing to forge her own.
What drew you to reenacting?
I have to credit reenacting with my interest in the Civil War. Around the time of the 125th anniversary of the war, reenacting picked up, and there was an opportunity to do what I could call “play dress up,” but it’s more than that. I was looking at all these original outfits in museums, but I wanted to know what it really felt like to walk around like that, to see how it changed my movement and what I was able to do. So I approached a lot of reenacting as an experiment.
I have a love-hate relationship with reenacting, because it can dip into buffoonery. Although you always get something out of it for yourself, some people also do it with a higher purpose, while some people will make a mockery of it through lack of attention to detail. I was also finding that a lot of reenactors made up excuses for women being around camp when maybe we shouldn’t have. That’s one reason why I stopped reenacting, because I just couldn’t justify my presence historically in camp.
Can you tell me about your work in historic preservation and with the CWPT ?
CWPT had talked to Brian about being on the board, but he knew he was dying and he couldn’t say yes. Brian had been into Civil War battlefield preservation since he was a very small child. He was a prodigy in that field.
I was always very aware of historic preservation in general because I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in Milwaukee when they were tearing down all those great buildings in the name of urban renewal. It’s also hard to become a reenactor and not be aware of preservation, so I was very concerned about all that.
Now, as a board member, I’m very much supportive of trying to affect things for the good. It’s a duty and a responsibility, and it’s an opportunity to make something happen. One of the committees I’m on is an education committee, which involves a teacher’s institute, high school and grade school curriculum, and other programs and ways for teachers to incorporate the Civil War and preservation into their teaching. Our curriculum is considered one of the best in the country for Civil War modules. CWPT provides a lot of opportunities for people on all sides of preservation, and the end result is that we’re preserving battlefields and raising awareness about the Civil War.
Brian and I had a lot in common, and now that he’s gone it’s not a hardship for me to keep doing those things. When I am discouraged about the state of a battlefield, I remember what he did. That is great motivation to keep me going.
Is there a place or personality related to the Civil War that affects you the most?
Brian always emphasized that the story of the common soldier was the most important one. A year ago I purchased the original uniform of a 5th New Yorker, and everything is there but the shirt and the shoes. It also included letters.
The soldier would write and describe what he had to do that day, and toward the end of the letter, the pace of the writing gets quicker and quicker, and you know he’s rushing because the bugle has sounded and he has to go.
That affects me more than speechifying and generals. So there is no one person or one place that gets to me more than others. There were so many people who did amazing things, or just commonplace things, that made a difference.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.